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Jockeying for Judge

Dem race for Travis County judge down to two and holding

By Michael King, Fri., March 1, 2013

Andy Brown
Andy Brown
Photos by John Anderson

In case you're wondering, the 2014 Texas party primaries (March 4, 2014) are only a year away.

That might seem like quite a while to most voters, but most voters aren't candidates – and potential candidates are already jockeying for early position (and endorsers, and funders). We're already hearing speculation about the 2014 Austin mayoral field (though that election won't be until the next November) and, after incumbent Sam Biscoe's announcement last fall that he would not seek re-election next year, about the likely candidates to succeed him as Travis County judge. On the Democratic Party side (de facto where the action is in Travis), three names have been prominently mentioned: former state Sen. Gonzalo Bar­ri­entos, Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, and county Democratic Party Chairman Andy Brown.

Sarah Eckhardt
Sarah Eckhardt

On Feb. 20, the likely Dem field dropped to two, as Barrientos announced, in a Plaza Saltillo press conference, that he's decided not to run. He cited his long record of public service, thanked those present for their confidence and support, then said: "I choose not to run for county judge in 2014 and instead ask you to join me in urging County Com­missioner Sarah Eckhardt to run." Bar­ri­entos praised Eckhardt's experience and skills, adding that she has "the values of a true public servant." He went on to note that the commissioner's father, the late Congressman Bob Eckhardt, many years ago had helped argue the lawsuit (Delgado v. Bastrop) that desegregated Bastrop schools, where Barrientos was a student. "That brave effort," concluded Barrientos, "changed my life and the lives of millions of children."

Eckhardt was on hand at the press conference and was moved by the introduction, especially the senator's recollection of her father. "If I could tell my father," she told the crowd, "that a son of Bastrop who was helped by a decision that he helped argue, more than 50 years ago, is now reaching out his hand to help me – it just proves, once again, history shows that we are one people, and that sharing is our destiny." But Eckhardt was predictably coy on whether she would, indeed, run for judge – in part because state law requires that prior to any announcement or filing, she must "resign to run" and step down from her commissioner's post for the risky attempt at the judge's chair. She told the audience that she still does not know if she will run, but continued, "I ask you all today to help to find a way to share our prosperity and our responsibilities in Travis County, whether or not I run for county judge."

After her brief speech (which certainly sounded like a candidate warm-up, albeit interrupted by an angry heckler, former Travis County Executive Manager Alicia Perez), Eckhardt told the Chronicle that while officially she has until the end of the primary filing deadline to decide, "If one waits until the end of the filing deadline, the race would probably be over. ... Public service requires personal sacrifice. I have to weigh how much I'm willing to sacrifice."

County Judge Sam Biscoe
County Judge Sam Biscoe

She'll also need to decide if she can overcome the head start already gained by Brown. He had raised more than $70,000 as of last week and held a fundraiser Sunday that listed dozens of prominent Dem supporters, including former gubernatorial candidate Bill White, former House Speaker Ben Barnes, Chuck Herring, Glen Maxey, and a host of other prominent Dems. Asked about Brown at his press conference, Barrientos would say only, "Andy Brown is a good man and has done a good job" as party chair.

A couple of days later, Brown returned the compliment, saying only, "I have great respect for Senator Barrientos." Brown said he'd had lunch with Eckhardt perhaps three weeks ago, and Eckhardt said she remained undecided. He hastened to note that he hasn't officially announced yet either and would do so later in the year. Brown said he hoped "to bring new leadership to the Commissioners Court. The court right now is the exact same court that we had in 2007," he continued, "and I've got history of being an activist, working hard to bring people together for progressive causes all my life. While I think that the current court is doing a fine job of running day-to-day operations, I think we need to be sure that we are looking at the long-term challenges of the entire region."

Brown mentioned the explosive growth of the county and, more specifically, the increase in both the elderly population and, on the other hand, an incoming group of Austin ISD students of whom 65% are low-income and qualify for reduced-price lunches. "So we've got a lot of demographic challenges," Brown continued, "and I just want to make sure that we are addressing those. ... I want to make sure that we have built the relationships and made the long-term plans that we need to make, so that we don't look back in 20 or 40 years and say that we've lost the Travis County that we love."

When he steps down next year, Biscoe will have served as judge for 16 years, and, before that, for nine years as Precinct 1 commissioner. He said he has no plans to endorse a successor, adding, "I reserve the right to change my mind." He did cheerfully provide a laundry list of qualities needed by a county judge, including: "politically savvy," "the ability to collaborate and cooperate," "ability to prioritize," "to be fair, and also to project fairness," and "patience and willingness to see the other side." Most importantly, he said, "You need to be smart – and I don't mean superintelligent, just smart enough to read a whole lot of materials that are on the court's agenda every Tuesday, on many subjects. And at some point, you've got to be decisive, based on the facts before you."

All useful advice for candidates on the cusp of making a run.


For more on local campaigns, follow the Newsdesk blog at austinchronicle.com.

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