This is the first of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Pete Salazar on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
* Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
* Livability, Affordability and Housing
* Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
* Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget
Pete Salazar Jr. is a former employment specialist at Goodwill and Caritas of Austin. He is a native Austinite who grew up in the Crestview area and in East Austin. Salazar earned a degree in history from The University of Texas at San Antonio. Following graduation he served in AmeriCorps, working with returning veterans. He continued his work with veterans working at non-profits in Austin.
Why are you running?
You know I came back to Austin from university in 2006, and started working with Goodwill as an employment placement specialist. Employment and housing are closely related issues, and they asked me to serve on the board of ECHO [an umbrella group of area non-profits that addresses homelessness]. I did previous work with Americorp working for veterans, so they asked me to focus on veterans, and give recommendations to City Council.
I kind of cut my teeth on that, really getting involved. And as I was doing this work, I always knew I wanted to serve in such a capacity [on Council]. But I knew I couldn’t do that until I had a full scope of what it means to work in one’s community.
And it just so happened that this 10-1 happened right when I felt like I was at that capacity. And now there’s been a tremendous need as far as how we define ourselves as a city. You saw this cultural shift in Austin, from a community that was a small college town, to one wanting to be more international, and taking the conscious steps to become that. We’re having to redefine ourselves, of what Austin do we want as a community. Do we want to be this flavor of the world, or do we still want to be this city with a soul?
And I think there’s a way to be both, but we need to sieze the opportunity now. And we need to focus on how we restructure our infrastructure, how we strengthen that, how we redefine our supports as far as community and business development. And I think given my experience of not only being born here, but coming back and working within these communities, of all communities of Austin, I have a hold of that, I think I know the heartbeat not only of our district, but just the people in general.
What are your top three priorities?
Responsible growth, obviously. Austin’s going to grow, but there’s ways to do it responsibly. Greater access to transportation, and that’s public transportation. And it’s doing an investment in support of local businesses.
Tell me about a past experience shaping policy or making a decision that illustrates how you would serve on Council.
Building coalitions. An example is my work with ECHO – the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition – we called it ‘the Justice League’, a coalition of non-profits like Goodwill, Foundation for the Homeless, Salvation Army. I cochaired the employment committee. We had a lot of veterans coming in from Ft Hood, Killeen, that area. And we had to make sure they didn’t fall into homelessness. We had people who had been homeless, and we wanted to get them back on their feet. We had refugees. So we got the non-profit representatives and the Veteran’s Administration in a big room. We looked at the numbers of troops coming in. We asked, “how do we get these people employed.” But more important, we asked, “how do we address the needs of employers in Austin?”
An example – we had Hyatt Place coming in. They had staffing issues. Our job was to make their job easier, help them manage their capacity needs for workers – engineers, housekeepers, whatever. They don’t want to come to Goodwill. They don’t want to come to us and get “This is why you should hire a vet.” They just want to know – here’s a need, do you have people who can do that?
So we developed a job board. If I was the CEO of Hyatt, I can come and say, “I need five engineers, I need ten people to take care of the rooms, I need managers.” They make one request, and that request shoots out to all the non-profits of Austin in our coalition. The job board greatly simplified communication.
It was an investment in Austin. Once we got those people jobs, their lives stabilized, they were able to go beyond assisted housing. They could redefine their lives. Those people became managers. So when they had work, they came back to us.
Setting that up took a lot of work. It took us three and a half years. People think non-profits – we sit around singing kumbayah. But giving up your job resources, getting people to buy into this common process – that was a battle to establish trust. It’s not about one’s personal placements, or about one individual organization looking good or looking bad. It’s about how we can serve Austin.
It was hard too, breaking into the HR networks of these companies. They get inundated with calls from non-profits, saying, “help us, help us.” What we needed to ask, was “What do you need? What do you need as an HR person, to get the best person to further the mission of your organization? That was the first time that someone sat down with them, and wasn’t trying to sell them a service or a person, but asking them what do they need to further their mission as an organization.
Tell me about your involvement in North Austin, what you’ve accomplished on the ground
I’ve helped Austin through my work – every part of Austin. These were apartment communities in areas that we now consider part of District 7. That goes to business owners. Obviously I looked at it in a business owner way, because my main component was helping people get jobs. Maudie’s Café and other things coming to The Triangle, before they thought about anything else, they were asking, “How do we get employees?” I know the owner, I called him up and asked, “What would you need to make this successful, as far as putting people in there?” That was just me doing my job, but I was always aware of business owners and housing entities because I worked on that on a daily basis.
Have you had a close relationship with businesses in what has become District 7?
Yes, but that’s just from being around. That’s just like going into Crestview Barbershop – he was my backup barber when my other barber was out of town on vacation. My main kind of relationships with businesses around Austin were just because I was here. It’s like doing a good job at work – first you gotta show up. It’s the same thing of knowing your community and doing a good job as a city council person. First you gotta know your community. I know it because I’m here. This is where I’m from.
As a candidate who lives in the south part of the district, what do you bring to voters who live in other parts of the district?
Just because I live in the south doesn’t mean I don’t know businesses in the north. And it’s not how I think. I think about Austin. One of the good things about my father being a cab driver is, even though I grew up in this community, we didn’t just stay in this area. He was all over the place and I was riding shotgun. Which means I ate at the restaurants, I ate at the bars. I got to know the people. I’ve had a beer at C. Hunts. I talk to people – I sit down and talk to people. I still make it a point to go out to those places and talk to people in the community.
It’s not just about who represents District 7 the best. There’s nine other people, and the mayor, that we have to work with. And we don’t have a veto over those people. The person who’s going to be successful is the person who can build coalitions. Being from here, working in these different communities, knowing these different groups, I’m going to build those coalitions. But my first responsibility is to the people of District 7.