Sarah Eckhardt's May resignation as Travis County Precinct 2 commissioner to run for retiring County Judge Sam Biscoe's seat touched off a lengthy competition to replace her – one which will have been more than a year in the making by next year's March 4 Democratic primary. Eckhardt's resignation set up an unusual election cycle, in which the two most contested local Democratic primaries are for jobs within Travis County government.
Eckhardt faces former Travis County Democratic Party chairman Andy Brown in the closely matched competition for Travis County's top policy post, while the race to replace Eckhardt as one of the county's four elected commissioners seems set for an unpredictable next couple of months.
Three Democrats with strong résumés and diverse backgrounds are contending for the post: Brigid Shea, a former Austin City Council member and longtime local activist on environmental issues who ran a tough race against Lee Leffingwell in last year's mayoral election; Richard Jung, a former tech entrepreneur and current immigration attorney who's been active in city policy organizations; and Garry Brown, a veteran of county government and former chief of staff to former Precinct 3 commissioner Karen Huber.
Shea, a former journalist who moved into public advocacy work, arrived in Austin in 1988 and started the Texas chapter of Clean Water Action. She co-founded the now legendary local advocacy group Save Our Springs Coalition, which succeeded in passing a 1992 ordinance that enshrined protections for the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Creek Watershed. Encouraged by her colleagues, she said, to run for Council to protect the ordinance, she won and served from 1993-1996, retiring after the birth of her first son. Her career has lent her a significant degree of name recognition, which even her opponents say is an advantage.
Her eldest son is in high school now, and she says her thinking about the kind of community her kids are likely to inherit is driving her latest campaign. "I'm very concerned about the kind of future we're leaving for the next generation," she says. "I have two teenage boys, and I would love for them to be able to live and work in Austin." But "we're not on that path." One major thrust of her campaign is a proposed effort to get the Legislature to alter loopholes in the property tax structure – more on that later.
Shea's got a bundle of money – as of the last report, on July 15, she had $83,375 on hand – and a long list of endorsements, some of them familiar names to those who recall her Nineties advocacy. There's former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, for example, former Austin mayor and state Senator Kirk Watson – not to mention the Austin Firefighters Association and the Austin and Travis County branch of AFSCME. With two-and-a-half months to go before the primary, Shea appears to have a lot of momentum.
Opponent Richard Jung, though, says Shea should be getting even more endorsements given her long history in local politics – and sees an opening. A first-generation Korean-American who postponed a career in immigration advocacy and moved to Austin to help take care of his ailing father, Jung helped start a second-source electronics distributor, Vias International, which procures and makes equipment for use in semiconductor manufacturing. Vias became a globe-spanning operation – but when Jung's father passed away, he returned to immigration law.
Jung says his business and legal experience provide the potential to bring fresh perspectives and needed expertise to county government – for example, with the "courthouse we're going to be building. I want to make sure that we don't have the same problems we've had with past large construction projects." And he's picking up a lot of endorsements, as well. There's Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez – whose support for Jung may have something to do with Shea's strong criticism of Leffingwell during the 2012 mayoral race, and her failure to endorse Martinez during the same Council campaign. But Jung has also received the support of groups like the Austin-Travis County EMS Employees Association (Jung is a member of the Austin-Travis County EMS Advisory Board).
As of that ancient July 15 financial reporting deadline, Jung had $87,235 on hand. And he says the continuing number of split endorsements in the race – Austin's Central Labor Council failed to unite around a candidate, indicating its constituent unions could endorse whom they wished – suggests that he represents a fresher alternative to Shea's potentially older coalition. "I'm a political novice. For me to come in and pick up so many endorsements and organizations, I think that speaks to the fact that someone can win the race besides Brigid," he says. "Even established political people here want something new. And the campaign for us is just starting."
The third Precinct 2 contender is Garry Brown, who presents himself as the grassroots candidate. Brown says his pitch – he's the only one in the race with experience working in county government – is resonating with voters, and he's putting his faith in his ability to win over Democratic party activists and build a successful ground game. The Corpus Christi native who stayed in Austin after attending UT-Austin, says only he has the ability to hit the ground running as commissioner, thanks to his inside knowledge of county government, as chief of staff for former Commissioner Huber, and as a current staffer for Precinct 3 Constable Sally Hernandez.
"I think there are a lot of things that need to be done to make the county work better. When I first came to work for Karen, 'The wheels of government turn slowly' was kind of the mantra," he said. Pointing to massive population growth projections, he adds: "We can't be doing that anymore." He decries, as do his opponents, the general lack of long-term vision and planning that have characterized the county's inability to deal with population growth.
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