Batch O’ Politics: A Conversation with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown

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In the war between state Republican leaders and Texas’ bluer urban centers, Austin is often at the epicenter.

The cycle typically goes like this: Austin officials do something like cut the city’s police spending or allow homeless encampments in public — drawing the ire of Republican lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott, who then pass laws aimed at punishing Austin that wind up reining in all of Texas’ major cities.

That tendency has often hampered the ability of cities and counties to take measures they see as necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19 as Abbott stripped away their emergency powers, arguing that the way out of the pandemic “relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates.”

On Wednesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown sat down with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith to discuss the state of local control as well as issues of policing, homelessness and housing affordability.

Here are some of the highlights:

Pandemic powers

Fewer Texans would have died of COVID-19 had Abbott allowed local officials to implement measures requiring residents to wear masks and get vaccinated, Brown said.

Abbott has used his emergency authority to ban local governments from instituting mask and vaccine mandates — and fought them in court to keep it that way. Meanwhile, Texas’ vaccination rate has stagnated.

“The ability to require that people wear masks and people (get) vaccinated means that that curve is going to be lower, that you’re going to have less, smaller spikes and that you’ll get out of these surges quicker,” Brown said. “And that’s something that, because of Abbott’s policies, makes it a lot harder to get through those spikes quicker with fewer deaths and fewer sicknesses.”

Brown later said, “If we couldn’t listen to our local health authorities when there are just, like, rabies outbreaks, we’d be a mess. It’s a huge state. There’s 254 counties here. Local control … there’s a reason for that in Texas.”

As of Tuesday, about 54% of Texas’ 29.1 million residents have been fully vaccinated. Travis County is outpacing the state and other major Texas counties with 62.4% of residents fully vaccinated.

That’s little comfort if the rest of the state doesn’t catch up, Adler said.

“There is no such thing as Austin doing good so long as there are other places there with the numbers that low … It is all connected because people travel,” Adler said.

Referendum on policing

The defeat of a November ballot proposition to add hundreds of officers to Austin’s police force is a sign that voters feel good about public safety despite a substantial increase in homicides this year, Adler said.

“People know that we’re a safe place,” Adler said. “Yes, our numbers are going up and it’s a concern and we need to address them … So there’s work we need to do but in our community people feel safe.”

Proposition B would have forced the city to hire enough officers to have two on patrol for every 1,000 residents. The group Save Austin Now, which pushed the measure, seized on the city’s rising number of homicides, lengthening police response times and shrinking officer ranks to try to persuade voters to approve the proposition.

The measure failed, with 68% voting against and 32% voting in favor.

Austin police have logged 82 homicides since the year began, resulting in the city’s highest homicide rate in two decades. Nearly every major U.S. city has seen an increase in killings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, overall crime in Austin is down from the start of the 2010s, though it rose slightly from 2019 to 2020.

Adler said the city is working with the county, district attorney and county attorney to confiscate illegally obtained guns and “anticipate the domestic situations that result in people dying,” Adler said.

“There’s a lot of predictive stuff we can do if we put our focus on preventing crime rather than just dealing with crime after it happens,” Adler said. “That’s the future of the city.”

Homelessness and housing

Skyrocketing rents and home prices in the Austin region as well as the city’s pervasive homelessness problem have forced local officials to reappraise their investment in housing and homelessness prevention.

“I think housing affordability and housing supply is the now existential issue,” Adler said.

In the wake of a May ballot measure that reinstated the city’s ban on homelessness encampments, city and county officials embarked on a $515 million plan to house some 3,000 homeless residents.

Adler initially supported lifting the camping ban in 2019, but later soured on it as encampments proliferated in public spaces across the city. Many voters supported the ballot measure as a way of telling city council, “you need to be doing a better job of taking care of these people,” Adler said.

“No one likes seeing camping. I don’t like seeing camping,” Adler said. “I think that we had a community that stood up and said, ‘This is not acceptable. We’re seeing tents. You need to make the tents go away.’”

Facing a lawsuit from Save Austin Now and pressure from Republican state lawmakers, who passed their own statewide camping ban this year, Austin began enforcing the ban in earnest in the past two months.

Now, Austin and Travis County officials are turning their attention to the city’s rising housing costs. The Austin City Council will dedicate a Nov. 30 meeting to addressing climbing rents and home prices. Meanwhile, the city is fighting a lawsuit over its attempt to change the land development code — an idea backers say would boost the city’s housing supply and slow the climb of housing prices.

In the meantime, there are other ways to try to create less pricey housing in the Austin region, Brown said. One idea: Find ways to speed up permitting for property developers. A developer of a housing development in eastern Travis County, Brown said, plans to charge $400,000 per home instead of offering them in the $200,000 to $300,000 range — a price considered entry-level in the area — because of county permitting delays.

“So trying to make the sausage-making permit approval process at the county go a little bit quicker is something that we feel will help increase housing supply and … make prices not maybe go up as quickly as they are,” Brown said.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors.

This conversation was presented by Loewy Law Firm and supported by CAMMACK & STRONG, P.C.

Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, has been a financial supporter of The Texas 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.

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