Oh, To Be a Constable
A Pack of Candidates Vie for Post That Gets Scant Attention
Pity the poor constables of Travis County. Every four years they have to mount a shoe-string campaign to keep a job hardly anybody knows anything about. It's a thankless business to be in, though a mid-$50s salary range isn't too shabby for an elected official who goes all but ignored by the general public. What the heck do constables and their deputies do all day, anyway? Technically, they're the worker bees of civil process, the folks who show up at your door with the papers notifiying you that you're being sued, or that you need to appear in court on such and such a date to explain a delinquent child support payment. If you're playing hooky from school, you don't want to bump into a constable on the way over to your friend's house. (But if you do, we're told, the constables' Absentee Student Assistance Program, or ASAP, is not a bad little gig, as truancy programs go.) And then there's the criminal side of constable work, which is mostly of the small-potato variety -- the Class C misdemeanor arrests and whatever occasional juicy stuff comes along.
Not everybody agrees on what the constable's duties should entail, and some believe the job needs to be better tailored to meet the demographic needs of the various districts -- taking on more of a community outreach role. But clearly one of the biggest challenges of the job comes every presidential election year, when the names of at least a dozen constable candidates show up somewhere near the bottom of the county election ballots. Some voters will have at least two candidates to choose from in their precinct, with the exception of Precinct 5, where Bruce Elfant is the only incumbent running unopposed in both primary and general elections.
Taking the "race to watch" award this election year is the Precinct 4 Democratic primary battle, featuring incumbent Ricardo "Rocky" Medrano and challengers Maria Canchola and Joe Hardin. Medrano's job is on the line and he knows it, but he says he's up for the fight. In his younger days, Medrano's scales never tipped past 140 pounds as he boxed his way out of a life as a migrant worker to become the junior welterweight champion of North America and No. 6 in the world. That life in the ring cost him a broken jaw and a few bloody noses and black eyes suffered at the hands of a Joey Limas, say, or a Henry Dominguez, to whom he lost his first fight. Now, as a much stouter man of 55, Medrano is taking some jabs of a different sort. Critics say his old-cop machismo is out of step with the times, as evidenced by his failure to quell an inter-office sexual harassment incident a few years back that resulted in a lawsuit against Travis County, and secondly for his lack of skills in running an office of more than 10 deputies and staff.
It's easier, perhaps, for Medrano to reflect on the years he spent in the ring, or keeping the streets safe as a trooper and SWAT member for the Department of Public Safety. Lining the walls of his South Austin office are aging boxing posters from the Sixties, with Medrano pictured in fighter's stance, eyes staring directly into the camera. On another wall are photos of Medrano and his buddies at DPS, where Medrano spent 22 years, until 1993, when Travis County Commissioners appointed him to fill the unexpired constable term of Margaret Gomez, who had moved on to a seat on the Commissioners Court. Medrano has won an election since then, but his guarantee of a re-election this time is kind of iffy in the eyes of those supporting either Canchola, 54, a senior deputy constable in Precinct 5, or Joe Hardin, 38, a former truancy officer with the Austin Independent School District. By most accounts, Canchola is the candidate to beat in this largely Hispanic precinct that spans South Central Austin, parts of East Austin, and southeast Travis County.
Medrano, for his part, believes he's got the support of his constituency. "I feel like I'm going to win," he says. "But I do have some concern." Medrano points to his accomplishments with the truancy program in the Del Valle school district, where he says he has worked night and day to help bring the attendance rate up to its current daily level of "no less than" 91%. "I would rather spend time with our young people today rather than see them do time tomorrow," Medrano likes to say.
A record that Medrano isn't proud of, however, is the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee. While the November 1995 lawsuit cites another deputy for making sexually offensive remarks, the suit also singles out Medrano for allegedly calling the plaintiff "white girl," "whitey," and "coconut." Medrano used the disparaging references, the suit claims, because the plaintiff, a Hispanic, was married to an Anglo. The county settled the matter a year later for $55,000, and the county commissioners were not amused. They held three executive sessions to discuss the matter before finally approving the settlement, going on record with a sharply worded statement expressing their "deep concern" about the nature of the lawsuit and saying that, if it happened again, they would basically hang Medrano out to dry.
Medrano says the terms of the settlement preclude him from commenting on the lawsuit, but he does agree that the issue tarnished the image of his office. Apart from that, reviews of Medrano's overall performance are mixed. Critics claim he doesn't take the civil process side of his work seriously, and would rather be out fighting crime alongside police and sheriff's deputies.
Canchola, who has received the majority of endorsements from Democratic clubs and police and sheriff PACs, acknowledges that her style is "totally different" from Medrano's. Moreover, the Austin Women's Political Caucus has contributed $500 to Canchola's campaign, which is a fairly large contribution for a constable's race. Canchola vows to put the constable's priorities back on track if elected. "This office is not about keeping the streets safe," she says. "Crime fighting is not the job of a constable." Her goal, she says, is to bring Precinct 4 out of the dark ages and into the new millennium with more technologically advanced equipment and a more efficient distribution of the workload.
Meanwhile, in the east and northeast sector of Travis County, Luke Mercer is trying to hold on to the Precinct 1 seat he's held since 1997, when county commissioners appointed the longtime sheriff's deputy to serve out the remainder of the term vacated by Don Nesby, who left due to illness. Mercer, 59, has won most of the endorsements he's sought from various clubs and organizations, but he faces two opponents in the Democratic primary: his former chief deputy, Flynn Lee, 39, and Austin police officer Michael Carter, 46.
The Heat Is On
Lee apparently is taking some heat for turning in his resignation letter to Mercer one minute, and then filing to run for Mercer's job the next. Mercer believes Lee should have at least told him in advance of his plans to quit and run for constable, but Lee defends his actions. "There was nothing unprofessional about that," Lee says. "I had taken some days off to do some soul-searching and think about what I wanted to do in the new millennium. When I came back [from vacation], I resigned. I waited until I resigned to file for office."
Lee, a former city parks police and investigator for the Texas Commission on Human Rights, explains his reason for wanting to run for the post: "I feel that the constable's office is at a point where it's stagnant," he says. "There are a lot of things a constable can do other than civil process. I'd like to improve on customer service and community involvement." If elected, Lee says, he'll set out to improve safety and training for Precinct 5 officers, establish a mentoring program in the schools, and create a more user-friendly constable's office for the community.
Carter, who recently hit the 25-year mark at the Austin Police Department, also wants to create a much more active and visible constable's office. "I'd like to help the public become more aware of the constable's role by building partnerships with others in the community," Carter says.
Out in the thick of Republican territory in northern Travis County, the big question is why Precinct 2 incumbent Bob Vann is being challenged by one of his own party members. The challenger is Jeff Hill, 43, an entomologist who recently merged his Enviropest business with Bug Master, where he is now a partner. Libertarian Elaine Hunt will also appear as a contestant in the general election, as will Democrat Kevin Ward.
GOP vs. GOP
The word among county wags is that Hill was recruited to run against Vann as payback for Vann's refusal to support Bob Honts' GOP candidacy for county commissioner two years ago. Vann instead supported Jim Shaw, who won the Republican nomination but lost to incumbent Democratic commissioner Karen Sonleitner.
In 1992, Hill ran as a Libertarian against former sheriff Terry Keel. Now running as a Republican, Hill says he wants to apply his management skills toward running the constable's office like a business.
Vann, 52, was elected to the constable's post in 1996. He has a soft spot in his heart for water-quality causes and has earned high marks from Dems for his work in getting the Environmental Fund of Texas off the ground. He's also served as the president of the Colorado River Watch Program, and as president of the Protect Lake Travis Association for the past 11 years, and he won an EPA Environmental Excellence Award in 1992. Vann says he likes being a constable, and that he's brought professionalism to the office by uniforming his officers. While Republicans aren't, as a rule, big on on such truancy programs as ASAP, Vann is said to have embraced the program and worked toward its success in the Pflugerville schools.
"Bob is one of those Republicans who checks the "R" at the door when it comes to being a team member of Travis County," says one county Democrat. "He's not a Republican constable. He's a constable who happens to be a Republican."
Two GOP contenders, Drew McAngus and Xavier Montalvo, are seeking the Republican nomination to challenge longtime Democratic incumbent Kevin Miskell, who faces no primary opposition in Precinct 3, which occupies far South Austin and southwest Travis County.
Mission: To Topple a Dem
Some of you may remember McAngus from his unsuccessful 1996 primary bid for sheriff. Earlier in his career as a Travis County sheriff's deputy, McAngus ran into some well-publicized trouble on the job when he climbed behind the wheel of a county car after downing a few. He was also faulted for having an affair with a woman he met during an investigation. McAngus eventually got religion and cleaned up his act, pursuing a career as a private investigator.
"I really believe I have all the experience necessary for the job," he says, adding that he has nothing against the incumbent. "I just want to be a full-time, at-work constable," he says.
McAngus, 44 has a tough competitor in 31-year-old Xavier Montalvo, an eight-year deputy constable in Precinct 5. Montalvo, 31, lays out why he's running for office in simple terms: "I want to do what constables are supposed to do," he says, "and that is to execute the civil process work coming out of JP court." Montalvo, an ex-Marine, says he would draw on his experience working with juveniles to beef up programs for kids in Precinct 3.
A few other important factors shaping this race: Montalvo is quickly securing the backing of local conservative heavyweights, including state representative and former sheriff Terry Keel, County Commissioner Todd Baxter, the Circle C Homeowners Association PAC, and the Lake Travis Republican Men's Club. Given the growing GOP force of this district, which in 1998 made Baxter the county's first Republican commissioner, Constable Miskell could well have his work cut out for him in November.