March 4 primary election
U.S. President: Barack Obama
This has a chance to be a watershed election – we urge all our readers to get out and vote in this primary and to be ready for a long and dynamic campaign toward November. Democrats have the luxury of choosing between two really strong candidates for president and the historic opportunity to elect the first woman or the first African-American president. Moreover, the prospect of what now looks to be a lengthy, close campaign – even in Texas – promises to create more public engagement and bring many more voters to the polls. The last two left standing, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, have distinguished records of public service and progressive voting, as well as proposals to undo much of the damage of the Bush administration years. On policy questions, the two are frankly close: Clinton has been stronger and more realistic on national health care, Obama undeniably earlier and stronger in opposing the Iraq war. Voters may also choose on the question of length of experience vs. breadth of inspiration. On balance, we believe Obama represents the best, most effective, and most electable hope for a dramatic change in the way things have been done in Washington for the last 16 years. He has not only struck out on a path distinct from business as usual; he has brought millions of new people, especially young people, into the process and has reached out to disaffected independents and disillusioned Republicans to build a new political coalition that should build broad, grassroots support for effective, less polarized political decision-making and progressive change.
U.S. Senate: Rick Noriega
Disastrous as the Bush administration has been, removing one of Dubya's biggest cheerleaders from the U.S. Senate will still be an uphill fight in our very conservative state. Should a Democrat unseat John Cornyn, it will be by the narrowest of margins. The only candidate who might actually reach that threshold is clearly Rick Noriega. Houstonian Noriega has experience both campaigning and passing legislation, and he has been elected to the Texas House five times. He also has a distinct qualification Cornyn does not: military experience. The Army vet and Texas Army National Guard lieutenant colonel did a stint in Afghanistan, as well as in operations on the Mexico border and in Houston during Hurricane Katrina. That should impress Texans who hold the military in high regard but are sick of the immoral and illegal Iraq war, which Noriega wants to end. Noriega's competitors can't match that background. Perennial candidates Rhett Smith and Gene Kelly are little more than hobbyists (in the case of the latter, a dangerous one). Ray McMurrey is more credible, but barely so. His candidacy is based on the notion that he is a progressive alternative to Noriega, but Noriega has in fact been a progressive vote for eight years – McMurrey himself has praised Noriega for having "a fine record in the Legislature on social issues." McMurrey criticizes Noriega's employment with an energy company as evidence that he lacks independence from corporate America, but no less than Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith has lauded Noriega for recusing himself from votes where there is a potential conflict of interest. There are certain races where a progressive purity test might be understandable, but a U.S. Senate seat from Texas is not among them. Democrats should pick Noriega as a realistic challenger capable of reaching beyond their own ranks and swaying the moderate middle that wants a palatable replacement for GOP incumbent Cornyn.
Congressional District 10 (dual endorsement): Larry Joe Doherty and Dan Grant
We wrestled over this one – and since we decide our endorsements on consensus, we ultimately couldn't firmly fall on one side or another. In contrast with the previous two CD 10 elections, Democratic voters in this Austin-to-Houston district face a tough choice between two truly fine, progressive candidates. Grant, a native Austinite, has made a career of helping conduct elections in nations without strong democratic traditions (including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, and Iraq); Doherty is a pioneer in the field of legal malpractice, helping those who have been wronged by other lawyers. Both favor progressive health-care reform – Doherty a single-payer model, while Grant is keeping his options open. Some on our editorial board favored Doherty's get-out-of-Iraq-now stance; others preferred Grant's idea to withdraw in stages and leave troops (primarily in Kurdistan) to maintain stability. Ultimately, we were split over who is more electable, no small issue in a district drawn by Tom DeLay specifically to keep Republican Michael McCaul in office. Grant has swept nearly all the Dem group endorsements, especially in Austin – no surprise, since he's a smart policy wonk who appeals to activists in this politics-savvy town. But only about 40-45% of the votes will come from Travis County, and we wonder if the down-home charm of Doherty – his engaging drawl and folksy manner once landed him a starring role as "Judge Larry Joe" in the Texas Justice TV series – will play better among rural and suburban Houston voters who often take a dim view of Austin's weird ways. In any case, defeating Bush foot soldier McCaul is paramount, so Democratic voters should weigh this decision very carefully.
Texas Railroad Commissioner: Dale Henry
Voters have a rare opportunity to vote for a Railroad Commission candidate (i.e., energy-industry regulator) who has professional experience in the oil and gas industry and is well-versed in how the commission operates. Unlike most past and present commissioners, Henry doesn't regard the post as a mere stepping stone to a higher political office. In fact, this is his third attempt (his second as a Democrat) to land a seat on the three-member panel, because he is passionate about the environment, the benefits of renewable energy, and the health and safety of Texans – matters that are too often ignored by a commission with a historically laissez-faire attitude toward the industry. Henry faces two primary opponents. His toughest rival, lawyer and investment banker Art Hall, is a former San Antonio City Council member backed by a number of well-known Democrats. Mark Thompson is a rights advocate for the disabled and a therapist for blind children and adults. Henry, who collected 1.7 million votes in his 2006 bid, is by far the most qualified candidate to face commission Chair Michael Williams in November.
State House District 46: Dawnna Dukes
Normally, the choice between a 12-year, progressive incumbent and an untested rookie challenger would barely require a thought. In this instance it's tougher, mainly because Dukes too often seems to take her supporters, if not her constituents, for granted. Challenger Brian Thompson's primary beef is that Dukes is "too close" to House Speaker Tom Craddick, because of her explicitly strategic decision to maintain her post on the Appropriations Committee at the cost of being considered a "Craddick-crat." We agree Dukes has struck a devil's bargain in order to remain a strong advocate of crucial social programs on the budget committee – and we also think that it's a bargain wearing very thin. On the other hand, the cheap-shot, pseudo-progressive attacks on Dukes' tactical votes on isolated budget amendments (e.g., "against" children's health care when in fact she was sustaining an Appropriations deal to support children's health care) display dangerous ignorance about the actual legislative process and have helped persuade us that rank beginner Thompson knows very little about how the House actually gets things done. (And by the way, these unfair attacks reinforce our suspicions about making a fetish of "record voting.") On the "issues," there is little real distinction between the two candidates – although Thompson reflexively opposes "toll roads" and proposes instead underwriting new highways with the rainy-day fund – a truly harebrained notion that also betrays his inexperience. Meanwhile, Dukes has always been a strong, rhetorically and legislatively effective voice on women's rights, on workers' rights, on minority rights, and she actively, visibly opposed the re-redistricting circus led by Craddick and Tom DeLay. Moreover, District 46 is still very much an African-American opportunity district, and we've seen nothing to persuade us that Dukes' strong and independent advocacy for minority citizens merits the offhand dismissal by her opponents. We do think Dukes needs to keep a shorter leash on her own campaign staff, pay closer attention to the grassroots feelings rising from her district, and recognize that the district itself has changed dramatically in a decade.
District Judge, 98th District: Rhonda Hurley
In the difficult decision on how to replace legendary district Judge Jeanne Meurer, who is stepping down after 20 years on the bench, voters face an embarrassment of riches. Three well-qualified Democratic candidates have the passion and skills needed to sit on this busy civil court bench. Meurer developed a reputation as a tough and compassionate jurist, best known for her work with children, in both family-law and juvenile-justice cases. The court has general jurisdiction, deciding all manner of civil cases, but family-law cases will remain integral to the job. Two candidates are best qualified: Andy Hathcock and Rhonda Hurley, who currently serve as associate judges on the Travis Co. bench. Both are intelligent, experienced, engaging, and passionate about the important work they do for county residents. In fact, we regret that we must choose between them, but after much consideration, we're endorsing Hurley. Her enthusiasm for the job is contagious and personal, and we believe that her varied experience – as associate judge, as a former prosecutor, and as a private-practice family-law attorney – makes her the right candidate, right now.
District Judge, 353rd Judicial District: Scott Ozmun
In this race, there is no question Scott Ozmun earns our endorsement. He has more than two decades of civil law experience, is board-certified in personal-injury trial law and in civil appellate law, and is active in all manner of professional associations – including serving as a past president of both Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas and Legal Aid of Central Texas. In contrast, challenger Madeleine Connor (who in 2006 ran as a Republican for a seat on the county's criminal bench) graduated from law school in 2001 and has very little legal experience, certainly not the level of experience needed to decide the often-complex matters routinely brought before the county's civil courts. We believe strongly that Ozmun is the only candidate worth serious consideration.
Travis Co. District Attorney: Rosemary Lehmberg
After 31 years of Ronnie Earle in the D.A.'s chair, some internal personnel pressure was inevitable – and after Earle's belated retirement announcement, the result is four strong candidates (all assistant district attorneys) to succeed him and to carry on his work in one of the most successful and certainly the most high-profile prosecutor's office in Texas. The four are also distinct in background and preparation, allowing voters to choose from a range of perspectives – and increasing the likelihood of a run-off. Gary Cobb is an experienced criminal prosecutor and perhaps most attractive to those voters who see the job as primarily a traditional crime-fighting position. Rick Reed has been distinguished by his service in the Public Integrity Unit, doing much detail work on the Capitol corruption cases. (He's also the only candidate who has explicitly vowed to abjure the death penalty, rarely used here but a crucial question to single-issue voters.) And Mindy Montford has the youth and enthusiasm of the next generation of legal professionals, as well as much support from traditional Democratic sources. But on balance and after much consideration, we agree with Earle that Lehmberg is the overall most qualified of the four to carry on his considerable legacy. She has worked in all the units of the office and has been both a practicing prosecutor and (as first assistant) a chief administrator, with the responsibility and long experience in balancing the demands on the office. Those range from prosecution to budgets to managing personnel and, beyond that, to the complicated political considerations arising from the Travis Co. D.A.'s jurisdiction over state corruption investigations and prosecutions. We are impressed by Lehmberg's experience in building the office, in developing and expanding innovative and progressive programs, and in her broad sense of the office's wide-ranging responsibilities, as well as the nuances of addressing high-profile political cases. (We do believe the office needs to be more technologically proactive in working with the defense bar, a legal and political mandate as much as a technical one.) The campaign has had inevitable effects on all the candidates, and it has noticeably strengthened Lehmberg's public profile and her comprehension that the D.A.'s job is not just administrative, not just prosecutorial, but a communitywide engagement. We believe she will be a better public official because of it.
Judge, County Court at Law No. 8: Carlos Barrera
For this newly created court, voters must decide between two veteran Austin lawyers: Assistant County Attorney John Lipscombe and defense attorney Carlos Barrera. While both are clearly qualified, Barrera has earned our endorsement. Notably, Barrera has worked both sides of the bar – he was a prosecutor in Webb Co. before moving to Austin and turning to criminal defense – which we believe has given him a unique perspective on the administration of justice and a perspective currently underrepresented on the Travis Co. bench. Moreover, Barrera's Valley background (and his fluency in Spanish) is likely to provide a perspective on social and political conditions that is otherwise in short supply in the judiciary. In short, while we are impressed by both candidates, we believe Barrera's unique experience and skills will make him a valuable asset to the county bench.
Travis Co. Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar (dual endorsement): Nelda Spears and Glen Maxey
[Ed. note: Because the Chronicle endorses on consensus, and our editorial board found ourselves too strongly divided in this race, we offer two competing endorsements.]
Nelda Wells Spears: This 16-year incumbent should be re-elected to her position of tax assessor-collector – not because she's a savvy politician who is comfortable talking up her technologically innovative achievements (quite the opposite) but because she has done a terrific job of running an administrative office in a professional, nonpartisan manner. The lifeline of this office, and the entire county, is the assessment and collection of taxes on every property in more than 80 taxing jurisdictions. Under Spears' watch, the office has achieved a 99% collection rate, the best of any county in the state. With Spears' near-perfect record of bringing in $2 billion-plus in revenue to pay for health care, schools, and public safety, we find no reason to summarily boot her out of office. Spears' performance on this score is also her best argument against recurring efforts to privatize the collection of delinquent taxes, a controversial issue that is certain to crop up again should that 99% collection rate start to shrink. Those of us who support Spears and oppose privatization don't want to risk the stability of our local budgets by replacing her with a fresh face. Her primary opponent, Glen Maxey, a popular former state legislator and longtime political activist, is running on a platform of good ideas for improving the office and suggests that the incumbent is carrying out her duties as a faceless technocrat rather than a visible figure fighting on our behalf. Specifically, he argues that Spears is not sufficiently carrying out her duties to register voters and maintain voting records. Because Travis County has a 94% voter registration rate, the highest of any large urban county in Texas, not all of us see merit in Maxey's proposition that the public interest would be better served by his oversight of voter records.
Glen Maxey: If you are persuaded that all offices held by incumbent Democrats are de facto life appointments and are convinced that the tax assessor-collector office is solely an administrative post to be managed in a stolidly bureaucratic fashion, then by all means vote for 16-year incumbent Nelda Wells Spears. Glen Maxey, who retired from a solid, 10-year legislative career in 2003 and has since been an active presence in Democratic organizing and voter registration, has reminded us that this office can be much more than a caretaker position, and he promises to do much more engaged public outreach on both the tax collection/foreclosure side of the office and the voter registration side (which under Spears has been virtually invisible). He opposes (as we do) any privatization of the duties of the office (a red herring raised insistently by Spears' supporters). Moreover, he is actively opposed to voter ID legislation designed by Republican partisans to depress turnout of already-disenfranchised groups. Spears not only does not oppose such legislation; she doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. She should know it's about protecting voting rights, especially of poor and minority citizens. Maxey has proposed innovative ideas for working on many tax/foreclosure matters as well as continuing his well-known effectiveness on voter outreach. He wants to make this often-somnolent office a center of public activism, voter education, and voter and taxpayer outreach, and it makes sense to give that effort a real shot. Glen Maxey is just the person to do it.
[Ed. note: The following endorsement was accidentally left out of the print version.]
Travis County Commissioner, Pct. 3: Karen Huber
When GOP incumbent Gerald Daugherty was first elected in 2002, he was followed into the county’s polling headquarters by supporters chanting “No more traffic!” Um, how’s that working out for you, guys? Surely by now residents of Oak Hill, West Lake Hills, West Austin, and the Lake Travis area can see that reelecting a supporter of more roads and opponent of mass transit offers no sensible vision for western Travis County, or Central Texas as a whole. We believe environmentalist Karen Huber is the Democrat most likely to undo that mistake. She has an activist but pragmatic vision for slowing and regulating growth, including exploring the limits of how state health and public safety laws might be applied to new developments. Yet with her background in the real estate industry, she has an understanding of the practical issues rarely found in enviro circles. Her opponent, Albert Gonzales, makes much of her recent formal defection from the Republican Party, and contrasts it with his lifelong efforts on behalf of Democrats. Unfortunately, that is central thrust of his campaign; his knowledge of the Commissioner’s office itself seems limited. His argument would make more sense if the he were running for Party chair, but in a precinct as conservative as this one, a recovering Republican who has seen the light will make the best arguments to sway moderates who have realized that we can’t keep paving over the Hill Country.
Contested races in the Democratic primary on which we offer no endorsement at this time include: Supreme Court justice, places 7 and 8; district judge, 427th District; Travis Co. commissioner, Precinct 3; Travis Co. constables, precincts 1, 2, 3, and 4; and Travis Co. Democratic Party chair.