The city’s two-year experiment in lax public camping policy officially concluded last May when voters reinstated the pre-June 2019 public camping ban. Until that point, the city had been operating with some level of least-restrictive public camping policy — allowing encampments to sprout up on the city’s riverbeds and boulevards.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has now fashioned this into a campaign issue in the Democratic primary for the heavily blue district. His opponent, former Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, was the chief proponent of the camping ban recission in 2019.
“Greg Casar not only designed the disastrous ordinance lifting the ban on tent cities in Austin, he failed to build decent, affordable housing,” reads a mailer from Rodriguez’s campaign.
This, the mailer adds, “[made] the city less safe.”
The flip side of the mailpiece is emblazoned with an image of a downtown Austin makeshift camp in disarray with garbage strewn everywhere. “This is Greg Casar’s failed answer to the homeless crisis,” reads the subtext.
That mailer drew a response from Casar’s camp which reads, “We, the undersigned Democratic officials and progressive leaders, call on your campaign to cease using Republican-style campaign tactics.”
“Your latest political attack mailer appears to fear monger about unhoused people and disparage the work of the Austin City Council.”
Among those officials signing the open letter are two of Rodriguez’s House colleagues: Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood), who doesn’t live in Austin, and Rep. James Talarico (R-Round Rock), who only recently moved to Austin to run in the open House District (HD) 50 seat, leaving his current Williamson County seat after redistricting.
Multiple Austin local officials signed on as well, such as Travis County District Attorney José Garza; Travis County Attorney and former Austin City Councilwoman Delia Garza; current councilmembers Natasha Harper-Madison and Chito Vela; and a handful of other figures and activists.
Notably absent are each of Rodriguez’s House colleagues from the Austin delegation, all of whom endorsed and appeared at his campaign announcement event. One of those members, state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), is running for Austin mayor.
While not on the open letter, Austin Mayor Steve Adler condemned the campaign literature, stating, “Disappointing campaign imagery and messaging. Neither correct nor right.”
Adler and Casar walked the camping ban recission into existence hand-in-hand and continued to defend it — though Adler did acknowledge just before the May 2021 election that it “was not working.”
But the broad rebuke of the policy by voters bled into an unsuccessful attempt at setting a minimum staffing level at the Austin Police Department (APD) — aimed at reversing the city’s $150 million APD budget cut and redirection.
During that campaign — which was ultimately rejected in as broad a fashion as the camping ban reinstatement was passed — Adler chalked the opposition on the city’s policies up to “right-wing misinformation.”
In a city with Democrats and Independents as the two largest voting blocks, followed distantly by Republicans, almost 60 percent of the election’s voters sided against Adler and Casar.
Clearly, it wasn’t just Republicans opposing the city’s policy, and Rodriguez’s mail piece appears to be aimed at those Austin voters who are reliably Democratic that disapproved of the Casar-led camping free-for-all.
As a contrast with Casar, Rodriguez’s mail piece touted his involvement in affordable housing development. “[Rodriguez] wrote and passed the Land Trust law that allows nonprofits to buy land, build affordable, energy-efficient homes, and sell to working families,” it reads.
Casar has made building more housing a key part of his homelessness strategy, even before the congressional run. In fact, much of the progressive city’s strategy has treated more housing as a carte blanche silver bullet for a situation where addiction and mental illness both play key roles.
Congressional District 35 — rated a D-73% district by The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index — will continue to be represented by a Democrat in 2023. Most issues will breed broad agreement between the district’s two frontrunners.
But on homeless camping in Texas’ capital city, there is some divergence between the candidates. And while Austin is the biggest focus of the district, it does reach down to a sizable portion of San Antonio — from which Rebecca Viagran, another candidate for the seat and San Antonio city councilwoman, hails.
Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment on the mailer’s opposition.
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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.