Here are the Chronicle editorial board's endorsements for the March 1 party primaries. We endorse only in contested races. See more info at austinchronicle.com/elections.
President/Vice President: Bernie SandersThe Chronicle is feelin' the Bern. The U.S. senator and self-proclaimed democratic socialist from Vermont has drawn massive crowds and genuine excitement from voters across the country for championing a living wage, single-payer health care, and free higher education for America's debt-saddled students. In an era of unprecedented income inequality, Sanders' aggressive call to reform Wall Street – too big to fail banks – and the campaign finance system, is sorely needed. And the senator has put his money where his mouth is – heavily opposed to super PACs, he raised more than $3 million from individual contributions the day after the Iowa caucus. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decades of experience and a distinguished record of public service. But Sen. Sanders gets our endorsement for best reflecting the Chronicle's progressive values. He gives voice to the working class, advocates equality and social justice, opposes corporate influence in governance, and sure as hell isn't afraid to speak truth to power.
U.S. Rep. District 10: Scot B. GallaherConventional wisdom has it that the deep pockets of Republican incumbent Mike McCaul will be impossible to beat in the November election. Democrat Tawana W. Cadien should know that from the bitter experience of losing to him in 2012 and 2014, and the Cypress-based educator should be applauded for throwing her hat in the ring for a third time. However, it seems that filling out the paperwork is all she's done so far. At least the sole other contender, Scot Gallaher, has managed to get his campaign website up and running. That's scarcely a reason to endorse a candidate, but his varied background in the public and private sector – including hands-on foreign policy and economic development experience with USAID in Jordan and Kuwait – plus his organizational work for the party as a precinct chair and member of Expats for Obama, combine to position him better for the uphill November struggle.
U.S. Rep. District 21: Tom WakelySometimes it feels like lawmakers gerrymandered this sprawling Hill Country district just to annoy Austinites – Democrats and Republicans alike – that they have to be represented by Lamar Smith. Tejas Vakil, an executive with virtualization firm Nimboxx, presents himself as a political unicorn – a pro-choice, pro-immigration reform, social liberal who can win over those moderate Republicans. However, much of his argument seems to depend on a hawkish attitude and a tax code reform that would benefit the rich. By contrast, Tom Wakely's years of service to progressive causes, going back to getting arrested as part of Cesar Chavez's Texas Farm Workers Union campaign in the Seventies, speaks to a deep and abiding liberal commitment to workers' rights. On those economic issues, he may not cross the aisle as easily as Vakil, but progressives like Wakely and this district's all-important rural Republicans have undoubted common ground on issues like opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and support for veterans.
Railroad Commissioner: Lon BurnamAs the entity that oversees the state's oil and gas production (sorry, really nothing to do with trains), the Railroad Commission has always been important. With crude prices crashing and a widening void in the state's finances, it can't be left to hobbyists. After two runs for land commissioner (both as a Republican) and unsuccessful bids at state treasurer and U.S. senator as a Democrat, Grady Yarbrough seems like someone who just really likes filing his paperwork. As both a former IRS and Texas Legislative Council staffer, Cody Garrett's governmental experience gives him an advantage over Yarbrough, and his career as a progressive journalist intrigued us. But this is a serious job that touches on the state budget, environmental issues, and property rights. As such, former state rep. and longtime political pit fighter Lon Burnam is the only reasonable choice to help turn this body from an oil industry enabler to a regulator again.
State Rep. District 49: Gina HinojosaNo one can really replace Elliott Naishtat. After 25 years representing Texas' most progressive district, his understanding of the machines of governance and his dedication to liberal causes will be sorely missed. Yet this Democratic primary is not about replacing him, but finding an apt successor. This is no easy task, as the center city has produced a surfeit of able candidates, with seven names on the Democratic ballot. Of the leading four, each has their strengths: UT Law professor Heather Way has a deep understanding of affordability issues; AISD trustee Gina Hinojosa has earned her education stripes; former NARAL and ACLU lobbyist Blake Rocap fought in the legislative trenches for a decade; and ex-U Dems president and Lege aide Huey Rey Fischer gives the student population the standard-bearer it deserves. Ultimately, our decision came down less to the undoubted merits of candidates and more about the most pressing issues. The final decision came down to Hinojosa and Fischer, and while Fischer's extraordinary mix of energy and experience could counter the defeatist attitude plaguing House Democrats, the pressing issue of school finance reform positions Hinojosa to be a vital player in the next session.
District Judge, 345th Judicial District: Jan SoiferDemocratic voters have a truly difficult choice for the successor to retiring Judge Stephen Yelenosky. Both Soifer and her opponent Melissa Mather have had distinguished careers as attorneys, have argued and won groundbreaking cases, and represent progressive values in the default Travis County election. The choice is difficult because each candidate has substantial strengths, outstanding experience, and the temperament necessary to a seat on the bench. On balance, we're endorsing Soifer both for her legal résumé and her longtime work "in the trenches" as she puts it, for issues ranging from education reform, access to justice, marital rights for gay Texans, and of course reproductive rights – even knowing that at times this advocacy may mean occasional recusals going forward. We are impressed by Mather's accomplishments and her empathetic perspective, but we believe Soifer's experience, history, and long, local roots have earned the Democratic nomination.
District Judge, 427th Judicial District: Tamara NeedlesSelecting between incumbent Judge Jim Coronado and defense attorney Tamara Needles was no easy task. Seeking a third term, Coronado, who won his current post in 2008, has served as a judge (including in magistrate and municipal capacities) for more than 26 years. He has a history of distinguished community service, is backed by a long list of notable supporters, and prides himself in running an effective court with low jail numbers. With nearly 20 years' experience in criminal law, Needles assists indigent clients and has represented a wide range of cases, including capital murder. She promotes improving rehabilitation programs for offenders with mental health problems and drug abusers and has plans to re-direct funds to subsidize a no-cost intensive outpatient program. While we are confident in both of their abilities, we were impressed with Needles' specific policy proposals, fresh energy, and progressive vision, especially in contrast to Coronado's seeming resignation to the barriers of bureaucracy. Keeping in mind the decision was tough to make, we believe Travis County voters should elect Needles for the 427th Criminal District Court.
District Judge, 450th Judicial District: Brad UrrutiaTemporarily held by Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed Judge Don Clemmer, the new 450th District Court is best suited for criminal defense attorney Brad Urrutia. The South Austin native and UT Law graduate has spent nearly two decades practicing criminal law. The past 15 years have been devoted to felony jury trials, experience that will serve the felony-heavy 450th docket well. The Army vet hopes to expand the veteran's court (without added expense) and bolster pre-trial diversion and youthful offender programs. And Urrutia, who represents mainly indigent clients, including undocumented defendants, is in tune with the needs of minority and poor offenders. If elected, the Spanish-speaking attorney would be the second Latino criminal district judge out of the eight currently on the bench. While we appreciate challenger Chantal Melissa Eldridge's passion for improving mental health programs and rehabilitation services, as well as her 26 years of experience practicing out of state and in Austin, we believe voters should choose Urrutia.
Travis County District Attorney: Margaret MooreWhat seemed like a runaway race in early November shifted so greatly midway through the month that by Thanksgiving the front-runner had two challengers angled solely at keeping him from his presumed position. Gary Cobb has been a known figure around the D.A.'s Office since Rosemary Lehmberg assumed duties from Ronnie Earle in 2008. Cobb is commended for his prosecution of Sen. Tom DeLay, and most recently headed up the office's intake and grand jury division. Personal issues aside, he's a connected individual in legal circles who could bring real change to the way the D.A.'s Office interacts with the community. Cobb, however, has been stricken by one too many instances in which his values could be challenged. To say nothing of the recent revelations that he skirted a court-ordered debt for 21 years and may have dodged a few things in depositions, his reputation as a prosecutor who values convictions over justice is hardly one to brag about. Look no further than the overturned conviction of Lacresha Murray to see that sometimes his cart's too far out in front of his horse. We don't ask for a nice D.A., but we do seek to elect an ethical one. (Challenger Rick Reed, meanwhile, seems to be campaigning solely on that platform.) Moore, a longtime assistant district attorney who spent time as a county attorney and most recently as an assistant to the attorney general before a brief retirement in 2014, offers her own connections, and seems poised to handle the D.A.'s chief role as administrator of the county's prosecuting arm. While we harbor concerns about her familiarity with the office, we also acknowledge that a change in course may suit the community well. A pipeline of assistant district attorneys-turned-district attorneys dating back to the Seventies is not always the best pathway toward reform and justice. Moore is no hotshot, and likely won't maintain the type of public presence one would find in Cobb, but in this case we choose to err on the side of caution, and advocate for calculated reform for an office in need of changes.
Travis County Sheriff: Todd RadfordThe four candidates angling to replace long-tenured outgoing Sheriff Greg Hamilton each bring with them their own upsides and credentials. John Sisson, no stranger to this race, has held true on a longstanding set of convictions that value empathy and understanding in truly commendable fashion. As a constable, Sally Hernandez has real experience handling countywide issues and seems keenly aware of our need for a new approach to law enforcement. Don Rios, the only candidate currently with TCSO, would bring a string of continuity and familiarity to an office that, aside from a few major ideological blemishes, has implemented a number of strong programs. However, we choose to support Todd Radford. The four candidates are eerily similar in their values and platforms. Radford, currently chief of Lakeway Police, is the only one who has served as chief administrator for a law enforcement division, and has a track record to show a path toward both the implementation of body cameras on officers as well as a number of mental health initiatives we recognize as sorely needed. Further, the Chronicle was impressed with the way he handled criticism during our meetings with the candidates; Radford appears to have a very astute understanding of how to communicate on heated topics. It's a strong field, and we'd feel comfortable should any Democratic candidate receive the nomination. But it's our consensus that Radford is the best fit.
County Commissioner Pct. 1: Jeff TravillionOf the five candidates competing to succeed retiring incumbent Ron Davis – stepping down after 18 years representing the northeast Travis County precinct – Travillion has distinguished himself as the person with the strongest perspective and the widest range of experience to best address the challenges in this quickly changing precinct. He's had a long career as a state and city administrator, has worked for years on countywide issues (especially education), and has performed important advocacy work in the state NAACP and on behalf of area voters – defending fair representation and the Voting Rights Act against GOP anti-minority and anti-Austin gerrymandering. Of his opponents, attorney James Nortey is a formidable candidate, and we anticipate supporting him in future campaigns. Newcomer Marc Hoskins also shows substantial promise; returning candidates Richard Franklin III and Arthur Sampson have still not persuaded us of sufficient qualifications to hold a commissioner's seat. We believe Travillion is best prepared to represent Precinct 1 on the County Court.
Constable Pct. 1: Rick SchumacherIncumbent Danny Thomas faces two challengers in the primary, Janie Serna, a parent support specialist at Guerrero Thompson Elementary School, and Rick Schumacher, a labor investigator with the Texas Workforce Commission. While Thomas has a solid reputation and résumé – before becoming constable in 2007, he was a City Council member – the Chronicle has been impressed by Schumacher's genuine effort to engage with the community, and his fresh ideas. Schumacher's platform includes a focus on preventing illegal dumping in Travis County, bringing social workers to evictions in order to provide services to the evicted, and improving community engagement. The Chronicle believes Precinct 1 would be well-served by either Thomas or Schumacher, but on the balance, we'd like to see voters give Schumacher a chance to implement some of his new ideas.
Constable Pct. 3: No EndorsementBoth A.J. Johnson and Stacy Suits have devoted their lives to public service, and done excellent work in their respective careers. Having served as chief deputies in this very office (Johnson as chief deputy since Jan. 2013, Suits from 2001 to 2012), each is intimately familiar with the constable responsibilities. Yet we have found ourselves unable to endorse either one, for different reasons. We aren't convinced of Johnson's commitment to the social programs and active community outreach that a constable's office is able to do if its leader takes the initiative. We also find disconcerting Suits' apparent mono-focus on fraudulent auto registration stickers – the anti-emissions, environmental-protection program he began and now believes is languishing. So while we're withholding a definitive endorsement – whoever wins, we hope to be proven wrong about him.
Constable Pct. 4: George Morales IIIMaria Canchola's soon-to-be-vacant seat is being sought by two chief deputy constables: Manuel Jimenez from Precinct 4, and George Morales III from Precinct 2. While both have had long careers in law enforcement – Morales has worked in the Precinct 2 Constable's Office since 2005 and previously worked as a member of the Lockhart Police Department and the Precinct 4 Constable's Office, and Jimenez was a member of Air Force law enforcement before being hired by the Precinct 4 Constable's Office in 2012 – the Chronicle believes that Morales' depth of experience within the Constable's Office gives him the edge in this race. Much of what Morales and Jimenez advocate is similar – both emphasize their humble beginnings as a way to relate to those they serve, and both are concerned about truancy rates, racial profiling, and veterans' programs – and either man will most likely serve Precinct 4 well. However, although Morales' career has had its bumps – he resigned from the Precinct 4 Constable's Office in 2002 after being accused of having improper relationships with other employees – he has since shown himself to be a capable chief deputy, bringing body cameras and needed funding for equipment to his precinct.
There are six referenda votes on the Democratic primary ballot, essentially recommending particular policies to future Legislatures and Congress. They have no enforcement power, but serve to express the will of the Democratic electorate on public policy.
Referendum 1, Economic Security & Prosperity: YesSupports higher minimum wage, equality in pay, family leave, public schools, and free community college.
Referendum 2, Criminal Justice Reform: YesSupports equal justice before the law, and protecting rights of police, community, and defendants.
Referendum 3, Renewable Energy: YesSupports transition to renewable energy to counteract climate change.
Referendum 4, Defend the Voting Rights Act: YesSupports "Voting Rights Advancement Act" to protect voting rights of all Americans.
Referendum 5, Campus Carry Opt-Out: YesSupports right of public colleges and universities to opt out of campus gun carry (currently reserved to private institutions).
Referendum 6, Comprehensive Immigration Reform: YesSupports reform to protect immigrants and provide path to citizenship, keep families together, and deliver workforce solutions.
The Chronicle is an advocacy weekly of liberal/progressive principles in keeping with the majority democratic values of our community, and our editorial board only occasionally makes endorsements or recommendations in Republican primaries, based on those values. For thoughtful, moderate Republican voters, we offer a few, selected recommendations on the GOP primary ballot.
President: No EndorsementSometimes the best choice is no choice at all. In our efforts to pick the least offensive out of the current roster of GOP presidential candidates, we failed to realize that there is no "least offensive" this year. We initially selected Ohio Gov. John Kasich based on the fact that he has largely steered clear of the inflammatory rhetoric of his fellow contenders. However, actions speak louder than words. Kasich's Feb. 21 signature of a bill defunding Planned Parenthood in Ohio was a clear sign that our continued endorsement of him – however couched in "if you insist on voting Republican" caveats – would be irresponsible.
Justice, Texas Supreme Court, Place 5: Paul GreenPaul Green's opponent, Rick Green, was among the most reactionary and conflicted legislators in recent Capitol history, and although he's never been a judge, he is now attempting to mislead voters with his last name to continue what Texans for Public Justice described as his "serial abuse of ethics standards." Responsible Republican voters should prevent that.
State Representative, District 47: Paul WorkmanIncumbent Workman has seen his primary job as representing his constituents and proposing sensible legislation; his opponent, Jay Wiley, while personally engaging, has hitched his politics to the hardest right-wing positions and the candidacy of extremist Sen. Ted Cruz. Workman is the only choice.
Travis County Commissioner, Precinct 3: Gerald DaughertyAlthough he may not welcome the support, we believe Commissioner Daugherty has done his best to represent his Southwest constituents and speak clearly for the conservative position on county issues, even when we disagree.
There are four proposition votes on the Republican primary ballot, recommending policies to the Legislature.