Party Loyalties

In the Pct. 2 County Commissioner race, Jeff Heckler learned that a Democratic primary is different from a City Council race.

Jeff Heckler
Jeff Heckler (Photo By John Anderson)

If Jeff Heckler knew now what he didn't know then, he might have run an altogether different campaign for Travis county commissioner. Heckler, who lost by a surprisingly wide margin March 12 to incumbent Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, now knows there are monumental differences between primary elections and City Council elections.

Heckler admittedly modeled his campaign on a city-style race, which may have unwittingly led to a defeat that no amount of grassroots sweat and marketing could have overcome. Sonleitner scored a 72.8% victory over Heckler in the newly redistricted Pct. 2, which includes much of Central Austin's liberal progressive territory, as well as more conservative areas to the north, including Pflugerville. Heckler's campaign had counted on Central City liberals to put him over the top, but he got just 3,367 votes out of a total of 12,366 cast in his precinct.

"I thought we ran a real brisk, smart campaign," Heckler said a week after the primary. "I don't think we did anything quote-unquote wrong. But to bottom out that badly, given the response we were getting from phoning and from block-walking -- that was surprising."

The groups Heckler and political consultant Mike Blizzard targeted were those grassroots-oriented voters who participate in city elections but who are not always inclined or inspired to vote in primary elections, much less county commissioner races. "We tried to retrofit our [city-oriented] campaign to a Democratic primary," Heckler said, "and maybe therein lay the fatal flaw."

Karen Sonleitner
Karen Sonleitner (Photo By John Anderson)

"When you're in a primary," added Blizzard, "it's like you're in a large club." All the Democratic clubs, it turned out, endorsed Sonleitner, while Heckler collected environmental and some law enforcement backing. Another setback -- the loss of the labor endorsement -- happened early in the campaign, said Blizzard. "That endorsement would have made us more competitive in the Democratic primary, but not getting it forced us to run more of an environmental and fiscal-oriented campaign."

Taken as whole, the Travis County Democratic Party is hardly a homogenous crowd. As Heckler describes it, "You've got your Democratic loyalists and the environmental machine. The two groups don't really interact that much."

It's the longtime loyal Dems who evidently rule in countywide primary elections, however. And they apparently saw no reason to upset the status quo when given a choice between incumbent Sonleitner and Heckler, said longtime political consultant David Butts, who will work with Democratic Commissioners Margaret Moore and Margaret Gómez in the general election. "There were some built-in factors that favored Karen, and those factors included her incumbency and her gender," Butts said. "When you get a division within your own house -- that is, the Democratic Party -- you don't get a consensus. All the organizations were endorsing her, and even though [Save Our Springs] and a few groups came out and said, 'She's no good,' those [Democratic club] endorsements are going to be the most potent. The Democrats pretty much stayed with Karen."

Despite the perceived animosity between the Heckler and Sonleitner camps, Heckler's backers are likely to vote for Sonleitner over her GOP opponent, Sheri Perry Gallo, a lifelong Austin resident and real estate agent, and Libertarian candidate Thomas Oliver Allen. Gallo and other Republicans seeking a Commissioners Court seat are expected to focus their campaigns on road-related issues and the cost overruns and other problems associated with the Criminal Justice Center. "Obviously, there's a concern with citizens about how their taxes are being spent," Gallo said, "and we're going to have to resolve the road and transportation problems in this county."

Indeed, the pro-road message is what Gerald Daugherty believes won him the Republican nomination in Pct. 3 in Southwest and West Travis County. Daugherty waxed GOP rival Ira Yates, a landowner who favored Hill Country conservation over mass road construction. "He was truly running an outsider campaign," said Blizzard, a friend of Yates who also assisted in the campaign effort. "An interesting phenomenon in this race was that we found it much easier to get Republicans to vote for Ira than to get Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican primary. They wanted Ira to win -- some even campaigned for him -- but they just wouldn't cross over."

Yates, who identifies himself more as an Independent than as a Republican or Democrat, was out of town this week and unavailable for comment, so it's uncertain whether the lifelong Travis County resident will back Daugherty or Democrat Moore. As a former county attorney, Moore is also recognized as an outspoken Indie, which may win her some GOP votes. On election night, however, Daugherty suggested that he would try to court Yates' backing in November, and thus those who voted for him in the primary. "I think Ira Yates is a good guy," said Daugherty, "and he'd be a great person to have in the Republican Party."

In other upcoming Commissioners Court races, County Judge Sam Biscoe will face former Commissioner Bob Honts, who tried to make a comeback two years ago but lost the GOP nomination for the Pct. 2 seat, and Libertarian Jason Pratt. And Pct. 4 Commissioner Gómez, who soundly defeated Barbara Cilley in the Democratic primary, goes up against Republican Mike Hanson, a cable access regular, and Libertarian Wes Benedict.

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