What Adler’s Mexico vacation means for his chances in the Biden administration—and post-COVID political career
Austin Mayor Steve Adler had seen his star rise over the course of the pandemic, regularly appearing on CNN to discuss the local COVID-19 response and granting interviews to other national news outlets, including Politico. There was also chatter that he might be appointed to a cabinet position in the incoming Biden administration.
So when the news broke that Adler had hosted a small outdoor wedding for his daughter and then flew via private jet to a timeshare in Cabo San Lucas, in early November, he may have had further to fall.
Constituents, supporters, opponents and national commentators have called on Adler to resign, decrying his hypocrisy.
But political experts expect Adler will survive this scandal, following in the footsteps of other politicians, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who have also been caught violating pandemic guidelines but remained in office. The bigger challenge, they say, may arise in future elections, should he run at the state or national level.
"The (attack) ad writes itself," said Dr. Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston who researches political scandals.
Adler worked as an eminent domain and civil rights lawyer in Austin before being elected to his first mayoral term in 2014. Since then, he has presided over Austin City Council as it transitioned from an at-large system to a representative one, known as 10-1, and tackled contentious issues, from zoning reform and homelessness to the city's affordability crisis and recent protests over police violence.
When Adler made national news, it was generally positive, such as in 2017 when he responded to an email critical of the Austin-based movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse, which had offered a women-only screening of "Wonder Woman," or endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg last year.
Since announcing the cancellation of SXSW in March, Adler has been part of a relatively successful local COVID response. Austin has seen fewer cases and deaths than most other Texas metros, and he and other local officials have led the charge in advocating for stricter state orders, prompting pushback from Republican lawmakers.
With these feathers in his cap, Adler's political future looked bright.
Last month, Texans Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told the Austin American-Statesman that Adler would "be perfect" for a future Biden cabinet position, such as leading the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Environmental Protection Agency. As recently as Monday, Adler said he had spent time with members of the president-elect's transition team.
Many were surprised, then, when the Statesman's Tony Plohetski reported Wednesday that Adler had hosted a 20-person outdoor wedding for his daughter in downtown Austin in early November and then flew to Mexico with some of the attendees for a vacation, all while publicly encouraging residents to stay home.
The news set off a media firestorm, garnering responses from Ted Cruz and Sean Hannity, sparking coverage in national news outlets such as the Associated Press and prompting an apology.
Hypocrites. Complete and utter hypocrites. And don't forget @MayorAdler who took a private jet with eight people t… https://t.co/rhqc6szcys— Ted Cruz (@Ted Cruz)1606947703.0
"I want you to know that I regret that travel," Adler said during a Facebook live on Wednesday evening. "I know that others have chosen not to travel under the same circumstances, and I know that in my position I need to send a clearer message."
Dr. James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, doesn't believe that Adler was ever a front runner for any cabinet positions.
"While the mayor is known in national politics, I doubt he was a top-tier contender for a cabinet position at this point," he wrote in an email to Austonia. "If he was, this series of events certainly wouldn't help."
This is not to say, however, that Adler won't face other consequences.
Rottinghaus, whose research interests include recalls of local governments officials, said politicians tend to survive most political scandals. But this one could spell trouble for Adler if he runs for higher office by providing fodder to his critics.
"It's not a complicated policy or legislative arrangement," Rottinghaus said. "It is pure hypocrisy, and that's something that everyone has had to experience or live through given how we all function in the pandemic."
In the short term, the incident is also likely to energize local political action committees, such as Your Minute Is Up, that wish to see him replaced as mayor.
"What Adler did is basically throw fuel on his own fire," Your Minute Is Up founder Becky McMIllian told Austonia.
The PAC is soliciting signatures for a petition to recall Adler and other City Council members. On Thursday, McMillian set up a table at the Old Quarry Branch library, which is an early polling place for the Dec. 15 runoff election. "People are storming up ... and throwing their pens down and saying, 'I am sick of this hypocrisy. Where do I sign,'" she said.
Despite this ammunition, Rottinghaus thinks the likelihood of a successful recall effort is "very low" for myriad reasons. To start, many voters don't understand recall elections and have short memories when it comes to political scandals, he said.
The increasing tribalism of American politics also means that many will continue to support Adler if it means defeating a member of the opposition.
"People tend to discount the actions of people they already support," he said.
Another consequence may be increased opposition to Adler from those to his left.
Dr. Lara Brown, director of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, said politicians who have endured scandals often face more trouble in their primary races than in general elections.
"The question becomes whether or not somebody from your own party says, 'Yes, we could have a better Democrat,'" she said.
Adler could face a progressive challenger who uses this incident as an example of the current conflict among Democrats, with progressives feeling that the party establishment is apathetic toward the working class.
"Democrats are going to have to confront this politically," Rottinghaus said.
This may already be true for Adler.
Some Twitter users chastised him for not only failing to heed his own COVID advice but also using a private jet to do so when many people are struggling to pay their rent or feed their families.
Hypocrite Austin Mayor Steve Adler: "Stay home. Keep those numbers down. This is not the time to relax.” This, day… https://t.co/BYjohTmyA3— SanWren (@SanWren)1607006813.0
Julie Ann Nitsch, who serves on the Austin Community College board of trustees and was endorsed by the Austin Democratic Socialists of America, was one of many people who commented on his Facebook apology video.
"The poor have to work and get no healthcare," she wrote. "You fly on private jets and throw private parties."
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Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlingers' death this spring was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to a statement by the late student's family.
According to the statement, the 20-year-old University of Texas student and Westlake High grad overdosed on pills believed to be Xanax laced with Fentanyl, an often-deadly combo that has resulted in thousands of accidental fatalities nationwide.
Ehlinger was found dead off campus May 6 in a tragedy that shook the Austin and UT community, as well as Ehlinger's family, including his brother, former UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who now plays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
An honorable mention All-State player and district defensive MVP while in high school, Ehlinger followed in his brother's footsteps and continued his football career as a walk-on at UT. He was also a sophomore in finance, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs, a student organization that cares for beloved mascot Bevo the Longhorn.
Counterfeit Xanax pills have caused an increasing number of fatalities in the area with 1,000 deaths related to synthetic opioids in the state in 2020. Drug dealers have begun stuffing fentanyl, an opiod that the DEA said can be up to 60 times more deadly than heroin, into pills resembling the prescription anti-anxiety medication and selling them to unwitting customers.
"The spread of counterfeit pills is an ongoing and significant issue throughout our country, particularly in schools, colleges and universities," the the Ehlinger family said in a statement. "As our family continues to process Jake's death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake's story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one."
To combat the surge of deaths, Austin police now have access to a supply of Narcan, a drug that can combat the effects of an opiod overdose. Though it's not mandatory, APD officers can now check out supplies of the drug when responding to calls. The department had almost completed training on the drug by June, according to a KXAN report.
"You can talk to a number of families that have had family members die because of opioid overdoses and if this was an option to help their loved one or save their loved one, I'm sure that every single one of them would tell you that it was incredibly important that we now have this incredible tool in our tool belt," Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in the report.
Ehlinger is remembered by his brother, Sam, his mother Jena, his sister Morgen and the University of Texas community. Ehlinger's father, Ross, died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in a triathlon in 2013.
"(Jake) was his dad's little buddy, and they shared an unbreakable bond," Jake's obituary read. "His father's spirit was alive and well in every part of Jake's life. Tragic life circumstances created a unique opportunity for Sam and Jake to uplift and empower each other. They were each other's biggest fans. Their mother, Jena, as well as their sister, Morgen, were the loves of Jake's life. Everyone will miss his giant hugs, but no one more than Jena and Morgen."
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Eight of the world's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes flew into Austin in September to be in the new hub for the sport. But after over a decade of fighting together, they'll no longer be under the same name.
The legendary Danaher Death Squad, which started in 2007 and was led by black belt John Danaher, made a highly-publicized split in late July while in Puerto Rico, with Danaher, legend Gordon Ryan and teammate Gary Tonon announcing the aptly-titled "New Wave Jiu Jitsu" as their new studio to open soon in Austin.
Missing from the new roster were former teammates Craig Jones, Ethan Crelinstein, Nick Rodriguez and even Ryan's younger brother, Nicky Ryan. The new crew announced that day that they would also be forming a new studio with the tongue-in-cheek title "B Team Jiu Jitsu."
Jiu jitsu greats Craig Jones (left) and Gordon Ryan have opened rival studios in Austin.
Both teams chose to move to Austin, a hotbed for the sport that the B Team's Seth Belisle said is becoming a "mecca for jiu-jitsu." With plenty of renowned studios, jiu-jitsu enthusiasts like Joe Rogan coming into town and the presence of Flo Grappling, the sport's premier media outlet, Belisle said there's now "more jiu-jitsu here than anywhere in the world."
While Belisle, an Austin native, handles the business side for the crew, the team's coaching is headed by Jones, a leopard-print wearing Aussie who has been known to sport assless chaps and places importance on the lighter side of things (the studio advertises that they train "Mexican ground karate," a name they created for jiu-jitsu).
Rumors abound about the famed fighters' breakup, including money issues in the Ryan family or a well-rehearsed PR stunt, but Jones told Austonia that the split of the Death Squad simply comes down to personal differences between the fighters.
"It wasn't an amicable breakup at all," Jones said. "What Gordan represents is quite controversial... I would say there would be no line he wouldn't cross to promote a grappling match. So in that sense, we're sort of focused on a different, more positive sort of vibe."
B Team and New Wave alike are opening at a critical time for jiu-jitsu, as the sport slowly becomes a household name. Now, top fighters can make a living from their sport while still maintaining a much lower profile than MMA fighters or boxers.
That name recognition and B Team's positive attitude drew in droves of new trainees, with many opting to move to Austin solely to train at B Team.
"Jiu-jitsu is a relatively new sport," Belisle said. "If you love basketball, it's impossible for you to say, 'I'm going to go play with LeBron James and learn from him this weekend... in jiu-jitsu, that's possible. You have access to the stars of the sport because it hasn't really blown up yet. It's something special."
After an open house that saw over 150 athletes show up, the team realized they needed to become more exclusive. Now, the studio trains only the "Olympians" of the sport, something that sets them apart from other local studios. They also frequently bring in celebrities of the sport for training sessions, including famed female fighter Ffion Eira Davies.
"We're obviously a new gym, but we're probably some of the best guys in the world," Jones said.
Meanwhile, New Wave is training at the famed Renzo Gracie Studio, Danaher's former trainer, as they wait for a new studio.
Will the world's two best teams soon have showdowns in the Texas capital?
While it's unclear whether or not things will get personal (no brother vs. brother matchup is on the horizon), trainees under each studio went head-to-head for the first time Wednesday as New Wave's Gordon Ryan announced his first match out of semi-retirement. Ryan, often lauded as the best grappler in the world, forced UFC fighter Phillip Rowe to submit four times in the 15-minute friendly exhibition match at Austin's Palmer Events Center.
But Rowe, who was first a jiu-jitsu athlete before switching to UFC, said he didn't know about the beef and was just looking to train under his favorite athletes, Jones and Rodriguez.
He competed for a few reasons—including a break from UFC and a chance to give BJJ a bigger name—but he mostly came into town for the fun of it. Ryan and Rowe talked often prior to the meet, with Rowe gifting Ryan a Bumpboxx, or decorated boombox, in honor of Ryans' father. The respect was mutual—Ryan shouted out Rowe after the match for coming out with a broken hand and the death of some loved ones a week prior.
The match was the first indirect competition between the two gyms. Jones said they won't be training with the goal of fighting any of their former New Wave compadres.
"I don't know what's going to happen ultimately," Jones said. "Because obviously, we're not friendly as it is right now, but I mean. I wouldn't go so far as to train someone that was going to compete against them directly."
But with B Team fighters like Nick Rodriguez expressing their interest in fighting in the future and both gyms training for the WNO Championships in 2022, it's almost inevitable that the former teammates will find themselves on either side of the mat sooner or later.
"'I'd be lying if I said that every day since I started jiu-jitsu my goal is to beat Gordon. I'd be lying if I was saying that isn't true," Rodriguez told the Jason Chambers podcast. "My goal is to be the best grappler in the world and nothing less. That's an old teammate that I have to go through to knock him out and get to the top, then that's fine with me."
Atop one of Austin's signature rolling hilltops, 1501 Ridgecrest Drive is similar to one of the plush palaces that one might find in Calabasas. For $10.9 million, the home has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms and caps at 10,498 square feet.
Park in the massive, fully air-conditioned garage before walking in, where you'll have eight full spaces to park your collection of cars. If you're not a collector, the garage makes an excellent studio space.
The wide-open living spaces will draw your eyes to the two-story ceilings, glass catwalk, integrated fireplace and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the pool.
Though the house was built in 2011, it doesn't show its age. Sleek, clean lines lead seamlessly from the formal living area to an elite open-plan kitchen. Separated by a 25-foot waterfall island that can seat at least eight people, the kitchen is fitted with only the finest Miele and Subzero appliances. The custom cabinets are just as pricey as the rest of the place, finished with custom high-gloss Aston Martin (you read that right) paint.
Upstairs in the sprawling master's suite, there are enough amenities to never have to set foot outside again. Armani tile floors, space for living and a walk-in showcase closet lead into the resort-style bathroom, where you'll find dual vanities, a walk-in shower and a lounging bathtub.
The bedroom is a quick elevator trip away from the "party" room, complete with a bar, wine room and movie theater, only the best for entertaining. If your guests are staying over, rest assured they'll be comfortable with the kitchenette, washer and dryer and spa-like bath in their suite.
Though summer has passed, you can still enjoy the grand lap pool's unobstructed Hill Country views, many private lounging areas, grill a homemade snack at the outdoor kitchen or shoot some hoops at the newly-added court.
The listing is held by Compass' Gary Dolch.
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