March 6 Primary Report

Eckhardt dethrones Sonleitner, fundamentalists duke it out with public education, and more

Sarah Eckhardt meets with supporters as she celebrates 
victory over incumbent Karen Sonleitner in the County 
Commissioner Precinct 2 race at Phil's Ice House/Amy's Ice 
Creams on Burnet Road.
Sarah Eckhardt meets with supporters as she celebrates victory over incumbent Karen Sonleitner in the County Commissioner Precinct 2 race at Phil's Ice House/Amy's Ice Creams on Burnet Road. (Photo By Roxanne Jo Mitchell)

Precinct 2 Bruiser: Eckhardt Knocks Out Sonleitner

Well after 9pm on Tuesday night Sarah Eckhardt was hungry, but couldn't eat. Rather, she didn't feel like she could eat, she said, because there were too many reporters around, ready to talk and snap pictures and roll tape; there's nothing graceful about having food in your mouth – perhaps masticating a bit of a hamburger – when the TV cameras turn your way. Indeed, this seemed the weightiest of Eckhardt's concerns on E-night as she sailed to victory, easily beating three-term incumbent County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, with just over 57% of the Dem primary vote, to win the County Court's Precinct 2 seat.

For sure, the Pct. 2 race was the county's most contentious primary election contest. Because no Republican challenger ventured into the ring, the primary decided who would secure the seat on the county's dais. The race wasn't exactly charming, or, at times, particularly clean – pro-Eckhardt toll road foe Sal Costello was decidedly heavy-handed, seemingly bending over backward to light a halo over Eckhardt's brown curls while looking for any opportunity to attach hand-whittled horns to Sonleitner's crown, along the way dubbing Eckhardt as the race's "Brave Heart" and Sonleitner its evil "Toll Queen." (To be sure, Sonleitner's toll vote was arguably regrettable; nonetheless, other pols, like County Judge Sam Biscoe, cast the same toll vote but were saved from any electoral challenge.)

Then there were the ads, which ran in last week's Chronicle, paid for by something called the Progressive PAC, one attacking Sonleitner (yet again) for her toll road vote and for her stated landfill "support." On Tuesday morning, the online city politics newsletter In Fact Daily reported that David Foster of Texas Clean Water Action, whose name and affiliation were printed in the ad as an implied supporter of its message, sent an e-mail to Sonleitner, explaining that he had not been told that his name would be used and that he had not given his "approval for my name or for [CWA's] name to be included." Asked Tuesday night, during her E-night party at Amy's Ice Creams on Burnet Road, Eckhardt said she knew about the ads, but was not aware that Foster hadn't approved of the use of his, or CWA's, name. If there was anything misleading about the ads, she said, she'd "certainly" be concerned.

Still, with election night here and gone (leaving Sonleitner now among the lamest of ducks), Eckhardt's real race – a long-distance, cross-country affair – to bring to bear on government the ideals of her campaign will move forward in earnest. Without a doubt, Eckhardt is confident that she'll bring a strong and confident stride. "The most important thing [about this race] is that Travis County is saying they want a county government that is higher profile," she said. A government that "is more involved … and that's a very encouraging thing. [This race has] raised the profile of county government, and that's a good thing."

In an e-mailed statement, Sonleitner thanked her supporters and said, "These election results do not erase a proud record of achievement that will last beyond my term of office; namely, the consolidation of EMS into a countywide system, the acquisition of nearly 8,000 acres for new parks, preserves and open space and being a voice for increased social services funding. I plan to continue to serve the people of Travis County through the end of this year, and I am grateful for the honor to serve them." – Jordan Smith

Valinda Bolton exults in election returns showing that 
she garnered 43% of the vote for House District 47 in the 
Democratic primary. She faces a run-off against Jason 
Earle, who got 42%.
Valinda Bolton exults in election returns showing that she garnered 43% of the vote for House District 47 in the Democratic primary. She faces a run-off against Jason Earle, who got 42%. (Photo By Jana Birchum)
Democratic House District 47 candidate Jason Earle 
receives congratulations from the Travis Co. District 
Attorney (who also happens to be his dad), Ronnie Earle. 
Earle now faces a run-off against Valinda Bolton.
Democratic House District 47 candidate Jason Earle receives congratulations from the Travis Co. District Attorney (who also happens to be his dad), Ronnie Earle. Earle now faces a run-off against Valinda Bolton. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

House District 47: March Madness Enters the Semifinals, Mark Your Brackets

If southwest Travis County folks were put off by the unwieldy throng of hopefuls in the House District 47 primary elections, they have Tuesday's primary voters to thank for making the decision easier for them in the next round. Democrats Valinda Bolton and Jason Earle, and Republicans Alex Castano and Bill Welch advance to April 11 run-off elections to determine who will represent each party on the November ballot. The winner replaces Republican Rep. Terry Keel, who is seeking a seat on the state Court of Criminal Appeals. In the four-way Democratic primary, Earle, the son of District Attorney Ronnie Earle, held a slight edge over Bolton for much of the evening until a sudden bump put Bolton on top with 43.1% to Earle's 41.96%. Eric Beverly and Royce LeMoine, received 9.15% and 5.77% respectively.

Early predictions in the Republican primary proved only half right. Welch made good on pundits' projections of leading into a run-off with 39% of the vote, while Rich Phillips failed to live up to expectations. He finished third behind Castano, a conservative pro-voucher hopeful who garnered over 28% in the five-way race. In the end, Welch, who is more politically aligned with Keel than Castano, is expected to win the run-off.

Democratic observers say the Bolton-Earle race will be a tough call because the two candidates possess similar political views but are direct opposites on certain strengths and weaknesses. Bolton is viewed as the stronger, openly progressive candidate, but her fundraising abilities are less impressive. Earle, on the other hand, is an astute fundraiser, but his campaign style doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Both sides say they hope the campaigns don't turn on negativity, which could turn voters off altogether in November. "We're just going to keep doing all the things that we've been doing to run a good, strong campaign," said Bolton. – Amy Smith

House District 50: Right vs. Righter in North Travis

Righteousness will be the name of the game in next month's House District 50 run-off election, where Republican voters will decide which of the two far-right candidates – Jeff Fleece or Don Zimmerman – is best suited to take on Democratic Rep. Mark Strama in November. Fleece was a virtual unknown until he entered the race as the party establishment's choice against longtime anti-tax activist Zimmerman, who lost credibility with his Libertarian friends when he took a sharp turn to the right within the last year. Zimmerman took a commanding lead in the early vote with 48%, but dropped to 43.7% in election-day returns. Fleece finished the night with nearly 47%. A third candidate, Mary Wheeler, collected just 9% of the vote. Both Fleece and Zimmerman support school vouchers, support the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and oppose abortion rights. No surprises there. But we can expect Fleece's camp to try to paint Zimmerman as a wild-eyed fringe character who shouldn't be taken seriously. That could backfire, however, because Zimmerman, for all his fringe-ness, is generally well liked by both Democrats and Republicans. – A.S.

Congressional District 10 candidate Ted Ankrum (l) 
drove from his home in Cypress to the Travis Co. Tax 
Office in Austin to watch the election with Lorenzo 
Sadun, an Austin Democrat who ran for the seat in 2004. 
Ankrum will face Austinite Paul Foreman in the run-off.
Congressional District 10 candidate Ted Ankrum (l) drove from his home in Cypress to the Travis Co. Tax Office in Austin to watch the election with Lorenzo Sadun, an Austin Democrat who ran for the seat in 2004. Ankrum will face Austinite Paul Foreman in the run-off. (Photo By Roxanne Jo Mitchell)

CD 10: Ankrum and Foreman Vie to Play David vs. McCaul's Goliath

So much for conventional wisdom. In endorsing Cypress resident Ted Ankrum for the Democratic nomination in Congressional District 10, we speculated that Ankrum's three tours in Vietnam would appeal to the rural voters in this Austin-to-Houston district, much more so than Austinite Paul Foreman's background as a poet and "former Berkeley radical." Apparently, we underestimated Foreman's small-town upbringing and his organizing ability, as he dominated the rural vote but lost here in Travis County. Ankrum led the four-way ballot with 3,697 votes, but Foreman was hot on his heels with 3,605. The two will face off on April 11 to see who takes on the intimidating job of unseating Republican incumbent Michael McCaul of Austin in November. Austinite Sid Smith and Spring's Pat Mynatt were set to the curb with 1,474 and 1,285, respectively.

We'll have to see if country folk who vote Democrat mirror those voting in November, but Foreman's rural strength was impressive: Of six such counties, Foreman took five; and in fact, in Bastrop and Waller Counties, Ankrum finished third. But Ankrum's strength came where Dems are the heaviest, in Travis – 2,581 votes against Foreman's 2,092. In Ankrum's home base of northwest Harris County, turnout of donkeys wasn't much above the rural totals, but he won 310-254 over Foreman. Take away Travis, and Foreman leads 1,513-1,116. But Travis, of course, is the heaviest end of the barbell for Dem voters, and Ankrum rolled up a lot of endorsements here.

"I'm the person that has experience in all of the things that Democrats care about, and frankly, the country cares about," Ankrum said Tuesday night in Austin. "I have experience in the energy business, in places that have a universal health care system, in places that have a living wage, in all of the issues that we all care about.

Asked how he would get his message out in the next month, "Clearly I'm going to have to get the message out in Travis. … But I've been dealing mostly with the active Democrats," he said, noting his endorsements, "but clearly there are more people voting than that."

Looking ahead to McCaul, Ankrum charged that, "his primary campaign was strictly a television campaign. And the way's he's conducted his business ever since he's been elected has been very distant – when I go up and down the district, there are people who've never met him, who don't know who he is, have never seen him. I think he's going to run a television campaign, and people don't watch television ads anymore. I've got TiVo. I'm not sure his so-called advantage is that big an advantage anymore."

Foreman said he deserves the Dem candidacy because he'll attack Bush more aggressively than Ankrum.

"I will help to impeach George Bush, and I'll do it immediately. I'm already in touch with lot of other congressmen who want to impeach him, and we'll get it done. We can't afford two more years of this turkey. The Iraq disaster will only double or quadruple if we go into Iran or Syria, and the neocons want that wider global war."

"Now Ted will be much milder, he'll say maybe [Bush is] wrong or needs to go or something, but the Congress is responsible for impeaching the president … and that's why I'm running for the House of Representatives."

Foreman believes that Bush's plummeting ratings are the key to attacking McCaul: "I'll beat him not just by tying him to Tom DeLay and his gerrymandering [which created CD 10], I'll beat him by tying him to George W. Bush. … McCaul's just their lackey … Bush's sinking ratings are going to pull McCaul down." – Lee Nichols

State Lege: 'Leininger Five' Wins Two

San Antonio multi-millionaire and pro-voucher zealot James Leininger, in a giddy no-holds-barred spending spree, managed to pump more than $2 million into five House races and managed to take down two of his five moderate Republican incumbent targets during Tuesday's primaries. He targeted the five because they dared to support public education instead drinking the voucher Kool-Aid.

While Reps. Tommy Merritt of Longview, Delwin Jones of Lubbock, and Charlie Geren of Forth Worth managed to hold onto their seats – Geren of the infamous "I will not whore for Leininger" statement in the online Quorum Report – Reps. Roy Blake of Nacogdoches and Carter Casteel of New Braunfels weren't so lucky.

Casteel, a former Comal County Judge and an active and vocal member of the Republican moderates, will be a keen loss for the House. Casteel lost to Nathan Macias by only 45 votes, and while 186 mail-in ballots are outstanding, she's not holding her breath. Most mail-in ballots are deployed military, and Macias is a war veteran. Contacted on Tuesday night, Casteel still had not decided whether she wanted a recount.

"We'll make that decision in the morning," Casteel said. "I told my followers tonight just what I told my husband Tom this morning. We win either way. I win because I get to go back to Austin and get to work on solutions, or I win because I get my family back. I got to spend a lot of today with my grandson, who is 16 months old, and I had forgotten how wonderful that is." – Kimberly Reeves

Dem Governor: Bell Rings Loudly

If gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell didn't have fire in his belly early on, as leading opponent Bob Gammage once charged, he managed to create enough spark among voters to win an overwhelming 58% victory Tuesday over both Gammage (38%) and also-ran candidate Rashad Jafer (4%). As the newly crowned Democratic nominee, the Bell campaign now looks to a November match against Republican Gov. Rick Perry (who won the GOP primary as expected) and likely indie contenders Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn. The independents need to collect 45,540 signatures from nonprimary voters by May 11 to win spots on the ballot. With Bell celebrating his victory in Houston, his home base, Gammage gathered with supporters at Opal Divine's in deep south Austin. The former congressman conceded the race but not the fight, vowing to keep fighting to "throw the rascals out." He said he'll support Bell in his race for the governor's seat. Gammage attributed his loss to his late arrival to the race; he announced his candidacy late last year, just weeks before the filing deadline. Democratic strategist Kelly Fero believes Bell's win had less to do with his message than other factors. "He seems to have prevailed over Gammage through sheer attrition," he said. "Bell was willing to make the long hard slog, and Gammage got in too late. The real question now is, can Bell place second or will he come in third?" – A.S.

Getting Kinky at Midnight

To be sure, voter turnout for Tuesday's primary election was low – L-O-W low. Around 10% of registered voters actually took to the polls (on par, if not slightly higher than 2002 primary turnout); in Travis Co. more than one polling station was cricket-chirping quiet, and more than one E-night party was – ahem – less than hopping. Still, in Austin there was at least one candidate who was nearly drowning in both media attention and supporter turnout; ironically, that candidate was independent gubernatorial hopeful Kinky Friedman. Yes, Friedman, for whom no voter on Tuesday could even cast a ballot.

To be precise, it wasn't until 12:01am on March 8 that Friedman's campaign to secure a spot on the November ballot was – for all intents and purposes, officially and legally – actually under way. Friedman's quest is bound by Texas' stringent and arbitrary election code, which requires him to gather, by May 11, at least 45,539 signatures of valid registered voters, none of whom may have voted in either party's primary election, in order to have his name included on the general election ballot as an independent candidate for governor.

Nonetheless, Friedman's Southeast Austin election HQ was hopping all day – the Kinkster did 24 media interviews before dinner, said campaign spokeswoman Laura Stromberg – and his party, at the politico-popular West Sixth Street watering hole Star Bar was flooded with a fresh crop of journalists and a steady stream of supporters. And when Friedman moved just six blocks north, to the Capitol for a midnight petition-drive-kickoff rally, the crowd followed. Indeed, by the time Friedman ascended the Capitol's south steps, the crowd had grown to at least 200 people forming a bulbous line down the walkway toward Congress Avenue. More impressive, perhaps, was that the crowd stayed until well after 1am, the line moving steadily forward, to sign Friedman's petitions. Friedman and his campaign staff were palpably giddy – turnout was far better than they'd imagined. "It's a good moment, a good day," said Friedman's longtime friend and his campaign's deputy director, Mister Little Jewford (né Jeff Shelby) "It's a pretty good bit of history." – Jordan Smith

U.S. Senate: Radnofsky Dances to a run-off

"I'm proud of my name, and I intend to keep it," said U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Radnofsky from Houston with a laugh, when asked if she's considered trying on something like "Ginger Rogers" in order to catch the attention of more Texas voters. The question occurred during the count in Tuesday's Democratic primary, as perennial and invisible candidate Gene Kelly of San Antonio – who neither campaigns nor even responds to questions but relies on his once-Hollywood name to sustain his races – managed to garner 37% of the statewide vote to Radnofsky's 44%, preventing her from avoiding a run-off. (A third candidate, unemployed Amarillan Darrel Reece Hunter, who also didn't campaign, still picked up 19%.)

Those results don't say much for Dem primary voters, but also suggest Radnofsky still has a lot of work to do, if she intends to defeat Kelly outright in the April 11 run-off and go on to a strong statewide campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. "I need to work harder, I need to raise some more money, and I'll need to spend some more money," Radnofsky told me over the phone Wednesday morning. "But all in all," she summed up good-naturedly, "we're pretty excited. We did pretty darn good against a Hollywood icon and a hunter in Texas," adding that Googling "Gene Kelly" generates 19 million hits. "That kind of name ID is priceless, but to my knowledge he doesn't know how to dance. I can dance."

Radnofsky has been traveling the state relentlessly for two years, meeting voters and fundraising – somewhat neglecting her home base of Harris County, which she also won only narrowly – but says she will spend some of the remaining $400,000 in campaign funds to open an office, hire Austin-based campaign manager Jeff Davidson, and fuel get-out-the-vote efforts for the run-off. She's hoping to return to her broader assault on Hutchison, who she says has been riding a "myth of popularity" of being the "aging prom queen" for too long. "She has a terrible voting record, including votes against Texas interests on things like transportation," Radnofsky said, "and I've found a lot of bipartisan support for my campaign across the state."

Other lessons she takes from Kelly's mysterious success? "The Dems at the grassroots need to pay more attention, and the state Democratic Party needs to pay more attention as well," she concluded. "And people who believe in the two-party system need to sit up and take notice. I'm not going to wait for the Democratic Party machine to rally rank and file Dems to my campaign. That's my job, and I intend to get it done." – Michael King

State Board of Education: Let There Be Ignorance

In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth. Then he created conservative millionaires. Then he created the State Board of Education. Well, he created vermin and locusts in there somewhere. In any case, where we end up today is that the intelligent design-supporting, far-right-funded candidates for two SBOE seats that grace Travis County creamed their more moderate Republican counterparts. (No Dems were running.)

District 10, which had no incumbent in the race, saw what's known as a "trouncing," with home-schooler Cynthia Dunbar taking 64% of the vote to Tony Dale's 36%. Dist. 10 includes Travis north of the river, goes north to Williamson and Milam counties, southeast to Brazoria County, and south to DeWitt County.

Things were a little more complex in District 5, which includes south Travis, runs south to San Antonio, west into the Hill Country, and wraps back around back up to Bell County. Ken Mercer, who like Dunbar had the support of San Antonio millionaire and voucher supporter James Leininger as well as the strongest social conservatives on the board, almost won outright with 49.81%. Incumbent Dan Montgomery won 35%; centrist Mark Loewe took 17%. Mercer and Montgomery meet in a run-off April 11.

The run-off likely will bring to seven the number of seats on the 15-member board controlled by strong social conservatives at the beginning of a four-year term in which the board will set new standards for high school biology classes. Yep – start lacing up those boxing gloves for a rumble in the intelligent design jungle. Because Texas schools buy so many books, Texas standards help shape the entire textbook market, meaning a whole lot of kids in Texas and beyond might start getting some theology with their botany. – Rachel Proctor May

Grusendorf Learns a Lesson

Professor Diane Patrick declared a stunning victory over incumbent House District 94 Rep. Kent Grusendorf on Tuesday night, taking down the architect of the conservatives' school finance plan and a key member of the House Speaker Rep. Tom Craddick's team. The Patrick-Grusendorf match-up was closely watched and heavily financed, with dozens of mail pieces going back and forth declaring who was the "true conservative." Patrick said her victory over the 10-term incumbent and chair of the House Public Education Committee was a mandate from Arlington to get the job of fixing school finance done. Patrick pledged an inclusive process – Grusendorf was known for his conservative skepticism of the education community – and is already lobbying hard for a seat on the House Public Education Committee. It remains to be seen whether the House will consider the defeat of a key conservative a mandate to propose a more moderate set of school finance reforms, either in special or regular session. – Kimberly Reeves

State Senate: Patrick's Radio Drowns Out Vet Legislators

Houston talk show host Dan Patrick – a lightning rod for controversy and an ideologue for his conservative ideals – pulled off one of the most stunning victories of the Republican primary, picking up almost 70% of the vote in a state Senate race that was expected to go to a run-off. Instead, he stomped two high-profile Republican House members, Peggy Hamric and Joe Nixon. In a chamber known for its decorum, Patrick is bound to shake up the process. He's known as the man who used his own KSEV radio talk show as a bully pulpit for his views and drove busloads of listeners to Austin to heckle a House committee considering the tax cap issue. Patrick is a stronger supporter of ending what is known as the "two-thirds rule" in the Senate and of putting a 3% cap on annual residential appraisal value increases. – Kimberly Reeves

County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Gomez Over Montemayor

As expected, incumbent Margaret Gomez beat challenger Yolanda Montemayor in the race for Precinct 4 County Commissioner. Although Gomez was thrilled with her solid win – she got 57% of the total vote – she was disappointed by the election's low voter turnout. "I think sometimes people think, 'Well, I'm going to vote against her because I'm not getting the services I need,'" which makes sense, Gomez said. She said she is concerned, however, about the people who feel that way but who don't voice their opinion by going to the polls. "They still get representation," she said. "I don't understand the nonparticipation." As for the Kinky/Carole factor: "I'm curious to see what the turnout is for them," she said. – Cheryl Smith

299th Court: Baird Over Meyer

Former state Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charlie Baird scored a solid victory Tuesday night in his bid to assume Travis County's 299th District Court bench. Baird beat opponent Buddy Meyer, a veteran prosecutor with the district attorney's office, with nearly 58% of the Dem primary vote. Baird will face off (and is expected to prevail) against Republican challenger Madeline Connor in November's general election. Baird, who spent Tuesday night watching returns with supporters at Opal Divine's Freehouse on West Sixth Street, exuded a measured (dare we say, judicially tempered?) excitement about his victory. "The thing is, there's nothing really sexy to say right now," he said. "I'm very grateful – the voters are trusting me to preserve, protect, and defend their rights. That's a really big deal." – Jordan Smith

Court-at-Law 2: Shepperd Over Diaz

Without a Republican contender vying for the job, Eric Shepperd's victory in the Democratic primary assures that he will be the next jurist to preside over Travis County's civil County Court-at-Law 2, replacing Judge Orlinda Naranjo who is leaving the seat for a chance to serve as judge of the 419th district court. The election night vote count between Shepperd – a 14-year veteran prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney's Office – and Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Elena Diaz was a back-and-forth, edge-of-the-seat affair for several hours (that is, as nail-biting as a Dem primary county court primary can be) as the returns swung slightly, but significantly, back and forth. Early voting results favored Shepperd, but shifted in favor of Diaz as precinct tallies began rolling in. By the end of the night, Shepperd had 50.42%, and a 156-vote victory. By 10:30pm, Shepperd's election-night party was all but over, leaving the candidate both excited and exhausted. Sitting in a wingback chair on the second floor of the Nueces Street law office that housed his soiree, Shepperd emitted a tired, tie-shedding, top shirt-button-undone bliss. "I'm happy tired," he said. "There are worse ways to go to bed at night." –Jordan Smith

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