The Roads to Commissioners Court ...
Down-ballot races range from slam-dunks to wing nuts
You might think that running for re-election to the Travis County Commissioners Court is harder than it really is. During the last four years, on the PR front, the courthouse has been an ugly place -- at least by the conventional aesthetic and moral standards we apply to politics. Would you want to be an incumbent explaining to constituents why Travis Co. taxes, which just went up again, are among the highest in the state? Why the new Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center was $23 million over budget? Why the county now has to pay $2.3 million to the Blackwell-Thurman contractor? Why the Travis Co. Jail was out of compliance with state standards for a decade?
Need we go on? Didn't think so.
So why, then, are at least three of the four Democratic incumbents on the Commissioners Court at least presumptive favorites for re-election? Two reasons. For one, as Commissioner Karen Sonleitner says on the stump, "The good news is ... " And some there is, regardless of the trajectory from which you approach the county politically. If you're a Central Austinite, you can be pleased about the county shouldering a larger share of its burden for EMS, or about its successes protecting habitat with the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve project. If you're a suburbanite, there are roads. Roads, roads, roads. Especially in the last year, the court has been as busy as a bee on the transportation front, with a $185 million bond package, the imminent creation of a regional mobility authority, and quick (by transportation standards) forward progress on SH 130 and SH 45 North.
This good-news-for-everyone calls up the other reason: Both in the primary and now in the general election, the challengers have run to the outside of the obsessively centrist Commissioners Court, which is a pretty narrow place to be. In the primary, Jeff Heckler ran to Sonleitner's left, waving a progressive flag, and got clobbered. Now, the GOP is running well to the courthouse's right, in the hope that Travis County is more like Williamson or Hays County than Austinites might suspect.
For county judge challenger Bob Honts -- Sonleitner's predecessor once removed in Pct. 2 (from 1975-1986) -- the county's roads-roads-roads agenda of recent years is still a few roads too short. One might expect nothing less from "the Road Warrior," as Honts was dubbed in office, than his current campaign, built from the start around commuter frustrations -- with its freeway-side banners, "If Bob Honts were county judge, you'd be home by now." But it's still a bit odd for Honts, or more precisely for the Travis Co. GOP, to basically ignore the low-hanging fruit -- the county's embarrassing boo-boos on the criminal justice front and the looming crisis in health and social services.
Winning the Last Election
Where Honts can score some points, though, is in a basic "leadership" contest (in the very butch, kicking-ass-and-taking-names sense) with incumbent Sam Biscoe. Despite having served on the Commissioners Court for as long as Honts, first in Pct. 1 and now as judge, Biscoe is still a somewhat bland public personality, often upstaged by Sonleitner and Pct 4's Margaret Gomez. Yet in the last few county elections, voters have typically split about 55-45 in favor of the Dems (even amidst the Bush backwash of 1998 and 2000), and, absent any last-minute revelations of ethical failures on Biscoe's part, it would be surprising for Honts to change that. On the stump, Biscoe can pour on the whup-ass when he wants to, and he has been making gleefully short work of Honts' self-dealing when he was on the court: retroactive pay increases, bonuses from the county road and bridge funds, and so on.
The inherent Dem tilt of the Travis Co. electorate should be even more pronounced in the Pct. 2 and Pct. 4 races. Gomez has the closest thing to a cakewalk -- with the possible exception of new subdivisions around Onion Creek, Pct. 4 has almost no obvious Republican redoubts, is majority Latino (though more narrowly than it used to be), and includes high-turnout South Central Austin boxes. Even were this not true, her GOP opponent Mike Hanson -- most familiar as a frequent and usually over-the-top citizen-communicator at court meetings -- is the least impressive Republican court contender; even the nicely conservative Travis Co. Sheriff's Officers Assoc., which went straight-GOP in the other court races, couldn't bring itself to endorse him. At the Real Estate Council of Austin's candidate forum, another celebration of the center-right, Hanson's black-helicopter shrillness sent eyes rolling among people who would otherwise have little reason to back Gomez.
By contrast, Sonleitner's Pct. 2 used to be a swing district, stretching from Hyde Park northwest to Jonestown and northeast to Pflugerville, and the two-term veteran and former TV news reporter has always had close races; in 1998, she won by only 1,500 votes out of nearly 60,000 cast. But redistricting changed all that; today's Pct. 2 is about as Democratic as a west-of-I-35 district can be, and GOP contender Sheri Perry Gallo has had an uphill climb from the start. Gallo, a realtor, has fought dutifully and has raised enough money to stay competitive if and when the race goes to broadcast media, but on name ID alone Sonleitner is the court's electoral powerhouse.
The mirror of this is Pct. 3, where in 1998 the GOP's Todd Baxter -- now running for the statehouse -- likewise barely squeezed out a win (by less than 1,000 votes) in a district that included progressive strongholds in Clarksville and Hyde Park. Redistricting changed Pct. 3 into Suburban Paradise, and whomever the GOP sent forth would be the prospective favorite -- even one of Austin's most controversial public figures, longtime anti-Capital Metro activist Gerald Daugherty. (Roads, roads, roads.) His east-of-MoPac reputation as a wing nut was belied when, with little money or respect, he managed to mobilize enough discontent to defeat light rail in 2000 in the face of a well-funded establishment campaign.
In a more balanced district, GOP voters might have gone in the primary for Daugherty's then opponent, Ira Yates -- rancher, environmentalist, Gary Bradley sparring partner, and friend of the City of Austin. But in the real Pct. 3 Daugherty is a populist hero, and Margaret Moore, the Dem incumbent appointed to replace Baxter, is in a tight race at best. This might be true even without the precinct's GOP tilt; Moore -- on her second go-round as the Pct. 3 relief pitcher -- has an impressive reputation around the courthouse (after years of service in both the DA's and County Attorney's offices), but much less of a presence in the district itself.
Along with sharing in the good-news part of the court's recent record, Moore has made it quite clear that -- unlike her opponent, at least historically -- she "works and plays well with others." And Daugherty has gotten at least a paw caught in ethical quicksand; his "successful small-businessman" rep has been tarnished by the 19 liens filed against his properties (including the Pleasant Valley Sportsplex) for nonpayment of payroll taxes. (Daugherty says he doesn't actually owe any money anymore, so it's a non-issue. When KVUE-TV raised the non-issue, Daugherty angrily walked out of a sit-down interview, a display broadcast for all the viewers to see.)
Elsewhere on the county ballot, incumbents like County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and 250th District Judge John Dietz are prohibitive favorites. One race in play is that for justice of the peace in Pct. 3, where Austin Municipal Court Judge John Vasquez (the Democrat) is bucking the district's GOP tilt and has establishment backing against lawyer Melissa Goodwin (whose husband Grant ran two years ago against Gisela Triana for county court at law; her signs are identical to his). On the criminal bench, appointed 403rd District Judge Frank Bryan, a rare GOP incumbent, has to face County Court at Law Judge Brenda Kennedy, a longtime fixture among Democratic and courthouse circles. For more on this race, see The Battle for the 403rd.