Primary Colors: Part II

More races to watch, up and down the ballot

Sarah Eckhardt (l) and Karen Sonleitner
Sarah Eckhardt (l) and Karen Sonleitner (Photo By John Anderson)

Travis Co. Commissioner, Precinct 2, Democrat: What have you done for us lately?

Although Sarah Eckhardt is personally a political newbie, her family has a legacy of public service, notably that of her late father, Bob Eckhardt, a former state representative and U.S. Congressman and co-founder of The Texas Observer. For her first foray, eight-year assistant Travis Co. attorney Eckhardt is looking to unseat former television reporter turned three-term incumbent Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, in an already contentious campaign. Eckhardt says she opposes tolls on existing roads and promises to protect the county's "neighborhoods, environment, and quality of life." Her enthusiasms (environmental protection and better land-use management) and annoyances (tolls and re-redistricting) read like a laundry list of progressive Austin politics – indeed much like incumbent Sonleitner's priorities. But Eckhardt argues that Sonleitner simply hasn't done enough to promote those common goals. For example, she points out that Sonleitner voted in favor of the toll road package, which includes tolls on existing roadways.

But blaming Sonleitner for the toll plan has been overblown – as a member of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, like a handful of her none-too-thrilled colleagues, Sonleitner saw the vote as a means to map out future transportation money without deferring to TxDOT state priorities. (Sonleitner also supported floating a gas-tax option as a toll road alternative, a proposition supported by anti-tollsters.) And Sonleitner fought, successfully, certain portions of the roads plan, notably helping to ensure that the Wells Branch neighborhood would have toll-free access to MoPac. Moreover, she notes that she was a "leader" in the ultimately successful effort to align SH 130 eastward and away from established neighborhoods. Additionally, Sonleitner stresses her commitment to the environment – since she's been on the court, Sonleitner notes, the county has acquired a record number of acres (7,623) for parks, open space, flood plain buyouts, and preserve lands, and the county has secured $64 million in federal grants for the Balcones Canyon Preserve.

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