Not Keen on Green

Enviros: Bristol and Biscoe Don't Cut It

It's less than a month until the March 10 primaries, and the two front-runners in the county judge race are scrambling to rally support from the environmental community -- with limited success. That's not a good sign. A green endorsement in this town can translate into thousands of votes, but so far, progressive leaders have yet to step forward and claim outright support for either Valarie Bristol or Sam Biscoe, both lifelong Democrats who are running for the post that County Judge Bill Aleshire will vacate in December. Why are the greens holding out? There are a few reasons, and bargaining leverage at this stage of the game is one of them. Moreover, it is said that neither Bristol nor Biscoe ever demonstrated any kind of aggressive, soapbox commitment to the environment during their years on the county commissioners court. That kind of gusto from an elected official can go a long way in the green community. On the other hand, had either candidate banged the drum loudly for water quality and the like, who would have known? County commissioners meetings don't exactly have the allure of a city hall powwow. "I haven't made up my mind about either Valarie or Sam," George Cofer, a longtime activist, said earlier this week. "There have been concerns in the past about both of them, and now that they're running for county judge, many of us have yet to hear any proactive environmental message coming from either candidate."

Nevertheless, Biscoe has secured most of the key endorsements from a wide range of special interest groups, and his camp has suggested that some key enviro players are slowly -- and quietly -- signing on. Bill Bunch, the general counsel for the Save Our Springs Alliance, has indicated his willingness to lend support. "I told Sam that if nobody else got in the race I would vote for him," Bunch said. "But I still need to visit with him further."

Bunch and other enviros are still smarting from the Austin-bashing the city endured from attorney Biscoe when he and other prominent East Austin leaders testified against the S.O.S. water quality ordinance at the Lege. "I know now that I didn't have all the facts about S.O.S.," Biscoe said. "It wasn't so much an anti-S.O.S. position I was taking -- I was acting more out of concern for East Austin. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't." Clearly, an environmental endorsement of Biscoe, an African-American, could be the olive branch needed to mend the rift between white liberal progressives and East Austin blacks that grew out of the S.O.S. ordinance. The accusation at the time was that Westsiders were more concerned about environmental issues than they were about the socio-economic needs of Eastsiders. Biscoe said he is realistic enough to know that any green support he receives would be more a symbolic gesture than anything else. "There is not a groundswell of unfettered support for me from the environmentalists," he conceded. "But this schism has existed for a long time. Now is the time to heal."

photographs by John Anderson

Democrat Sam Biscoe

Democrat Valarie Bristol

Republican Dewayne Naumann

Republican Hank Davis Gonzalez

All the same, other environmentalists point out that a demonstration of growth management leadership from either candidate would be a good way for Biscoe, 51, and Bristol, 56, to overcome "concerns" about their past records during their tenures on the commissioners court -- Bristol as a Precinct 3 representative for west and southwest Travis County, and Biscoe in Precinct 4, the eastern and northeastern sector. Both resigned from their seats late last year to mount their respective campaigns for county judge.

To Bristol's credit, she led the Central Texas Clean Air Task Force, a model regional public-private group dedicated to reducing air pollution; she worked on the creation of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP), and she co-founded the Austin Metropolitan Trails Council. "Valarie took the lead on the Clean Air Task Force, which I think could be a great model for a community to use for water protection," said S.O.S. Executive Director Brigid Shea, who is not taking a public stand for either candidate in the race. Shea also commended Bristol's work on the BCP. "While many of us felt that it [BCP] didn't go far enough to set aside from preserve area, and that it benefitted the developers more than anything else, I think there is a lot of merit to the BCP." Despite those efforts, however, others aren't willing to forget one of her more recent actions. Last fall on the commissioners court, Bristol made a motion to combine the controversial State Highway 45 bond proposition -- billed by enviros as a highway over the aquifer -- with the more popular road repair bonds. Bristol says she made the motion -- knowing it would fail -- because her constituents in southwest Austin asked her to do so. "They were concerned that SH45 standing alone on the ballot would not pass," Bristol said. "I told them I would make the motion, but that I probably wouldn't have the support of the rest of the commissioners."

In what may be, for some enviros, the smoking gun pointed against Bristol, is a letter that S.O.S. uncovered through the Open Records Act that Bristol wrote to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Bristol wrote the letter -- asking Babbitt to delay action in placing the Barton Springs Salamander on the federal list of endangered species -- after S.O.S. had won the first and second rounds in their battle to get the listing. "Here we are working our butts off," said Bunch, "and she's writing letters that nobody knows about." While Bristol refers to her strong environmental record in her campaign literature, and vows, if elected, to evaluate the county's creek systems and develop plans for watershed protection, Biscoe has made a more active attempt to court the green vote. In an open letter to Austin environmentalists that he sent out two weeks ago, Biscoe enumerates a list of his environment-friendly accomplishments, such as his effort to create a county recycling plan. At the end of the letter, he makes five environmental promises if elected, including the establishment of a panel of enviros to advise him in county environmental matters, and the adoption of long-term regional environmental policies which he would hash out with the Austin City Council. Those two campaign promises -- that he would consult with and listen to prominent Austin enviros and Austin's elected progressive city council -- are what enviros say they have wanted all along. "There's been a lot of talk lately about how the environmental and business communities have both realized the importance of the environment to the region," Bunch says. "Now it's time for our county officials to understand that."

The concern about the county's role in managing growth grew even more apparent with the recent release of an economic study commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The study hammered home what environmentalists have been saying all along: that a clean environment is essential to a healthy economy. "County leaders have a greater need to lead on growth," said S.O.S.'s Shea. "The county has lacked leadership for a long time, and it is the county that has such an incredible pulpit from which to address the issue of growth management."

More than a few political insiders have grumbled that the Democrats didn't recruit a candidate with growth management "vision" -- someone who is capable of generating enthusiasm among a cross-section of voters à la Kirk Watson the mayor. "People are truly concerned about rapid growth," said political consultant David Butts. "People are looking for leadership in that area and neither candidate has seized on the issue."

While Bristol is finding herself on the losing end when it comes to attracting high-profile enviro votes, her mainstay Democratic clubs aren't backing her 100% either. She has won several dual endorsements with Biscoe, but she has yet to receive a solo endorsement from a Democratic club. Perhaps more than any other commissioners court race, this one has many people torn between choosing one candidate over the other. All too often, a refrain heard around the county building carries a ring of indecisiveness that goes something like this: "I'd be happy with either Valarie or Sam... I think either one of them would make a good county judge."

But Bristol, an old-school feminist who raised her children before heading off to law school at the University of Texas, does have strong individual backing in Austin, including a loyal following of women and blue-blood Democrats. She can count on backing from former Gov. Ann Richards, retired Congressman Jake Pickle, and President Johnson's right-hand woman, Liz Carpenter. Bristol's campaign is running under the guidance of longtime political strategist Peck Young, who is counting heavily on the success of this Friday's Ann Richards-Bristol fundraiser. In a symbolic gesture, Richards -- a former county commissioner who occupied the same Pct. 3 seat that Bristol held -- will host a luncheon for the candidate, with tickets starting at $125 and topping out at $2,500.

Biscoe, meanwhile, is hitting the grassroots hard. He appears to be building a strong rainbow coalition of sorts to include browns, blacks, whites, and a fair number of gay activists who count him as a political ally. Plus, it doesn't hurt Biscoe to know he can rely on support from a favorite populist, former state agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, under whom Biscoe served as general counsel.

Though Biscoe's camp claims to be ahead, based on the results of at least one poll floating around last week, there have been attempts to knock Biscoe off his lead pedestal. According to documents dropped off at the Chronicle office (both Bristol and Peck Young insist the drop-off wasn't their doing), Biscoe's five-year stint as general counsel at the Department of Agriculture was marred by the suspension of his law license -- an action that grew out of a malpractice claim on a case Biscoe handled in private practice. During the year-and-a-half suspension that began in 1984, Biscoe said, he was reassigned to special assistant under Hightower -- a job that did not require a law license -- and that when the suspension lifted he regained his general counsel post. "I admitted wrongdoing and I paid my dues," said Biscoe. "I'm older and wiser now." Biscoe added that he has since let his license lapse voluntarily, opting out of practicing law in order to devote himself full time to county commissioner, a position he held for eight years before resigning in November.

One particularly strong bit of leverage Biscoe can claim in this race is his "no" vote against the controversial decision to give himself and his fellow commissioners a 12% pay raise. Bristol voted for the raise. Biscoe hasn't spent much time dwelling on the pay raise at candidates' forums, and that low-key approach seems to be working in his favor.

While some Democrats and most enviros have been boo-hooing over the lack of progressive vision in the race, one thing they can't complain about is the fear that a Republican could settle into the county judge's seat. Biscoe and Bristol have stirred up enough excitement in the race to diminish any concerns (or hope, depending on one's point of view) in that area. The two GOP contenders for the job are former Democratic commissioner Hank Davis Gonzalez, 59, and Dewayne Naumann, 41, a title insurance examiner. For all intents and purposes, though, this is strictly a B&B contest -- Bristol v. Biscoe -- with the winner in the Democratic primary expected to go on to win handily in November.

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