Running to the Middle

Centrist Lege districts become Travis County's battlegrounds, while the GOP rules the bench

Travis County House Districts:

The GOP feels it has an edge in House Dists. 47, 48, & 50; Barrientos'  Sen. District 14 (below) has lost key South Austin Democratic votes.
Travis County House Districts:
The GOP feels it has an edge in House Dists. 47, 48, & 50; Barrientos' Sen. District 14 (below) has lost key South Austin Democratic votes.

This is the second of three Chronicle thumbnails on the Nov. 5 general election. The first examined the top of the ballot from the U.S. Senate through Railroad Commissioner. This week considers the state judicial and Legislature races. Next week: County races. See p.22 for more on the races for Travis County's two State Board of Education districts.

State Judicial Races

There are five contested seats on the Texas Supreme Court (two for unexpired terms), including chief justice. Although the court has considerable influence on public policy, especially in matters of contracts and public safety, its members and the candidates are generally familiar mostly to the state bar -- and it's not surprising that except for maverick plaintiffs' attorneys, the bar leans Republican. For a decade, the court has cheerfully reinforced the Legislature's determination to make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to seek legal redress from corporations, and the GOP incumbents (Chief Justice Tom Phillips and Perry-appointed Wallace Jefferson) can be expected to maintain the trend. Phillips has generated some buzz by declining campaign contributions and promoting a shift to an appointment/retention system for selecting judges; his Democratic opponent Richard Baker is not soliciting donations, which even more certainly guarantees his defeat.

Texans for Public Justice reports this week that even without Phillips' participation, major party fundraising in these races has topped $4 million, the bulk of it from law firms that practice before the court. The Republican money advantage (for all but Place 4) is overwhelming, and Democratic upsets are unlikely.

The most notorious race is for Place 4, featuring Republican Hopwood lawyer Steven Wayne Smith against Democrat Margaret Mirabal, an experienced appeals judge. All the serious thinking and money (both Democrat and Republican) is on Mirabal's side -- but Smith has the Anglo name and an undeniable appeal to those who have heard and believe his cant about "reverse discrimination."

Also notable is Austin attorney Brad Rockwell's Green Party candidacy in Place 2. Rockwell is best known locally for his work at Save Our Springs Alliance, but he has also defended capital cases and worked with neighborhood and community groups.

Three places are open on the Court of Criminal Appeals, on which even the slightest shift in the direction of the rights of the accused would be welcome. Perhaps Democrat Pat Montgomery has an outside shot against the GOP's Paul Womack in Place 2; local capital defense attorney Rob Owen is a Green Party breath of hopeful air in Place 1, as is Ollie Ruth Jefferson in Place 3. That seat's incumbent, Perry-appointed Cathy Cochran, last year changed her last name from Herasimchuk. The only question is why she didn't pick "Smith?" -- Michael King

State Senate

Of the Legislative races, Austinites are probably most familiar with the Senate Dist. 14 battle between 17-year incumbent Gonzalo Barrientos and wealthy newcomer Ben Bentzin. It's the first real challenge Barrientos has had since his initial election, a consequence of the redistricting that cut Travis Heights from the district and added West Austin suburbs that will likely lean to Bentzin. The basic numbers and incumbency still favor Barrientos, but Bentzin has gotten some traction from appealing to youth and efficiency (he was a Dell executive), and the simple fact that the new district lines kicked out Democrats and yanked in Republicans. Barrientos is a known quantity, which can cut both ways. Some voters may be looking for a change, but the senator has a long record of standing up on popular Austin issues -- education, state employees, and the environment. The invigorated interest in the statewide races should also help him among Travis Co. voters.

Incumbent Dist. 25 Sen. Jeff Wentworth has been on the Travis Co. ballot before, but not representing the heart of South Austin, where he was shoved after the gerrymandering of Barrientos' district by the Legislative Redistricting Board. He's been bruised this week by headlines questioning his lobbying on behalf of the dubious but lucrative medicinal supplement Metabolife -- but not enough to threaten his election against token Democratic (Joe Sullivan) and Libertarian (Rex Black) opponents. -- M.K.

Texas House of Representatives

Local contenders for the Texas House have plenty of meaty issues to jaw on while they're on the stump, but in Austin, as in other Texas corners, the ultimate question to be settled in November is this: Who'll be the next speaker?

Republicans are betting their marbles that the GOP will gain control of the 150-member House, where the Dems currently hold a six-seat majority. If the Republicans pick up the 10 to 15 seats they're shooting for, the vote for the speaker -- a process conducted at the start of each session -- could go to Midland Republican Tom Craddick. Still, incumbent Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat from Hale Center, enjoys some GOP support, and might be able to pull off a victory if a fair number of moderate Republicans deem Craddick too conservative for their tastes.

Local Democrats fear that their worst nightmares would materialize if Craddick were to topple Laney from the post he's held for a decade. "Laney has not allowed flagrant anti-choice bills to come through the House, but if Craddick is speaker he'll let the anti-choice and voucher bills flow," said political consultant David Butts, who's assisting state reps Ann Kitchen and James Sylvester in their respective races. "And if we think the previous session of the Legislature has been hostile toward Austin, under Craddick we would not have as many friends, possibly even among our own delegation."

On that sobering note, let's look at the two competitive races among the six districts on the Travis County ballot.

District 48: Kitchen vs. Baxter

At last check early this week, Democrat Kitchen and Republican Todd Baxter were running neck and neck in this GOP-heavy district, where both candidates tout their ability to tackle the budget shortfall, resolve school funding issues, and rein in sky-high insurance rates. Given that the new Dist. 48 boundaries were drawn to guarantee a Republican victory, a Baxter loss would be particularly embarrassing for the GOP. So it's reasonable to expect the candidate to drag out the heavy artillery in the final days to portray his opponent as a free-spending left-winger.

Kitchen faces a much greater challenge this year than she did in her 2000 race to succeed retiring Rep. Sherri Greenberg. She lost most of her loyal South Austin base when redistricting chiefs inked her out of her district. Undaunted, the freshman rep moved out of her Barton Hills home, rented an apartment about a mile away, and mounted a campaign -- practically from scratch -- in order to re-establish herself on new ground to the west and north of her old district.

But Baxter, a former Travis Co. commissioner, is also a newcomer to the district, arriving only a few weeks ahead of Kitchen. He lays claim to home ownership, thus boasting that he's an established resident while chiding Kitchen's renter status. All of this may sound petty to most folks, and of course it is, but it's serious stuff out on the campaign trail. Needless to say, the two-way dispute must make Libertarian Michael Badnarik feel like a third wheel.

Both leading candidates are running on their records -- Baxter represented a chunk of Dist. 48 at the county level, and in her only Lege session so far Kitchen gained a nod from senior colleagues who generally ignore the freshman class. In candidate forums, both agree that serious reforms are needed in the "Robin Hood" school finance system. Kitchen's detractors paint her as a big spender in the Legislature, while the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League recalls Baxter's voting record as a commissioner, consistently casting a "no" vote against funding Planned Parenthood family planning services. Also, TARAL points out that in 1998, when running for commissioner, Baxter responded "yes" to a question on whether he'd support a U.S. Supreme Court reversal of the Roe vs. Wade decision.

District 50: Sylvester vs. Stick

In this North Travis Co. district, the GOP theory goes, a Republican candidate holds a definite edge over a Democratic opponent. Yet others insist the swing-vote factor could turn on the strength of the Dem contender.

The differing views explain why Republican Jack Stick and Democrat James Sylvester are in the thick of an extremely tight race. (Voters also have a third choice in Libertarian Rob LeGrand.) Sylvester, a detective with the Travis Co. Sheriff's Dept., is just conservative enough to woo some GOP voters. A longtime scoutmaster, Sylvester oversees the sheriff department's domestic violence division. By contrast, Stick, a lawyer and a former assistant U.S. attorney, boasts a war chest that is rich enough to overcome Sylvester with the right "messaging."

Perhaps even more than Baxter or Rep. Terry Keel (the only GOP incumbent in the Travis Co. delegation), Stick is clearly his party's favorite son. As one well-placed observer of GOP politics offered: "Republicans see in Stick someone who is young and smart. But the conservatives see someone who talks a good game and will probably vote it, too, and ... won't posture or work against conservatives like Keel sometimes does and Baxter might." In short, he said, "the bottom line for the GOP rank-and-file is the vote for speaker, and Stick will be with Craddick."

Democrats point out, on the other hand, that Sylvester has the better temperament for the job -- an insinuation that Stick comes up short in that department.

Other House Races

The four remaining races are virtual walks. Dist.47's Terry Keel could have had a contender in Democrat Bill Martin, had the reasonably well-financed Dell retiree mounted a serious campaign. But the campaign, for whatever reason, never left the ground, so Keel stays put with nary a threat from Martin or Green candidate Sarah DuBose.

Democrats make up the rest of the local delegation, with incumbents Dawnna Dukes and Elliott Naishtat in Districts 46 and 49, respectively, expected to retain their seats with no sweat. Newcomer Eddie Rodriguez will likewise walk easily into the Dist. 51 post, succeeding his former boss, Glen Maxey, whose record of successes on the House floor made him a local institution. -- Amy Smith

Nov. 5 Election Early Voting Locations

Early voting starts Saturday, Oct. 19. All qualified Travis County voters can vote early at any of these sites.

Voting Location Hours:

Mon-Sat, 7am-7pm; Sun, noon-6pm, except:

* Mon-Sat, 10am-9pm; Sun, noon-6pm

** Mon-Fri, 9am-7pm; Sat-Sun: noon-6pm

For further voting info, contact the county clerk's office, 238-VOTE (238-8683), or go to

Albertsons N. Lamar 11331 N. Lamar

Albertsons Pflugerville 1601 W. Pecan

Travis County Senate Districts
Travis County Senate Districts

Albertsons Riverside 1819 S. Pleasant Valley

Albertsons Stassney 5510 I-35 S.

Albertsons West Lake 701 Capital of TX Hwy. S.

* Barton Creek Mall 2901 Capital of TX Hwy. S.

Central Market North 4001 N. Lamar

City Market Airport 1148 Airport, Eastland Plaza

Fiesta Mart 3909 I-35 N.

HEB E. Seventh 2701 E. Seventh; Govalle Ctr

HEB S. Congress 2400 S. Congress

HEB Springdale 7112 Ed Bluestein

* Highland Mall 6001 Airport

* Northcross Mall 2525 W. Anderson

Randalls Berkman 6800 Berkman

Randalls Lakeway 2301 FM 620

Randalls Parmer Lane 1700 W. Parmer

Randalls Research 10900-D Research

Randalls MoPac S. 6600 MoPac S.

Travis Co. Courthouse 1000 Guadalupe

UT-Austin UGL Lobby West Mall

** Vistas at Canyon Creek 8025 FM 620 N.

This Week's Mobile Locations:

Sat, Oct. 19, Noon-6pm

Fiesta 1120 S. Lamar

Randalls Grocery Store 3300 Bee Caves Rd.

Sun Harvest 2917 W. Anderson

Albertsons Wm. Cannon 6800 West Gate

Sun, Oct. 20, Noon-6pm

clockwise from top left: Gonzalo Barrientos, Todd Baxter, Ben Bentzin, Ann Kitchen, Jack Stick, James Sylvester
clockwise from top left: Gonzalo Barrientos, Todd Baxter, Ben Bentzin, Ann Kitchen, Jack Stick, James Sylvester

Randalls Ben White 2025 W. Ben White

Home Depot 7211 I-35 N.

Sun Harvest 4006 S. Lamar Ste. 400

Home Depot 1200 Home Depot Blvd.

Mon, Oct. 21, 2002, 10am-2pm

Englewood Estates 2603 Jones

Heartland Health Care 11406 Rustic Rock

Westminster Manor 4100 Jackson

Conley-Guerrero Snr. Ctr. 808 Nile

Tue, Oct. 22, 10am-2pm

Service for the Deaf 2201 Post Road Rm. 100

Summit at Lakeway 1915 Lohman's Crossing

DeWitty Job Training Ctr. 2209 Rosewood Ste. 211

AIDS Services of Austin 7212 Cameron

Wed, Oct. 23, 7am-6pm

Sam Houston Building 201 E. 14th

Stephen F. Austin Bldg. 1700 Congress

LBJ Building 111 E. 17th

Travis Building 1701 Congress

Thu, Oct. 24, 10am-2pm

The Continental 4604 S. Lamar

Ameripark Retiremt. Apt. 1130 Camino La Costa

RBJ Retirement Tower 21 Waller

Lamar Snr. Activity Ctr. 2874 Shoal Crest

Fri, Oct. 25, 10am-2pm

Brighton Gardens 4401 Spicewood Springs

Island on L. Travis Home 3404 American Dr.

Lakeside Senior Center 85 Trinity

St. David's Hospital 919 E. 32nd (Noon-6pm)

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