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Reelected to a third term, Austin council member and avowed progressive Greg Casar wants to change City Hall
Greg Casar lobbied City Hall for the first time 10 years ago. Recently out of college and working as the policy director for the Workers Defense Project, a progressive advocacy group, he joined construction workers in a six-hour thirst strike on a hot day in late June. The next month, Austin City Council passed an ordinance requiring rest breaks at construction sites.
Despite this success and other workers' rights gains, Casar said he was disillusioned with the council's response. Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell wouldn't respond to meeting requests. Former council members told him, if he really cared about social justice and workers' rights, he should focus on the Texas Legislature rather than City Hall. "That attitude needed to change," he told Austonia during a recent interview.
After a grassroots campaign fueled by volunteers and pizza, Casar was elected to his first city council term in 2014, serving on the inaugural 10-1 council and as the first-ever direct representative for Northeast Austin's District 4. Since then, he has gone from lobbying council as an outsider to advocating for Austin's working-class residents on the dais, where many consider him the most progressive member of the state's most liberal city council.
"It's not just about any one elected official," he said. "It's about really trying to shift the culture."
Greg Casar campaigns for the District 4 seat on City Council in 2014. (Greg Casar/Facebook)
Leading the charge
Casar, 31, was born in Houston to parents who had emigrated from Mexico. He was active in the immigration reform movement in 2006, carrying on that work while a student at the University of Virginia, where he lobbied the administration to implement a fair wage for all of its employees. He moved to Austin in 2010 to work for WDP.
Since joining Austin City Council as its youngest elected member, Casar has been the architect of many of its most progressive policies, which have often led to conflict with state officials and, sometimes, his own council colleagues.
Casar sponsored legislation to mandate paid sick leave, which passed in Austin but was thwarted by the state, and to overturn the city's public camping ban, which led to intense pushback from local business owners, residents, Gov. Greg Abbott and many of the candidates who ran for council last fall. He remains sanguine in the face of these outcomes.
"It's been really important to see Austin community members demand at Austin City Hall that we serve as an example of what progressive and good governance can look like," he said. "We're constantly hindered by the state … but that makes it all the more important to do the work two or three times harder. They can't preempt everything we do."
(Greg Casar Campaign)
Casar knows how to build consensus. Amid a contentious, years-long effort to rewrite the city's land use code, he introduced the Affordability Unlocked program, which removes barriers to affordable housing throughout the city and received unanimous approval in 2019. He also crafted a plan to cut the Austin Police Department budget and set aside additional funds for further consideration in the wake of mass protests against police violence and racial injustice; council voted unanimously in favor of it last August.
This was the cornerstone of Casar's argument for why he should serve as mayor pro tem, a largely ceremonial role that could be useful in a future race for mayor—or some other higher office. He announced his interest and the support of four of his colleagues last month. "Based on another contentious election cycle, it is clear that we must continue to advance our shared values—but the only way forward is to bring the whole community forward with us in new and different ways," he wrote on the City Council message board.
The next week, however, Alison Alter announced she was also gunning for the role, arguing that it should be held by a woman given the council's current makeup: eight women and three men. In response, Casar said he would support a woman from the Eastern Crescent. Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents East Austin's District 1, threw her hat in the ring, and Casar seems poised to endorse her.
From his perch on the left of the council's ideological spectrum, Casar may not seem like a natural consensus builder. But he emphasizes that most Austinites can agree on core values, even as they may disagree on specific legislation.
Take police reform and homelessness.
While campaigning last fall, Casar said most of his constituents could agree that the city needs to protect civil rights, reform policing to be less militaristic and keep Austinites safe. So he is focused on policies that meet these three requirements. "If someone's goal is faster 9-1-1 response, our shared strategy should be that our mental health responder program is launched quickly and effectively," he said, which would help supplement police resources and avoid the increasingly common occurrence of officers shooting people with severe mental illness.
Although Casar was reelected in a landslide, earning more than two-thirds of the vote in his district, other jurisdictions are less united. Jimmy Flannigan, who also championed police budget cuts and other reforms, lost in a runoff to District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who was endorsed by the local police union.
Still, Casar opposes the notion that recent council debates over policing were divisive. "I had tens of thousands of Austinites contact my office alone," he said. "In some ways, the city was more united than ever in calling for change."
Alter and Kathie Tovo voted against overturning the homeless camping ban, a move that Kelly also opposed, and many Austinites were dissatisfied with the council's response overall. But Casar believes most people can agree that investing in more permanent supportive housing will help get people off the streets. "We can have a collective goal of getting people housed, whether the concern is more the public aesthetics of the city, which is legitimate," he said. "Or the human crisis of someone living, and potentially dying, on the street."
With the police cuts approved, there are also dollars to be spent toward this purpose. "2021 has to be the year where we finally make really significant inroads on addressing homelessness," Casar said.
So what's on Casar's agenda for his third term?
In addition to police reform and protecting civil rights, he is focused on the pandemic. Last year, the council approved more than $128 million in economic relief to residents, businesses and nonprofits. This included direct cash and rental assistance, including to residents who did not qualify for federal relief due to their immigration status, as well as eviction protections.
Now the challenges are different. As the one-year anniversary of Austin's first reported COVID-19 case nears, Casar is focused on ensuring there is back rent assistance for residents who may face eviction once the current protections expire and connecting those who are unemployed to jobs, including positions created by taxpayer-funded bond projects and Project Connect.
He is also working to lobby the state to allocate more vaccine supply to Austin Public Health, rather than to private clinics and pharmacies, a shift the Texas Department of State Health Services has since indicated it supports. "We need to have an equitable and mass vaccine distribution strategy," he said.
As business leaders and city insiders speculate about Casar's political future, he remains focused on his role as a council member.
"As the pandemic surged in the city, it became really clear to me that local government was going to be more important than ever," said Casar, who contemplated running for the Texas Senate seat vacated by Kirk Watson. "I didn't know back then that we would soon be in the largest protest movement in American history, with the Black Lives Matter marches over the summer, but I have never felt that this job was more worthwhile than it was in 2020, so I feel I made absolutely the right choice to stay."
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Soccer, the sport of many names, is reflected on and off the pitch in the multicultural city of Austin, from fan clubs like Los Verdes to the Austin FC roster.
Spanning across four continents and 12 countries, Austin FC's roster comes from all corners of the globe.
Austin FC's first signee, Rodney Redes, hails from Paraguay. So does the club's first Designated Player, Cecilio Dominguez. Five other players' hometowns are in South America, while five others are from Europe or Africa. While most on the roster signed to Austin FC from other MLS teams, Austin FC players have played as far north as Finland, as far east as Israel and as far south as Argentina.
English and Spanish are the most spoken languages on the team, although Zan Kolmanic speaks Slovenian and the club is well-traveled, too: Jon Gallagher has lived in six countries, while Kekuta Manneh, the club's only true Austinite, left behind all he knew in Gambia to move to the city in high school.
The multiculturalism on the pitch goes hand-in-hand with the city of Austin itself. Over 30% of the city's population is of Hispanic or Latino descent, and Austin is a majority-minority city (meaning non-Hispanic Whites make up less than 50% of the population).
It's brought even the most unlikely groups together; while supporters of Liga MX and the English Premier League used to be on opposite sides of the bar, now they come together in green.
Jorge Chavez, a member of Austin FC fan club Austin Anthem, said that Austin FC helps unite a city full of travelers and move-ins.
"A lot people here are from all these different places, and they might not have that much in common with each other, but now they do," Chavez said.
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Less than a week after a fatal mass shooting on Sixth Street and amid rising concerns about violent gun crime, state Republican leaders and gun lobbyists gathered for a celebratory press conference, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law seven bills expanding gun rights, including one allowing permitless carry.
"This is a prolific day for the Second Amendment in the state of Texas," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said at Alamo Hall in San Antonio on Thursday.
The bills take effect Sept. 1 and include:
- Senate Bill 19: Prohibits state contracts with companies that plan to divest from firearm ammunition companies
- SB 20: Bars hotels from prohibiting guests from bringing guns into their rooms
- SB 550: Permits a person to carry a gun in any type of holster
- House Bill 957: Exempts suppressors made in Texas from federal regulations
- HB 1500: Designates firearms and ammunition sellers and manufacturers as essential businesses
- HB 1927: Allows residents 21 years of age and older to carry a handgun without a permit
- HB 2622: Designates Texas "Second Amendment Sanctuary State"
This expansion of gun rights comes as violent crime rates rise in major U.S. cities, including Austin, where murders were up 50% year-over-year in April.
This week, Austin police arrested two juveniles in connection with the mass shooting on Sixth Street early Saturday morning, left one dead and 14 others injured. Two months ago, a former Travis County sheriff's deputy shot and killed three people in North Austin, prompting an hours-long manhunt.
"We support the right of every law-abiding American to be able to have a weapon to defend themselves," Abbott said. "That is different from teenagers unlawfully getting access to guns to commit crime. Those are people who deserve to be behind bars for the rest of their lives."
Local public safety advocates have attributed this rise to police budget cuts, which Austin City Council enacted last August, but cities that increased their police spending are also seeing increases.
In light of rising violent crime rates, the Austin Police Department launched a gun crime prevention program in April. Although not all violent crime involves guns, gun violence is increasing and may involve stolen guns or illegally manufactured "ghost" guns. "I'm just very concerned about the number of illegally possessed firearms and how we can curb that," Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said during an April 15 press conference.
Rising violent crime rates continue to spur gun sales in the Austin area—and around the country. "In this increasingly dangerous world, people want to be able to protect themselves," embattled NRA President Wayne LaPierre said at the press conference Thursday. "Thank god Texas is leading the way in making that possible.
A long shot
Conservative activists have lobbied for permitless carry for years, without success. But state lawmakers reached a compromise last month after the Senate added a series of amendments to address concerns from law enforcement groups, which worried permitless carry would endanger officers and make it easier for criminals to access guns.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the bill's passage, which he described as an expansion of Texans' freedoms. "The media needs to understand that you are so far out of touch with where Texans and Americans are on this issue," he said.
Nearly 60% of Texas voters opposed permitless carry, according to an April University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Melanie Greene, lead volunteer for the Moms Demand Action Austin group, recently told Austonia that state lawmakers are likely motivated to pursue such legislation because of a small, vocal minority of gun rights activists and the threat of drawing even more conservative opponents in primary elections.
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Austin's tech labor market, which was already tight heading into the pandemic, has grown even more so as California companies flock to the capital city. It's made for a situation where employers are listening more to worker demands to fill job openings.
For tech workers—like their counterparts in the restaurant, construction and myriad other industries facing labor shortages—that means setting their own terms, such as remote work options and higher wages.
"We are living in times when the employees are the king or the queen," said Angelos Angelou, founder and CEO of local consulting firm AngelouEconomics.
A talent center
Lured by the state's business-friendly climate and Austin's growing tech scene, California-based companies such as Tesla, Oracle and TikTok built factories, relocated headquarters and opened offices. Austin posted the highest tech migration rate of any city in the country between May 2020 and April 2021, according to a recent LinkedIn analysis.
With so many new resident businesses, job growth kept pace. The Austin metro ranked fourth nationally for tech job postings growth in March, according to Silicon Valley Bank's latest State of the Markets report.
Oracle relocated its headquarters to the Riverside location in Austin. (Shutterstock)
To fill these roles, local tech companies have to look beyond the city limits. Employers poach from their competitors, recruit recent graduates from area colleges and universities or look to the national labor market for talent, Angelou said.
Summer Salazar, director of employer engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, has seen a huge influx in tech sector job postings on the university's job board in recent months. "We feel that demand," she said.
An employee's market
Jaime Cabrera, 28, recently graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and is looking for a policy job at a social media company. He didn't go into his job search with plans to stay in Austin but has seen various intriguing openings, citing Bumble, Lyft and TikTok. "I didn't realize how many companies are here," he said.
The tech labor market also affects employees who are not looking for a new job but instead seeking better benefits or internal policy changes from their current employer.
Lawrence Humphrey, 27, lives in North Austin and works for IBM. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, he co-founded Tech Can Do Better, which advocates for a more equitable industry. Since then, there has been little quantitative progress in terms of more diverse hiring and other metrics. But there has been a qualitative shift. "Issues around racial equity are just far more of a priority from the perspective of the employees, so therefore it's far more of a priority for the employers," he said.
OG vs. newcomers
Although the pandemic has accelerated the growth of Austin's tech industry, the industry was already established. In the latter half of the 20th century, the city attracted big tech originators like IBM because of its enticingly low labor cost and spawned homegrown giants like Dell—trends that continue today.
The arrival of Silicon Valley tech transplants in other growing tech cities, such as Miami, has led to tension with the so-called old guard. In Austin, such competition has forced companies to compete for workers, leading to more mobility.
"When I was in the job market, my god if you changed jobs often—and often meant once every three years—you were considered a traitor," said Angelou, who headed the Austin Chamber's economic development department from 1984 through 1995, helping to recruit companies such as IBM, Apple and Samsung to town. "Now people change jobs every nine months, it appears, and that is considered a plus."
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