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Three Progressives Eye Biscoe's Seat

Former Sen. Barrientos, Commissioner Eckhardt, Dem Party Chair Andy Brown are top contenders

By Mike Kanin, Fri., Dec. 21, 2012

Three strong candidates are lining up for the Travis County Judge seat: (above) Gonzalo Barrientos
Three strong candidates are lining up for the Travis County Judge seat: (above) Gonzalo Barrientos
Photo by John Anderson

Former State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos will be widely remembered for at least two political spectacles: 1) the live-from-an-undisclosed-location national news shot he featured in when he and a group of other Democratic legislators fled Texas rather than populate chambers so that the Repub­lic­an party could gerrymander things all to hell in 2003, and 2) his participation in a citizen-initiated – and ultimately successful – effort to bring 10 geographic City Coun­cil districts to the city of Austin in 2014.

Sarah Eckhardt
Sarah Eckhardt
Photo by John Anderson

Turns out that both of those events may now qualify as preludes to bigger things. The 2003 redistricting process, of course, took what little potency was left in the Texas Democratic Party and rendered it completely sterile; the 10-1 effort now looks to be something of a reemergence for Barrientos. Having earned emeritus status after he ceded his Senate seat to Kirk Watson in 2006, Barrientos has remained active behind the scenes. In 2011, he ended up as the chair of the city's Charter Revision Committee. That gig set him up for his next role as a key supporter of the 10-1 Council district proposal. Now, it seems he may run to replace the retiring Sam Biscoe as Travis County Judge.

When asked by the Chronicle last week if he could confirm that he is considering a run for the post, Barrientos said simply, "It is confirmed." He added that he was recruited by an unnamed group of concerned citizens. "A number things have happened in Austin and in Travis County over the past few years that people have not been satisfied with," Barrientos explained.

Andy Brown
Andy Brown
Photo by John Anderson

It's something of an odd comeback. Though the county judge does wield a fair amount of power, that power is also limited by the nature of the post: County government is severely restricted by state law on what it can and can't do.

Barrientos was once the Texas Senate president pro tem. In addition to his career in that chamber, he was a longtime member of the state House of Representatives, serving on major committees – Finance, Natural Resources, Transportation, and Homeland Security in 2005 alone – and making enough of a positive impression that this paper offered a tribute to his career when he stepped down. "The big boys in the owners' box have plenty of representation, direct and indirect. Barring some egalitarian Texas miracle, it's reassuring to know that the little guys have an occasional voice in the temples of power," the Chronicle's Michael King wrote of the then-retiring senator in 2005.

If elected, Barrientos would inherit an organization that is overburdened with independent-minded elected officials, has a notoriously poor reputation for efficiency, just went through a traumatic change in the auditor position – something that could bring even more splits in an already fractious setup – and is, in true county fashion, taking the long way around to a plan for the construction of a new civil and family courthouse, a major new piece of infrastructure that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if the court ever decides to build it.

Not that all of this has deterred others from wanting the seat: Last week, current Precinct 2 County Commissioner Sarah Eck­hardt confirmed that she is also thinking about a run. Travis County Democratic Party chair Andy Brown is also interested in the race – and has been for some time, sources say. That's three strong, local, progressive candidates with hefty backing in one little run for county judge. It all makes Barrientos' presence even more strange: A race that pits Barrientos, Eckhardt, and Brown against one another in a primary could well split area progressives – a prospect that neither the candidates nor their backers must relish.

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