The Austin Chronicle


Democratic and Republican Joint Primary - March 9, 2004

February 20, 2004, News

The Chronicle editorial board makes the following endorsements for the March 9 Texas primary elections. We endorse only in those races in which we think our perspective might help voters make an informed decision. That includes a selected handful of Republican races in which we hope concerned Republican voters might heed our (more or less) friendly advice.

Democratic Primary

President: Just Pick One

It appears that by March 9 the "front-loaded" campaign will be effectively over, with Texas Democrats anticipated to join in the coronation of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as the Democratic nominee. In light of the reflexive extremism of the Bush administration, we expect to endorse Kerry come November. He may descend from the same class of New England gentry that produced Prescott Bush and all his smug spawn, but Kerry has been a much more responsible and responsive elected representative, and he is anchored to a constituency demanding real progressive change: a turning away from vain belligerence abroad and ruthless social negligence at home.

For several reasons – not the least of which is that, thanks to both major parties, Texas has become an afterthought in the presidential primaries – the Chronicle declines to endorse in the primary race. It's not certain that anyone other than Kerry will be running by March 9, but we note simply that Kerry, former Vermont Gov. Howard "the Hammer" Dean, and North Carolina Sen. John "Two Americas" Edwards each represent particular political virtues as well as essential groups of Democratic supporters.

And we also note that Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate who in fact voted against the war in Iraq, who consistently stands against military adventurism, anti-labor economics, authoritarian law enforcement, and the whole host of capital-first social policies that have dominated U.S. politics for a generation and that the Bush administration wants to perfect and make permanent. Kucinich himself is not a charismatic standard-bearer – he's been unable to spark significant voting enthusiasm for policies that in fact most Americans say they support – but the Democratic primary will be the only chance for Texans to express a clear choice about the country's direction. None of the other candidates – no, not even hard-charging Howard Dean – are as consistently progressive on the issues as is Kucinich.

U.S. House, District 25: Lloyd Doggett

Doggett's opponent, former District Judge Leticia Hinojosa of McAllen, is an obviously capable candidate, dedicated to public service, and in other circumstances we could offer her our support. But not in this race. Doggett is good at his job and has served his constituents well (both in the North and the South), and should not be sent packing simply to create new political opportunities for others. (That's what the Texas Democrats said all last summer. We believed it then, and still do.) Doggett is also the only candidate, in this or any other congressional race, who will actually represent us, the liberal Democratic Austin majority; the notion that a major American city can either do without a congressman, or make do with a rep whose politics are diametrically opposed to those of its people, is just absurd. And at least for this election cycle, the need to vote against re-redistricting, by re-electing Doggett against the express wishes of the petty tyrant Tom DeLay, is profound enough to decide the race. Latinos in the Valley will not be disenfranchised by electing Doggett; they were already disenfranchised by DeLay's refusal to sacrifice one of his artificial GOP fiefdoms to make room for a new South Texas district. If CD 25 is here to stay, then in a future year we may agree that Doggett should make way for a Latino rep in this seat. But to decide that issue before the fact – as DeLay has tried to do – is an outrage against Texans of all colors throughout the state.

U.S. House, District 28: Ciro Rodriguez

We may not have legions of readers in the San Marcos/Buda corridor, but since the ones we do have tend to be voters, we strongly suggest a vote for San Antonio stalwart Rodriguez, in another "fajita-strip" district disfigured by last year's Republican re-redistricting coup. Challenger Laredoan Henry Cuellar has lately had his finger too much in the GOP wind, perhaps prefiguring a dubious trend.

Travis Co. Commissioner, Precinct 1: Ron Davis

After considerable research and interviewing the four candidates, then taking a couple of days to consider the top two – incumbent Davis and leading opponent Celia Israel – we concluded that Davis fully deserves to be returned to his post. We believe Davis has done an admirable job, as he pledged to in the past, trying to find solutions to the problems dumped for so many years on Precinct 1 – water and wastewater needs in the Kennedy Ridge colonia, strip-mining operations in Webberville, landfills in the county's northeast neighborhoods. As an old-school activist, Davis has a different style than other commissioners and is perhaps not as polished as Israel. But he is one of a few local elected officials who hasn't flip-flopped on the issues that got him where he is today. We want him to stay. That it took so long for us to decide speaks very well of Israel, who clearly has the experience and moxie to eventually take on the job of a county commissioner (or other elected office). But not this time around.

Travis Co. Sheriff: Greg Hamilton

With Margo Frasier stepping down, the race for the top cop spot at the county is wide open. With eight candidates in the running – four on each side – voters are blessed with a host of good options. The TCSO needs a dynamic leader committed to hard work and new ideas to move the department forward – streamlining TCSO operations while remaining inside the constraints of the county's tax base.

Hamilton worked for TCSO – as a corrections officer and then as a law enforcement deputy – in the mid-Eighties before leaving the department in 1994 to become the state's top liquor-law cop at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Frasier quickly tapped Hamilton as her choice for a successor when announcing her retirement in December, and we understand why. Hamilton is smart and practical and understands the tensions between TCSO's law enforcement and corrections officers – a major sore point within the department – and intends to get the two groups to work together to lobby for their needs. Hamilton's position on budget issues – from raising salaries for correctional officers to building a firing range for TCSO employees – is pragmatic: There will never be enough tax money to get everything for everybody. Hamilton's intent to rework the TCSO budget and pursue grant money to cover other needs is a definitive step in the right direction.

Travis Co. Constable, Precinct 4: Maria Canchola

Canchola ousted veteran constable "Rocky" Medrano for the Precinct 4 spot in 2000, largely by promising to expand and modernize the mission of the office. In four years it appears Canchola has done just that: updated office computer equipment, established a mentoring program at Travis High for high-risk girls, and raked in nearly $1 million in revenue for the county through warrant service. Canchola's 2004 campaign pledge is to build upon her first-term successes – significantly, by expanding the office's youth-mentoring efforts not only for girls at Travis High, but also for boys, and at several other South Austin schools – and we see no reason not to have her stay around and plow ahead.

Travis Co. Constable, Precinct 1: Luke Mercer

Mercer continues to be a stable, hard-working constable who gets the job done. He's again being challenged for his job by his former chief deputy, Flynn Lee (currently employed as a "compliance specialist" with the city's Office of the Police Monitor), and while we have no reason to think that Lee wouldn't make a good constable, we also don't have any reason to think he would be a better constable than Mercer. In short, while Mercer may not be the most progressive guy around, we see no need to fix a working office with an unknown quantity.

200th District Court: No Endorsement

With no Republicans vying for the open seat, voters have three very capable choices in the Democratic primary: John Hathaway, an associate district court judge and advocate of victims of family violence; Jan Soifer, a lawyer with 20 years of civil litigation and consumer protection experience; and Gisela Triana, a court-at-law judge with 10 years of bench experience in municipal and county courts. As the Chronicle's "Postmarks" column has reflected, the race has been scarred by acrimonious charges from Triana supporters that Soifer's 2001 legal work (for the Locke Liddell & Sapp law firm) defending legislative redistricting constituted betrayal of her Democratic colleagues. Instead of standing on her ethical obligations as an advocate, Soifer has responded that Triana, despite a decade of public life as a Democrat, is really an evil Republican in disguise. And though Hathaway – who, we note, can remain a strong family advocate on his current bench, whatever the election outcome – has largely stood clear of the mudslinging, his supporters were eager enough to fan the backstabbing to undermine his pretense of being entirely above the fray.

The low blows on all sides have been both disgraceful and distracting enough to make us withhold an official endorsement. It's not much of a sanction, but it's all we have to express our disappointment. If the tone of the campaign changes significantly – perhaps in a run-off – we may reconsider. In the meantime, we suggest voters look at the candidates' qualifications and records and realize that we have three decent choices intermittently doing their best to demean the process. Hold your noses and choose.

345th District Court: Stephen Yelenosky

Either Yelenosky or Richard Anton will face a formidable opponent in November, incumbent GOP Judge Patrick Keel. We believe Yelenosky has more potential to make the general election truly competitive. Yelenosky has devoted his career to public interest work serving the poor and disabled, first at Legal Aid of Central Texas, now at Advocacy Inc., and has served for 11 years on an advisory committee to the Texas Supreme Court. The 345th District Court presides over a great range of civil cases, including family law matters, and we trust Yelenosky's versatility and grasp of the law.

County Court-at-Law No. 5: Nancy Hohengarten

Voters really can't go wrong with any of the three Democrats in this race, which also includes Assistant District Attorney Efrain De La Fuente and truancy court Judge Leonard Saenz (currently sitting as the appointee in this seat, replacing Gisela Triana). We're endorsing Hohengarten for her temperament, her maturity, and her broad range of experience – first as an assistant AG, then as an assistant DA, and currently as a defense attorney. She has practical knowledge and skill representing both sides of the law in Travis Co. courts, including this particular criminal misdemeanor court. That kind of on-the-ground experience gives her an edge as a candidate and would serve her well on the bench. Her opponents display much ability and knowledge, but lack the seasoning of Hohengarten's broader experience, making her our nominee of choice.

Republican Primary

U.S. House, District 10: No Endorsement

A number of readers will show up at the polls wondering who the hell all these oddball (and mostly Houstonian) Republicans are. Consider them the poisoned bait of Bug Man Tom DeLay, so determined to evict old CD 10 incumbent Lloyd Doggett from Congress that he was happy to disenfranchise the capital city of Texas in the bargain. To get some idea of the available choices, Michael McCaul – former "counterterrorism" prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office for Texas, who is apparently running on his father's WWII war record – may be the "moderate" of the bunch. You've got a mortgage banker (Ben Streusand) promising to abolish the IRS, a corporate attorney (Dave Phillips) running to represent the energy industry, an anti-choice judge (John Devine) who thinks he's the second coming of Moses – and Teresa Doggett ("Up With People") Taylor. Austin voters do not have a real choice here, and are not intended to have a real choice here. Consider this race an object lesson in the institutional abuse of our democratic system, and a challenge to work toward transforming Texas politics into something approaching representative democracy.

Texas Supreme Court, Place 5: Paul Green

Incumbent Steven Wayne Smith, whose lone biographical distinction is his unblinking (and fence-post uncomprehending) opposition to affirmative action, is not only an embarrassment to the court and to the state, but even to the Texas Republican Party. It's amusing to watch them squirm, but even so, Smith should be returned to the obscurity he so richly deserves.

3rd Court of Appeals, Place 4: Bill Green

To suggest any sitting state Republican judge is worse than others is often a stretch – Ernest Garcia may well earn that distinction. Should he succeed in replacing Democratic incumbent Jan Patterson, at the very least it would be a large step in the wrong direction. Garcia's opponent Bill Green has earned bipartisan respect, is a legal scholar, and would make a good judge. In the current politicized atmosphere, these qualities may well be damning – he's not a hard-line ideologue but a committed jurist. We urge those of you voting in the Republican primary to cast the best vote for Texas and the judicial system by voting for Green.

Travis Co. Sheriff: A.J. Johnson

Among four strong Republican contenders, we believe 20-year APD veteran Johnson is the right candidate for right now. While his résumé may appear short on management experience, he has chosen to be a front-line officer throughout his career, which is his greatest advantage. He understands what street officers need, has practical suggestions for meeting those needs, and knows what it takes to make sure things get done – implementing community policing strategies, trusting front-line supervisors' input, and surrounding himself with a posse of experienced budget and planning personnel. Johnson is up front about what he doesn't know and secure in what he does, which makes him the progressive pachyderm to beat.

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