AUSTIN, Texas — In the December runoff for the November 2020 election, Austin City Council candidate Mackenzie Kelly defeated incumbent Jimmy Flannigan to earn her seat representing District 6.
Now months into her first term, we sat down with Kelly to discuss her time thus far as an elected councilmember.
In her conversation with KVUE's Bryce Newberry, she discussed topics such as what it's like to be the lone Republican on the council, her relationship with Mayor Steve Adler and her colleagues, her stance on Austin homelessness and much more.
Here's an extended version of Kelly's interview:
Newberry: I want to just kind of start with the elephant in the room and ask you what it's like to be the only conservative on this council and if that's a challenge that you welcome.
Kelly: I definitely welcome the challenge. But I also look at it as an opportunity to form relationships with people that I might not necessarily agree with, especially on the council. We have so much to learn from each other. When we are respectful and collaborative, we can get more things done for the city.
Newberry: What is your relationship like with Mayor Adler or your colleagues? Are you all going out and getting coffee or catching up?
Kelly: It's so funny that you ask that. I actually have a girls' night tonight with two other councilmembers where we're going to go have some wine and hang out and talk about things, how they're going. I have other councilmembers who they check in with me regularly. In the beginning, Councilmember Pool was extremely gracious and we went through an entire agenda together and I would ask her questions and see if I was on the right track for how I was picking things apart. And she gave me really good feedback and has been very encouraging. Other councilmembers like Tovo and Ann Kitchen, they've been wonderful. Even the mayor has been kind when I request a meeting to find out more information about certain things or have a question, he's very responsive. ... I think I went in with a good mindset. I let them know I didn't want to be mean. I didn't want to throw firebombs everywhere. I wanted to collaborate and communicate. And I've been doing my darndest to stay respectful.
Newberry: I do want to ask you about a tweet from earlier this month. It was a picture of some of your colleagues having a virtual meeting. The caption said, "My colleagues spend time at home and don't venture into the public. How do they know what is really going on? They should venture out and talk to those experiencing homelessness and not deliver hyperbole." Is that something that you've come across frequently so far in your experience on the council?
Kelly: So I regrettably tweeted that out of anger and frustration for what happened to me earlier that day. I was nearly assaulted by somebody who was homeless. And then I saw them in a Zoom press conference. And it frustrated me because those members, in particular, I hadn't seen at City Hall very often. I'm here every day. I walk outside. I see a lot of what other Austinites see. And I was overly critical in my frustration. And what I should have done is talk to them privately about how I felt about the city so that we could make meaningful change. I did apologize to those councilmembers when they reached out to me about it and I learned from the experience that's not the way that policy is done by grandstanding and having empty statements made. The real progress happens behind closed doors and in a collaborative manner, like I said earlier. So it's something I learned from and we'll move forward in doing better.
Newberry: You were elected, obviously, for a reason. What do you think that reason is?
Kelly: I think that people in the city of Austin didn't like, especially my district, didn't like the direction that the city was headed, which is what got me interested in running for office this time around. I think that homelessness, which was a big part of my campaign, and a lack of action on taking care of the people who are unsheltered, really resonated with my community. I think that we were headed in a poor direction with defunding the police. And, you know, there's always better ways to do things. But the defunding narrative was not laid out in a way that was well articulated to the community, much like our homeless situation. And now that I'm on council, I see that there has been progress made, and some things do make sense as far as funding go. Like today, I talked with City Manager Spencer Cronk about how online communications is not going to be under APD. That makes sense administratively when one is police, fire, EMS and mental health. And so that's a good way to be efficient. But we have to find the right messaging so that the community can understand the choices that are being made and not get angry and make me tweet.
Newberry: How does it feel, though, to sometimes be the only voice for or against these issues that you're talking about?
Kelly: I joke with people because they say, 'Well, you're just one city councilmember.' And I say, 'Well, I'm also kind of the mayor of the Republicans.' And that in a lighthearted way. I do need to speak up and use my voice on the dais when it's appropriate. It doesn't feel lonely at all because I know that I have a cadre of support behind me and backing me, and everybody who elected me or gave money to my campaign to get me where I am believes in me. And so I just want to go to bed at the end of the day, knowing that I made a difference in the city of Austin and wake up knowing there's more to do.
Newberry: You mentioned your district and obviously the residents that elected you. And we watched you really go to bat for them over the controversial homeless hotel purchase in Williamson County. I'm just kind of curious what that battle was like, you know, internally here at City Hall, but also externally and out talking to them.
Kelly: I did get that initial support when I requested a one-week delay on the purchase of the hotel so that I could collect more information. And a lot of that was because it's baptism by fire. I mean, I had no idea this was even going to be on the agenda. I found out about it in a conversation with Cynthia Long. She had called me to check in on me. She worked with me while she was the commissioner back when I was with Williamson County Emergency Management. So she knew who I was. And she said, 'Do you have any questions about the agenda or how it goes?' And I said, 'Well, it looks like they're going to purchase a hotel for homelessness. I'm not really sure about it.' And so she gave me guidance on who I should start asking questions with and how to kind of go about that. And from there, it was kind of a whirlwind. We got tons of emails from the community and I went out and walked the property. I talked with Frida, who owns Frida's restaurant, right next door. I got to know Rupal Chaudhari, who her family owns the hotels next to the Candlewood. And I just I learned from the community that it wasn't a good location. And when you look at other purchases, like the Texas Bungalows Hotel and Suites, it's not really near any residences. This hotel in particular is less than 950 feet from a high school. It's right next to families' homes where children are in the backyard, and rightfully so, they're worried about their kids and their safety. So what I would have preferred to have happen is more advance notice but being new on the council, that wasn't possible because real estate purchases happen behind the scenes in executive session. And then I would have liked to have educated the community. I was able to hold one town hall and we had over 250 people there virtually, and we got the educational component out. But I feel like it was too little, too late.
Newberry: Right now, Austin voters are going to the polls or casting their ballots. Prop B is a measure that you have very publicly supported, doesn't seem like that's how your colleagues see the issue as well. Why do you stand where you do on that particular measure?
Kelly: Well, it makes sense that I would stand out from my colleagues on this because there's a lot of support from my side of the political spectrum regarding the issue. But this has bipartisan support. Prop B does. And Adam Loewy tweeted out about his support of it. And he's a moderate Democrat. And I like that he and I can have a great conversation and I can come away learning so much from him. But I think that it's probably difficult for my colleagues who were on the dais before me who actually voted to repeal the campaign ban. I think it's hard for them to say we made a mistake. The mayor, he came out and he said that our messaging about this was wrong. And he told me privately that he watched my messaging about homelessness throughout the campaign and that it was something and he even said we didn't have a plan. I'm hopeful now that with the whole initiative that I co-sponsored with Councilmember Kitchen and I'm hopeful with the homeless strategy officers information that she put out this on, that we're actually moving towards meaningful solutions for people who are unsheltered. I don't think it should be a crime for somebody to be homeless, but I also don't think the burden should be entirely on the city to fix the homeless situation. We do need nonprofit partners to get involved and we need to lift these people out of their situation.
Newberry: I want to go back to homelessness again. Obviously, that was something that was a big focus of your campaign, like you've mentioned in your first 100 days, besides cosponsoring that HEAL initiative. What other specific actions have you either initiated or participated in really to tackle that issue that you campaigned on?
Kelly: Yeah. So the homelessness has always been top of mind for me. And a lot of it has just been learning what the City is doing and working to get the message out, especially about permanent supportive housing. I think permanent supportive housing is a great idea. I think that we're helping lift people out of homelessness by providing them a place to live and stay. And we're also giving them those wraparound services that are also important for them. You know, with Winter Storm Uri, was really tough and it kind of put us at a standstill as a city. I went by the Palmer Events Center and I saw a lot of people who were staying there and talked with them, many of whom were experiencing homelessness. I've spoken with people who are homeless in the community to get their perspective. And what I'd really like to see happen is some sort of interim solution where we provide a place for people to camp that maybe aren't ready for a home. A lot of the people who I've spoken to who are homeless, they like living in a tent. That's just what they want. And so we still need to reach out to them and provide them solutions as well.
Newberry: Also, from your Twitter, I've seen a lot of interaction and a lot of meetings and support for a view for the law enforcement officers and agency, and that doesn't really seem like a relationship that we've necessarily seen between a councilmember and our law enforcement agency, you know, in recent years. What are you getting out of those conversations and meetings and how are those kind of being interpreted?
Kelly: That's a really good question. And it's so multifaceted. It's starting to like finding out how to put it together. It's going to take a second. I think the biggest takeaway is that officers are thankful that they finally have somebody on council who will be a voice for them. I always thought it was important to grow up respecting law enforcement. And so what I saw happen last year with the reimagining of public safety or defunding of the police really hurt my heart because these people are out every day. They put on their badge, they put on their belts, and they're willing to get hurt to help save people and to help fix situations that are bad. They see people on the worst days of their lives. So, you know, I just wanted them to know throughout my campaign and even now that I'm there for them. I went to the hospital to visit our officer who was shot in the foot. And I did that because it was the right thing to do. And, you know, just going out of my way to when I'm walking down the street, when I see a police officer happened yesterday, I saw two of them. One of them actually – this is so cool – he bought a cup of coffee for a person who was experiencing homelessness and gave it to him before he saw me. And I was like, 'Oh, wow, that's neat.' You know, our officers really do care about the job that they do and they need that support because morale over there is really low. And I've heard over and over again from APD leadership and also Ken Cassaday that my support of the police department is helping morale. And that's important because they protect us. All I do is make decisions about the types and what are you getting out of having those conversations just and learning, you know, that you maybe didn't know before. I think it's important to know that everybody has a battle. They're fighting. Sometimes it's public, sometimes it's not. We have to be kind to each other. It's kind of like with that tweet that I put out, it was really shouldn't have happened. Defunding the police probably could have gone down a different way if the messaging was different. You learn from people by talking to them, not by being mean to them.
Newberry: What would you say your next 100 days look like?
Kelly: We're going to roll out policies and we're going to do a bunch of different things that are going to make the city a better place, and I'm going to still be that tireless warrior for public safety and make sure that our homeless situation is also, I think 'well-implemented' would be a good way to say that. I did request a special audit of homeless spending and so through the city auditor's office that'll come out in September. So I'm looking forward to that. That's going to be exciting. I've really enjoyed just being at city hall and meeting people and listening to how much people care about the city, because at the end of the day, it's not just my city, it's everybody else's, too. And I want to do the best job I can to make the quality of life for everybody here better. ... I'm here for you as a voter and as somebody who lives here in Austin. I want to make this place better. And I think when you think and approach things like that, that you just want to go every day to do something better. That's the right mindset.
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