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Following the Money

Eckhardt campaign defines “greater good”: support for Eckhardt

By Michael King, 6:37PM, Mon. Mar. 3

Sarah Eckhardt
Sarah Eckhardt
Photo by John Anderson

It’s no secret that the campaign for Travis County Judge has had a nasty edge – notably Sarah Eckhardt’s persistent claim that Andy Brown is courting support from “special interests” with business before Commissioners Court. Trouble is: Eckhardt has courted the very same people.

Primary election day is tomorrow – Tuesday, March 4 – and most observers have been saying that the Democratic nomination for Judge, between former Pct. 2 Commissioner Eckhardt and former County Democratic Chair Brown is too close to call. Eckhardt has based much of her campaign on the not very subtle claim that Brown is too close to “special interests” – the usual suspects, “developers” and “the lobby” – with particular emphasis on anyone even distantly associated (or who can be made to look that way) with Circuit of the Americas or Formula 1.

In the latest wrinkle, ChangeAustin.org – the pet Austin project of Bastrop resident Linda Curtis (“IndyTexan”) and local real estate developer (apparently the good kind) Brian Rodgers, both full-throated supporters of Eckhardt – has been blasting Andy Brown for his supposed ties to the “real estate lobby driving Austin’s growth.” Singled out for particular disdain is Paul Bury, principal of the self-named engineering and development firm, Bury, and former chair of the Real Estate Council of Austin. “ChangeAustin” regularly calls these folks “hogs at the trough,” and attacks Bury and others for contributing to Brown’s campaign.

However, the real problem appears to be that the Eckhardt campaign just thinks Bury is just nuzzling at the wrong trough. Over the weekend, Eckhardt’s interim successor as Pct. 2 Commissioner, Bruce Todd, posted online a recording and transcript of a voicemail from Eckhardt to Bury earlier this year, asking for Bury’s campaign support. Here’s the transcript: "Hi Paul it's Sarah Eckhardt I left a message on your cell phone too so I hope this one is not redundant [in] which [case] just hit delete. But [I’m] calling to follow up to get a meeting … in the spring, but I think it was right around your knee surgery. So [I] wanted to get together with you and talk to you about the Travis County Judge race, and to hear your thoughts – because you, of all people, you know quite a bit about what is going on regards to water, transportation, and the physical infrastructure of the county. I would love to hear your thoughts and would love to get your support in this race. So give me a call back when you get a chance… and I hope you are having a great 2014.”

Apparently Eckhardt and Bury never quite connected, and Bury eventually supported Brown, and donated a campaign contribution. Commented Todd, “Maybe if he [Bury] had contributed to [Eckhardt], her friends wouldn't call him a ‘hog at the trough.’” Todd continued, “Whether you agree with an elected official or not, you at least want to know that you can count on them to be honest with you.”

Newsdesk asked the Eckhardt campaign for a comment on the Todd post. Spokeswoman Genevieve Van Cleve reiterated that the email blasts (“that have clearly upset lobbyists and political operators,” she wrote) originated from ChangeAustin.org, not the official Eckhardt campaign. Then she doubled down on ChangeAustin's message: “We gave Mr. Bury a chance to join the right campaign dedicated to the public interest. Instead, Mr. Bury and his associate Mr. Gary Farmer, F1 supporter and large Republican contributor, chose to give thousands of dollars to Andy Brown, who had no problem cashing their checks.’

“We see no harm in giving people a chance to do the right thing. Today, if Mr. Bury declared that he would look past his special interest to the greater good, and surrender any expectation for special favors from the county, we'd be glad to set up a meeting and even accept his support.”

Newsdesk confirmed with Bury that he had indeed received the phone call solicitation from Eckhardt, and was disappointed subsequently to see himself attacked. As to the distinction between the official campaign and “third party” groups like ChangeAustin, he shrugged, “Well, if you believe that.”

Bury added he had seen earlier evidence of Eckhardt’s approach to politics. “I think Sarah’s a very nice person, and I’m sure she means well,” he said. “But she called me a lot back in the beginning of the year; we were trying to have a meeting, but I ended up getting surgery, some health issues. … I couldn’t get with her, and then I get this voicemail back in late January. … A couple of weeks after that, there’s some videos floating around throwing rocks at us – I don’t quite understand that. I guess, if I’d wrote her a check, I’d be her best friend; since I didn’t, I guess she doesn’t like me, so who knows.”

Hearing the contents of the Van Cleve note, Bury was incredulous. “Does that mean I can buy her support? You can quote that. Is that what that means? That’s what it sounds like to me. We can cut through all the political correctness, it sounds to me that she wants to have her cake and eat it too, and I don’t think that that’s fair. Just because somebody doesn’t support you, doesn’t mean that you go to that kind of tactic. … The greatest thing about politics is that people can disagree; the worst thing about politics is they start attacking people personally, because of those disagreements. I don’t get that part of it.”

Bury continued, with some heat, “I’m not the only one. I’m just the only one that, fortunately, she left a voicemail. There’s other folks out there that she’s asked clearly for their support, and they didn’t [give it] -- and she came after them. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Asked if he thinks Eckhardt has been burning bridges around the county with people whose support she’ll need going forward – win or lose – Bury said simply, “I think she’s kind of lost me, on a permanent basis.”

For more on the primary races, and voting information for Tuesday, March 4, visit the Chronicle elections page here.

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