The Austin Chronicle

Sheriff's Unions Back Eckhardt for Precinct 2 Commissioner

By Jordan Smith, December 9, 2005, News

On Dec. 5, the two unions representing 1,300-plus employees of the Travis Co. Sheriff's Office announced that they are throwing their combined clout behind political newcomer Sarah Eckhardt, who is seeking to oust incumbent County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner from her Precinct 2 seat in the March Democratic primary. The Travis Co. Sheriff's Officers Association, the older and larger of the two unions, has been at odds with Sonleitner since at least 2002, over what TCSOA Vice President Alex Leo calls Sonleitner's "pitting" of one "group against another." That year the TCSOA split and the Travis Co. Sheriffs' Law Enforcement Association was born. The newer, smaller union represents primarily the law enforcement officers within the sheriff's office, while the TCSOA, still the larger of the two groups, represents the office's corrections officers. At issue was pay equity between the two groups of officers; in 2002 Sonleitner allegedly said, privately, that she supported a scale that would promote parity, but then came out against the measure during commissioners' meetings – a move that resulted in the TCSOA's backing Sonleitner's opponent, Jeff Heckler. Leo says that during this year's budget discussions, Sonleitner did a repeat performance – privately supporting the officers' proposals then publicly backing away.

Such is the backdrop in front of which both the TCSOA and the TSLEA announced Monday that they have endorsed Sonleitner's Democratic opponent, Eckhardt – a former assistant county attorney and the daughter of Robert Eckhardt, former congressman from Houston and co-founder of The Texas Observer. For the TCSOA, says Leo, the decision to back Eckhardt was solely a question of "character." "We cannot trust her," he said of Sonleitner. "It's a character issue." It was not an easy decision, Leo says, because "we're fully aware that by not endorsing Karen, she's going to come after us" politically.

In response, Sonleitner told the online Austin politics newsletter In Fact Daily, "The associations made it clear that the only hope of getting their political endorsements was to vote for what they wanted – regardless of whether it was affordable to taxpayers. I refused to link my budget vote – past, present, or future – to any election process. I was not going to stop doing my job for fear of the loss of a political endorsement.

"Many of these officers have seen their salaries double over the past 10 years," Sonleitner continued. "I voted for each and every one of those raises and the officers deserved each and every one of those raises. We've taken our sworn officers from admittedly low wages when I arrived on the scene in 1995 to the highest paid corrections officers in the state and the highest paid County Sheriff's deputies in the state."

For his part, Brett Spicer of the TCSLEA says he's not as interested in dishing on Sonleitner – although he says there is a "tremendous amount of truth" to Leo's account – as he is in promoting Eckhardt, an "awesome" candidate, who will be a good steward of taxpayer funds, and who understands the importance of a "comprehensive" public safety program. Eckhardt "understands what good government is," Spicer said. "I think it's time for a change; I know it's time for a change."

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