Mackenzie Kelly currently holds the District 6 seat as a council member on the Austin City Council. Recently elected in December 2020, she is the only conservative member. She sat down with Head Editor Chris Schlak, Content Editor Jackson Paul, and Managing Editor Grace Summerville to interview. Afterwards, CM Kelly and her Outreach Director, Patricia Gutierrez, graciously gave us a tour of City Hall. The following interview took place on 4/21/21 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Grace: For our readers to get to know you better, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
CM Kelly: I was born and raised here in Austin, Texas. I graduated from Westwood High School in 2005, so I’ve been in my district pretty much my entire life. During my junior year, I joined the Fire Explorer Program because I was in Health Occupation Students of America. I was taking an EMT class, and I wanted to actually use my skills and get some practice. So they got me familiar with the equipment and I eventually joined the Fire Department as a volunteer in 2005, and I was a volunteer firefighter for 8 years. So, what I like to tell people is that I helped people on the worst day of their lives then, and now I get to help affect the quality of their life now. It’s pretty cool! I’ve always loved public service and public safety. I worked for Williamson County Emergency Management for a short time, and I also worked for the Round Rock Fire Department in their training division. So I’ve always been a strong advocate for public safety and when I thought about running for Council, I thought “what would I need to know that I don’t know?” So, I applied and completed the 14 week-long Austin Police Department Citizens Police Academy, which is really sitting in a bunch of presentations on a Tuesday night for awhile, learning about the different departments. But now, because I have that knowledge, I can advocate for the Police Department and funding and that sort of thing.
Grace: That’s so awesome! So, what made you want to run for Council and what do you hope to accomplish?
CM Kelly: I want to accomplish all of the things! But, I really want to ensure that we have a fully funded Police Department, which is hard because I’m the only one who’s really advocating for that. But, one of the things I’ve learned is that education is important, and so I’ve reached out to my colleagues on Council to try and educate them about the departments that maybe they don’t know a lot about, like the Mounted Patrol Unit for example. I’ve invited two council members to go out to the stables, because I think it’s a lot harder, when something is in front of you and you have a personal experience with it, to defund it. And, that was one of the recommendations that came out of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, was getting rid of Mounted Patrol entirely. And when you go out, and you actually learn from these officers and you spend time, you realize why it’s important to have that unit, and what it does and how it functions. I think there’s always going to be different and better ways to do things, but just throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with the Police Department, is not the right thing to do. We need to really take a look and make fact-based and data-driven decisions on Council, and I just feel like so many of those things haven’t happened. Coming here and being at UT, you probably know the homeless situation is pretty bad. One of the things that I hoped that I would be able to accomplish is to have an actual plan on how to address the homeless situation. And thankfully, in the first 100 days, that did come out. I co-sponsored the HEAL Initiative, and it outlined directives to city staff to put together a plan to help solve some of the homeless problems. So, that’s pretty awesome! I want to advocate for public safety, but we’re going to have some really cool policies rolling out, so I’m excited!
Grace: Awesome! So, can you tell me a little bit more about the HEAL Initiative and what it hopes to do to help with the homeless situation?
CM Kelly: So we’ve identified four areas in Austin that are extremely dangerous for camping. With that, the Homeless Strategy Officer, Dianna Grey, knows the people who are living in those encampments and we’re going to connect them to housing, so that they’re not there anymore. Then with housing comes wrap around services, so their mental health needs will be addressed, their addiction needs if they so choose, and then also job skills will be provided as well.
Grace: That’s so cool. So, what’s it like being the only conservative voice on the city council?
CM Kelly: It’s not nearly as lonely as I would imagine most people think. It’s a question I get asked quite often. You know, just because I have a different political ideology, doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends is kind of my philosophy. If we can be respectful to one another in our discourse, and disagree but not be disagreeable, then you can accomplish a lot more in life. I had somebody who was in here earlier today, in a meeting with me, a very far-left, almost socialist-type individual. But, I gave him half an hour of my time, I heard about his perspective, and we moved on. I’m going to take some of what he said into consideration, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a far-left socialist. It just means that he had valid points and we were respectful and were able to learn from one another. And I’ve taken that approach with the council members too. When I came in, I think initially they were concerned I was just going to throw bombs everywhere and be mean, but you don’t accomplish stuff that way. You have to collaborate and communicate to get things done.
Chris: Do you have any council members not collaborate or communicate with you?
CM Kelly: Yes. I know that I will probably never agree with that council member in particular, and that’s alright. I just have to understand that we will be kind in public, but we’re not going to talk and go out for beers.
Grace: Are you used to that dynamic because you grew up in Austin? Was your high school far-left?
CM Kelly: Not at all. A lot of people that go to Westwood are from pretty conservative families for the most part. I mean, my council district was drawn originally to be the conservative council member district. Do you guys know about the structure of our city council and why we’re a 10-1 System?
Grace: Not really, no.
CM Kelly: Okay, so this is cool! So, prior to 2014, city council members in the City of Austin were elected at-large. You could live anywhere in the city and get elected, but most city council members came from Tarrytown, Central Austin, or Downtown because they would have more money to be able to fund their campaigns and then they would get elected. So, districts like mine, District 6, was not represented at all. It was awful, at least from what I remember and what my parents tell me. In 2014, there was a charter amendment to our City Charter which changed from at-large to single-member districts, with one Mayor who is elected at-large. And so each part of Austin was drawn out and there are 10 council members and one Mayor. The other day I drove through East Austin and I was like “this is a whole other town!” It has its own character and flair. District 6 is very different from East Austin or District 2. With that in mind, the idea behind our 10-1 redistricting and city council form of government changing was so that we could have that representation from each district and people can be heard. In 2014, I actually ran for office for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. I ran in a race against Don Zimmerman, Jimmy Flannigan, Pete Phillips, Matt Stillwell, and Jay Wiley. I was last on the ballot, I didn’t know how to raise money, I didn’t know anything about campaigns, I raised $150, and I got second-to-last place which I thought was pretty good. Don Zimmerman originally held this seat because he won, and he was elected for two years because they were staggering the terms of each council member. He was pretty aggressive on Council. He would be rude when he called people out, he would sometimes talk down to people. It’s just how he is. He’d sue the city because things weren’t being done right. He’s my friend, he was at my wedding, but my philosophy is we can make change here, meaningful change, through the connections we make. We don’t have to sue the city and use more taxpayer resources. So, he was elected for two years and the community didn’t like how Don was governing, so they threw him out and elected Jimmy Flannigan. Well, a lot of people were upset about the homeless issue and defunding the police, and then I got voted in. I ran against Jimmy Flannigan, and so I was elected. That’s a long history!
Grace: That’s great, thank you!
CM Kelly: Jimmy’s a Democrat, but he ended up being very socialist in a lot of his ways. He hired a proud democratic, socialist for his Field Director, and so it was just not what my district wanted. And knocking on doors and talking to people you learn that and get a pulse for what’s going on in the district.
Chris: I heard a story that you decided to run because there was a homeless problem in your area? Is that true?
CM Kelly: So, I’ll tell you the first time the idea popped in my head to do this again, and to actually do better. So, I told you the first time I raised $150. The second time I ran, just now, I raised $150,000. We’re capped at $400 per person that we can get money from. A lot of people just gave me $5 here, $10 there. It was incredible! Jimmy Flannigan raised $250,000. So, it just goes to show you don’t have to have money to win an election – that’s an aside. So, the last time I was on 6th Street in 2019, my friend was walking me to my car. I had only had like one drink and, less than 400 yards from where we were, we could see a homeless guy stabbing another homeless guy. I found out later that it was because one of them had gotten housing and one of them didn’t and was jealous and upset. It was pretty scary! About two weeks ago I was outside giving an interview to Rudy Koski for Fox 7 and a person who just stole a sandwich from Starbucks, who was homeless, tried to throw a cup of ice in my general direction. So, if I’m experiencing that, what are other people experiencing? And I’m just a city council member, you know? I thought about that and I can’t have my 11 year old daughter grow up here. I don’t want to take her out of the same schools I went to, because I know they’re good schools, and move and uproot her. The way I can make a change is to get on Council, and so I did. I didn’t have a shot in heck when I began at all. Nobody believed I could do it, but the disastrous choices that my predecessor made, the pulse of the district, and knowing the constituency helped get me elected.
Grace: Wow, that’s awesome. Do you have anything else you want to add?
CM Kelly: I am so thankful you guys are in college, I don’t have a college degree, so keep at it! If anybody is discouraged by the current climate in politics, they should get involved, use their voice to speak out and be courageous. I’ve heard at UT it’s especially hard for conservatives to get out and do stuff because sometimes they’re scared. You know, you hear about the silent majority. It’s okay to speak out about what you believe in because you can’t make that meaningful change unless somebody does something. It can be incredible! I mean, I won a city council race.
Jackson: I do actually have one question to add. What is your “Come and Take it” flag with all the signatures on it? That looks interesting!
CM Kelly: Oh yeah! We decided we were going to take back District 6. I’m President of a nonprofit called Take Back Austin, and it’s a group of about 10,000 people who are collectively upset about the situation going on in Austin. The “Come and Take it” flag is significant because it’s a piece of Texas history, the cannon that the Texans put out so the Mexicans could come and take it. Anyway, because I won and took back District 6, those signatures are all the people who helped with the campaign, went out and block walked, or just were supporters. It reminds me everyday of the people that I not only represent, but the people who are counting on me to do the right things for the right reasons.
Grace: So cool. Well, thank you so much!
CM Kelly: Of course!