Welcome to the Primaries

Chapter 3: County Races

Travis Co. Commissioner, Pct. 2

You won't read this in their campaign literature, but Karen Sonleitner and Jeff Heckler are the two thickest-skinned candidates in Travis County. It's a good thing, too, because the shots volleyed back and forth between them would have withered more sensitive souls weeks ago.

Sonleitner is running for a third term on the Commissioners Court, while Heckler, a longtime activist and owner of a public relations firm, is making his first bid for elected office. On the GOP ballot are two lesser-known candidates, Roger Settler, a publisher who lost a primary run for a House seat in 2000, and real estate agent Sheri Perry Gallo. But the real contest is between the two Democrats. If Sonleitner thought it was hard for a Dem to win a general election in her formerly GOP-heavy precinct, she faces an equally tough primary battle in the newly redistricted Pct. 2, which now includes more of Central Austin's progressive voters. There, Heckler is regarded as the great green hope, while Sonleitner is the incumbent who has drifted too far to the right, particularly concerning big road projects. The Heckler camp also points to Sonleitner's campaign contributors -- from road enthusiasts to consultants and architects associated with the problem-plagued Criminal Justice Center project. Sonleitner says she's known many of those contributors for years. "Not once have I ever been asked to do something for someone who gave me money. It doesn't mean I'm buying into their agenda, it means they're buying into mine," she says, borrowing a Ronald Reagan defense of his campaign funders.

Sonleitner's supporters criticize Heckler as an opportunist, pointing to his work as a PR consultant. They say he has worked with suburban residents fighting Austin annexation, and helped organize opposition to a proposed baseball stadium for Austin -- funded by interests that wanted it in Round Rock instead. Even his work opposing the Longhorn Pipeline, they say, was funded by a competing pipeline company. Heckler dismisses that charge as irrelevant, and counters that he's been "knee-deep" in neighborhood and environmental issues for many years. "I'm probably one of the most misunderstood local political guys around," he says. "The thing in this community is they like activists to have an opinion -- they don't like activists to win. If I have an opportunity to win something, I'm going to take it. And, gosh, do I struggle with the ethical issues? Absolutely."

Travis Co. Commissioner, Pct. 3

This race features the rare occurrence of two viable Republican candidates: Gerald Daugherty, a longtime critic of Capital Metro and light rail, and Ira Yates, a rancher and lifelong county resident perhaps more closely aligned with environmental interests than suburban Republican ones. The winner will face incumbent Democrat Margaret Moore in November; Moore was appointed to serve out the remainder of the term for Republican Todd Baxter, when he resigned to run for the state House District 48.

Daugherty seems to have the party's establishment vote sewn up, while Yates has picked up support from independents who make up a fair share of the voting ranks in southwest and western Travis County.

The candidates are diametrically opposed on transportation issues. Daugherty makes no apologies for his pro-road stance. "I am absolutely in favor of building an infrastructure of a road system in this community," he says, adding that he would have been "wholeheartedly" behind the proposed Frate Barker Road extension, a controversial proposal eventually removed from last November's bond ballot. "You've got to do some things that some people don't like. I make no excuses about being wholeheartedly behind aggressively building a road system."

Yates would rather enhance the county's existing road corridors as a means of protecting the Hill Country. "You shouldn't put roads across wide open spaces," he says. "I have a deep concern about what's going on in western Travis County as far as the fractionalization of the land, and the urban sprawl that occurs with all of that."

Both men say they're looking forward to representing the Commissioners Court on the Capital Metro Board, but for different reasons -- Yates for better land planning in relation to a transit system, Daugherty to hold the board's feet to the fire on accountability issues. "I am a firm and aggressive proponent of public transportation. I am a firm and aggressive opponent of what we have now," Daugherty says. "It is the perfect bureaucracy in that you have public funds, and almost no oversight. ... It's a travesty."

Travis Co. Commissioner, Pct. 4

Barbara Cilley is better known as a policy wonk than a politician, but the Travis Heights resident has mounted her first political campaign challenging Pct. 4 incumbent Margaret Gómez. Cilley publishes a public policy newsletter, and believes her master's degree in planning and her experience writing position papers for various candidates would serve her well as a county commissioner. She describes the current state of county affairs as "abysmal" and "pathetic" -- starting, of course, with the criminal justice center mess. Cilley has also served on the Austin Electric Utility Commission, and faults the drainage and flood control problems that have historically plagued neighborhoods in south and southeast Travis County.

Gómez, who says she will continue to work to secure funding to correct these problems, gained renewed support from the environmental community with her opposition to Frate Barker. (She joined Ron Davis and Judge Sam Biscoe in voting to remove the controversial measure from the ballot.) She supports light rail, while Cilley says she would prefer to buy more buses.

Travis County Judge

Supporters of incumbent county Judge Sam Biscoe don't exactly consider Richard T. McCain a formidable opponent, but McCain is gaining some name recognition from his large campaign signs alongside various roadways. The deputy constable is making a lot of hay out of the county's handling of the criminal justice center debacle, but it's uncertain how much mileage a first-time candidate can pick up from the CJC follies. Assuming Biscoe wins the primary, he'll square off in November against Republican Bob Honts, a former commissioner.

Court-at-Law No. 7

A veteran lawyer and two judges are running for the vacancy in this criminal misdemeanor court, created by the departure of Brenda Kennedy, now running for an open District Court seat. The winner from this trio of Dems -- David Carlton Hughes, a civil and criminal defense lawyer; Elisabeth Earle, who presides over the Downtown Austin Community Court; and Evelyn McKee, the presiding municipal court judge -- will have no Republican opposition.

Earle appears to be the leading candidate on several fronts: She's raised more contributions, she has the most experienced campaign staff in veteran strategists David Butts and Pat Crow, and she has won the most endorsements. (It doesn't hurt that her father is Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle.) Earle says, "My judicial experience and criminal trial experience has placed me both behind and in front of the bench, and that's invaluable experience for a judge in this court." She has served as an assistant county attorney, a municipal judge, and, since 1999, the judge of the experimental Community Court, which assigns repeat offenders, such as drug and alcohol users, to counseling or treatment centers.

McKee has the most judicial experience, having served 13 years at Austin Municipal Court. Since 1999, she has served as the city's presiding municipal court judge, over 18 other municipal judges. Last year, the Texas Municipal Courts Association honored her with the Outstanding Judge of the Year Award. At the city level, McKee generally handles Class C misdemeanors; but she notes that the majority of felony cases also start the criminal justice process before a municipal judge, or magistrate. "I have the breadth and depth of judicial experience necessary for this court," she said. Her top supporters include former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, the Rev. Frank Garrett, and veteran criminal trial lawyer Betty Blackwell. Acknowledging Earle as a formidable opponent, McKee declares, "I am undaunted."

Hughes is counting on his 20 years of trial experience and his initial ballot placement to give him the edge. "I have not been able to match Earle on the endorsements, nor McKee, but I would be less likely to have cases reversed [on appeal] because of my experience -- I've tried more Class A and B jury trials, and I've practiced in this particular court."

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