Election Stampede

Candidates Line Up to Run for Commissioners Court

Sam Biscoe

Valeri Bristol

Ron Davis

Margaret Gómez
photograph by Jana Birchum

Darwin McKee
photograph by Jana Birchum

Richard Moya

photograph by Jana Birchum

Karen Sonleitner
photograph by Jana Birchum

County Judge Bill Aleshire is retiring to attend law school.
photograph by Jana Birchum

The Travis County Commissioners Court, long a bastion of Democratic power, stands to undergo a number of firsts in the 1998 election year. To begin with, a rare set of circumstances has opened up all five seats on the Court, which gives Republicans their greatest shot at moving into virgin territory. At least as far back as anyone can remember, Republicans have never graced the commissioners' dais, though Lord knows they've tried. Without doubt, the local GOP network is growing friskier by the day, thanks in large measure to Gov. George W. Bush riding high on the Republican ticket, not to mention an influx of new residents to the county. Clearly, Republicans are feeling pretty confident about breaking the Democratic hold on the Commissioners Court. Yet a reasonable question persists: Can Travis County Republicans live up to the challenge?

With only two weeks remaining until the Jan. 2 filing deadline, GOP candidates are just now starting to rumble out of the trenches and acknowledge their intention to run. But who are these people? Many of the would-be contestants have virtually no name recognition going for them. "If they run a good campaign and have a good campaign manager," says county Republican Chair Jan Galbraith, "I believe the Republicans have a very good chance of winning, with or without name identification." Galbraith and others agree that the GOP's greatest opportunities lie in Precinct 2 (north and northwest) and Precinct 3 (west and southwest), two growth-oriented quarters that have come to represent the county's strongest conservative voting blocs. We can, at the very least, expect to see dust raised in those precincts.

If Republicans are still circumspect about what they have planned for the new year, the Democrats by contrast have proffered a cast of characters that would rival a Russian novel. There are a number of viable Democratic contestants (including incumbents) running for the five available slots -- the four commissioners' seats and the county judge's post. The first showdown is the March 10 primary. While the lineup is still in its formative stages, here's an early look at how the races are taking shape:

County Judge

Two long-time colleagues on the Commissioners Court, Sam Biscoe and Valarie Bristol, oppose each other in the race to succeed County Judge Bill Aleshire. Both have resigned from their respective seats (Biscoe from Pct. 1 and Bristol from Pct. 3) to campaign for the position that Aleshire is giving up to attend law school.For the record, you don't have to have a law degree to be a county judge (that is, a constitutional county judge who presides over the Commissioners Court), although Biscoe, 51, and Bristol, 56, are both attorneys with law degrees from the University of Texas.

Should either one win, they would automatically hold at least one claim to fame. Biscoe would be the first African-American to serve as County Judge, while Bristol would be the first woman.

And while we're on the subject, Hank Gonzalez, who is expected to announce next week that he is running as a Republican in the race, would be the first Hispanic County Judge if he is elected. Gonzalez is no stranger to the Commissioners Court. In his former life as a Democrat, Gonzalez served one term on the court before losing a re-election bid in 1990. The former Austin Police Department sergeant is now assistant safety coordinator with the Austin Housing Authority.

Another Democrat-turned-Republican considering a run for county judge is former County Commissioner Bob Honts, although he said Tuesday he is leaning more strongly toward running for Precinct 2.

All of this name-floating business has the current judge chuckling and shaking his head in wonder. Aleshire may be a lame duck but he's not exactly going gentle into that good night, as they say. He has made no secret of his support for Biscoe over Bristol. There is no love lost between Bristol and Aleshire, and that's no secret, either. In an open letter Aleshire recently wrote to the Democratic Party, the county judge spelled out in blunt terms his feelings about the state of Democratic affairs in Travis County. "We could lose the county judge's race if we fail to unite behind Sam Biscoe who has earned his way and is not vulnerable on some deadly, easy issues that will catch voters' attention and could sink Valarie Bristol in the fall general election," Aleshire wrote. He went on to fault Bristol's voting attendance record.

Bristol responds: "I'm not running against the judge, I'm running against Sam Biscoe, and Sam and I have a great deal of respect for one another. Besides," she adds, "you can't build a community by dividing people." Bristol defends her attendance record by noting that her work as the commissioners court liaison to the Texas Legislature, as well as her role as the commissioners' representative in a Federal court case, occupied much of her time. "His implication that I wasn't on the job is outrageous," says Bristol. Aleshire appointed Bristol in 1991 to serve out the remainder of Pam Reed's term when Reed became former Gov. Ann Richards' appointee to what was then the Texas Water Commission.

Brushing aside Aleshire's accusations, Bristol says she plans to run on her record of achievements on several fronts, which include her work toward improving air quality in Travis County, her role in the formation of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, as well as her leadership in tackling regional planning issues and other growth-related challenges. Bristol enjoys support among women and a fair number of liberal Democrats, but she still faces the prospect of having to defend the controversial 12% pay raise she voted for herself and her colleagues last year, bringing commissioners' salaries up to $68,000 a year.

Biscoe is the lone commissioner who voted against the pay raise. A Precinct 1 commissioner since 1989, Biscoe is the senior commissioner on the court, and is trying to stay out of harm's way in the mini-war Aleshire has waged against Bristol. Given the well-publicized squabbling on the court over the years, Biscoe has done well to stay out of the line of fire. "When personalities came into conflict," said Biscoe when he announced his candidacy for county judge, "I have often been the one trying to rebuild relationships and gain consensus. I always worked hard, without fanfare, and did my homework." Biscoe points to his record of working to improve the county's health and human services to indigent residents, implementing affordable housing programs as chair of the Travis County Housing Finance Corp., working with others to attract high-tech industry to his precinct, and advocating company incentives for hiring residents who complete job-training programs.

Precinct 1

In this race, Darwin McKee and Ron Davis are opposing each other on the Democratic side, and former Capital Metro board member Stacy Dukes-Rhone has expressed tentative interest in running, as well. The Republicans have put the name of Austin resident Greg Parker on their "working copy" of prospective candidates for the seat, although Parker has not announced his candidacy.

With Biscoe vacating Precinct 1 last month to run for county judge, Aleshire turned to McKee, 46, to serve out the remainder of Biscoe's term, which ends next November. McKee announced his intention to run for the seat last week, moments after being sworn into office by his wife, Municipal Court Judge Evelyn McKee (aka romance novelist Evelyn Palfrey). Until being promoted to his new job, McKee was an assistant county attorney in charge of the transaction division. As a commissioner, McKee says, he will focus his efforts on the various effects growth is having on northeastern Travis County, particularly in light of the construction of a new airport and the rapid spurt of high-tech industry in his precinct. "The growth needs to be consistent with what residents want to see happen," he says. McKee, who chairs the city's Water and Wastewater Commission and served on the Citizens Planning and Implementation Committee, says he will also work toward improving social services, transportation, and law enforcement in Precinct 1.

While McKee may have the edge as an incumbent, longtime Eastside activist Ron Davis can lay claim to strong name i.d. in his precinct. Davis, 52, is more widely recognized in his community because of his long-standing efforts to improve the environment, educational opportunities, and law enforcement in various East Austin communities. He played a prominent role in shutting down the gasoline storage tank farm in 1993, he led years of efforts to bring a new Austin Community College campus to East Austin, he worked with residents and other entities to establish affordable single-family housing in the Webberville/Ledesma area, and he has put in countless hours serving on various other boards and committees. A small businessman and retired government employee, Davis captured all the East Austin boxes in his unsuccessful run against former Councilmember Eric Mitchell in 1994.

Davis plays down the advantage that his opponent holds as the newly seated incumbent, noting that McKee is not widely recognized in his precinct. "People are asking me, `Who is he and where was he when we needed him?'"

Precinct 2

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner wants to keep her job in this precinct, which spans from Pflugerville to the northeast, all the way to the northwestern fringes of the county. She'll be opposed in the Democratic primary by Pflugerville Mayor Haywood Ware, whose mayoral term ends in May.

As for the Republicans, they want very much to put one of their own in this slot. Austin residents Jim McCullick, Jim Shaw, and Stephen O'Connor -- all political newcomers -- have expressed an interest in running on the GOP ticket. But real estate broker Bob Honts, a former Democratic county commissioner for 12 years until 1986, is expected to run here, too, and will likely be the GOP frontrunner. Honts, known as "Road Warrior" during his commissioner's tenure, says road-building and traffic congestion are tops on his list of Precinct 2 concerns.

While Sonleitner has weathered the slings and arrows as a county commissioner (Aleshire and Sonleitner don't profess to be great pals), Ware, her opponent, has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity as the mayor of Pflugerville for the past six years. He sits on the newly formed Capital Metro Board and the Austin Transportation Study, as well, and says road-building and other transportation issues, such as building a commuter rail to reduce vehicle traffic, will be his key concerns if elected. "I really think I can do a better job than the current commissioners, particularly in the area of mass transit," Ware says. He directs government relations activities for the environmental engineering firm of Metcalf & Eddy.

Sonleitner, who sits on the Austin Transportation Study and the Downtown Austin Alliance, seems unfazed by the opposition thus far. She ticks off her accomplishments in rapid-fire succession: She secured funding for the extension of Dessau Road, road-improvement projects in her district, new parks, stricter ordinances for sexually oriented businesses, an "aggressive" juvenile program -- the list goes on and on.

Still, with Precinct 2 demographics being what they are, Sonleitner is very likely to get called on the carpet over the controversial salary increase commissioners gave themselves. "To be frank," observes Aleshire, "Karen's blown it. The pay raise she voted for is going to eat her lunch." When told of Aleshire's comments, Sonleitner responded: "Excuse me? Bill voted for that raise, too." All the same, Sonleitner says the pay raise was not one of her prouder moments. "There was a mistake made and I learned from it."

Precinct 3

In this race we can expect Republicans and Democrats to go head to head -- although only one candidate has stepped forward to officially run for the seat that Bristol relinquished to campaign for county judge. Austin attorney Ann Graham, a Democratic precinct chair, announced Tuesday her candidacy for the post. Graham is a former general counsel for the FDIC and the Texas Banking Department, and has voluneered for the Center for Battered Women and the Second Street Ministry for the homeless.

Serving out the remainder of Bristol's term, meanwhile, is former County Attorney Margaret Moore, whom Aleshire appointed last week says she has no interest in running for the Precinct 3 post. Aleshire's choice for the appointment disappointed some progressives who had hoped the county judge would appoint Justice of the Peace Scott Davis in order to boost his chances of winning the seat come election time. Now it's unlikely that Davis will run at all for the post, but will instead concentrate on getting re-elected to his JP post.

That leaves the race wide open, and a number of other Democratic potentials have at least been floated, including former Austin Independent School District trustee Nan Clayton, planner and Hyde Park neighborhood leader Ben Heimsath, and Citizen Action director Tom "Smitty" Smith.

On the Republican side, Rick Schafer, an Oak Hill businessman, and Todd Baxter, an aide to Sen. Jeff Wentworth, are at least two prospective candidates for the post.

Precinct 4

The Precinct 4 race is creating a touchy situation, with many Hispanic voters torn between incumbent Commissioner Margaret Gómez, and challenger Richard Moya, a longtime leader of the so-called Brown Machine. Moya is widely recognized as Travis County's first Hispanic commissioner, a position he held for 16 years -- until Hank Gonzalez, now a Republican candidate for county judge -- beat Moya in 1986.

As for Gómez, she credits Moya for providing her with the opportunity that ultimately led her to seek election to the Commissioners Court. Gómez paid her dues as Moya's assistant for more than seven years before she ran for County Constable in Precinct 4, a post in which she served for about 13 years. "I had a ring-side view of county government," Gómez recalls of her stint working for Moya. "Richard was my mentor who opened the door for me to come into public office." Gómez takes issue, though, with Moya's assertion that she has not exhibited strong leadership during her tenure.

"I'm a public servant, not a career politician," Gómez says. "I will continue to address the concerns of residents in southeast Travis County. They are concerned about the safety of their children, the county tax rate, and juvenile crime." Gómez, 53, serves on the newly reorganized Capital Metro board, the Austin Transportation Study, and the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, and also pushed for a water-quality mitigation project to alleviate Southeast Austin residents' concerns about the effects of a drainage tunnel at I-35 and US290.

Moya, 65, is field operations director with FirstTeam, a market research team and subcontractor to GTECH, the company under contract with the Texas Lottery. After losing his re-election bid 11 years ago, Moya worked for former Agricultural Commissioners Jim Hightower and Gov. Ann Richards. Moya says he is running for his old seat because he believes he can do a better job than Gómez. "I was a commissioner for 16 years, so I think I'm as well-versed in county government as anyone," Moya says. "The residents in southeastern Travis County don't feel they have a real advocate in Precinct 4. The roads are in terrible shape, especially in the rural areas. They're worse than they are in other precincts."

Countywide, Moya says he'd like to make the county more flexible and accessible to residents. "In the last 10 years, the county has gotten so bureaucratic," Moya says. "It's almost as bad as the city of Austin."

All things considered, the Commissioners Court races are certain to be one of the liveliest contests in 1998. As of press time, 10 candidates had announced their candidacies, with at least another seven still flirting with the idea of mounting a campaign. We'll keep you posted.

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