Four years ago, Natasha Harper-Madison won a runoff election to become the second-ever representative of City Council District 1. That year, the entrepreneur and mother of four bucked conventional wisdom by winning at the expense of better financed candidates.
This cycle, the dynamic is completely different. Incumbent Harper-Madison has raised $113,973, while only one of her three challengers has surpassed $1,000. Each challenger says they would be the true “community quarterback” for District 1 that Harper-Madison promised to be.
The Austin Monitor sat down with Harper-Madison and the three challengers to evaluate the direction of the current leadership and discuss how they would attack the biggest issues facing District 1 and the rest of the city.
Photo by Casey Chapman Ross Photography
Harper-Madison said her proudest accomplishment during her first term was successfully advocating to include $300 million in anti-displacement funds as part of Project Connect. The funds will preserve and create affordable housing options along the new light rail and bus lines.
“In 1971, the city displaced hundreds of black residents out of the last black community west of I-35 (Clarksville) to make way for MoPac,” Harper-Madison said. “Today, however, with the anti-displacement fund, we will help to ensure that the exponential growth of our city does not come at the expense of the most marginalized members of our community.”
If reelected, Harper-Madison promises to continue advocating for transit-oriented development and increasing the city’s stock of affordable and market-rate housing.
“I will continue doing everything in my power to ensure that the exponential growth of our city is done so responsibly and in a manner that ensures our community will not lose its rich and diverse culture that makes Austin such a great city to live in,” she said.
Harper-Madison said addressing housing and transportation will help stimulate economic opportunities while also addressing our climate concerns. “Equitable transit-oriented development is right for the people, right for the city and right for the environment.”
A U.S. Army veteran who completed an 11-month deployment in Afghanistan, Clinton Rarey moved to Austin with his wife four years ago.
Photo by Clinton Rarey
“I’m sick and tired of feeling like I’m being ignored by the City Council,” Rarey said. “It feels like every time that there’s a Council meeting that they’re passing agenda items that they’ve already made up their minds.”
Rarey said Harper-Madison had good ideas but failed to execute them in her term. In particular, he finds fault with her amendments to the Urban Renewal Plan for 11th and 12th streets, which allowed for more bars and music venues on 12th Street. Neighbors opposed the move, but Harper-Madison insisted it would not result in a “flood” of new venues.
“She doesn’t have the best interests of the community any longer,” he said.
Rarey, who currently runs a solar installation company, favors auditing Austin Energy and Austin Water, as well as putting Project Connect’s revised price tag up for a public vote.
If elected, Rarey said he will implement an open-door policy with constituents and guarantee a speedy response. “I will have a response within 48 hours regardless.”
Misael Ramos is running for the District 1 seat for the second time. The East Austin native ran as a write-in candidate in 2018 and took away a big lesson: “Get your name on the ballot. I learned that.”
Photo courtesy of the Misael Ramos campaign
The business analyst took some time away from politics after the loss, but soon found his way back into community advocacy, working on anti-displacement initiatives in the district. He is the board president for the Blackland Community Development Corporation and is involved with the historic Rogers Washington Holy Cross neighborhood.
Ramos is also dissatisfied with Harper-Madison’s leadership, including on the urban renewal plan amendments. He said community advocates, himself among them, have begun to work around the District 1 office to get things done.
“She pitched herself as a community quarterback,” Ramos said. “We don’t think that moniker is deserved.”
On Project Connect, Ramos is optimistic about the outcome, but “disheartened” at the city’s execution so far. He said he will be an asset to Council because his business background will help him make better management decisions. On housing, he will advocate for funding community development corporations that will be bound by specific metrics. “They want to be able to develop, but they don’t have the capacity,” he said.
Ramos said he will prioritize increasing density along major traffic corridors and working with communities to see what they want in development.
“Then we can actually start reinvesting in and redeveloping them so that we’re able to ensure that there’s an Austin for the legacy folks who have been here, the next generations, and more Austinites too,” he said.
Photo by Letakathrynphotography for Melonie House-Dixon
Melonie House-Dixon moved to Austin with her family nearly 30 years ago. During that time, the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother has seen Austin and District 1 change significantly.
In 2016, she became president of the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association and began working on homelessness and development issues. She is liaison for the East MLK Contact Team and is president of the group that preserves the Bethany Cemetery.
House-Dixon said the neighborhood won the fight to preserve Austin’s first Black cemetery, but lost its larger objective of securing community benefit in exchange for the rezoning of 12th and Springdale. The neighborhood’s “rights and concerns were totally ignored” during the process.
“I started getting more involved when I realized that most communities in District 1 were petitioning and not being heard,” House-Dixon said. “We need to hear their voices and be acting on their behalf.”
If elected, House-Dixon will focus on minimizing displacement and maximizing community benefit return in redevelopment projects. She would work to partner the city with local nonprofits to bolster the social safety net. And she questioned whether the city’s definition of affordable housing is truly affordable.
House-Dixon was also critical of Harper-Madison’s leadership, and said a change is needed. “We’re not a very happy community right now. We need to have a voice and it’s not being heard.”
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Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2015, the body contained seven members, including the city’s Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and as of 2015, 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
District 1: District 1 is one of the largest districts by area created by the commission, being bounded by Interstate 35, bumps up against Pflugerville on the north, SH 130 on the east and reaches down into the eastern parts of downtown and the University of Texas campus. It includes a variety of neighborhoods, such as Copperfield, Harris Branch, University Hills, Colony Park and Rosewood. It also contains Decker Lake Park and some of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.
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