Potholes and Potshots

Late last week, local political operatives were already predicting the outcome of the Precinct 2 race, where the incumbent county commissioner, Karen Sonleitner, is expected to keep her title for a second term. But we'll see what happens; for the time being, political junkies and regular voting folk like Joe and Martha out in sleepy Volente can be thankful there is still room for serious debate and, at the very least, some form of entertainment on the campaign trail in this vast northern metropolis of Travis County. Sonleitner's opponent in the Democratic primary is Pflugerville Mayor Haywood Ware, whom she is expected to beat in the primary March 10. On the Republican ticket are chiropractor Jim Shaw and real estate broker Bob Honts, who has mounted a campaign using the "road warrior" moniker he acquired when he was a Democratic county commissioner years ago. If there's a common thread among the four contestants in this race, it runs something like this: Sonleitner's ex-boyfriend is a Republican; Ware once endorsed a Republican; Honts turned into a Republican two months ago; and Shaw -- he came that way. Since the woman to beat in this race is incumbent Sonleitner, when talk of the issues doesn't get attention, her opponents have not been shy of taking a fat swing at the Commissioner's personal life. Since it appears that Democratic voters can be more forgiving of an incumbent when a Republican is waiting in the wings, Sonleitner -- barring any change in the landscape -- should weather the potshots and emerge the victor.


Democratic Drama

Democrat Haywood Ware
photograph by John Anderson

Democrat Karen Sonleitner

Republican Jim Shaw
photograph by John Anderson

Republican Bob Honts

SH130 Bypass: Bob Honts says Karen Sonleitner's alternate route will "kill" the project.

Sonleitner, 42, lets out a long sigh of exasperation when reminded that people are still harping on a piece of her past -- a romantic relationship she once had with Republican Terry Keel, the irascible former sheriff who is now a state representative. "That was seven years ago," she says. "It was a social relationship that I was forced to explain when I ran the first time. The fact that people still expect me to explain it seven years later borders on sexism. At some point it has got to be irrelevant." And at some point it does become irrelevant -- until Sonleitner volleys a shot at Ware, her 48-year-old Democratic opponent.

Take, for example, the coup she scored against Ware last month when she went before the South Austin Democrats seeking their endorsement, which she got. Standing before the group, she whipped out Exhibit A -- a piece of "Jo Baylor for Congress" campaign literature that bore Haywood Ware's name on a list of Baylor supporters. Whoops. In these parts, a Real Democrat doesn't endorse a Republican over a Democrat, who in this case happened to be U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett. But Ware, a large man with a jolly countenance, later fired back at Sonleitner in characteristic fashion. "Well," he mused, "at least Jo Baylor was pro-choice." That was in reference to Keel's anti-choice posture. Aaah, county politics.

Sometimes, though, the candidates talk about issues. In a rapid-fire delivery that she honed during her years as a reporter at KVUE-TV -- back when she was forced to explain the county budget in 30 seconds -- Sonleitner lists her accomplishments on the commissioners court and vows to continue her work in areas of juvenile justice, criminal justice, parks and recreation, and transportation. Along with former County Commissioner Valarie Bristol, Sonleitner sponsored new laws banning sexually oriented businesses from settling within shouting distance of schools, churches, and neighborhoods; she joined in on the Save Camp Mabry campaign of a couple of years ago when the state threatened to sell the national guard quarters in West Austin to private developers; and she was among those county officials who successfully lobbied the Legislature last year for the creation of a new county court-at-law specifically to hear family violence cases, a far-reaching development that demonstrates Travis County's commitment to addressing domestic violence.

Ware, who serves on the Austin Transportation Study and the newly organized Capital Metro board, also has a serious side. He endorses a popular theory that the county needs to delve further into mass transit options, particularly light rail. "People will get out of their Mercedes to ride a train," he says. "They won't get out of their Mercedes to ride a bus." Ware says he wants to see light rail "as soon as we can get it... because SH130 is still five or 10 years down the road."


Republican to the Rescue?

Exactly what route SH130 should follow turned rather contentious Monday when Republican candidate Honts called a press conference to denounce Sonleitner's endorsement of an alternative route.

Sonleitner had sponsored a resolution, passed last week by the Travis County Commissioners Court, that endorses the easternmost alternative, known as T4. This route would curve out east of Decker Lake, and away from Pflugerville neighborhoods and a 300-acre park on Gilleland Creek in northeastern Travis County. Honts, on the other hand, strongly supports the "technically preferred" route, known as T3, which Ware also supports. Sonleitner's proposal would "kill" the project, Honts declared at the press conference. He said traffic volumes on SH130 would be reduced by half if the highway were to extend too far east of I-35. Sonleitner's resolution, he said, "flies in the face of a compromise route" worked out between the state, the Texas Turnpike Authority, and other jurisdictions. "While you must be sympathetic to the impact on individual neighborhoods, you must consider the needs of the majority," said Honts, a former chair of the Austin Transportation Study and a former VP for the regional planning group the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council.

Sonleitner later responded: "Mr. Honts is obviously staking out the position that he intends to pave over anyone who stands in his way. His attitude may explain why he was booed last week when he said exactly that at a hearing on Texas 130."

So how did a colorful, outspoken Democrat like Honts get to be a Republican, a conversion that officially occurred when he filed to run on the GOP ticket? "The Republican Party better represents my philosophy," he explained over his cellular phone the other evening on his way to a meeting. "I've always been a conservative, so it's not really me that's changed... it's the Democratic Party." Honts, 58, switched over late last year, a transformation that also required him to give up his Democratic precinct chair and other party affiliations. His fence-jumping has caused him some ridicule in local Democratic circles, and there has been no shortage of jokes at public forums about his toupee. Honts, who left office in 1986 when he chose not to run for re-election, is a bit of a controversial fellow who landed in some hot water during his lengthy stint on the commissioners court. He insists those days are more than a decade behind him, that he has owned up to his errors, paid his dues and moved on. But just for the record, Honts, a three-term county commissioner, was accused of running up a hefty tab on his county-issued cellular telephone, making personal business calls at the county's expense. He was also arrested on drunk driving allegations on which he was later acquitted by a jury.

These days, Honts is a successful businessman touting many "establishment" names on his list of supporters. The big wheels include the likes of Red McCombs ("Your Car Dealer"), Hartland Bank chair David Hartman, former mayors Lee Cooke and Ron Mullen, longtime powerbroker-attorney Pike Powers, former Congressman Kent Hance, and State Sen. Jeff Wentworth. That's not to say that those folks -- and their money -- will appeal to the majority of voters, however. Honts will likely give Sonleitner a run for her money, but the fact that he's harking back to his controversial days as a road warrior may turn out to be his undoing in the end.

As part of his road warrior campaign, Honts points to the results of one recent poll (he declined to elaborate on the poll's specifics) that 81% of those surveyed are frustrated with traffic congestion and "the inability to get to work." Next to traffic concerns, respondents said crime was their number two concern, Honts notes. "The only answer to the traffic problem is a combination of new highways and roads, along with car pooling and staggered work shifts," he says. Honts goes on to chide Travis County officials for not taking the initiative to secure state and federal funding for road construction. "No one is even asking for funding, and when you don't ask you don't get."

Honts' only opponent in the GOP primary, Shaw, 37, is making his first bid for public office, and is the least vocal of all the candidates. Calling himself a family man and fiscal conservative, Shaw questions why the county budget has increased without benefit to taxpayers. "When we give our money to our county government, shouldn't we be able to count on our elected officials to use it wisely?" he asks.

Four contestants -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- want the job. By most accounts, Sonleitner will be the one chosen to keep her post -- unless, of course, this swing-vote sector rears up and does something altogether unexpected. That's the ever-fluctuating nature of Precinct 2. With a healthy green voting bloc in this rapidly growing region -- where residents reaped the largest share (over $14 million) of the $36 million in bond money that voters approved last fall for road and bridge repair -- residents in these parts could be a pivotal force in deciding which road the county will travel into the next century.

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