The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

A "real personal' court race

By Amy Smith, December 5, 2003, News

The March primary is still months away, but the race for the open 200th District Court seat has turned into a high-stakes match between three top Democratic contenders: Gisela Triana, an ambitious county court-at-law judge; John Hathaway, a longtime associate judge, and Jan Soifer, a popular lawyer who is already catching flak from detractors (and even some supporters) for her role in the 2001 redistricting that helped transform the Texas Legislature.

Triana, who would have been up for re-election in 2004 for her County Court-at-Law No. 5 post, instead is leaving early to run for the vacancy created by retiring District Judge Paul Davis. Triana officially kicked off her campaign at a fundraiser Wednesday, although she had not made any secret of her intent to once again move up the courthouse ladder if a position became available. She started as an Austin municipal court judge, then was elected justice of the peace in 1998, then appointed to her current seat in 1999, then elected to a full term in 2000 -- in a primary contest with Gus Garcia Jr., son of the former mayor -- after spending a surprising amount of money on a race so far down on the ballot.

By most accounts, the 200th is likewise Triana's race to lose, and as such, her opponents are likely to question whether her political ambitions outweigh her commitment to the bench. But Triana lays claim to a loyal support base among the progressive central-city Democrats who make up a formidable voting bloc in city and county elections. Her consulting team includes veterans Pat Crow, David Butts, and former state Rep. Glen Maxey.

Those who are following the bankruptcy woes of Gary Bradley might remember John Hathaway as the judge who flatly denied the developer's request to reduce his child support payments. Hathaway, a respected children's advocate, was appointed to an associate judge's post in 1998 by unanimous approval of the county's district court judges, and he counts a contingent of family law attorneys among his supporters. His campaign is headed up by Mark Littlefield, who previously worked on the campaigns of Council Member Brewster McCracken and state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs.

But the political buzz of late centers squarely on Soifer, an Austin attorney with Locke Liddell & Sapp, the Houston-based law firm that represented the state in 2001 against more than a dozen lawsuits stemming from the Legislative Redistricting Board's redrawn state House and Senate district maps. (The congressional map, recently redrawn with such tumult, was drawn by a three-judge federal panel.) Soifer worked with prominent Republican lawyer Andy Taylor on the case, for which Locke Liddell billed the state more than $750,000. Billing records show that Soifer herself spent 91 days working on 12 of the 16 redistricting matters, and charged the state $300 an hour for a total of $137,775.

The redistricting revolution cost several incumbent Democrats their re-election bids in an unprecedented GOP takeover of both the House and Senate. (That takeover was further aided by funds from the Texas Association of Business, now being represented by Andy Taylor in its running campaign finance battle with Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle.) Locally, Maxey decided to leave the Legislature after being paired in the same central-city district as his colleagues Ann Kitchen and Elliott Naishtat; Kitchen herself moved to run in her old Republicanized district, but was defeated by current Rep. Todd Baxter.

Soifer has thus far raised $100,000 toward her campaign and boasts a who's who list of powerful and elite supporters, from former Gov. Ann Richards to lawyer and longtime Austin powerbroker Pike Powers. Trying to put a positive spin on the redistricting factor will be challenging for the Soifer campaign, but her consultant Mark Nathan -- former aide and still a confidant to Mayor Will Wynn -- said, "If Jan Soifer had done anything at all to advance the Republican agenda on redistricting in 2001, you could be damn sure that people like Ann Richards and Ben Barnes wouldn't be supporting her, but they are."

Maxey counters that many of Soifer's supporters likely aren't aware of the extent of the work she performed on the redistricting case. "I've talked to a lot of her supporters and many of them are shocked," Maxey said. "We're talking about someone who helped take me and a lot of other good Democrats out of the Legislature, so for me this is real personal. Is she responsible for it? No. But she helped. She consorted with the enemy and now she's got blood on her hands."

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