Brown and Eckhardt Face Off in Circle C

Circle C Area Dems host Travis County Judge candidates

The Democratic candidates for Travis County judge – Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt – met Monday evening in a forum hosted by the Circle C Area Democrats, in a packed and lively event that contrasted the candidates’ leadership styles and approaches to problem solving – and perhaps heralded a surge in Southwest Democrats.

Andy Brown (Photo by John Anderson)

The dining room at the Escarpment Village Santa Rita Cantina was crammed with hungry and enthusiastic Democrats, as well as a handful of Dem dignitaries: County Court-at-Law Judge John Lipscombe, County Tax Assessor/Collector Bruce Elfant, and even a congressional candidate: Stuart Gourd, stumping for his candidacy against GOP incumbent Roger Williams. (That’s CD 25, anchored in Fort Worth, but considering how thoroughly that district is gerrymandered, Gourd just may have had a few potential voters in this remote venue). The servers had quite a time working the tight tables, a good sign for Southwest Democrats, reportedly a rare species before the 2008 election.

The forum itself was efficient and well-run, partly because of the tight circumstances but also the enthusiastic emceeing of CCAD President Michael Walters and Ed Scruggs, who vetted the question cards and managed the exchanges. After opening statements, the debate moved directly to member questions, which seemed to enliven the exchanges and keep the candidates engaged.

For true policy detail wonks, Newsdesk (@PointAustin) live-tweeted the event (#TCJudge), including such priceless gems as: “#CCAD #TCJudge AB on bond cmte experience, trans support.” Overall the candidates managed to respond to the CCAD questions while each emphasizing their broad campaign themes. Eckhardt pointed to her 15 years of specific experience at the county (as an assistant county attorney and six years as Precinct Two Commissioner); Brown noted his long work for the county Democratic Party and specifically as party chair, with an emphasis on his ability to “bring people together” to form consensus and get things done.

Eckhardt began by saying, “I believe we need experience at the top of the court … to face future challenges,” and pointed to specific achievements in recent years: progress in groundwater regulation, in defending Hamilton Pool from pollution threats, and in bringing water to small colonias that have grown up in the largely unregulated county. She supports improved transportation infrastructure, to include “rapid bus, rails & trails” over the whole region – “We need to plan for today to build it yesterday” – emphasizing “multi-modal” in every area and noting, “toll roads will not solve the problem.” In a sidelong shot at Brown’s emphasis on consensus government, she noted that she’s had to take tough votes with political consequences on Commissioners Court, and that “you can’t always expect unanimous votes.”

“We need a strong leader for intentionally weak government,” Eckhardt argued, referring to state limits on county authority. “I’ll be working for you.”

Sarah Eckhardt (Photo by John Anderson)

Brown began by reciting his own lengthy Austin history and experience, arguing that the county “needs a long-range plan” rather than relying on need-based responses, and that it’s the responsibility of the judge to bring about that plan. He noted his success in increasing fundraising and turnout for the county Democratic Party, producing a 60% Dem victory in 2010, a bad year nationally for Democrats. He sounded the theme “bringing people together,” and his strength at working with people and his leadership skills.

On more specific issues, Brown proposed ethics reform as a priority, including the creation of an ethics commission that would regulate lobbying activity at the Court. He noted that the jail is burdened by mental health cases and DWI, and endorsed as a criminal justice reform the creation of a “sobriety center” that would divert many public intoxication and mental health cases from Central Booking and the jail – a project on the books for a decade, but never yet fully enacted. (Eckhardt would later respond that other diversion efforts already in place are doing well.) Brown emphasized as well the need for more county work on transportation and environmental protection, and pointed to his list of endorsers – “all the elected officials who have endorsed in this race” – as confirming his ability to build consensus.

Additional highlights: both candidates oppose the completion of Highway 45SW; Brown emphasized Lone Star Rail as an important transportation initiative, Eckhardt said “entire system needs to convert to multi-modal … we must build multi-modal corridors.” Both candidates opposed more toll roads, with Eckhardt suggesting that any excess tolls be dedicated to mass transit; Brown noted that toll lanes will benefit only the wealthy, arguing that “we need changes at the Capitol” before local jurisdictions can redirect the state’s exclusive focus on highways.

On health care, Brown suggested the county should look for ways to opt-in to Medicaid without the support of the state. Eckhardt agreed that the jail has become a first resort for mental health care, but emphasized “permanent supportive housing” over reliance on a sobriety center. Later she noted that only about 10% of the county budget goes to infrastructure (roads, parks, environmental), and that county resources should be focused on “sustainable population centers and transit-oriented development,” to avoid sprawl development. Brown noted that particularly on water issues, the cheapest approach is conservation – and that the county should follow a Denver model of bring various jurisdictions together to work on reducing consumption.

On wildfire mitigation, both candidates pointed toward the need for a county-wide systems (instead of numerous Emergency Service Districts with inequitable funding), although how that might come about was a little vague – perhaps eventually forced by city annexation.

Perhaps the sharpest distinctions were raised by a question on “management style.” Eckhardt reiterated that “Travis County can be innovative and strong with innovative leadership,” and that “progress is more important than unanimity.” “My style,” she said, “is to challenge where we are” to get to where we want public policy to be. Brown reasserted his strengths of “bringing people together to get things done [and] “working well with people with differing perspectives.” He also noted that the county needs more diversity in hiring, especially at the executive level, and that his history at the county party will bring a broader experience to Commissioners Court.

In his closing remarks, Brown reiterated his campaign theme of “leadership experience to bring people together to get things done, noted again his long list of elected endorsers, and emphasized his vision of a “long-term plan” for the county. In her closing, Eckhardt noted that county judge position is in effect the “CEO of a large corporation,” that whoever is elected needs to “take the long view and pay it forward” to future generations. Moreover, she noted sharply, the judge of the court is “not an entry level position or a stepping stone.”

All in all, it was a spirited and well-contested debate, between two candidates who frankly represent strong, youthful leadership in the county party and (barring a major GOP upset in November) a really solid future for the county judgeship. Although their partisans might feel otherwise, on county issues they are not very far apart – and the Democratic voters’ decision may well come down to a question of local political context and managerial styles.

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Travis County Commissioners Court, March 2014 Election, Circle C Area Democrats, Andy Brown, Sarah Eckhardt

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