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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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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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