Now or Never

Ask just about any local progressive, and they'll tell you that longtime Eastside activist Ron Davis deserves to win the race for county commissioner for Precinct 1. "Ron is just far and away the most active, longtime leader on quality-of-life issues in East Austin of anybody I can think of," says Brigid Shea, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance. But that doesn't mean he's a shoe-in. In fact, it's Davis' history of losing races that has his supporters crossing their fingers this time. He lost the county commissioner race to Sam Biscoe last go-round in 1996, and two years before that, he came up short in a city council race against Eric Mitchell. Davis is up against some stiff competition once again, what with political up-and-comers Darwin McKee and Stacy Dukes-Rhone entering the fray. McKee got a huge leg up when he was picked as the interim replacement in the Pct. 1 seat after Biscoe resigned to run for County Judge, and Dukes-Rhone can't help but benefit from her politically well-connected family name.

Still, it appears that Davis is the one to beat. "I don't think anyone can do as well as he can in East Austin," says Travis County Democratic Women's president Anne McAfee. "He's been there working in the trenches for years. Another one of the pluses is, he's related to half the folks in East Austin."

Davis, 52, made a name for himself among Eastsiders and enviros alike when he successfully fought to close the "tank farm," a 52-acre storage site housed in residential East Austin where six oil companies stored gasoline to fuel the entire city. Five years later, Davis is still able to get a lot of mileage from the leadership he displayed on that tank farm closure effort. Environmentalists have remained loyal, and Eastside constituents continue to see him as the "community caretaker." For his part, Davis seems earnest when he says it is "his calling" to serve his neighbors who far too often find their backyards "the dumping ground for things no one else in the county wants." More recent efforts in which Davis had a hand include securing $9.3 million to resolve East Austin flooding problems, and playing a leadership role in creating the Austin Community College Eastside campus, which, when it opens next fall, will serve East Austin with much-needed job training and child care programs. Davis points to these projects as examples of his knack for bringing various governmental and community forces together, a skill vital for a commissioner. "I know how to cross jurisdictions and find governmental resources to match the needs of the people," Davis says.

Democrat Stacy Dukes-Rhone
photograph by Jana Birchum

Democrat Ron Davis
photograph by Jana Birchum

Democrat Darwin McKee
photograph by Jana Birchum

Republican Greg Parker

But for all of Davis' volunteering and high-profile community work, newcomer McKee is making inroads in Davis territory. While veteran Democratic groups such as the South Austin Democrats, El Concilio, and the Capital Progressive Democrats backed Davis, the Austin Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, the Austin Women's Political Caucus, and the law enforcement PACs all threw their weight behind McKee. Even Davis supporter McAfee had to admit that her group, the Travis County Democratic Women, failed to back good old Davis all the way - they anointed McKee and Davis with a dual endorsements. "Oh, we fought and tore our hair out about that one," McAfee laments. Davis "has worked his heart out and this is the kind of reward he gets."

So why is McKee attracting all this attention in his first-ever bid for public office? Davis supporters whisper about "the courtroom clique," the well-connected attorneys sprinkled throughout the progressive groups in town. As an attorney married to local novelist and Municipal Court Judge Evelyn McKee, Darwin McKee, 46, would be a part of that clique. Of course there's experience to back up those connections. McKee served as the director of the county attorney's transactions division for five years - experience and training cited by County Judge Bill Aleshire when he tapped McKee to serve as interim commissioner upon Biscoe's resignation. McKee's supporters say he can provide stability for a Commissioners Court in flux, because he already has an in-depth understanding of county business, its budget, and the players involved. "I don't need time to figure things out," McKee says. "Even if someone else starts day one immersing themselves in the budget, they will still be behind me. I already have a working relationship with the Commissioners Court and the county staff. They have confidence in me and trust me."

McKee says that his understanding of county spending will ensure that the precinct gets what is needed. "I believe unless we respond now, we will never offer Precinct 1 the quality of life comparable to the rest of Travis County," he says. "We will always have inferior roads, and we won't have the vitality a residential community gives an area."

Other supporters McKee has won include Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe, a former Davis supporter, and Eleanor Thompson, who also used to be a Davis backer, until this race when she became McKee's campaign coordinator. "Ron Davis is a fine man who has done good things in this community," Thompson says. "But Darwin, with his experience, is the better candidate for Commissioner of Precinct 1."

McKee is quite aware that his candidacy against Davis could put him at odds with local progressive enviros. He says he approached several environmental leaders to tell them he wanted to run an issues-oriented campaign, one that did not involve the kind of animosity Austin witnessed during the Willie Lewis/ Eric Mitchell city council campaign. This preemptive meeting could be a way to deflect criticism McKee will no doubt receive for the support he is getting from some in the business and developer establishment.

Some old guard support will likely go to Dukes-Rhone, 31, who is making her first bid for elected office. While from a well-known and respected political family (her sister Dawnna Dukes is state representative for District 50; her father Ben Dukes Sr. is a longtime political consultant and eastside power broker), Dukes-Rhone has kept a fairly low profile until recently. She was part of the Capital Metro board replaced last year by the Legislature, and later she was named in the federal investigation of Cap Metro's business practices for seeking to do business with the board after her term had ended. Dukes-Rhone has said she was unfairly singled out when the board passed a new ethics policy.

An engineer, Dukes-Rhone has a solid background in transportation and environmental issues. She is program manager for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission water conservation program, and a member of the Robert Mueller Airport Redevelopment task force. Dukes-Rhone decided to run now, she says, because her skills are well-matched with the commissioners' responsibilities. "Critical projects I've been involved with are happening now," she said, citing Mueller redevelopment and the I-35 bypass, State Highway 130. "I have the skills needed to translate technical information to the general public." Dukes-Rhone said she is opposed to the planned SH130, and concerned about the negative impact the roadway will have on the area. She said she remains committed to looking at other transportation options, such as light rail, so the county will not have to depend entirely on the bypass to solve its traffic woes. But, she added, "rock-hard opposition is not effective county government. I want to make sure that people understand what's going on, and if it's going to happen, that something good comes out of it for the people of Precinct 1."

On the Republican side, software engineer Greg Parker, 27, is seeking to end the Democrats' strong grip on the Commissioners Court. Parker, whose political experience includes running for city council in Killeen and serving as a member of the Capital Area Planning Council Area Agency on Aging, has remained relatively low-profile in his uncontested primary race, but plans to step up his effort as the general election edges closer. Predictably, Parker downplays the strength of the Democrats, and says he is confident voters want a change in Pct. 1. He believes his background in information technology would bring efficiency to the county government. "In a high-tech county like Travis County, it is important to have a commissioner who knows more than how to check their e-mail." However, given the party's domination in Pct. 1 and the strength of all the three Democrats in the Commissioners' race, it is unlikely a young, little-known Republican will break though here this year.

Given the firepower of the three Democrats vying for Biscoe's seat, perhaps the biggest surprise in this race has been the lack of fireworks so far. All three agree this is a critical time for the precinct, which is known as an area filled with neglected roads and controversial development, and a place where finding a neighborhood grocery store is a challenge. Among the items on everyone's radar: SH130, Mueller redevelopment, public safety, and ensuring a fair share of a multi-million dollar bond package passed last year. But for the next few weeks, the biggest question in Pct. 1 looks to be whether McKee's close experience with the county, or Dukes-Rhone's family name and engineering background, are enough to overcome Davis' reputation as an effective Eastside activist.

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