Shades of the Travis County Elections
Fri., March 13, 1998
You could almost see the tumbleweed blowing across the city coliseum floor as news crews and scribblers waited impatiently for something of interest to happen at Tuesday night's primary results headquarters. "This is dead," observed resident campaign dirt-digger Scott Henson, as he eyed the ramp where campaign workers and candidates seemed to trudge rather than parade into the hall as is the usual election night custom. A group of sign-wavers with some life in them finally appeared, chanting "Lora, Lora," in honor of Lora Livingston's win over Karen Parker for the 261st District Court's Democratic nomination, giving Henson even more reason for his trademark cynicism. "When the only race with any excitement is for a judge, you know it's bad."
It was bad, all right. But what do you expect when only 11% of registered voters bothered to show up at the polls? Whose fault is it? Was it the media for not covering the races enough? It seemed like most news time was given to stories on how much trouble Travis County was having finding people to work the polls. (Turns out there wasn't much to count anyway.) Or was it the fault of the candidates, who failed to ignite our interest? (The New Yorker printed an interesting article the other day that said Clinton's soaring approval ratings weren't in spite of the Lewinsky affair, but because of it. There's some dangerous campaign advice for you.) Or perhaps the fault lies with the system, which drags us back and forth, to and fro, all year long with a litany of names to remember that only a (gulp) political hack would care to memorize. (Hey, have we discussed the elimination of judges' elections lately?)
Let's all vow to do better, shall we? We've got a killer runoff in 30 days - we're sure you'll be inclined to vote if we do our jobs right. (Below are a few anecdotes from Tuesday night.) The dust is settling for now but we'll be back with a new round of endorsements next week. Election day is Tuesday, April 14. For polling locations, call 473-9553 or visit the county's website at http://www.co.travis.tx.us.-- Audrey Duff
Some relief from the Coliseum's morgue-like atmosphere was to be had beyond the usual circle of bars near Election Central and Barton Springs Rd. At Sholz Beer Garten, Texas AG candidate Jim Mattox showed the crowd he knew how to throw a party. And why not? Mattox was reveling in his outright win over Judge Morris Overstreet, a relatively easy victory he secured despite echoes of a longtime grudge held against him by Democratic party bigwigs for his infamous 1990 campaign against the still-popular Ann Richards.
Dancing to a live Tejano band under a "Mattox - Texas Tough" banner with his wife Marta and his kids Jimmer and Sissy, the former AG looked on top of the world. He spoke of uniting the Democratic party to defeat the GOP next fall. "The Republicans are still involved in slash-and-burn campaigning," Mattox said, referring no doubt to the name-calling between conservatives Barry Williamson and John Cornyn, who will advance to a runoff. "We've got to come out of this primary ready to push it through to November."
Judging from the crowd, mainstream Dems are just as ready to embrace Mattox as the former AG is to embrace them. Some of outgoing AG Dan Morales's own staffers were in attendance, such as Ron Dusek, press deputy throughout Morales' tenure. "I worked for him before Morales came in," said Dusek, sporting a Mattox button. "Jim was good before, and he's gonna be good again."
- Audrey Duff
Sam Biscoe never looked so relaxed as he did Tuesday night, standing in the glow of a television camera and reflecting on his win over Valarie Bristol. "When the campaign got to be personal," he said, "it pissed me off." With that, the reporter turned to a crewman and whispered, "Can we say `pissed off' on television?" Biscoe, meanwhile, went on to say, "A lifelong friendship with my opponent doesn't justify bootin' me in the butt." It wasn't a live interview, as it was well after the 10 o'clock newscast, but Biscoe at least was breathing some life into what otherwise had been a very dull evening hanging out at election central. Biscoe held a steady lead over Bristol throughout the evening, and ultimately trounced his opponent with a decisive 58% of the vote.
The outcome stunned Bristol and her supporters, who had predicted a tighter margin. "I was surprised it wasn't closer," Bristol said Wednesday before heading off for a week of hiking in Big Bend. "But the bottom line is, Sam got the most votes. I take my hat off to him and wish him well." Only a week earlier, Bristol wasn't so magnanimous. She sent out mailers targeting Biscoe's past legal woes - a move that many thought would hurt Biscoe. But Biscoe said his opponent and former colleague on the commissioners court suffered the backlash of her own actions. "It was personal, and calculated to mislead," he said, standing with his wife and son in a cluster of well-wishers. "It was something that a losing candidate would do, and people in Travis County don't like negative campaigning."
On the Republican side, former county commissioner Hank Davis Gonzalez and title insurance examiner Dewayne Naumann were thrown into a runoff when Sue Raine, who dropped out of the race after her name was placed on the ballot, still managed to collect nearly 5,000 votes. - Amy Smith
THE NAME GAME
The Davis faithful followed at his heels as they waited for the final Pct. 1 county commissioner's tally, waving bright yellow campaign signs with one hand and crossing their fingers on the other, hoping that the longtime community activist's years in the trenches will finally be rewarded with the elected office that thus far has remained out of reach. "This is long overdue," said Davis supporter Eliza Fanuel."He really deserves to win."
But the champagne must remain on ice for another month, as Davis must first face former Cap Met board member Stacy Dukes-Rhone in an April 14 runoff for the Democratic nomination, and the right to meet Republican software engineer Greg Parker in the general election.
Without any one issue for voters to sink their teeth into, the name game played a surprisingly important role in the Pct. 1 outcome. Some race-watchers put their money on interim Pct. 1 Commissioner Darwin McKee as the favorite to face the well-known Eastside activist Davis in the runoff, in light of the fact that a few former Davis supporters were swinging McKee's way; but it turns out that the power of the Dukes name was not to be underestimated. Dukes-Rhone is the sister of District 50 state rep Dawnna Dukes, and the daughter of Eastside power broker Ben Dukes Sr. That McKee was handpicked by Biscoe to hold the interim seat didn't end up helping McKee much. He got only 24% of the vote; Dukes-Rhone surpassed him by eight percentage points, and Davis led the field by a comfortable margin, with 44%. Though well respected by those within county government and the municipal courts, where his wife Evelyn McKee serves as a judge, McKee was an unknown to the average voter. Perhaps he should have laid off the radio spots on KLBJ and put his money into more effective campaign methods, one consultant suggested. "I've been doing this a while, and I've never bought radio," says this consultant. "Come election day, only truckers knew who Darwin McKee was."
McKee attributed his loss to a lack of name recognition that his short-term incumbency could not overcome. "Looking back on this, I wish I was able to make my accomplishments more public," said a solemn McKee Tuesday night at an election watch party a block away from Palmer at Vinny's Ten-O-Six Cafe. "I wish I was better able to express my achievements to the people." McKee, who got several key endorsements from law enforcement and labor organizations, plus the Austin Women's Political Caucus and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, said he will likely endorse Davis or Dukes-Rhone, though he has not decided who.
At presstime, Dukes-Rhone was not available for comment, but her campaign manager, Gray McBride, read the following statement to this reporter: "We are delighted to carry on Stacy's message of individual responsibility and community self-determination, but in this runoff we still face an uphill battle. Ron Davis is the anointed candidate of the politically elite. Davis is backed by the city's two biggest newspapers and the wealthy West Lake Hills limousine liberals, but Stacy Dukes-Rhone never walks away from a fight and the truth will prevail." Talk about rich. - Lisa Tozzi
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
In the end, the Democratic primary county commissioner's race between Pct. 2 incumbent Karen Sonleitner and Pflugerville Mayor Haywood Ware wasn't even a contest. Ware suffered a lopsided defeat - about an 80-20 split. Probably more surprising, though, was the downfall of Dem-turned-Republican Bob Honts, who lost to Jim Shaw, a newcomer with virtually no name recognition, by a mere 127 votes. That's gotta hurt. Shaw, a chiropractor, was feeling no pain on Wednesday. "Hard work pays off," he said of his no-frills, grassroots effort. "I walked block after block, and I had about 80 volunteers out there walking, too."
Shaw, who was rumored to be a member of the all-powerful Christian Coalition, denied ties to the group. "I am a Christian, but I couldn't even tell you who runs the Christian Coalition here. I do know that a lot of Christian people backed me, especially given Bob's history," he said of the former controversial county commissioner. "I'm also pro-life and he's pro-choice, so of course I was the choice of the Christians."
Local Dems were also quick to note that Republicans simply didn't buy Honts' eleventh-hour GOP conversion, having shed his Democratic ties shortly before filing. "The question for them," said Sonleitner, "was which of the two candidates truly represents the heart and soul of the Republican Party." - Amy Smith
Precinct 3 county commissioner candidates Nan Clayton (D), Todd Baxter (R), and Rick Shafer (R), survived their opponents in the primaries but picked up a new challenger, independent candidate Kirk Mitchell, who launched his campaign from the coliseum floor. Brandishing a large posterboard chart showing the explosive rise in Travis County debt since the mid-Eighties, and decrying "tax-subsidized magnets for urbanized sprawl," Mitchell worked the small band of Democratic supporters milling the floor, drawing little attention from TV crews or the Statesman, but snagging an interview on KVET.
"Daryl, how would you explain what you're looking at?" said Mitchell as he bounced his chart in front of Councilmember Daryl Slusher, himself a longtime foe of subsidized urban sprawl. Slusher quipped that it looked like one of Ross Perot's famous graphs.
"He's having a big time, isn't he," Pct. 3 Democratic victor Nan Clayton observed dryly as she watched Mitchell. Mitchell's candidacy has already hurt Clayton by prompting major environmental lobbies to withold their support from her. Clayton said that fight is not finished yet, however.
"I still see the opportunity is there to work with [the environmentalists]," Clayton said. "I have an environmental plan that they can look at, and some of them feel good about it."
Meanwhile, the greens were trying to convince themselves that "surely" longtime S.O.S.-er Mitchell would pull out of the race if his candidacy threatened to sabotage a Democratic victory in Pct. 3 come November. "We want him to run as hard as he can until August, then he needs to take a hard look and see if he can win," said S.O.S. Alliance lawyer Bill Bunch. Mitchell has said that he'll be coming after the Republican candidate more than Clayton, claiming that his fiscally responsible, environmentally protective platform will sell to rural voters. "I'm harping on issues the Republicans would be raising if they weren't such a bunch of tax-and-spend liberals," Mitchell joked.
GOP candidate Todd Baxter, who fell two percentage points shy of avoiding a runoff with Oak Hill businessman Schafer, scoffed at the notion that Mitchell's "anti-sprawl" platform could undermine his own support among conservatives. "If you want to talk about sprawl, we're [the county] responding to growth, and we need to have a little more foresight, to be more productive in nature, rather than responsive," said Baxter, emphasizing that he would listen to county residents and afford them control over their tax dollars. Baxter also rebuffed the contention - raised by Mitchell and others - that he meant to play turncoat and sell Travis County water rights down the aquifer to San Antonio, the political base of his former boss, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth. Baxter said he was "strongly opposed to interbasin water transfers" and pointed out that county commissioners have little to do with water transfers, anyway.
Still, the environmental community is wary of Baxter, and perhaps of Mitchell, as well. "We are terrified of Baxter," said one enviro activist who supported Clayton. "Mitchell's a friend, but it's got to be Nan." - Kevin Fullerton
SLOUCHING TOWARDS THE RUNOFF
Throughout their campaigns, Jan Breland and Jade Meeker always professed to be friends. But that was before Tuesday night's primary results in the county Court-at-Law No. 6 race forced them into a runoff that will put their friendship to the test over the next five weeks. There's a chance Round Two of the campaign won't be pretty, given the intense loyalty of supporters in both camps. At any rate, both candidates expressed confidence in a victory April 14. The Democratic winner will face Republican Randy Trybus in November.
Breland fell just short of winning outright in the three-way race, collecting 46.2% of the vote to Meeker's 34%, with Russell Ramirez at just under 20%. Not a bad showing for Ramirez, who hardly spent a dime. One politico chalked it up to the Hispanic surname that catches many a voter's eye when it comes down to selecting someone they know something about come election day. Breland drew on strong name recognition and grassroots support, particularly in north and northwest Travis County, where she has served as Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace for 10 years.
Many courthouse and political insiders were surprised that Meeker, a Pct. 5 J.P., trailed, given the number of her endorsements and the backing from Austin's tenacious progressive community whose leaders are well versed in getting out the vote. "Yeah, it's too bad she didn't win it outright," said Mark Yznaga, Meeker's campaign manager. Yznaga may be especially sad - he's been vowing to get out of the hair-graying consulting business as soon as his work is done for Meeker. Then again, he's been saying that for ages. - Amy Smith
LA CLICA FAILS TO CLICK
By the end of the day Tuesday, Margaret Gomez's campaign office had logged several reports from people calling to complain that "somebody in Richard Moya's campaign" was going around vandalizing Gomez's yard signs. One Gomez supporter called the Chronicle with her story. "They pulled my sign and my neighbors' signs completely out of the ground. You can see their shoeprints," she said. "It was somebody with a big foot."
Of course, no one knows who, exactly, was wreaking havoc on Gomez's yard signs, but the incumbent commissioner had a message for that person after her nearly 60-40 win over Moya, a former county commissioner who was trying to make a comeback after years away from the dais. "I never, never touched any of Richard's signs," she said. "We can disagree on issues without knocking any signs down or trashing them." She observed that it wasn't "Margaret Gomez's power nor Richard Moya's power" that voters weighed before making their choice. "We have educated and well-informed voters who make up their own minds," she said. "They don't want to hear a candidate talk about what his opponent did wrong or what they lack."
It had been a tough race for Gomez, having to run against her old boss and mentor. Moya was a trailblazer in the early days when Hispanic officeholders were few and far between; Travis County's first Hispanic commissioner served multiple terms, from 1970-1986. But his time had come and gone, Gomez's supporters said, claiming that voters agreed that Moya's bluster-and-swagger style of running Pct. 4 belonged in a bygone era of Travis County politics. - Amy Smith
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