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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