Commissioners Court: Precincts 1, 2, and 4
Pct. 1: Davis vs. Parker
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Never say Ron Davis takes anything for granted. The popular view may be that he won the race for Precinct 1 County Commissioner months ago when he emerged the victor in a three-way Democratic primary battle against Stacy Dukes-Rhone and incumbent commissioner Darwin McKee, but don't tell that to Davis. The longtime community activist remains on the campaign trail, hammering yard signs and shaking hands, and refusing to discount his Republican opponent Gregory Parker. "You can never take an opponent lightly," Davis repeats to all who dare suggest that the race is over. "You can never feel comfortable until the end. I know very well the story of the tortoise and the hare."
It's no wonder he's so careful. After all, Davis, 53, has lost two high-profile elections in the past four years. But many watching the Commissioners Court races agree that the Pct. 1 job could only be more surely Davis' if he were running uncontested. Even in a year where more Republicans than ever are expected to be swept into office, it is unlikely that a little-known 28-year-old can break through the Democratic stronghold in this precinct's eastern and northeastern sectors. Parker, a software engineer whose political experience includes running unsuccessfully for the Killeen City Council and serving as a member of the Capital Area Planning Council Area Agency on Aging, says voters want a change in Pct. 1, and he believes his background in information technology would bring efficiency to county government. But despite Parker's optimism and active campaigning, he has neither the name recognition nor the message to match Davis' well-known record in Pct. 1.
Supporters say that serving the remaining two years of Sam Biscoe's unexpired term is Davis' well-deserved reward for two decades spent in the trenches battling for his neighbors in East Austin. As a leader of the East Austin Strategy Team (EAST), for instance, Davis successfully fought alongside other neighborhood activists in 1992 to get rid of the gasoline tank farms in East Austin. His most recent source of pride is his role in establishing a new Austin Community College campus in East Austin.
Perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting Davis won't be this race, but making his mark on the Commissioners Court once he gets there. Since he will be serving a shortened term, Davis will need to be a quick study on the ins and outs of county government if he wants to accomplish all his goals by the next election. He says his years of working with various governmental and community forces is the strong foundation that will help him get things done on the Commissioners Court. "I think we can do a lot in two years," he says. "It just means I'm not going to waste any time." – Lisa Tozzi
Pct. 2: Sonleitner vs. Shaw
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The first staggering surprise in this race occurred in the March Republican primary when Shaw, who ran a bareboned door-knocking campaign, beat the well-financed and heavily favored Bob Honts by a mere 127 votes. Honts, who believed he had the the primary sewed up, was fit to be tied over the loss. He even filed a lawsuit against Shaw, claiming a conspiracy of some sort between Shaw and the primary election administrators. The suit died on the vine and Shaw says he now has Honts' support. And with Honts out of the way, Shaw says, he's been able to raise more campaign funds this time around to cover printing and mailing costs. His latest contributors' report showed most of his money coming from chiropractors, as well as three contributions totalling $2,100 from Joanna Clardy, a right-to-life supporter.
As for the Sonleitner-Shaw contest, the two candidates are sticking to the issues and have been fairly cordial to one another on the stump. Shaw's message centers on the fiscal stuff of county government; he wants to rein in the budget (it's jumped from $194 million to over $400 million in five years), lower taxes, and pay down the county's debt. (As an aside, he said he intends to vote against the city's upcoming bond election "on principle.")
Sonleitner, meanwhile, says she wants to finish some long-range projects the county started during her first term, which include various voter-approved bond projects, $36 million for road improvements, expansion of the Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center, and the construction of new facilities at the county jail in Del Valle. Sonleitner completed her first term on a high note when she, along with County Commissioner Margaret Moore, rose to the occasion and took the lead on drafting a plan to bring EMS under county control. That was after negotiations between County Judge Bill Aleshire and Mayor Kirk Watson had sputtered to an abrupt stop. Still, Sonleitner may need every bit of her strong name ID and record of experience, particularly in this fairly evenly split district where, in the last four county commissioner elections, Democrats have won no more than 52.5% of the vote.
Shaw, meanwhile, is counting on recent Optimum Republican Voting Strength numbers in his district that gauge GOP votes at 56%-57% this election year. Still, he acknowledges,"I know I have a long hill to climb." And what if he ends up the lone Republican – the first Republican – on the Commissioners Court? "It really will be historic if I win ... but," he adds reassuringly, "I'm not going to be a bomb thrower." – Amy Smith
Pct. 4: Gómez vs. Larson
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Ghosts of governing bodies past keep popping up to run against incumbent Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez. First, she was forced to square off in the Democratic primary against her former boss, Richard Moya, who was attempting a comeback after being absent from county politics since 1986. Now, in the general election, Gómez is fending off another comeback bid, this time by former city councilmember Bob Larson.
Republican candidate Larson, who served for three tumultuous years on the council from 1990-93, has taken a page from Moya's primary campaign, criticizing Gómez's low-key manner, faulting her for showing a lack of leadership, and slamming her for accepting a 12% pay hike last year, which boosted the commissioners' salaries to about $68,000. "That was really a slap in the face to my neighbors," says Larson, an active member of the Southeast Corner Alliance of Neighborhoods. For her part, Gómez says she believes accepting the raise was a mistake, but she vigorously disagrees with Larson's assertions that she hasn't been there for Pct. 4 residents. She may not be as flashy as Moya (neither is Larson) but she knows how to get things done.
Larson's co-opting of Moya's anti-Gómez message – if not the former commissioner's flamboyant style – is wooing some Moya supporters, even though Moya himself says he's not publicly endorsing either candidate. Larson's apple-green signs are visible around Hispanic East Austin, and he has won the support of former school board member Diana Casteñeda and Eastside activist Paul Hernandez.
Gómez says that she – perhaps naively – believed that Moya would throw his weight behind her campaign following his failed bid to return to the Commissioners Court. But she's not losing any sleep about some of his supporters joining the Larson camp. "I thought he would keep his word and support me. I know I always supported him," says Gómez. "But I'm not going to sit around and cry about it. It's disappointing, but what can you do?"
Perhaps Gómez would be more concerned if she hadn't soundly thumped Moya in the primary, receiving more than 60% of the vote. In the Nov. 3 election, Gómez should have the edge again. Her supporters include the white, liberal, middle-class, pro-environment voters of Pct. 4, who remember all too well Councilmember Larson's failure to support the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Gómez is also expected to garner the lion's share of the Hispanic vote, even without her former boss' endorsement.
One interesting difference between Larson and Gómez is their stance on the future of county government. The fiscally conservative Larson believes that city and county services should be completely combined, and that one metro government should exist to serve the residents of Travis County. He has been active with Citizens for the Right to Vote, the San Antonio-based group which is lobbying the Legislature to allow voters in the state's metropolitan areas to vote on city-county consolidation. It's a curious position for one seeking to be elected to county government, since the assumption tends to be that in a metro government, the county stands more to lose than the city. But Larson says that metro government would eliminate bureaucracy and lower the overall tax burden for county residents.
Gómez favors consolidation in some areas. But she sees the county-city relationship more like a marriage where duplication is eliminated but each entity retains its own identity – and therefore retains its accountability to residents. Human services, EMS, parks and recreation, and transportation are all areas where she sees consolidation occurring. "But it all needs to be done carefully, hopefully the way a marriage is entered into – with much consideration." – Lisa Tozzi