Throughout a recent interview with Austin Weekly News, C.B. Johnson, a candidate in the 29th Ward aldermanic runoff, kept returning to two themes – he would listen to the residents, and he would bring the very demographically different parts of the ward together.
While incumbent Ald. Chris Taliaferro, who has held the seat since 2015, got more than 50% of the vote from those who voted on Feb. 28, the margins were close enough that he couldn’t confidently declare victory. The mail-in ballots and write-in votes ultimately pushed Taliaferro into a run-off against Johnson, who earned the second-highest number of votes.
Johnson, who heads the Campaign for a Drug-Free West Side, said that, if elected, he would hold regular community meetings, including quarterly ward-wide meetings. He said he would work to revitalize block clubs, arguing that they build a safer community and would serve as vital links between his office and constituents. Johnson is also interested in investing in schools – something that aldermen tend to have limited say over – and work toward building a trade school or some kind of job training center.
The 29th ward hasn’t changed boundaries significantly since the 2015 election, and it includes portions of majority-Hispanic Montclare, a small section of majority-white Dunning, and Austin, which, while majority-Black overall, includes the more mixed-race Galewood and the Island, as well as increasingly Hispanic North Austin.
The Feb. 28 election results reflect some of those divisions. Taliaferro did best in Dunning, Montclare and Galewood, while Johnson did best in South Austin. In the Island and many parts of North and central Austin, neither candidate got more than 50% of the vote.
Johnson said that, if elected, his first priority would be to do a town hall at some central location within the ward and invite constituents from all parts of the ward.
“Right now, people feel that the ward is split up and divided,” he said. “You got Dunning, you got Galewood, you got Montclare, you got Austin. [In Austin] you got middle Austin, north Austin, south Austin — you have all those different parts. I want to help explain — we got one ward; it’s going to take all of us to make it whole. We have to come together and prioritize what is the most important to the ward.”
Doing that will make everyone realize that they are more alike – and have more common concerns and priorities – than they may have thought.
“You have to go out and help people to understand – nobody wants nobody to be left out, they just want what they want,” he said. “We already know what the differences are, but we need to highlight our similarities.”
Johnson said he would have quarterly ward-wide meetings and more regular community meetings.
“We have to do it as community – and not saying, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” he said. “I’d like to see what they’d like to see me done, because I can see a lot of things wrong, but that may not be what’s most important to the people.”
But that isn’t to say Johnson has no priorities of his own. When it comes to solving crime, he wants to work with local police commanders and the newly formed police district councils, and he wants to strengthen block clubs and provide support services for people returning home from jail.
Johnson said he wanted to strengthen block clubs for two reasons. Since most crimes are committed by people who already live in the community, it is important to deepen community relationships – and having block clubs would make it easier for residents to bring their concerns to him. Taliaferro has attempted a similar strategy, trying to work with block clubs to help spread ward news.
When it comes to community development, Johnson said he would look at the existing 29th Ward business committee – which has been advising Taliaferro on community development decisions – and see whether it works for him. Either way, he would regularly meet with ward businesses to find out about their needs. If a business wants to set up shop in the ward, Johnson said he would look at their business plan and consider whether the community supports it.
Taliaferro is the first, and thus far the only, West Side alderman to use participatory budgeting, where voters get to weigh in on how he spends the $1.5 million every alder gets every year for infrastructure-related projects. Johnson said he would shift the money toward block clubs and let them make decisions.
“What we’re going to do is take the money, build more block clubs, and then, I will attend block club meetings with community representatives, and we will look at some of the things we can do,” he said.
When it comes to what has been a perennial issue for over a decade – a full-fledged Galewood library – Johnson said he would support building it on the Mars factory site. That would be almost directly across the street from the current library, which is little more than a room inside the Rutherford-Sayre Park fieldhouse, 6871 W. Belden Ave.
Johnson said he will try to keep his promises – but if, for some reason, he can’t, he will be transparent about why.
“I think we always have to follow up with people,” he said. “People understand things happen, people understand obstacles get in the way, but if they understand you keep working on it, people will respect that.”
But first, Johnson has to win over voters, including some who didn’t vote for him last time. He said he believes it’s the simple matter of knocking on doors and talking to people.
“When people don’t think they know, they’re not going to take a chance on you,” Johnson said. “My message is — we’re not playing any games. We’re going to go back to them voters, and we’ll be talking to the whole 29th ward, and not 2 or 3 blocks.”