Kitchen's District Changes Flavor

Incumbent Kitchen and Republican opponent Todd Baxter spar for seat in reconfigured District 48.

Todd Baxter
Todd Baxter (Photo By John Anderson)

It's not the same District 48 that she won handily in 1999, but nevertheless Democratic state Rep. Ann Kitchen says she'll seek re-election. Last week's GOP redistricting coup altered the landscape in a way that seems to favor Kitchen's GOP opponent, Todd Baxter, who plans to announce his candidacy on Friday.

Kitchen, who moved to Barton Hills nearly three years ago, has until Jan. 2 to establish residency in her newly reconfigured district. She'll bid farewell to a loyal base of South and Southwest Austin supporters, whose allegiance has grown deeper with Kitchen's legislative work on safety issues concerning the Longhorn Pipeline (see related pipeline story, p.16). With her southern roots all but sliced out of the new district (and added to Rep. Terry Keel's), Kitchen holds less than 20% of the original terrain that she won two years ago. The new District 48 has shifted further north and west, stretching all the way to the Burnet County line, and taking in the Republican-friendly bedroom communities of Lago Vista and Jonestown, as well as more evenly mixed bipartisan areas in the Balcones, Camp Mabry, Tarrytown, and West Austin neighborhoods, plus West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, and other affluent locales westward along Lake Austin.

Baxter's campaign announcement is timed to coincide with his resignation from the Travis County Commissioners Court, which goes into effect on Friday. Rumors of Baxter's political aspirations have circulated for months, particularly since he put his old home on the market and moved to River Place, within District 48's new boundaries. "I feel really good about this new opportunity," Baxter said in an interview Monday night, three days after submitting his resignation letter to County Judge Sam Biscoe. (No word yet on whom Biscoe, a Democrat, will appoint to serve out the remainder of Baxter's term, but some predict that well-known light-rail opponent Gerald Daugherty will run next election.)

Ann Kitchen
Ann Kitchen (Photo By John Anderson)

Given the redistricting, Baxter challenged the notion that Kitchen enters the race as the incumbent. "She does not represent the district geographically or philosophically," Baxter said, referring to Kitchen's progressive bent. "She will not have any incumbency benefit. ... I have represented more of this district than she has." Although Baxter's representation of Travis County's Pct. 3 spans portions of the new district -- Lost Creek, West Lake Hills, Davenport, and Rob Roy subdivisions -- this area is not homogeneously Republican. In 1998's down-to-the-wire contest with Democrat Nan Clayton, Baxter won the 3rd Precinct by a mere percentage point. More recently, however, Baxter ran unopposed for re-election.

If things continue on the current path, neither Kitchen nor Baxter will face serious opposition in the March party primaries, which should bode well for their respective bank accounts. But the race will be among the most competitive and closely watched contests in Central Texas. Both candidates will have their work cut out for them, says David Guenthner, managing editor of conservative-leaning The Lone Star Report, an insider weekly that tracks Capitol politics. Guenthner's thumbnail read of the redrawn district is based on a hybrid analysis of the 1998 statewide races for lieutenant governor and state comptroller. While the breakdown for those races was 50.3% Democratic and 49.7% Republican, other statewide races showed an overwhelming GOP majority.

In other words, while the new District 48 favors Republicans, the Kitchen-Baxter race could boil down to a crap shoot. Kitchen "is going to have to hold her own in places like West Lake Hills," Guenthner said. "She's really going to have to do well in those areas where she's more familiar because the further west you go, you'll find a staggering number of Republicans." As for Baxter, a former aide and general counsel to Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, Guenthner observed: "A lot of his success will depend on how much name recognition he's going to have in the northwest part of the county, and he's also going to have to demonstrate gravitas and show familiarity with the issues.

"There's still a perception in some circles," Guenthner continued, "that Baxter is Wentworth's boy. His challenge is going to be convincing people that, 'I'm my own guy.'"

Baxter's confidence notwithstanding, Kitchen has already proven she is an assiduous networker and a skilled campaigner. In 2000, she was outspent by her opponent yet managed to capture 59% of the vote in what was expected to be a neck-and-neck race. And she had an unusually successful year as a freshman legislator, drawing rare praise from higher-ranking colleagues in the seniority-driven House of Representatives. "I had a good session, and I really want to continue working on the issues of health care, education finance, and pipeline safety," Kitchen said. "I made a lot of progress in the last session, so I have a track record that I can run on."

Travis County Democratic Chair Scott Ozmun bets Kitchen can win the race, despite the odds. "I think we'll be very competitive in that district, particularly having an incumbent in the race. Conventional wisdom had everyone predicting a much more competitive race the last time [Kitchen] ran, and she crushed her opponent." The two candidates, both lawyers, are expected to do well with their fundraising efforts, although it's likely Baxter will raise more and spend more to try and unseat his opponent.

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Ann Kitchen, Todd Baxter, Sam Biscoe, Nan Clayton, David Guenthner, Gerald Daugherty, Jeff Wentworth, Terry Keel, Scott Ozmun

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