Texas voters are casting ballots in several local elections Saturday. We’re closely watching an Austin proposition about homeless encampments, mayoral races in San Antonio and Fort Worth and a police bargaining measure in San Antonio.
Also, Lubbock voters will decide whether the city becomes the largest “sanctuary city for the unborn.” And North Texas voters have a special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington.
Austin voters appear poised to reinstate a ban on public homeless encampments, according to unofficial early voting results. Proposition B on that city’s ballot would also criminalize panhandling at certain places and during certain times.
Austin’s City Council decided to lift the ban on public encampments in certain areas in 2019, arguing that the policy had led to citations for people experiencing homelessness that hurt their ability to find housing. The move was quickly criticized by Gov. Greg Abbott, who promised to take action against Austin.
Although the visibility of homeless encampments has increased in Austin in recent years, both the Dallas and Houston areas have more people living in the streets, according to 2020 data. Some Austin residents have complained that allowing the encampments on public property — many are beneath overpasses or next to major roads — has created health and safety problems.
Other residents and most advocates for people experiencing homelessness say lifting the ban on encampments has made it easier to offer services to people experiencing homelessness and helped them avoid fines that they frequently can’t pay.
Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature is considering bills that would ban homeless encampments statewide. House Bill 1925 and Senate Bill 987 would make camping in an unapproved public place a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.
The House bill was debated on the floor Monday, and Democrats attempted to amend the bill to decrease the penalties. After state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, raised a point of order claiming a discrepancy in the bill’s witness list while in committee, it was sent back to the Urban Affairs Committee; it’s expected to receive a new hearing soon.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler has criticized both the city proposition and the Senate and House bills. Advocates for the homeless agreed that the bill won’t help efforts to house people experiencing homelessness.
Homeless service providers in other Texas cities say they also are worried about how a potential state law banning encampments could play out. Regulations and enforcement related to camping in public places vary greatly among cities. Some, like Austin, don’t have a universal ban, but camping is not allowed in places like public parks. Others, like Dallas, don’t have a ban but will remove encampments if there are safety concerns.
Disclosure: Steve Adler is a former Texas Tribune board chairman and has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Ten candidates are competing to succeed Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, and a runoff is expected. Election results were not continuing to come in late Saturday.
The most serious contenders include Mattie Parker, Price’s former chief of staff; Brian Byrd, a member of the City Council; Deborah Peoples, chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party; and Ann Zadeh, another council member.
Price endorsed Parker to succeed her, while Fort Worth’s other top Republican elected official — U.S. Rep. Kay Granger — backed Byrd.
Price announced in January that she would not run for a sixth term leading Texas’ fifth-most-populous city. While the office is nonpartisan, Price is a longtime Republican, and she is one of the few remaining GOP mayors of a large American city.
Accordingly, the race marks a political inflection point for Fort Worth. It is the seat of a county — Tarrant — that was once the state’s biggest red county, but that status has fallen into question after it went blue at the top of the ticket in the two most recent statewide elections. The county went for Beto O’Rourke in 2018 and Joe Biden in 2020.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s quest for a third term at the helm of Texas’ second-biggest city remains undecided as results continue coming in Saturday. He faces more than a dozen challengers, but his main opponent is Greg Brockhouse, the former City Council member who forced Nirenberg into a nail-biter of a runoff in 2019. Nirenberg won the runoff by just 2 percentage points.
The office is nonpartisan, though Nirenberg has drawn his support from Democrats, and Republicans coalesced around Brockhouse two years ago, particularly amid backlash to the council’s decision to nix an airport contract for Chick-fil-A over its owners’ support for anti-LGBT causes.
While Brockhouse gave Nirenberg a real scare in 2019, this time around is different. Nirenberg has refused to debate Brockhouse, depriving him of an important spotlight, and the police and fire unions, which strongly backed Brockhouse in 2019, have remained on the sidelines.
A late March poll found Nirenberg leading with 56% support — enough to avoid a runoff — and Brockhouse down by 35 points.
A San Antonio measure that would strip the city’s police union of collective bargaining power could be a close race, according to unofficial early results. The measure splintered two groups typically arrayed together in the Democratic coalition: organized labor and police reformers.
Supporters of the proposition argued it would lead to more accountability because contracts negotiated through collective bargaining often shield police officers who step out of line. The spotlight on police conduct is intenser than ever after the death last year of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. Last week, a jury found the officer, Derek Chauvin, guilty of murder in connection with Floyd’s death.
Some opponents of Proposition B claimed it is a form of “defunding the police,” predicting that the absence of collective bargaining would lead to reduced paid benefits.
The proposition was opposed by the San Antonio AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, whose president, Tom Cummins, said that the ballot item “for many people is an emotional outlet on what’s happening in the rest of the country.”