Elections 2020Local NewsConservative Austin City Council Candidate Wins Seat in Upset, Disrupting Progressive Uniformity

Mackenzie Kelly's upset over incumbent Jimmy Flannigan spurred by self-inflicted turmoil by the largely unified Austin City Council.
December 17, 2020
As the votes rolled in Tuesday night, the unavoidable reality set in that Councilman Jimmy Flannigan would soon be out of a job. When the dust settled, challenger Mackenzie Kelly had defeated Flannigan by 677 votes.

Kelly said in victory, “From standing courageously behind our law enforcement community to demanding safer conditions for our homeless population to fighting for transparency at city hall, the voice of Northwest Austin has been heard. Considering the stark differences between my campaign’s priorities and the platform of the incumbent, their united voice is resoundingly clear this evening!”

“I am honored to be the next representative for District 6 on the Austin City Council and will work immediately to begin healing the divisions in our community,” she added.

In concession, Flannigan told KXAN he hopes Kelly “does her best to represent the council district with honor and being these amazing powerful voices [to light] that I have come to know and love and appreciate in this district.”

Flannigan placed first in the general election on November 3 by 348 votes over second-place Kelly.

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District 6, which partially extends into Williamson County, is the most swing-like of the Austin City Council districts.

In 2016, Flannigan upset conservative incumbent Don Zimmerman by a wider margin of about 3,200 votes. However, two years prior, Zimmerman edged Flannigan in the pair’s first bout by a mere 191 votes — Kelly ran in that election but finished third.

Conservative challenger Jennifer Virden in District 10 finished 587 votes away from also pulling a runoff upset over Councilwoman Alison Alter. Alter won comfortably in her 2016 campaign.

Kelly represents a disruption in the council’s uniformity that has set the status quo for the last few years. Earlier this year, the council voted unanimously to strip and redirect $150 million from its police department budget.

But that was only the latest in a three-years long procession of radically reformative policies passed by the city’s deliberative body.

One of the first, which didn’t gain much notoriety at the time, concerned the city’s jail bond policy. 

Spearheaded by Flannigan, in 2017 the council unanimously approved an ordinance that required municipal court judges to more liberally issue personal recognizance bonds for defendants, specifically for those deemed “indigent.” The council then fired the judges who objected.

This policy was thrust back into the spotlight when Dylan Woodburn stabbed three, killing one, in an Austin restaurant in January. Woodburn, who had a history of failing to appear, was deemed indigent by the court and was released without bail three weeks prior — thereafter again failing to appear before the bench for his burglary charge.

Woodburn, a homeless man, had been living on the streets of downtown Austin since the city’s public property camping and lying ban recission took effect in July of 2019 — which also passed unanimously. While the policy didn’t yield a tremendous increase in the city’s overall population, its annual survey showed a substantial shift of its homeless population from sheltered to unsheltered status.

Public-homeless confrontations became more frequent. Shortly after the camping ban change, Austin Police Department (APD) statistics showed a 14 percent increase in violent crimes in which either the perpetrator, victim, or both were homeless.

Austin businesses dealt with a higher rate of outbursts by homeless individuals afflicted with mental illness. Some stores on Congress Avenue made more than two dozen 911 calls a day during the height of the trouble.

The city eventually reinstated some of the provisions it rescinded — not unanimously — but the essence has remained, and tents still pepper Austin’s underpasses and boulevards. The problem has persisted through 2020 as well, highlighted most severely by the literal trash flood that rushed through Windsor Park’s creek bed on July 31.

Kelly was staunchly critical of the council’s actions and was part of the petition effort to get a full camping ban reinstatement on the November 2020 ballot. That effort was rejected by the city clerk after some controversy over the office’s sampling validation method. The group, Save Austin Now, is again collecting signatures to place the reinstatement on the May 2021 ballot.

This year Austin experienced a crime spike, though burgeoning well before the pro forma police budget cut. But the police department has struggled with staff shortages for some time, facing 150 patrol vacancies back in April.

The dynamic between city officials and its police department has deteriorated substantially, triggering the latest tiff between state and city leadership. Once the APD budget cut passed, Governor Abbott took aim at Austin Mayor Steve Adler not only over APD but also his handling of the city’s homelessness.

Abbott announced in September the possibility of annexing some or all of APD out from the purview of the city and under the state’s umbrella.

Another contributing factor came with the mass protests, some of which morphed into riots after dusk, which caused such disarray within Texas’ capital city. Clashes between protestors and police peaked the weekend after the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd when a crowd overtook I-35.

Protesters were shot by less-than-lethal ammunition after some among their ranks hurled water bottles or other objects at police. One protester shot was knocked unconscious and slipped into a coma after hitting his head on the ground during the fall. The Texas Capitol grounds were also invaded during which vandals destroyed a historic fountain on the state’s property.

As this all unfolded, Austin remained under strict lockdown orders — some issued by the state, some expanded by the city. Orders and guidance, as fate would have it, Austin Mayor Steve Adler himself violated.

On November 9, Adler told constituents in a video conference “we need to stay home if you can” as COVID-19 cases increased. That video, KVUE uncovered, was recorded by Adler in Cabo on vacation after hosting his daughter’s 20-person wedding reception.

Churches, schools, and other community functions have closed to in-person activity throughout the pandemic and businesses faced a cratering of consumer foot traffic, if not watched it disappear entirely.  

As its constituents struggled financially, the council pushed through a $7 billion light rail transit plan to be partially financed by a 20 percent city tax rate increase. The measure was placed on the ballot, where it passed overwhelmingly on November 3.

Before the election, Austin business owners, many of which were closed to business entirely, estimated their property tax bills would increase anywhere from $1,030 to $3,000.

In their campaigns, Kelly and Virden hit on each of these topics and hung them around their opponent’s neck. Kelly won the Travis County part of the district by 752 votes and lost the Williamson County section by only 75 votes.

Since conservatives Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair left the council, the body has been largely unified on most big-ticket issues in the community.

Kelly’s convincing ascension is some testimony to the council’s overplaying of its hand. But upon taking office next year, at risk of putting it lightly, Kelly will be severely outnumbered.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.