The Constable Races: Part 2
The relatively tame contests at play in precincts 1,3, and 4
Anyone who's ever pondered the mystery of why constable races are so insanely and personally competitive, consider this: The low-level, low-visibility Travis Co. law enforcement job pays a whopping $87,000 a year. Not bad for a political seat positioned so far down the ballot it barely registers in voters' minds – especially with an unseasonably hot presidential race blazing across the state.
This primary election cycle, four of the five Travis Co. constable seats are being contested on the Democratic side (Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant is the only incumbent without a primary opponent). Last week, we covered the wacky fight in the Precinct 2 race. This week we'll look at the relatively tame contests at play in the remaining precincts.
Precinct 1: Civil and Community Service
With incumbent Constable Luke Mercer retiring at the end of the year, three hopefuls are angling to fill the open seat that serves East Austin and eastern Travis County. Former Austin City Council Member Danny Thomas may have a higher profile than opponents Willie Joe Madison and Janie Serna, but Madison has Mercer's endorsement and the advantage of his current standing as the precinct's chief deputy constable. Thomas, nevertheless, cites his longtime service in the community as a former Austin police officer, a minister, and currently as a faith-based community liaison for the Austin Police Department. Thomas believes his knowledge of the budget process, gleaned from his years on council, gives him an administrative edge. He wants to fold that experience into creating new outreach programs. "Luke has done a great job," Thomas said of the current constable, "but I want to bring a new level of community service to Precinct 1." He said that while eastern Travis Co. is the fastest-growing area in the county – with a huge number of road projects, new subdivisions, and other development plans in the works – Precinct 1 has the smallest budget and staff of all the constable offices. In tandem with the rapid growth are the precinct's rising truancy and school dropout rates, Thomas said, and he vows to launch grassroots programs that would enlist parents in getting kids back in school.
Sizing up Madison, his strongest competitor, Thomas questioned whether Mercer had actually publicly endorsed Madison. But Mercer assured us that he has. "We are all pulling for Willie over here," he said. "Danny would be a new guy coming in and having to learn the office. Willie already knows how to do everything." As for Thomas' city-honed budget experience, Mercer chuckled, "He'd still have to deal with the commissioners."
A common misconception about the job, says Madison, a former military police officer and longtime Precinct 1 deputy, is that the constable's office is an extension of APD and the Sheriff's Office. It's not. "Most of what we do is civil," he said, allowing that the most heartbreaking thing about the job is serving eviction notices. What he most enjoys about the job, says Madison, are the community-service aspects. "That's my high," he said.
A long-shot third candidate for the seat is Janie Serna, a former deputy constable in the Precinct 1 office, running after a six-year absence. She's currently a parent support specialist at Ortega Elementary School.
Precinct 3: Service or Enforcement?
Democrat Richard McCain is seeking re-election to the seat he won in a surprising 2004 upset over presumed Republican favorite Thornton Keel, whose brother, former state Rep. Terry Keel, had served this same southwest Travis Co. area for several years. For various reasons, McCain is often at odds with two other well-established incumbents – Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant, who runs the largest office from his central-city courthouse base, and Precinct 4 Constable Maria Canchola, whom McCain (a former Precinct 4 deputy) once sued for wrongful termination. According to court documents, in a 2004 settlement, McCain collected $55,200 (before taxes) from the county. (The county constabulary is a small, incestuous universe: One of McCain's deputies, Alonzo Reyes, is running against Canchola, and Canchola's chief deputy, Robert Eller, is running against McCain.)
One major disagreement between precincts centers on the degree of the constable's role as a law-enforcement officer. Unlike Elfant and Canchola, who emphasize their civil-service duties, McCain chooses to place more focus on his law enforcement role. As a consequence, the Precinct 3 official has stepped up neighborhood patrols with marked vehicles and an additional deputy. "We've had massive growth out here," McCain says of the increased number of subdivisions that have cropped up over the last decade in his southwest district, "and people want to see a [police] presence in their neighborhood." With neighborhood associations willing to pay an hourly $15 fee for the patrols, McCain says the service practically pays for itself.
By contrast, Eller, McCain's primary opponent, suggests that the Precinct 3 office operates on a bloated budget, and he promises to be more mindful of taxpayers when making expenditures. "I don't believe in spending money just because you have it in your budget," Eller states on his campaign website. On the whole, Eller, a lifelong Austinite, acknowledges he's fighting an uphill battle in trying to unseat McCain. "It's always difficult taking on an incumbent," he said. "But I just have a passion to serve the community I grew up in."
The Democratic primary winner will face sole GOP candidate Mike Varela in November.
Precinct 4: Incumbency vs. Change
Maria Canchola is seeking a third term to an office that was decades behind in both technology and workload when she first took office in 2000 (she says she inherited a backlog of 5,000 criminal warrants). The Democratic Party activist is expected to retain the seat, despite hard feelings from McCain and his allies, who include Canchola's primary opponent, Alonzo Reyes, a master peace officer in McCain's Precinct 3 office. Reyes' law-enforcement roots run deep in the community, including stints as a corrections officer with the Travis County Sheriff's Office and a supervisor with the county parks district. "It's going to be tough [to beat Canchola]," Reyes admits, "but it's time for a change. We can do better." He says he would take a "proactive rather than reactive" approach to the job by placing more emphasis on crime prevention, litter abatement, and truancy.
Canchola, on the other hand, says her first priority is "to serve the court." That is, serve the reams of warrants, subpoenas, and other paperwork generated at the courthouse. Community-based programs are also a central focus of her office, she says, pointing to her work to combat truancy and the "record numbers" of school dropouts. More recently, Canchola has helped implement a task force for combat veterans to help bring attention to post-traumatic stress disorder. The program came together through coordinated efforts between the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, the Travis County Sheriff's Office and adult probation, and the Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center. "Now," she says, "we've finally got a program in place to help these veterans."