Identity Politics Color County's Precinct 1 Race

The Ron Davis-Celia Israel showdown splits the Eastside racial and political coalition

On the campaign trail, Travis Co. commissioner candidate Celia Israel usually begins her stump speeches by citing the ethnic and racial population statistics of her precinct, which covers a wide, jagged swath from Central Austin (including UT), across I-35 into East and Northeast Austin, and then to Manor and the county's hinterlands beyond. Hispanics, Israel points out, make up 37.6% of the precinct, Anglos 33%, and African-Americans 22%. Israel doesn't explicitly say so, but the numbers are meant to dispel the notion that the precinct is predominantly black, despite the long tradition of its voters electing an African-American to represent them on the Commissioners Court.

Ron Davis is the Precinct 1 incumbent seeking re-election, and Israel, who is Hispanic and a couple of decades younger, is regarded as a serious threat – both to Davis and to the Commissioners Court's version of the gentleman's agreement. Two other less formidable candidates, Arthur Sampson and Kathy Bedford Smith, both African-Americans, are also running for the seat. Sampson, like Davis, believes strongly that Precinct 1 should remain a black seat, given that the majority of Austin's blacks live in that precinct. (East Austin's African-American boxes also typically have higher voter turnout than Hispanic boxes.) Smith says the seat should go to the person who's most qualified.

It's never a good sign for an incumbent when he draws not one but three opponents. Israel, Sampson, and Smith each cite varying reasons for running for the seat, but all three cite Davis' lack of accessibility as a factor. (Davis himself acknowledges that he doesn't make himself accessible to lobbyists or people who want to try to change his vote on certain issues.)

The incumbent and his leading challenger have each enlisted experienced operatives to run their campaigns: Davis has political strategist David Butts, fundraiser Alfred Stanley, and grassroots organizer Marguerite Jones operating out of his Eastside campaign office. Israel's campaign staff includes political consultant and former state Rep. Glen Maxey, seasoned campaign manager Leslie Pool, and fundraiser Susan Harry. Though this is Israel's first run for office, she's well known in political circles and has been regarded as "candidate material" for years. She set up her campaign operations in the downtown office that used to house her lobby business, Mission Resources. The former Ann Richards staffer has hung up the lobbying hat for now but is drawing on her Capitol connections to help fatten her war chest.

Davis backers point out that Israel's network of supporters includes fat-cat lobbyists (like Longhorn Pipeline and Wal-Mart factotum Trey Salinas); the downtown business crowd (including lawyer and former Texas Turnpike Authority Chair Pete Winstead); and folks high on the food chain of the Real Estate Council of Austin (like RECA's lobbyist Mignon McGarry). Israel's environmental credentials have also been questioned; she was one of a couple of dozen lobbyists hired in 2003 to represent the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, which advocates for investor-owned utilities. The group opposed a number of environmental bills that could have affected the way in which the companies run their operations.

Israel defends her business ties and says she'll remain vigilant in advocating for and protecting the welfare of Precinct 1 citizens. Her community involvement includes service on the Office of the Police Monitor's Citizen Review Panel and on the city Environmental Board, among others. She also claims that she, not Davis, is better equipped to bring economic development to an area beset with troubled landfills and poverty-level households. "This is the area that is most overlooked, holds the most promise, and deserves the best leadership," she says, noting that Precinct 1 is within the city's Desired Development Zone.

Although the precinct is located miles from the Edwards Aquifer, Davis has been a staunch defender of the environment on both sides of the interstate. He recently dissed former mayor-turned-lobbyist Bruce Todd, who solicited his vote on the protracted controversy involving Lowe's Home Centers' plan to build a giant home improvement store over the aquifer. Davis not only voted "no" on the proposed site plan (the only member of the Commissioners Court to do so), he refused to meet with Todd in person. "I told him, 'Bruce, you're not going to change my mind so there's no sense in wasting my time and yours, too,'" Davis said.

Davis, who grew up in East Austin, has a long history of street-level activism. As leader of the East Austin Strategy Team, Davis was instrumental in successful battles to shut down the gasoline tank farm in Govalle and the city's Hargrave Street facility for cleaning its garbage trucks, and to establish an Austin Community College career center, and then the Eastview Campus, in the area. To his detractors, Davis can come across as rough around the edges and certainly not as articulate as Israel, who promises that "everybody will get the respect and attention they deserve, whether they get my support or not."

Their differences in personality and strategy are reflected in their different paths toward success – Davis as an outside agitator who ran for office three times (for City Council in 1991 and 1994, then for Commissioners Court in 1996) before finally winning in 1998, and Israel as a well-connected insider, part of this town's good-ole-girls network of powerful and influential women, many of whom, like Israel, happen to be gay. On that score, Israel's supporters also point out that, with Sheriff Margo Frasier leaving office at the end of the year, the county would be devoid of openly gay representation in an elected position. While Israel's sexual orientation might score her some extra points among liberal voters, she also suggests that it's time for younger people – at least younger than Davis – to take on leadership positions. At 39, Israel would represent what she calls "a new generation of leadership" in Travis Co.

Age notwithstanding, two old-guard Davis supporters, former state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco and former mayor Gus Garcia, point to Precinct 1's traditional identity as an African-American seat. It's true that Hispanics outnumber African-Americans in the precinct, but, as Delco points out, "This particular precinct has the greatest number of blacks. African-Americans have been a part of the political scene for a long time, and I think we've paid our dues and we should have representation. People say there's already another black on the Commissioners Court (County Judge Sam Biscoe), but he's in an administrative position; he represents the entire county." Garcia echoed those sentiments: "I know Celia quite well and I like her and under any other circumstances I'd be supporting her – but not for Precinct 1."

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Election 2004, Ron Davis, Celia Israel, League of Conservation Voters, Lloyd Doggett, Kirk Overbey, Alan Sager, Nancy Hohengarten, Efrain De La Fuente

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