At a cold and drizzly Plaza Saltillo press conference Wednesday morning, retired state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos said that despite requests from many quarters, he has decided not to run next year to replace retiring Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. Instead, he asked supporters to join him in encouraging a candidacy by Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt.
Barrientos noted the many challenges facing county residents and officials – "population growth, transportation, resources, the court system, equity" – and criticized the level of representation provided by "the bureaucracy," and by "many – I said many, not all – public officials." He said that he often receives calls from citizens frustrated by the unresponsiveness of local officials, and thanked many people who have encouraged him to run.
But after recounting a long life of service, not only 30 years as an elected official, but before that as a waiter, teacher, community organizer, and volunteer, he said, "I choose not to run." Instead, he urged his supporters to "join me in encouraging County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt to run for judge," adding that she has "the values of a true public servant." (Eckhardt has said she is considering a run, but state law would first require her to resign from her post as commissioner.)
Barrientos cited Eckhardt's 14 years in county government – first as an attorney and prosecutor, and six years as precinct 2 commissioner – and said she was "uniquely positioned" to become county judge. He pulled out his cell phone and mimed a call to Rick Perry: "Gov. Perry, Sarah Eckhardt is going to run for county judge."
Barrientos also called attention to Eckhardt's family legacy, noting that her father, Bob Eckhardt, who later became a U.S. congressman, had been one of the attorneys who worked on the lawsuit – Delgado vs. Bastrop – that eventually desegregated Bastrop public schools. Barrientos had attended the schools segregated for Mexican-Americans, and he said, "Bob Eckhardt changed my life and the lives of millions of children."
Asked his opinion of Andy Brown, the Travis Democratic Party chair, who has already declared his intention to run for judge, Barrientos said Brown "is a good man and he has done a good job" as party chair. But he said Eckhardt would be an exceptionally "strong and qualified" candidate.
Barrientos called Eckhardt up to the Plaza gazebo, and the commissioner said she was "a little overwhelmed" by Barrientos' introduction and this "show of support" from several dozen people surrounding the senator. She was visibly moved by the senator's references to her father, and said she wished she could tell her father of his continuing legacy, via Barrientos. (Bob Eckhardt died in 2001.) "We are one people," said Eckhardt, "sharing one destiny, but we need public service to make that a reality. Good history is made."
Eckhardt said she doesn't yet know if she will run, but whether she does or not, she asked the small audience to lend their support for the necessary tasks of governance. "All hands on deck," she said. "I ask for your advocacy, and I also ask for your skills.
In an unexpected interruption, Eckhardt's remarks were briefly disrupted by loud shouts and denunciations from a woman walking back-and-forth beside the plaza. At first the shouts were unclear; they soon became louder and more insistent: "Eckhardt is a racist! Racist! Eckhardt is a racist pig! Racista!" The shouts briefly drowned out and disrupted Eckhardt's remarks, until the woman got into a car and drove away, still shouting. She was later identified as Alicia Perez, the former Travis County executive manager. In 2009, after a bitter dispute with Human Resources director Linda Moore Smith, Perez and Smith were both fired by the commissioners in 2009, and both later sued the county.
Asked afterward if she knew when she might be ready to make a decision on a campaign, Eckhardt said it would require a considerable commitment of time and energy, and that while the "resign to run" law complicates matters, "it has been done before." She said that while she could in theory wait until the late-year filing date to make a decision, "by that time, generally the race has been decided."
Privately, Barrientos cited personal reasons for considering but finally deciding not to run. He said he has been more and more engaged in the lives of his grandchildren and other family members, has some business clients, and was working at maintaining his home in Austin and his family home in Bastrop. He recalled with sadness the death of his wife, Emma, three years ago. In a way, he said, "I feel I've paid my dues."
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