Democratic and Republican Primaries, March 7

Early Voting: Feb. 21 to March 3

The following are the Chronicle's endorsements in selected contested races for the March 7 primaries in Travis County; we make no endorsements in uncontested races. Our choices are based on research and discussions among our editorial board, comprised of the News staff, the News editors, Editor Louis Black, and Publisher Nick Barbaro. In uncertain cases, we ask the candidates to join us in a discussion of their qualifications and the issues. Sometimes those discussions settle the question; often, they make our choices harder, because we discover that previously unfamiliar candidates might be well qualified to take office. But like every voter on the day of reckoning, we make the best choices we can based on what we know, and we offer those choices to you as the Chronicle's recommendations.

This year the primary election question is more difficult than usual, because both current Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and writer-performer Richard "Kinky" Friedman will be collecting petition signatures for the governor's race immediately following the primary. Because of the restrictive Texas election code, independent candidates will need roughly 45,000 signatures in a limited period – from nonprimary voters – even to appear on the November ballot. Some readers will be inclined, therefore, to "save themselves for Kinky" (or Carole). Although in raw numbers there are always plenty of nonvoters available to fill the bill, in practice those registered voters active enough to vote in the primaries are also the most likely to sign petitions – a mutually exclusive proposition this year. Although the outrageous Texas ballot law should be repealed, we cannot in good conscience counsel our readers to abstain from the primaries, especially when their votes could well determine the outcome in important downballot races (House District 47, Travis County commissioners, judicial races). Consider the races in your particular district, and whatever your decision, be fully aware of the potential consequences.

Given our historical inclinations and our generally liberal/progressive readership, we emphasize the Democratic primary, where we believe our editorial influence is strongest. Although we sometimes make recommendations in Republican races, we have opted not to do so this time out.

Finally, the Libertarian and Green parties select their November candidates in party conventions, not primaries, and are not on the ballot, so we do not address them here. – The editorial board

U.S. Senator: Barbara Ann Radnofsky

Although three names are on the ballot, Houston lawyer Radnofsky is the only serious candidate. (San Antonian Gene Kelly and Amarillan Darrel Reece Hunter are election hobbyists who should find another pastime.) Radnofsky deserves a chance to make a real, visible run against incumbent Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who tends to get a statewide pass as a "moderate," although she generally votes lockstep with the Bush administration. Radnofsky has run an intelligent and energetic campaign, thus far largely under the media radar. She has emphasized public education and veterans' rights, and has called for a withdrawal timetable from Iraq – that in itself is a break from the reflexive caution of the institutional Dems. A strong primary vote would help Radnofsky kick off a serious and effective campaign that both undermines Hutchison's political invulnerability and gives this candidate a national platform for her progressive ideas.

U.S. Rep., District 10: Ted Ankrum

Sadly, the burden of trying to decide which of the four Democrats to endorse in the Congressional District 10 race is substantially lightened by the knowledge that ultimately, it probably doesn't matter – even despite the GOP's recent problems and the stain of Tom DeLay upon his garments, Republican Michael McCaul almost certainly will steamroll the winner in this very conservative district in November. We hope to be proven wrong. And we believe that if we are, it is Ted Ankrum who offers the best chance. All four candidates would surely do a better job than Bush policy rubber-stamper McCaul, and all four are fairly similar on the issues – they're not happy about the war and believe the American people haven't been told the truth; they support either universal health care or something similar (retired emergency room nurse Pat Mynatt suggests a "health tax"); and they're angry about the corrupt DeLay re-redistricting machinations that created the current District 10 boundaries in the first place. In interviews with the four, retired NASA employee Ankrum, of Cypress, and writer/publisher Paul Foreman, of Austin, were the most articulate in presenting a vision for how they would lead the district. (Foreman will be familiar to many longtime Austinites as a novelist, former owner of Brazos Book Shop on Red River, and publisher of Thorp Springs Press.) Given the long-shot district, we believe that Ankrum, a veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, would have the best bet at reaching moderates and alienated conservatives (although John Kerry showed the limitations of this strategy). While Foreman – who also served during Vietnam – seems to be a great guy, we don't share his confidence that a poet and "former Berkeley radical" can reach the rural voters, even if he does have small-town Texas roots. We support Ankrum as the best of four progressive candidates who care deeply about America and its current direction.

Governor: Chris Bell

This was a tough choice for us, and not only because of the unusual electoral situation of two strong independent candidates already in the race against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry (see above). Former Houston Congressman Chris Bell, who won a broader state reputation with his forthright ethics complaint against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, initially had the field to himself, until challenged by another former congressman (and state rep and state supreme court justice, among other things), Bob Gammage. At first the populist Gammage claim was that the unemotional Bell was insufficiently dynamic to galvanize the Democratic faithful; the centrist Bell responded that Gammage represented only a return to the Texas Democratic past. More recently the two campaigns have engaged in a sniping battle over whose past congressional votes are more like those of a "real" Democrat (undeniably, they've both had major blind spots). In truth, if the Dems could get their act together, either man would be such a profound improvement over the current Perry regime that we find it difficult to get excited about their relative policy differences, on which both have shown a willingness to listen and change. We recommend Bell because, on balance, we think he has a better grasp of the current state political situation and seems more attuned to the broad issues important now to the full range of Texas voters – and the Gammage challenge has already made him a stronger candidate.

Lieutenant Governor: Benjamin Z. Grant

The likely thankless race to challenge incumbent Republican Lite Guv David Dewhurst includes former state rep. (early Seventies) and longtime Texarkana judge Grant, Austin social-research analyst Maria Luisa Alvarado, and Carrizo Springs truck-stop owner Adrian de Leon. About the best Democrats can hope for in this race is to draw out Dewhurst, especially on public education – where his rhetoric has been much more progressive than his legislative agenda. The candidate most likely to be able to do that is Grant.

Agriculture Commissioner: Koecadee Melton Jr.

It would be nice to see somebody slow the rise of Todd Staples, the Palestine Republican state senator and former rep who has managed to use a ready smile and a glad-handing manner to cover for some of the most reactionary policies in state government, and who most recently was carrying the GOP's re-redistricting water in the Senate. Neither former ag inspector Melton, of Fort Worth (currently working for Halliburton in Iraq), nor Tyler-area rancher Hank Gilbert are likely to give Staples much of a race, but Melton came out of the Hightower Ag department and represents the progressive future of the party.

State Rep., District 47: Valinda Bolton

This was also a very tough choice, because at least three of the four candidates are well qualified on the merits, and Dem voters may well be choosing the candidate with the best shot to replace incumbent Rep. Terry Keel, who resigned to run for the Court of Criminal Appeals. The popular (if volatile) Keel didn't have an opponent in 2004, and though the Republicans believe this district is theirs by right, most of the contested races in 47 were close enough to suggest the real possibility of a November Dem upset – a notion reinforced this month by Donna Howard's crushing special-election defeat of Ben Bentzin in neighboring District 48. Considering the primary candidates, we found Bolton, Jason Earle, and Eric Beverly all to be essentially qualified (only attorney Royce LeMoine seemed too politically green for the job). Beverly, currently with the state Office of Rural Community Affairs, has plenty of nuts-and-bolts legislative experience and a passion for campaign-finance reform; Earle has an illustrious local name and is a tireless campaigner. But meeting Bolton for the first time and following her campaign, we found her to be the most politically experienced and effectively social activist candidate, with a broad grasp of the issues – intellectually as well as politically – and an engaging personal manner that will reach a broad range of voters on the block and on the stump. We strongly endorse her.

State Rep., District 48: Donna Howard

Kathy Rider and Andy Brown will still be listed on the ballot, but in the wake of the initial special election nearly won outright by Howard, Rider and Brown withdrew and endorsed Howard, no doubt giving her a boost in her run-off defeat of Ben Bentzin. She will face Bentzin again in November – after representing her district in the crucial upcoming special legislative session, some time this spring.

District Judge, 299th District Court: Charlie Baird

This race also boasts two very solid candidates. Veteran Assistant District Attorney Buddy Meyer and former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charlie Baird are each well qualified, intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful. Meyer has a deserved reputation as a fair and considerate prosecutor (talents that would make him a choice candidate to succeed longtime District Attorney Ronnie Earle, whenever Earle finally retires). However, we believe Baird, who has already served in the 299th as a visiting judge, is the best choice to take on this busy criminal court. Baird is an independent thinker who will consider carefully each case, and a flexible and savvy jurist who understands that incarceration isn't always the right answer for low-level, nonviolent offenders. He supports the county's successful drug-court program and would like to expand its operation; he understands the heavy burden a clogged docket places on the wheels of justice, and would have a balanced approach to ensuring that cases move through the system in a fair and timely manner. And he clearly understands that the decisions of our courts have long-term implications for our families and communities.

Judge, County Court-at-Law No. 2: (split endorsement) Eric Shepperd or Elena Diaz

The No. 2 court is a civil jurisdiction, and both assistant Travis Co. attorney Eric Shepperd (head of civil litigation) and Municipal Court Justice of the Peace Elena Diaz have considerable courtroom and related experience for handling the kinds of contract, financial, eminent domain, and related litigation that lands in this court. Shepperd had a hand in the recent renaming of the courthouse in honor of Heman Sweatt, he has plenty of strong endorsements, and he heavily out-polled Diaz in the local bar rankings. He may well deserve the acclaim, but at least some of that is likely the effect of his more high-profile current office, perceived by default as confronting more heavyweight legal issues. On the other hand, Diaz is certainly more experienced as a judge, and in the kind of grassroots legal practice required of a JP, although not yet at this jurisdictional level. In person and on paper, we found both of them fully qualified, fully engaged in the political and legal process, and very persuasive on their campaigns and the issues facing the court.

Travis Co. Commissioner, Precinct 2: No endorsement

We're a little surprised at our own lack of a consensus in this race, which leads us to an impolite abstention. Challenger Sarah Eckhardt, until recently an assistant county attorney, arrives with ready-made progressive bona fides (most notably, her late father Congressman Bob Eckhardt's long and distinguished service to the state and country, and a family of public spirits), a string of impressive prog endorsements, and an engaging campaign manner that will win a lot of votes. By contrast, we're all overfamiliar with incumbent Sonleitner's often condescending, even hectoring debater's style, as well as her more unhappy habit of sticking her finger in the political winds and finding a "conservative" direction in her northern precinct that we can never quite detect. (That was her stated reasoning in voting initially against county involvement in the re-redistricting lawsuit; understandable, but wrong.) But Eckhardt's opportunistic use of the toll-road issue as a political stick for beating Sonleitner has been frankly discouraging; from her campaign's opening day it has pandered to the worst instincts of transportation-subsidized suburban voters, or as she calls them mysteriously, "rim-dwellers" (we guess "Rob Royalty" or "Circle C-vians" would lack the same ring) – who will continue to demand "free" roads as a divine right as long as politicians continue to promise that real-estate speculator's snake oil. (Not surprisingly, Eckhardt has been noisily embraced by anti-toll warrior Sal Costello, whose aggressive use of demagoguery and character assassination, venomously and personally directed at Sonleitner, among others, helps to poison the public process.)

Eckhardt would undoubtedly inject badly needed new blood into a too-often lifeless commissioners' court, and her greatest achievement could come from pushing her mental health agenda – not as sexy a subject as tolls, but in much greater need of a local champion. On the environmental front, residents of western Travis County (Gerald Daugherty's Precinct 3) deserve a counterpoint commissioner more audibly attuned to their growing concerns about unmanaged growth in the Hill Country – an issue crucial to the entire region.

Yet whatever her histrionic faults, Sonleitner almost always comes down on the side of good government and open government. A couple of examples: Last spring, she was the only commissioner to question, challenge, and loudly (and finally successfully) oppose a backroom proposal that would have privatized the collection of delinquent taxes by handing the county's most lucrative business to former county attorney Ken Oden's law firm. She deserves much of the credit for stopping that train. In 2002, she also helped derail a politically motivated plan that would have essentially dismantled Bruce Elfant's central city constable office. Again, she was the only commissioner to openly defend Elfant and to question the motives of those who sought to whittle his budget and authority. Sonleitner doesn't back down from a fight, she doesn't run from her votes (even if we may occasionally disagree with them), and she asks good, tough questions on issues that come before the court.

In short, while we don't find enough substantive differences between Eckhardt and Sonleitner to make us recommend firing the incumbent, we are also aware of the potential benefits of opening the window to a spring breeze. Whatever the outcome, we hope Sonleitner's oversensitive antennae can tune to a more progressive frequency (e.g., see House District 48), or that Eckhardt's reflexive reach for a hot-button election issue doesn't reflect a deeper cynicism about the public debate.

Travis Co. Commissioner, Precinct 4: Margaret Gómez

Gómez is in fact not as politically nor personally deferential as her public persona might lead voters to believe, but we wish that she would come out of her shell more often to battle publicly on particular issues – as might have been the case during Capital Metro's recent stalemate with the StarTran employees' union. She has a valuable position on the Cap Metro board, and she needs to use it for progressive influence – not defend inaction by reference to a vague state law designed to make it difficult for agencies to act fairly for employees. But, on the whole, she has been a valuable advocate for her southeast precinct, is looking to monitor and promote development in the eastern county corridor in the wake of SH 130, and has generally voted consistently if not aggressively for progressive causes on the court. Her constituents should watch her closely the next time around on Cap Metro labor negotiations, which will begin in the next year. Deputy constable and challenger Yolanda Montemayor is sincere, and eager to be a people's voice on the Commissioners' Court – but she has still insufficient grasp of the details of county government, and enthusiasm for change simply isn't enough. end story

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