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Pct. 2 Candidates Face Off

Commissioner hopefuls tackle gun shows, immigration laws
Christopher Hooks, 12:15pm, Wed. Dec. 11, 2013
At a forum Monday night for the race to fill Sarah Eckhardt’s Precinct 2 Commissioners’ Court seat, candidates Brigid Shea, Richard Jung, and Garry Brown touted their diverse experience, endorsements, and backgrounds.
From left: Richard Jung, Garry Brown, Brigid Shea

The three contenders for the Democratic nomination came to the joint KUT/In Fact Daily event, moderated by KUT’s Joy Diaz, amid a race that remains competitive despite an already-lengthy run-up. The forum touched on some controversial issues in Travis County, including the use of the Travis County Expo Center for gun shows, and Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton’s immigration enforcement efforts.

Shea, a former Austin City Council member most known for her environmental chops and role in the city’s Save Our Springs Coalition, which helped win the passage of a pivotal 1992 water-quality protection ordinance, has garnered endorsements from a long list of Austin political notables, including Kirk Watson, Gonzalo Barrientos, and Jim Hightower. She emphasizes her experience with Austin’s city government. The majority of Precinct 2’s borders overlap with those of the City of Austin.

She also touts her experience working with the Texas Legislature — Shea’s made property tax reform a big part of her campaign, and she holds out the promise of convening a statewide group of counties and municipalities to apply pressure to the Legislature. Eliminating loopholes that allow commercial properties to be appraised at lower than their true value, thereby raising rates for homeowners, will help make the city a more affordable place to live, she says.

“I want Austin to be a place that my kids, and everybody’s kids, can afford to live in,” she said. “We’re not on that path.”

Touching on her past involvement in environmental advocacy and water use issues, Shea said she’d pressure the LCRA to permanently end water shipments from the Highland Lakes to rice farmers near Matagorda Bay — a highly contentious regional issue.

Brown, who formerly served as former County Commissioner Karen Huber’s chief of staff and is now hoping to become the first openly LGBTQ County Commissioner in Texas, touts the support of a long list of Democratic activists and his experience in county government.

“I’m the only one in the race with county government and commissioner’s court experience,” he told the audience. “We aren’t able to afford the luxury of a learn-on-the-job commissioner right now.”

Brown said county government possessed a large number of systemic inefficiencies and shortcomings that needed to be addressed. He endorsed a bipartisan motion pending before the court that would give Travis county its first ground-up organizational assessment in years – and said the inefficiencies were hindering the county’s ability to deal with transportation planning, water issues, and wildfire risks. He argued for a more robust use of the county’s IT resources to deliver services, noting that Travis County only recently began allowing residents to pay property taxes online.

Jung, an ex-businessman and current attorney, touts his legal background and private sector experience. He’s garnered endorsements from figures like Mayor Lee Leffingwell, councilmember Mike Martinez, and Sarah Eckhardt’s interim replacement, Bruce Todd. A first generation immigrant, Jung runs a small immigration law practice in Austin.

He’s made economic equality and affordability a big part of his campaign – in his opening statements, Jung said Travis County “needs more jobs that don’t require a college degree,” adding that the tech industry has provide ample but unequal growth in the region. He says his lack of direct involvement with the city and county governments is a strength. “I’m not a political operative or an opportunist,” he says.

Jung’s legal background put him in a good position to address one of two hot-button issues raised by moderator Diaz, who asked the candidates how they would confront Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, whose enforcement of the federal government’s Secure Communities program has put him in hot water with many Democrats and immigration activists. Hamilton says he’s simply following the law, which requires local law enforcement agencies to hold, for up to 48 hours, persons whose immigration status is in question.

All three candidates condemned Hamilton’s interpretation of Secure Communities requirements, which they said was creating an environment of fear for immigrants in Travis County. Jung said he would approach Hamilton with “the harm being done by the Secure Communities program,” which he said he was familiar with through his law practice.

Shea also condemned the program: “This is not who we are as a community,” she said. The threat of deportations resulting from low-grade arrests is “not in line with our values.” Brown said the commissioners court should “ask for a ruling from the U.S. attorney’s office” to determine what legal requirements Hamilton was actually bound by under the law.

Another contentious issue elicited similar condemnations from the candidates: the use of the Travis County Expo, county property, for the periodic Saxet Gun Shows. Saxet’s lease for the use of the facility runs through 2013: all candidates condemned the presence of the gun show in a county-owned facility, through which individuals can buy firearms without a background check.

Shea suggesting providing Saxet with an ultimatum: require background checks in exchange for the use of the facility. “We have to have background checks,” she said. That’s similar to a compromise offered by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who floated the idea of a single background check at the entrance to the event earlier this year. Jung, though, said that an attempt to impose conditions on Saxet’s lease renewal would invite a lawsuit against the county – and that the County should simply let the lease expire instead. Brown agreed: “I am totally against using county resources for gun shows,” he said. “Let it expire.”

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