As Austin grows, spotlight shines on mayor’s office

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Reflecting on the old days, long-time Austinites often refer to the city as once being a “sleepy college town” that moved slowly, but not because of traffic, which was less an issue back then.

Austin’s history shows a city that has continued to grow, roughly doubling its populace every 25 years. On the brink of 1 million residents, Austin is the 11th-largest city in the country, boasts a booming economy and has been ranked by national publications as the best place to live in America.

Such success is often greeted by increased attention. Local experts agree that as the city and its accomplishments grow, so, too, do the demands on the sitting mayor. On Nov. 6, Austinites will decide, among seven candidates, who they want to represent Austin. The experts say whoever earns the job can expect a role that has greatly evolved since Austin’s sleepy college town days.

UNDER A GLOBAL SPOTLIGHT

Former mayors and staffers say the mayor’s seat has, for a long time, come with a national profile; however, they say recent events, from Austin’s leadership against the federal refugee ban and immigration policy, the state Legislature’s sanctuary city bill and the recent bombing attacks have elevated Austin and its mayor to a larger stage.

“The national and international spotlight is becoming more intense,” said Matt Curtis, former communications director under mayors Will Wynn and Lee Leffingwell. “Mayors across America are taking national positions together because there is need for national leadership. Everyone is looking to us for how we do things, and that focus continues to grow.”

The winner in November should be ready for that role, said Jason Stanford, former communications director for incumbent Mayor Steve Adler.

“There is an expectation now that [the mayor of Austin]has as big a voice as any other mayor in the country,” Stanford said. “A lot of people think the mayor of Austin having to speak on a bigger stage is a bad thing. I think us exporting Austin values on the world is a good thing.”

Former mayor Lee Leffingwell, who served from 2009-15, said with the success of the city came attention from far beyond the borders of Austin; however, he called it a “mistake” to put emphasis on maintaining a national profile.

“Our job as mayor is taking care of the farm, making sure infrastructure is up to date and improving Austin’s economy and the quality of life for residents,” Leffingwell said. “There is national focus on Austin for one reason: it’s hugely successful and an economic powerhouse. Guarantee we’re looked to because of that and not grandstanding on social issues.”

A BROADER LOCAL REACH

Former mayor Bruce Todd, who served from 1991-97, said that fundamentally the job has not changed so much; however, he said because the issues of the day dictate the job’s demands, each mayorship is unique.

Today, those issues include growing housing and affordability crises, gentrification and displacement in many of Austin’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, mobility gridlock and an outdated land-development code feeding many of these problems.

The 2019-23 term will only be the second since Austin moved to the 10-1 representation system for City Council—10 council members are elected by individual districts and one mayor elected by the entire city.

Leffingwell and Todd said the new system changed the dais dynamic. Amy Everhart, who served as policy and communications director under Leffingwell—the last mayor before 10-1—and until recently, director of public affairs for Adler—the first 10-1 mayor—said 10-1 shifted how the mayor operates.

“In the council system before, everyone represented the whole city; it was easier to come to consensus on things, or you at least knew where everyone stood,” Everhart said. “The mayor’s seat requires a much broader reach now. It’s a challenge to be everywhere.”

Stanford said even with a growing global focus, the demands on the mayor of Austin remain primarily local.

“No one in Austin cares if you’re a national hero, but you need to be their hero, and you need to stick up for them,” Stanford said. “The top issues here are still traffic and cost of living, but if you’re not sticking up for Austin when it comes to inclusion, climate, change and immigration then you don’t get Austin.”

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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