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The race to replace Greg Casar on the Austin City Council has so far attracted three candidates, all of them separately hoping to convince voters in District 4 that they are best positioned to represent a working class community struggling to keep pace with the city's rapid growth and rising cost of living.
Casar is stepping down to run for Congress with three years remaining on his term. He has been the only representative for District 4 since the city split into 10 geographical council districts before the November 2014 election. He twice won reelection, most recently in 2020.
The special election is scheduled for Jan. 25. Only residents in the North-Central Austin district can participate. This is the only item on the ballot, and the city will pay an estimated $253,898 to conduct the election.
As the filing deadline approaches on Dec. 16, the field is taking shape. The first candidate to file was Jose "Chito" Vela, an immigration lawyer making a return to politics after losing a close race to Sheryl Cole in the 2018 Democratic primary runoff for the Texas House District 46 seat. Vela, a relatively unknown candidate when the race began, lost by less than 2 percentage points in the runoff after getting more votes than Cole and longtime state Rep. Dawnna Dukes in the primary.
Cole recently announced an endorsement for Vela in the City Council race.
The other candidates to announce are Amanda Rios, a former bilingual educator with the Austin school district, and Monica Guzmán, policy director for Go Austin/Vamos Austin, a coalition of residents and nonprofits working to improve the health of communities in certain areas of South Austin. Guzmán ran for the District 4 council seat in 2014 and finished fifth of eight candidates.
City Council elections are technically nonpartisan, but all three candidates have been forthcoming about their political leanings. Vela ran as a Democrat in 2018, and that has not changed. Guzmán is a Democratic voter who says she is more progressive than "mainstream" party members. Rios said she does not identify as a Democrat or a Republican and has voted for candidates from both parties. She is friendly with the political action committee Save Austin Now and donated money in support of Save Austin Now's ballot measures related to homeless camping and police staffing this year.
Rios said she hopes to receive an endorsement from Save Austin Now, whose leaders, including local Republican Party chair Matt Mackowiak, have been critical of Casar and blame him for championing policies they view as detrimental to public safety. Save Austin Now's leadership has not said whether it plans to endorse Rios.
"I'm waiting to hear about whether they are going to endorse me and officially support me," Rios said.
Casar, who will stay in office until his replacement is sworn in, has likewise not endorsed a candidate. A spokeswoman in his office said that could come, but not until after the filing deadline. Casar's most direct link among the current candidates appears to be Vela, who served on the city's planning commission as Casar's appointee from 2015 to 2017.
"Greg has been a leader on the council, and I want to do that," Vela said. "I want to push the city in positive directions. I don't want to just sit up there casting votes."
Vela, 47, said his campaign priorities are reducing crime and homelessness, ensuring the mass transit plan Project Connect is completed on time and on budget, and fighting for working class families.
"I've always had a very hands-on attitude," he said. "I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty."
Vela lives in the Windsor Park neighborhood.
Rios, 41, is focusing her campaign on public safety and affordability issues. She said she wants to amend the city's land development code to more easily allow for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units to earn additional income.
She said she never expected to run for public office, but said, "I've been teaching my children when you see something wrong to not run away and ignore it. You get in the fight to make positive changes."
Rios, who is of European descent, acquired her last name through marriage. She speaks Spanish in addition to English, and she said she lived in Mexico for eight years when she was young. She resides in the St. John neighborhood. Unlike Vela and Guzmán, she is not Hispanic.
District 4 is home to the city's second-most Hispanic residents behind District 2 in Southeast Austin. Both districts are represented by Hispanic council members — Casar in District 4 and Vanessa Fuentes in District 2.
The district boundaries are changing through a citywide redistricting process that was recently completed. District 4 is picking up the Wooten neighborhood, just south of U.S. 183, and will have all of the Windsor Park neighborhood, which it currently splits with two other districts. The new boundaries will go into effect in early 2023, meaning only current District 4 residents are eligible to vote in this election.
Guzmán, 55, of Go Austin/Vamos Austin, has lived in Austin pretty much her entire life and attended high school at Lanier (now Navarro) and Anderson. She served on the city's reimagining public safety task force, a volunteer group selected by the city manager's office to recommend ways to improve policing after the 2020 social justice protests. She said that if elected she would build on Casar's work on establishing better protections for undocumented immigrants. She said she also would push for better living conditions and protections for renters.
"I'm running to lift the voices of the community, especially the vulnerable, the historically impacted," she said.
She said she had planned to run for this seat in 2024 — when Casar would have been term limited — but decided she would not wait after Casar announced his congressional campaign in early November.
Whoever wins will complete Casar's term and be eligible to run again in 2024.
"I'm not looking to be confrontational with anybody," Guzmán said. "What's important is to have a working relationship. You can get more done by being a team player."
Louis Herrin III, who ran for the District 4 seat in 2014, 2016 and 2020, has not announced a campaign to this point. He finished second to Casar in 2020, earning 24% of the vote in a three-candidate race.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: 3 candidates line up to replace Greg Casar on Austin City Council