Aleshire vs. Oden

Who's running for tax assessor?

Former County Attorney Ken Oden (pictured) and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire are still sparring over control of the tax assessor-collector's office ... or maybe they aren't.
Former County Attorney Ken Oden (pictured) and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire are still sparring over control of the tax assessor-collector's office ... or maybe they aren't. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The names on the Democratic primary ballot for Travis Co. tax assessor-collector are officially 16-year incumbent Nelda Wells Spears and former Austin state Rep. Glen Maxey. But voters following the campaign trail might be forgiven for occasionally wondering if the long shadows of former county Judge Bill Aleshire and former County Attorney Ken Oden – both now in private legal practice – have somehow taken possession of the campaign. Although both men are strong Democratic partisans, their past conflicts over county policy have steadily bled into the current campaign, threatening to obscure the actual candidates.

The Aleshire vs. Oden dispute dates most bitterly to the 2005-2006 fight over a proposal by Oden and his law firm, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, to privatize the county's collection of delinquent property taxes. (The Linebarger firm specializes in similar government contracts, and Travis County is one of the largest in Texas that haven't already privatized the process.) Aleshire, who was himself once tax assessor-collector, led the public charge against the privatization proposal, which was defeated at Commissioners Court after a staff study showed that it would be both less effective and more expensive than continuing the current system. Maxey officially opposes privatization, although Aleshire says he waited too long to do so, and Aleshire and Spears are convinced that the privatizers (read, Oden) remain determined to get their hands on that county business. (Curiously, Dale Linebarger, since retired from the firm that bears his name, is supporting Spears, although he acknowledges they differ on privatization.)

The county's privatization rejection was not the end of the political story, as Oden subsequently helped defeat Precinct 2 Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, at least in part for her staunch opposition to privatization. "I did help do that," Oden said, "and despite what Aleshire seems to believe, it's still legal for me to support or oppose candidates of my choosing." Oden says he opposed Sonleitner as much for her positions on the northeast landfills and toll roads as for the privatization issue, but most especially because "she was the only Democrat who voted against having the county take part in the legal challenge against Tom DeLay and the congressional redistricting." Sonleitner was defeated by Sarah Eckhardt – who also opposes privatizing the tax collection.

Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire
Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Nonetheless, Aleshire (who is also Spears' campaign treasurer) and Spears have repeatedly accused Maxey of essentially being a stalking horse for Oden, a charge both men deny. They say that, in fact, last spring Oden had been talking to another potential candidate when Maxey called him to say he intended to run, and Oden says he told him, "Then there's no point in anyone else running – a third candidate won't have a chance against you and Spears." Oden describes politics and governmental policy as both his preoccupation and his hobby – "It's far too late for me to join a square-dancing club" – and he has indeed helped form a political action committee, the Progressive Action PAC, to support candidates this year. But he adds that because of his longstanding relationships with both Maxey and Spears, he's staying out of the tax assessor's race. "I wouldn't be intimidated by Bill's wild charges to stay out of that race, but it's something I just choose not to do."

Aleshire doesn't believe it, and last week told the Chronicle that he'd heard Oden's PAC was about to do a big media buy on Maxey's behalf; told of Oden's denial, he responded, "I'm glad to hear that," but he didn't sound convinced. Asked if he believes no incumbent Democrat should ever be challenged in a primary, he said, "Only if they're doing a bad job, and Nelda's been doing a great job for many years." Last summer, Aleshire's anger against Maxey spilled over into an e-mail to the Rick Noriega for Senate campaign, which at the time was employing Maxey as a database consultant. Although the specific e-mail has been lost, Noriega campaign manager Sue Schechter confirmed that Aleshire responded to a Noriega campaign e-mail by demanding to know why anyone in Travis County should support Noriega as long as he was providing work to Maxey. (Schechter says she requested a meeting to discuss Aleshire's concerns but never heard back, and now Maxey, deep in his own campaign, is no longer working for Noriega.)

Aleshire acknowledged that he feels "a sense of indignation that Maxey would run against [Spears]" in light of her "achievements and amazing record of public service." But he says he now regrets writing the e-mail to the Nori­e­ga campaign, because "on reflection, my e-mail was beneath the standards Nelda has set for her campaign. No excuses."

The conflict surfaced again a couple of weeks ago, when in a candidates forum at UT, Maxey reportedly "congratulated" Aleshire for tipping the Statesman to its story on Maxey's 2000 plea for leniency to Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle on behalf of Maxey's then-companion, who was mentally ill and facing a felony prosecution. The report reverberated beyond that public meeting – only because Aleshire posted an outraged denial (while retelling the story) to the Burnt Orange Report blog and in a similar letter to the Statesman, insisting, "I did not even know about the incident, and I played no part whatsoever in that newspaper story." Maxey told the Chronicle that he doesn't actually know who spread the story, but he "suspects" Aleshire because of his often-expressed animosity to Maxey's campaign.

Whatever happens in the primary, the bitterness of this internal party fight will inevitably linger beyond March 4. Perhaps it's even another sign of increased Democratic dominance, that the bitter county political fights are most likely to be between otherwise partisan allies. Aleshire continues to issue dire warnings against law firm "bounty hunters" trying to get their hands on county collections, while Oden blasts Aleshire's combative and seemingly proprietary attitude toward county government. "It's just Bill's style to accuse and slander anyone who disagrees with him," said Oden. "I'm not going to take up golf, and Bill's not going to become gracious in public debate."

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