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October 22 2017

Ellen Troxclair

by Charlotte Hays

As the lone conservative member of the Austin, Texas City Council, Councilwoman Ellen Troxclair knows something about being the “one” in ten-to-one votes in the City Council. 

She says she came to the Council to "focus on affordability and to rein in the rising cost of living" in Austin. 

Among Troxclair's lonely stands: She is the only remaining Austin City Council member who voted against overregulation in ride-sharing, which ultimately drove Uber and Lyft out of Austin. The state legislature has since acted to bring ride sharing back to Austin, but Troxclair doesn't lack battles to fight. She says she came to the Council to "focus on affordability and to rein in the rising cost of living" in Austin. These goals often put Troxclair, age 32, at odds with her fellow members on such matters as property taxes and regulations.

"To her supporters, she's Joan of Arc. To her council colleagues, she's undermining the city," is how the Austin-American Statesmen summed up Troxclair's status. She admits that it can be difficult to be on the losing end of so many votes but clearly remains committed to her issues. She is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in business. She was introduced to politics as a sophomore in college when she worked as an intern to Republican Rep. Phil King in the Texas State House, working her way up after graduation to ultimately serve as Chief of Staff to Rep. Jason Isaac.

Not only is she not backing off, Troxclair encourages other women to run for office. "You don't need a special degree. You don't need anybody's permission," she says. "You don't have to raise a ton of money to run for office in local races. You have to be passionate about your issues and willing to work hard to get elected."

"To her supporters, she's Joan of Arc. To her council colleagues, she's undermining the city." 

Nevertheless, Troxclair was, in a way, an accidental candidate.  She might not have run, or at least not when she did, if it hadn't been for a change in the way Austin elects its City Council members.

Austin, a liberal stronghold in a conservative state--former governor Rick Perry dubbed Austin "the blueberry in the tomato soup"--formerly elected its council members city-wide. It was the largest city in the country to have an all at-large council. After an outcry from underrepresented parts of the city and a successful referendum, Austin shifted to a district system with ten districts in 2014. The mayor also has a vote. Council member candidates do not run as members of a political party.

The New York Times suggested that Austin's new system might have the effect of "possibly opening the door for a more racially and ideologically diverse board." Troxclair and her husband, Austin lawyer, Caleb, saw the same possibility.  Troxclair recalls, "The at-large system led to a concentration of power downtown and a lack of diversity of opinion. Many people felt under-represented, lacking a direct voice."

The Troxclairs began looking for a candidate to support from their district--District 8 in suburban southwest Austin.  It is a district that boasts a high rate of homeownership, along with high property values and taxes. They wanted to support someone who was going to address the rising cost of living in Austin and focus on financial accountability in order to bring tax relief to strained residents.

“I was young, I hated public speaking, and I didn’t have the blessing of the city’s power players.  But, ultimately, I felt in my heart that it was something that I was being called to do.  And, I’m so glad I did.”

But the Troxclairs could not find a candidate they believed would be right for the job. "We were looking to encourage someone else to get into the race who would focus on those issues when someone said, 'Why don't you run?'," she recalls. "I thought 'If I have an opportunity to make a difference and don't, then I can’t complain.  I didn’t have much time to think about it, being close to the filing deadline.”

“There were so many reasons for me not to do it,” she admits. 

“I was young, I hated public speaking, and I didn’t have the blessing of the city’s power players.  But, ultimately, I felt in my heart that it was something that I was being called to do.  And, I’m so glad I did.”

"I think that the issues this city cares about transcend party lines. My mantra is common sense leadership." 

District 8 voted for Obama and Clinton, but Troxclair felt that there were residents who would appreciate policies aimed at making the district and city more vibrant and affordable. "I am very genuine about why I want to serve," she says. "I think that the issues this city cares about transcend party lines. My mantra is common sense leadership." 

When Troxclair won, she became, at 29, the youngest woman ever elected to the Austin City Council. She was embarking on what she knew would be an uphill battle.

One of Troxclair's most notable battles was holding out to keep Uber and Lyft working in Austin. The City Council, with Troxclair dissenting, passed draconian rules for ridesharing companies in 2016. While some safety regulations are appropriate, Forbes magazine described the Austin Council's ride-sharing rules as an "extensive list of petty, burdensome, and unnecessary regulations" that would drive the companies out of town. The ridesharing companies had been credited with reducing drunk driving incidents, but that did not give the Council pause.

"They wanted to raise regulations on everyone and force ride sharing companies to operate like taxis."

"Ride-sharing companies were providing an affordable, safe, and much-needed service for the city," Troxclair says. "We have a huge university and an entertainment district where a lot of alcohol is served, and it's difficult to get taxis at night. There was a decline in the number of alcohol-related accidents while Uber and Lyft were operating. They helped keep drunk drivers off the road late at night and provided reliable transportation for many people in a city where public transportation options are limited."

"There was no problem [with regard to ride-sharing] that the City Council was trying to fix," she continues. "Instead [they were reacting to] the taxi companies complaining that they didn't want to compete with new models and that we needed to ‘level the playing field.’  But, they were not interested in leveling the playing field by reducing restrictions across the board, including on themselves. They wanted to raise regulations on everyone and force ride sharing companies to operate like taxis."

Troxclair probably didn't endear herself to her colleagues on the Council when she testified as to the value of ride-sharing companies before the state legislature, which passed a law that re-introduced ride-sharing in Austin by passing statewide regulations.

"We can't subsidize our way out of our problems. We don't have enough people paying into the system to do that. The economics simply don’t work."  

Another signature Troxclair issue is lowering property taxes, which she regards as essential to keeping the city affordable. "Texas is affordable compared to other states like California," she says, "because we have low taxes and a business-friendly environment that bring people and jobs here." Troxclair says that the "existential crisis" for Austin is keeping the cost of living in check, holding the line on property taxes, and maintaining Austin as a city in which people can afford to build their lives.  

"We have a reputation as a creative, hip, tech-savvy city," Troxclair says, but she maintains that Austin is "pushing our creative classes out" by making the city more expensive. Troxclair has worked successfully to establish and expand the homestead exemption and to do something really radical: not to spend all the money available. For the first time in city history, she was able to set aside a pot of money during budget deliberations to return to taxpayers. Instead of a pet project or a new government initiative, she earmarked money to not spend. "This set an important precedent in a city that always defaults to collecting the maximum amount of taxes - that you don't have to spend all the money.  Instead, you can give some back to the people who earned it in the first place by lowering the tax rate.”

As for maintaining an environment hospitable for the "creative classes" (and others!), Troxclair admits that she and her fellow Council members just see things differently. "We approach it from a different perspective," she says. "Their default position is that subsidizing is always the answer, that what we need is more government subsidies and more government-run programs. But we can't subsidize our way out of our problems. We don't have enough people paying into the system to do that. The economics simply don’t work.  Rather, by raising taxes to pay for those subsidies, you penalize the middle class the most – the people who don’t qualify for the program but are still struggling to provide for their families. If you focus on economic opportunity and affordability, residents can flourish by earning and keeping more money of their own.”

In her tenure in public office, Troxclair has had a few unanimous votes for her proposals—one concerned lemonade, specifically kids' lemonade stands.

In her tenure in public office, Troxclair has had a few unanimous votes for her proposals—one concerned lemonade, specifically kids' lemonade stands. The City of Austin traditionally sponsored a Lemonade Day during which kids could sell their lemonade without paying the fees for permits. Wait a minute, Troxclair thought--you mean children have to get permits to sell lemonade? Indeed, they did. The cost was $35. Troxclair decided to launch her "Free The Lemonade" campaign to do away with permits for kids’ lemonade stands. “WHEREAS, the City Council desires to ‘Free the Lemonade’ and allow children to make lemonade out of lemons free from administrative burdens year-round …,” Troxclair's resolution began. Despite some pushback from city authorities, who predicted the outbreak of all manner of plagues if such unbridled activity was permitted, the resolution passed unanimously. Troxclair also thought the old Lemonade Day didn't entirely help budding entrepreneurs understand how the market works—selling the same product on the same day as all of the other kids are selling lemonade isn’t the best way to build market share!

Although serving on the City Council is a full-time job in Austin, Troxclair has chosen to have another full-time job. She is also a Realtor. She believes that having a foot in the real world, outside of the political bubble, is critical.  By working with people who are engaged in the decision to buy or sell a house, one of the most important decisions of most people's lives, the factors driving their decisions (like property taxes and traffic) are things that Council has influence over. Also requiring some ability to juggle time: Ellen became a mother a little over a year ago. Ellen accepts no speaking engagements on Sundays; that's a day she and her husband Caleb reserve for family activities with their daughter, Juliette.  

She is well-respected and liked by conservatives across Austin and beyond, who have encouraged her to pursue higher office. While she'd obviously love to have more support for her agenda, she seems to find the fight bracing. "As frustrating as it is to always be on the dissenting side," she says, "I know that I have people across the state rooting for me. The great thing that has come out of all this is that I have a platform to talk about the issues that matter to me. I've had national newspaper editors reach out to me and ask me to write op-eds and Mayors from other cities say that watching me during the budgeting process inspired them to fight for a more conservative budget, to do more for taxpayers."

It is not inconceivable that Troxclair could move to the Legislature or another political job where she can benefit from more support. But for now, Ellen Troxclair shows the power of one and wears the badge of standing for her ideas, even in the face of adversity.  

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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