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Then There's This: The Race For Campaign Cash

County Judge and Pct. 2 Commissioner Races Don't Come Cheap

By Amy Smith, Fri., July 19, 2013

Andy Brown
Andy Brown

Sixteen years is a long time to go without a competitive race for Travis County judge, but incumbent Sam Biscoe's pending exit has opened the door – and a good many wallets – to a robust contest between two candidates with proven fundraising prowess.

Campaign finance reports filed Monday at the county clerk's office show Andy Brown again outpaced rival Sarah Eckhardt, raising $178,413 in the first six months of the year, to Eckhardt's $157,081. But both are on fairly equal footing going forward with roughly the same cash balance: Brown had $135,000 at the end of the reporting period, June 30, and Eckhardt had $132,000, thanks to a $10,000 loan she made to her campaign June 28. The two will face off in the March 4, 2014 Demo­cratic primary, with the winner becoming the probable successor to Biscoe. One Republican is running for the office: James "Mike" McNa­mara, reported raising $275, plus a $6,000 loan to his campaign.

Brown, former head of the Travis County Dem­o­cratic Party, has used his political ties and lifelong roots to raise the most cash to date, taking in more than $250,000 since jumping into the race well ahead of Eckhardt in his quest for one of the most powerful local elected positions. In Texas, the county judge presides over the Commissioners Court and serves as the county's chief administrative officer.

Eckhardt did not actively begin campaigning until leaving her Pct. 2 County Commis­sioner seat May 1. According to her campaign, more than half of her fundraising total poured in during the last 30 days of the reporting period. What Eckhardt lacked in campaign money early on she made up for with a greater name identification due to her six years as a commissioner. A poll conducted in early spring on her behalf showed her with a 19% lead over Brown in name recognition. But Brown's visibility level and campaign momentum appear to have gained a boost in the last couple of months. Now the test comes in whether Brown can maintain the positive ID uptick, and whether Eckhardt can continue raising money.

Sarah Eckhardt
Sarah Eckhardt

The candidates each have a fairly equal spread of support – financial or otherwise – from progressives and business and lobby interests. Such is the nature of Democratic politics in Travis County.

Brown's recent campaign report includes contributions from lobby law firm Armbrust & Brown ($1,000), Democratic activist and former state Rep. Glen Maxey ($50), musician Ray Benson ($2,500), lobbyist and interim Pct. 2 County Commis­sion­er Bruce Todd ($250), former County Judge Bill Ale­shire ($25), and three of Aus­tin's most active Dem­o­cratic political consultants – David Butts ($100), Mark Yznaga ($100), and Mark Littlefield ($50).

In Eckhardt's corner: lobby law firm Brown McCarroll ($2,500); Brown McCarroll lobbyist Nik­elle Meade ($500); the late women's rights activist Anne McAfee (four contributions totaling $185); former state Rep. Gon­zalo Barrientos ($200), SOS Alliance's Bill Bunch ($250); Downtown developer Perry Lorenz ($5,000), former County Commish Karen Huber ($1,000), and longtime enviro-activist Shudde Fath ($250).

Eckhardt's tenure on the Commissoners Court has not won her any friends in the unions representing sheriff's deputies and EMS workers, and they've demonstrated that in contributions to Brown's campaign. Last year, she opposed giving an average 11.4% pay increase to sheriff's deputies, and in 2010 the EMS union rescinded its endorsement of her after she said she'd support an independent performance review of medical emergency services outside Austin city limits. Campaign filings show the Travis County Sheriff's Officers Association PAC contributed $1,500 to Brown's campaign while the Austin Travis County EMS Employees Association PAC kicked in $2,000.

MORE RACES: Pct. 2, HD 50

If you're a progressive environmentalist with a long memory, the November 2014 election can't get here fast enough. Four candidates are running to fill Eckhardt's Pct. 2 seat on the Commissioners Court, but as noted above, Bruce Todd is currently occupying the seat as Biscoe's interim appointee to serve out the remainder of Eckhardt's term. Todd, along with Biscoe and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, supports building the controversial and long-delayed State High­way 45 in Southwest Austin, which would require carving up environmentally sensitive land over the Edwards Aquifer, and the issue is expected to return to the commissioners' agenda before Todd leaves office at the end of 2014. (Eckhardt had been part of the majority who voted to withdraw the county's support for the road.)

Of the three Democrats in this race, environmentalist and consultant Brigid Shea, who last year ran for mayor, raised the most campaign cash between January and June, with $104,342. Attorney Richard Jung came in second with $92,045, but ended the reporting period with more cash on hand – $87,235 to Shea's $83,375. Jung, who served on the city's charter revision committee and the Austin Travis County EMS advisory board, loaned his campaign $10,000. Garrett Brown, former aide to ex-Commissioner Karen Huber, reported raising $22,967, but after expenditures was left with $7,457 and an outstanding loan of $2,500. GOP hopeful Jay Wiley loaned his campaign $15,000 and raised no other money.

And finally, a legislative race to replace former Austin Rep. Mark Strama in House District 50 has taken on greater urgency with Strama's early departure and a special election set for Nov. 5. See "Lege Lines," for more on that.

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