The Early Money Race

Money can't buy votes – but it sure can buy a lot of TV time. The latter is already in play in the district attorney's race, a short-notice, high-speed contest born of District Attorney Ronnie Earle's mid-December announcement that he would not seek re-election.

While most other candidates for Travis County's elected offices have been on the fundraising circuit for the last six to eight months, pity the poor DA hopefuls who have only a matter of weeks to put together economic stimulus plans to get themselves known and make themselves viable candidates – the campaign equivalent of a reality-TV series.

First out of the chute with television ads was Mindy Montford, one of four of Earle's deputies jockeying for the high-profile office. Her Jan. 15 campaign finance reports show she raised $45,550 between Dec. 19 and 31. She reportedly bought $50,000 worth of TV time, which put her image and campaign message of "change" in heavy Central Texas rotation. Montford is blessed with strong ties to the tithing business lobby. Her father, John Montford, a former state senator and conservative West Texas Democrat who presided over the powerful Senate Finance Committee, is now the chief lobbyist for AT&T. Her campaign filings report $10,000 apiece from her father and stepmother, plus another $10,000 donation from former Gov. Dolph Briscoe. A trust fund run by another former governor, Mark White, gave Montford $1,000, while former mayor-turned-lobbyist Bruce Todd kicked in a relatively frugal $500. Montford's campaign treasurer is Junior Leaguer and Austin Community Foundation leader MariBen Ramsey.

Next up on TV will likely be Rosemary Lehm­berg, Earle's longtime top deputy and his endorsed candidate. A latecomer to the race, Lehmberg still raised $35,500 in the few days remaining before the Dec. 31 cutoff for this reporting cycle. Most of her contributions came from family members; other donors included former Comptroller John Sharp, who gave $1,000. Lehmberg's first major fundraising effort kicks off next week. Financially speaking, her late entry into the race does not bode well for fellow candidate Gary Cobb. Lehmberg is expected to siphon a good chunk of change from the same progressive and establishment Democrats that Cobb had hoped to tap. Like Montford, Lehmberg has a stellar campaign treasurer in bank founder and civic booster Bill McLellan.

Cobb is the only candidate without a financial report posted on the county's website, but he told the Austin American-Statesman he had raised less than $4,000 by the end of December. Cobb's own campaign website bears a who's who list of liberal and moderate supporters, but whether that support can translate into dollars and votes remains to be seen. His campaign treasurer is Capitol lobbyist and Travis County Healthcare District board Chair Carl Richie.

A fourth candidate, Rick Reed, is not expected to gain much financial traction beyond the $314 he's reported raising so far.

In another closely watched county contest, fundraising records in the tax assessor's Demo­cratic primary race show incumbent Nelda Wells Spears on top, with $47,925 collected at year's end. After expenditures totaling nearly $40,000, she has $8,183 in cash on hand. Her opponent, former Austin state Rep. Glen Maxey, reported raising $20,544, spending a little more than $14,000, and having $6,023 in cash at the end of the year. His contributors include Austin developers Larry Warshaw ($2,500) and Perry Lorenz ($1,000).

Spears' supporters had initially feared that Maxey's campaign would be partially funded by attorneys of an Austin law firm seeking to take control of the county's multimillion-dollar delinquent tax-collection business. Spears has steadfastly fought against farming out one of the county's biggest revenue generators to a private collection firm. Now she has the support of Dale Linebarger, the founder of the firm that has long lusted for the part of the county's business. Linebarger, who last year sold the firm to some of the younger lawyers there, contributed $1,000 to Spears' campaign, along with a glowing letter praising her skills. "I unequivocally support you in your reelection campaign," he wrote.

Linebarg­er's gesture hardly closes the book on the firm's county privatization efforts. One partner at the firm – former County Attorney Ken Oden – has vowed to continue his pursuit of the county's delinquent tax-collection operation. Toward that end, Spears' supporters are keeping a close eye on a political action committee that formed in July – Progres­sive Action PAC, to which Oden has written a $10,000 check. A similar Oden-backed PAC played a prominent role in securing the 2006 re-election defeat of former county Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, an outspoken opponent of Oden's privatization campaign.

At the state level, Rep. Dawnna Dukes is the only local candidate to face opposition in the Democrat­ic primary. Newbie challenger Brian Thompson reported raising $11,272, more than $5,000 of which is his own money. During the same time period, Dukes raised $73,972, with a good share coming from the usual business PACs.

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