Pete Salazar Jr. kicked off his District 7 City Council campaign Saturday with an increasingly out-of-fashion vision of Austin as a place of hope for working people.
The venue was also old-fashioned – a BBQ picnic at the Northwest Park playground, attended by about 45 people. The crowd was multi-ethnic, with Hispanics, whites and blacks.
“There was a time when Austin was this beacon of hope. It wasn’t a place to go for music and just to be weird,” Salazar said. “It literally gave people the hope to move here and to do something better at a time when Texas for the most part was still segregated.”
He paused. “And my question is – are we still that hope?”
Salazar grew up in Crestview. The family has deep roots in the area; Salazar’s grandfather was able to come to Austin from Lockhart as a young man when he got a job at the Allandale HEB. Salazar’s other grandfather was a Vietnam veteran who retired and lived on Grover. Salazar’s father drove cabs for 20 years, and his mother was one of the first female grocery baggers at HEB.
Later Salazar’s family moved east, and he attended Dobie Middle School and the Liberal Arts Academy at Johnston High School. Several of his grade-school friends attended the kickoff. Jeff Jones, a life-long friend and fellow student at Wooten Elementary, said Salazar as a native Austinite brings valuable perspective to tackle tough issues in the fast-growing city – “transportation, local businesses getting to stay in the district – I feel like Pete has the background to take on those challenges.”
“He’s always been real persistent,” fellow Dobie classmate Rigo Charo recalls. Alex Hernandez, another Dobie friend, remembers Salazar playing politician from a podium in the corner of a school conference room.
Indeed, it was in grade school that many of Salazar’s campaign themes crystallized. “I was in the Liberal Arts program at Johnston High School, and I remember in English class talking about the duality of magnet programs in Chicago, and how it’s the new separate but equal,” Salazar recalls. “And I’m sitting there in a program just like we were talking about, thinking, “wait a second… is anybody else reading what I’m reading?”
Salazar said he and others left the magnet program for the regular Johnston curriculum. Computer classes circa 1998 ran on outdated MS-DOS computers. On one occasion, a teacher asked him to teach her economics course because she couldn’t. “At 18, I used my experience to try to translate something like ‘laissez faire capitalism’ into something people would understand – ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’” Salazar reflected on a student teaching students. “In no other school would that have been acceptable.”
Salazar said his opportunity to help fellow students led him to Good Will, where he worked as a placement specialist. He continued that role at Caritas, which helps homeless veterans. Repeatedly, he ran into fellow students who had gotten the same education, some of them coming out of jail and looking to get their lives restarted.
These experiences motivated Salazar to ask, “how can we do better, collectively, as Austin, as Texas?” He said Council Member Mike Martinez called him “the working man’s candidate.”
Salazar said he knows people will move here, and the city needs to accommodate growth. But “Austin has a soul,” and he urged the city’s newer residents to absorb the slower, community-focused culture. It might mean giving something up, like the convenience of driving to a big box for shopping at the Crestview Minimax or another local mom and pop, he said.
Salazar said that as a council member, he will work for the interests of District 7. “But we’re still one city. We still beat with one heart, and we should never forget that.”
“There’s no way you can concentrate on just one area. We’re not an isolated city,” Salazar said. “We’re one body. Everything matters.”
“Everyone matters. Everyone deserves to have prosperity,” he said.