A Conservative Coup?

Different Strokes

But other points in their respective platforms show that Clayton and Baxter have staked out clearly differentiated constituencies and philosophies. Baxter, for instance, has argued that the Legislature provides adequate environmental regulation and has spoken out against Austin's more stringent controls on development. He has promised to make county government a voice for residents who feel ostracized by Austin city government, and to defend the sovereignty of property owners. That message has no doubt hit home with suburban homeowners still smarting from Austin's recent annexations, and it's also good news to developers and the real estate lobby, who figure prominently in financing Baxter's campaign. Clayton, though she hasn't played the Green card prominently, approves of the city's Save Our Springs ordinance and has been endorsed by anti-sprawl activist and former independent Pct. 3 candidate Kirk Mitchell. But her main thrust is improving proactive social services that prevent crime, school truancy, and child abuse. She also supports county-financed reproductive and contraceptive services, something for which Baxter says he does not believe county dollars should be appropriated.

Baxter has made county employees ñ who confront burgeoning social problems and overcrowded courts on a daily basis ñ understandably nervous with his calls for freezing county spending. Travis County constable Bruce Elfant, while conceding the need for more efficiency, says the pressure for social service spending is "enormous" and that the county is often not able to afford preventive measures which could cut taxpayer expenses in the long run. "A spending freeze is a simplistic way to approach it," Elfant adds. "We need to ask what responsibilities the community expects us to fulfill." Baxter has emphasized, however, that his primary target for spending cuts are county administrative salaries.

It is also unclear just how much Baxter's experience with the Legislature would benefit Travis County's working relationship with state lawmakers, which has been one of Baxter's key selling points. Republicans say the county needs to change its image as a liberal stronghold to earn more favors from the Legislature. "Part of Travis County's problem in the past ... is that there has been this stain with the city's problems that has spilled over and affected the county's ability to get things done in the Legislature," says Reb Wayne, a former chief of staff to Railroad Commissioner Carole Keeton Rylander and a friend of Baxter's. But Elfant counters that "Travis County already has good working relationships with the Legislature. Karen Sonleitner and Sam Biscoe know all of the members of the County Affairs Committee."

And it's still not certain what Baxter's true motivations are in aspiring to the County Commissioners Court. Clearly, his well-researched, conservative agenda, aimed at greater fiscal accountability and a laissez-faire real estate market, are not out of sync with a broad spectrum of Pct. 3 voters, nor is county government an alien environment to him. The heavy price exacted for "quality of life" maintenance in the Austin area could give Baxter a certain popular appeal among working-class voters. On the other hand, Baxter is backed by a formidable array of special interest players ñ Texas Turnpike Authority head Pete Winstead, developer lawyer David Armbrust, and the Circle C PAC, to name a few. Acording to his last contributors' report, Baxter raised more than $73,000 for his war chest, including a $30,000 infusion from the Associated Republicans of Texas. Will he raise thunder every time the county considers stronger environmental controls or tax increases, enhancing his own political profile in the process? Baxter's record as a legislative staffer indicates he is truly interested in government, not just making political hay out of "tax and spend" liberals; but the fact is he's an unknown quantity.

Even within his own party, Baxter hasn't enjoyed total acceptance. Some old-line Republicans are not impressed with Baxter's career ambitions and fundraising panache. Kirk Overbey, a member of the Republican county and state executive committees, says that while Baxter has the "right stuff" to be a successful politician, he has less community appeal than the opponent he defeated in the primary, Oak Hill businessman Rick Schafer. "He's not someone who's going to be a county commissioner for a few years and go back to practicing law," says Overbey. "He has all the outward signs of being a person who wants to make a career in politics." Overbey notes in particular Baxter's polished appearance and comfortable manner with big-money donors as indicative of the candidate's desire to be a political player. "The people who give the kind of money they have to him don't even know how to spell the word 'platform,' if you know what I mean," says Overbey.

Finally, there is the awkwardness surrounding Baxter's residency in Travis County Pct. 3, established in October, 1996 at his fiancee's home, less than a year before Baxter registered as a county commissioner candidate in the district. Baxter points out that he became an Austin resident as early as 1986, before attending law school in Houston and returning to the Austin area. Every young poltician has to start somewhere, of course, but the appearance that he is contriving a career path through the Commissioners Court weakens Baxter when compared to Clayton's long-term and predictable service in local politics.

It is true, as Baxter points out, that Clayton represents the "old guard" of local politics. But that's a political force that has simultaneously preserved Travis County's commitment to its superior social services network while remaining one of the wealthiest regions in Texas. On the other hand, there's reason to believe that anger at local government isn't coming only from recently annexed suburbanites; the perception may be that Austin and Travis County are run by uncaring suits oblivious to the frustrations their policies cause. Baxter's crusade against unaccountable government is sincere, and may be needed. If he wins the race, or even shows strong, it will be a sign that local government and the populace are moving ever further apart.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Travis County Commissioners Court, Todd, Baxter, Pct. 3, Nan Clayton, Environment, Republican, Democrat, Legislature, Kevin, Fullerton

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