Courting the Vote

With Four Dems Running for the Bench, Only Two Will Survive the Primaries

Courting the Vote
By Doug Potter

An old acquaintance telephoned Council Member Gus Garcia the other day and offered to write him a check as a contribution to his campaign for judge. "I told him, 'It's not me who's running for judge, it's my son,'" Garcia says, chuckling. "So he wrote the check out to my son." Such are the serendipitous perks of being a first-time candidate named Gus Garcia Jr., in a town where Gus Sr. has wielded considerable political might for more than two decades. Family connections or no, Gus Jr., 38, is still the clear underdog in the race for County Court-at-Law No. 5. He's running in the Democratic primary against a newly appointed incumbent, Gisela Triana, a politically savvy upstart who's been on the career fast track since graduating from the University of Texas law school at the age of 22. A former justice of the peace, Triana, 33, was appointed to the county court seat last December following the resignation of Wilfred Aguilar, who left the bench in the face of a DWI charge and a judicial conduct review. With Aguilar's departure, it fell on the Travis County commissioners to select a replacement for the rest of the term, so they culled through a pile of 18 applicants, whittled the stack down to 11, then four, and finally settled on Triana by unanimous vote. Whether she continues serving in that position, is, of course, up to Travis County voters.

Triana's longterm tenure on the bench appeared a certainty until Garcia stepped up to the plate. Nevertheless, each still considers the other a friend, and they have so far managed to keep things on amiable terms while on the campaign stump.

Garcia, a 38-year-old criminal defense lawyer who had also sought the commissioners' appointment, says it's not sour grapes that led to his decision to run against Triana. "I just think voters should have the right to choose their judge. If I lose, I lose, but at least the voters will have decided," he says.

Gisela Triana
Gisela Triana

This race won't be the only judicial contest voters will be asked to decide. This election year marks a rare occurrence, with five contested and four uncontested judicial races at the county courthouse level. While these campaigns are routinely dull and non-issue based, this year's contests might well hold voters' interest -- not so much for their fireworks but for their political nuances (see "Coming in November," p.36).

For starters, the March 14 Democratic primary will include two contested judicial races. Besides the court-at-law bout between candidates Garcia and Triana (with the primary winner facing Republican Grant Goodwin in November), there's the 53rd District Court race, with Susan Haney and Scott Jenkins competing for the Democratic nomination (see below) and the right to face John Drolla, a Republican, who has made previous unsuccessful runs for judge.

It is the Garcia-Triana race, however, that is causing some agonizing choices for supporters who feel a moral obligation to both camps. Take, for example, former Austin City Council member Brigid Shea. Gus Sr. is a godfather to her son, yet Triana is a friend, and their children are in daycare together. "Although I'm very close to Gus Sr. and I'm very fond of him, I decided to support Gisela because I know her, and because she's been involved in the community. Of course, I had some pangs about the decision but Gus [Sr.] was very understanding."

The younger Garcia's late start in the race has cost him some key endorsements from local Democratic clubs, but as his father cheerfully points out about a long-ago former mayor: "Ron Mullen never got an endorsement, and he won."

Gus Garcia Jr.
Gus Garcia Jr.

Gus Jr. says he's running because he believes he's the better qualified of the two, given the court's criminal docket. "I'm a working lawyer. I defend people who are in trouble with the law. I also know how to prosecute cases. In my opinion, I've got her beat hands-down," Garcia says.

Triania counters that her own courtroom experience, deciding cases from the bench, is the best preparation for the job. "The commissioners selected me [to fill Aguilar's seat] because they needed someone who could hit the ground running. They needed someone who could move the docket."

How They Differ

To be sure, both candidates have followed very different paths to get where they are today. Garcia graduated from UT with an English degree in 1985, then joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, serving in Southern California where he assisted newly arrived immigrants from Southeast Asia. From there, he took a public relations job with the McAllen Independent School District before deciding to pursue a law degree at UT. Once out of law school, Garcia landed a job with the Travis County Attorney's office, where he made a name for himself prosecuting misdemeanor criminal cases. Since then, he's divided his time between his family and private law practice, which has earned him a stellar reputation among other attorneys and judges. Apart from work and family, he has spent little time developing a network of supporters in the community. "I think the biggest knock on me is [when people say] "We don't know you,'" Garcia acknowledges. He says he's also received some criticism for running against a fellow Democrat who secured the appointment. But, Garcia reasons, "I think it's a very positive thing when you have two young, qualified Hispanic people who are running for judge."

To be sure, the Hispanic factor is not to be ignored, given the current Anglo majority on the bench. Garcia is a Mexican-American whose parents are held up as role models in the community, one as a public servant, the other as a special education teacher at Sanchez Elementary. Triana is Cuban-American; her parents fled Cuba in 1962, three years after Fidel Castro rose to power. "We were two refugees seeking to learn the language," recalls Triana's mother, Dr. Gisela Triana, now a psychiatrist living in San Antonio. After Triana's father served two years in the U.S. Army, the family moved to Houston. Then a job transfer took them to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the family lived for five years before moving to San Antonio, where the younger Gisela raced through school, placing out of kindergarten and then graduating from high school at the age of 16. College and law school sped by equally fast. "I'm her mother," says the elder Triana, "so of course I'm very proud and feel very fortunate to have her as my daughter."

Triana has similarly leapfrogged her way through her career, first as a Travis County assistant attorney, then as a staff attorney at the secretary of state's office. She then entered private practice, concentrating in family law and criminal defense, and spent four years as an associate municipal court judge. In 1998 she was elected to the justice of peace seat, where she served until her most recent appointment. Along the way, about a year and a half ago, she had a baby.

If Garcia has been criticized for his lack of community involvement, Triana has likewise taken some hits for being, as they say, "too politically connected." Says Triana: "Yes, I'm politically connected, but I've worked hard at it. I just didn't show up one day and say, "I want to be a judge.'"

Both father and son Garcia agree that's not the proper way to go about getting elected. But then, like Gus Jr., Gus Sr. was also a late-bloomer, mounting his first campaign in 1978 for the AISD school board -- at the ripe old age of 38. "I told [Gus Jr.] from the outset, 'You're the underdog,'" Garcia says. "I told him that in this town, he ought not to rely solely on the name Gus Garcia. In that sense, he's got an uphill battle." On an optimistic note, the elder Garcia, who is actively making phone calls on his son's behalf, believes his son and Triana will be neck-and-neck by the time March 14 rolls around, with Gus Jr. picking up support among Asians and African-Americans -- two communities that hold allegiances to Gus Sr. "He's going to work his butt off from here to March 14," Gus Sr. promises. "Some day," he adds, "he'll break out of his cocoon and start kicking ass." end story

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county court at law no. 5, wilfred aguilar, gisela triana, gus garcia jr., council member gus garcia, scott jenkins, susan haney, 53rd district court

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