'Chronicle' Endorsements

Nov. 4 General Election

The Chronicle editorial board (News staff, News editors, and publisher) offer the following select recommendations to our readers for the general election to be held Nov. 4; early voting runs Oct. 20-31. As a rule, we endorse only in contested races on the Travis County ballot, although we reserve the right to speak on other selected Central Texas races. We offer these endorsements to our readers equally as information and recommendation; our strongest endorsement is that you all take seriously your right and responsibility to vote.

President: Barack Obama-Joe Biden

While it's unsurprising that we're endorsing Barack Obama for president – he's the only chance we have of the U.S. turning away from the disastrous domestic and foreign policies of the last eight years – the reasons for doing so have become increasingly urgent in the last weeks of the campaign. The spreading economic crisis requires a broad approach that does not rule out, on ideological grounds, direct government intervention, and the Bush administration is dithering and delaying – and John McCain promises more of the same. We need a broad and deep voter mandate for the end of the occupation of Iraq and a straightforward and efficient withdrawal – and McCain threatens only more of the same. Whatever one thinks of the limits of the Democratic Party, or even of electoral politics, we need a broad and strong message from voters in support of progressive change, and the only immediate means at hand is a widespread activist vote for Barack Obama. We urge all our readers to spread the word and to get out and vote.

U.S. Senate: Rick Noriega

After nearly six years as a staunch supporter of President Bush's failed policies, Republican Sen. John Cornyn now has the gall to run ads claiming that he'll be an agent of change. Houston state Rep. Noriega isn't exactly a revolutionary, but electing the Democrat would mark a welcome new direction. He wants to end this immoral and illegal war in Iraq, he's opposed to a border wall, and as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, he has firsthand knowledge of both border security and foreign policy. As a state legislator, he voted to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, unlike Cornyn. While we'd like Noriega to be bolder in certain areas, a Sen. Noriega would on balance certainly be better than Cornyn and, in the untoward event of a McCain presidency, might help give the Democrats a veto-proof majority.

U.S. House, District 10: Larry Joe Doherty

What we said about John Cornyn above applies equally to Rep. Michael McCaul – he's little more than a rubber stamp for President Bush's warmongering, pro-corporate policies. Attorney and former TV personality Doherty is chomping at the bit to return District 10 to the progressive, populist tradition it had under Lyndon Johnson, Homer Thornberry, Jake Pickle, and Lloyd Doggett. First and foremost, he's sick of the Iraq war and recognizes its immorality. He also supports universal, single-payer health care and effective re-regulation of a freewheeling Wall Street that has spun out of control. Having lawyered in Houston, lived near Brenham, and now residing in Austin, he understands all aspects of this diverse district. It's time to root out "Congress­man Clear Channel" and let Doherty represent people, not money.

U.S. House, District 21: James Arthur Strohm

We'll confess – we're less than enthusiastic about Libertarian Strohm. In general, we think libertarian economic ideas are mostly abstract exercises in free-market fundamentalism, of little use in the current economic crisis. But Lamar Smith has been little more than a cog in the ruinous Republican machine of the past 7½ years (longer, if you recall the Newt Gingrich Congress), and we're embarrassed that the focus of his career has been beating up on immigrants. At least we agree with Libertarians on issues such as the Iraq war and drug legalization, and we're willing to check Strohm's name as a protest against a destructive regime.

U.S. House, District 25: Lloyd Doggett

There's a good reason Rep. Doggett has no formidable opposition (his Republican opponent, Fayette Co. rancher George Morovich, is a flat-tax and anti-immigrant enthusiast, and his Libertarian opponent is pro forma). He's one of the most progressive and hardest working congressmen on the Hill, and he has served the people of Austin and Central Texas with distinction, courage, and forthrightness for many years. He hardly needs our endorsement, but we're very proud to provide it.

U.S. House, District 31: Brian Ruiz

Incumbent Republican John Carter is an embarrassment to Austin and Texas. About the only thing good we can say – and it's a mixed blessing – is that he opposed the Wall Street bailout. Otherwise, he's a staunch Iraq War supporter, even engaging in demagoguery by questioning the patriotism of those who oppose it. We suspect Ruiz, son of former AISD board member Abel Ruiz, has little hope in this very conservative district that includes the Williamson County portion of Austin, but his opposition to the war and support for renewable energy, and for health care for all children, deserves your vote.

Railroad Commissioner: Mark Thompson

Thompson faces an uphill battle against Railroad Commission Chair Michael Williams, but we welcome his committed effort to take on an incumbent whose campaign is fueled by the oil and gas industry he's supposed to regulate. Thompson, a disabilities rights advocate, calls for agency reforms and tougher enforcement of laws intended to protect the little guy. Can't argue with that.

Supreme Court, Chief Justice: Jim Jordan

Supreme Court, Place 7: Sam Houston

Supreme Court, Place 8: Linda Reyna Yañez

In recent years, the state's highest civil court has become a rubber stamp for corporate defendants, for whom it votes unanimously much of the time, with little regard for the legal rights of ordinary citizens nor even the necessity of balance and fairness. Moreover, the current incumbents are finding it increasingly difficult even to manage their dockets, as cases disappear into endless delay and consequent denial of justice. It's time to swing the pendulum back in a progressive direction: Jordan and Yañez have distinguished judicial records, and Houston is an accomplished civil attorney. We urge our readers to support them.

Court of Criminal Appeals:

Place 3: Susan Strawn

Place 4: J.R. Molina

Place 9: Cathy Cochran

Changeover is perhaps even more necessary at the Court of Criminal Appeals, where Chief Justice Sharon Keller has presided over an increasingly "Hang 'em high!" court, out of step with either progressive criminal justice or sometimes even rational court procedure, barely managing its docket let alone delivering impartial decisions. This is an outcomes-based, right-wing activ­ist court, determined to rubber-stamp harsh prosecutions with little regard for fairness or justice, let alone mercy. Democrats Strawn and Molina would bring both experience and fairness to the CCA and deserve voters' support. No Demo­crat is running in Place 9, and Libertarian William Bryan Strange III appears to have filed purely out of partisan ideological conviction. GOP incumbent Coch­ran has shown fairness and a judicial temperament – she was livid at Keller's notorious 5pm closing on a death penalty appeal – and she has earned another term.

Texas House, District 46: Dawnna Dukes

We've had some differences with Dukes – notably over her support for House Speaker Tom Craddick – but she's better than the Libertarian running against her.

Texas House, District 47: Valinda Bolton

By concentrating her agenda on the two hallmark issues for most Texans – education and health care – Bolton is keeping to the heart of a state rep's responsibilities. While a baseless smear campaign has tried to target her as soft on sexual offenders, Bolton's national reputation and practical experience as an expert on sexual and domestic abuse was invaluable when she stepped with little fanfare into the quagmire of the Texas Youth Com­mis­sion scandal to help legislate essential abuse counseling services. It is hard to see GOP challenger Donna Keel's candidacy as more than vendetta politics, with an agenda that does not relate to the real concerns of the district. Moreover, putting the sister-in-law of Speaker Tom Craddick's parliamentarian (and former HD 47 incumbent) Terry Keel in the House would be a re-enforcement of Craddick's dictatorial style. We strongly endorse Bolton for a second term.

Texas House, District 48: Donna Howard

Former critical-care nurse Howard has unsurprisingly taken a lead on many health-care issues, including putting her name to the Texas Hospital-Based Nursing Education Partnership Grant Program, which will help relieve the statewide hospital staff shortage. While other legislation, such as extra protection for hospital whistle-blowers, died in committee, Howard's commitment to these pivotal issues is undeniable. So is her ability to forge strong working relationships with House Republicans without excessive concessions. Republican Pam Wag­gon­er is running on an education platform, but her tax proposals would further hamstring school funding, and making illegal immigration her No. 2 issue is straight from the GOP playbook and a diversion from real state problems. Libertarian Ben Easton's blanket opposition to public education outweighs any potential good in his platform. We strongly endorse Donna Howard.

Texas House, District 49: Elliott Naishtat

Naishtat is unopposed, but we wanted to give him a shout-out anyway for years of dedicated service to Austin and Texas. Keep up the good work!

Texas House, District 50: Mark Strama

During the revolt against Speaker Craddick last session, Strama could have shrunk into the background like some other members of his caucus pegged as Craddick Ds. Instead, he delivered a clear legal argument that dismantled Craddick's claims that he who wields the gavel wields absolute authority. His package of proposals to create an independent redistricting committee, to expand campaign finance reform, and to improve ballot access could make him a major factor in political battles before the 2010 redistricting. In addition, his authoring of effective green legislation and creating funding that bridges the gap for veterans going to college are solid policy. Republican Jerry Mikus' proposal to shift all state revenue to sales taxes defines "regressive tax," and Libertarian Jerry Chand­ler has done little to promote his agenda.

Texas House, District 51: Eddie Rodriguez

Rodriguez has represented his district and Austin well, with particular attention to Eastside residential concerns and those of everyday working people. He has also been an independent mind on the House floor and a calm temperament who understands how progressive action gets done, a piece at a time. Liber­tarian Arthur DiBianca is an earnest fellow who's doing what he can to build his party, but Rodriguez has fully earned the voters' support.

Texas House, District 52: Diana Maldonado

Attempts by the Williamson County GOP to paint Round Rock Independent School District trustee Maldonado as a single-issue education candidate seem galling when compared to Republican Bryan Daniel's close connection to the agriculture political action committees. An establishment Republican whose generic policy platform would restrict spending when even some of the more fiscally conservative House members are worried about the state's bare-bones budget, Daniel seems a backward step for a changing district. Maldonado, who arguably has far better links to the Central Texas business community than Daniel, will also bring an often-missed voice for Hispanic-owned and female-owned businesses and coalitions, and her hands-on understanding of the legislative and budget traumas facing school districts can be an essential addition to the next session.

3rd Court of Appeals, Chief Justice: Woodie Jones

The incumbent is Justice Kenneth Law, who won his seat on a fluke with little experience and has grown less worthy in the job. Recently he and his former business lobbyist colleague Alan Waldrop ruled that "checks" are not necessarily "cash," in a transparent attempt to exempt disgraced former Rep. Tom DeLay from prosecution for campaign finance violations. Shortly thereafter, Texans for Public Justice filed civil and criminal complaints against Law for apparent campaign finance violations. By contrast, former 3rd Court Jus­tice Jones has both an exemplary reputation and still more judicial experience than Law, and he will help restore the reputation of a court that has disgraced itself with right-wing partisanship.

District Judge, 427th Judicial District: Jim Coronado

Last spring, for the Democratic primary, we described Coronado as "an experienced attorney, court officer, and legal activist who has been centrally involved in social-justice issues in and out of court for many years ... [who] has the length of service and the breadth of legal and community experience" to earn our endorsement. Melissa Goodwin, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry for the newly created court to provide incumbency in this campaign, has served only a few months, with prior experience primarily as a justice of the peace. We believe Coronado has the broadest range of experience and the temperament to best serve in this seat.

Travis Co. Sheriff: Greg Hamilton

Although incumbent Hamilton has recently been criticized for allowing too-generous jail access to federal immigration authorities, he has otherwise held hands off on immigration enforcement, saying it would detract from fighting crime, and he has in general continued and expanded the better traditions of local law enforcement in recent years. Specifically, his office quickly adopted the "cite-and-release" option for minor offenses made available under state law while the Austin Police Department was still dragging its feet – and he no doubt had an influence on the larger department to get with the program. Republican challenger Raymond Frank is 83, carries a few old skeletons from his Seventies-era tenure, and would undoubtedly be entertaining; when he ran in 1996, he told the Statesman, "I realize I'm 70, but so is B.B. King, and so was Picasso when he did some of his best work." A dozen years later, Frank is bucking GOP orthodoxy by promising to renounce Tasers and to work for marijuana decriminalization, but his candidacy is largely a diversion, as is the token filing of Libertarian David McDaniel.

Travis Co. Tax Assessor-Collector: Nelda Wells Spears

Some good ideas have been raised as to how the Tax Assessor's Office could be improved – but those suggestions came back in the Demo­cratic primary from challenger Glen Maxey, not from her current Republican opponent. Even Maxey's suggestions couldn't convince Dems to end the 17-year tenure of Spears, who has rightly earned praise as an effective, competent public servant in her roles of tax collector and voter registrar. Libertarian-oriented Republican Don Zimmerman's candidacy borders on the cartoonish and offers no evidence he could defeat her in any case.

Travis Co. Commissioner, Precinct 1: Ron Davis

Davis has been a reliable progressive vote on the Commissioners Court and an effective advocate for his northeast district. He well deserves another term.

Travis Co. Commissioner, Precinct 3: Karen Huber

We'll give incumbent Republican Gerald Daugherty the same credit we gave him back in 2002: We appreciate the fact that he says what he believes, not just what he thinks people want to hear. Unfortunately, what he believes is sharply at odds with our vision for the western portion of Travis County that he serves. His longstanding prioritization of road-building ahead of mass transit and opposition to increased county powers over development have not served this county well. Within county lines, alas, there isn't much left of the Hill Country to save, but we believe Huber's business background mixed with her strong conservationist bent will help protect what remains of a formerly (and in some places, still) beautiful part of the county.

Travis Co. Constable, Precinct 2: Bob Vann

This is not the first time we've endorsed Vann, a Republican, for this seat, but he has served in this office since 1996, and it would be nice to see a viable Democrat making a run for this seat. The Democratic candidate in this race is Adan Ballesteros, but we couldn't bring ourselves to endorse him (or for that matter his opponent, Paul Labuda) in the Democratic primary, and we find no reason to endorse him now. Voters in this district are better off sticking with a known quantity like Vann.

Travis Co. Constable, Precinct 3: Richard McCain

In his first term, McCain worked hard to raise the profile and funding level of this little-known southwest Travis Co. office in one of the fastest-growing areas of the county. The incumbent, who faces Repub­lic­an Mike Varela and Libertarian Joe Edgar on the ballot, already has a proven record that is unmatched by his competitors. He deserves a second term.

Travis Co. Constable, Precinct 5: Bruce Elfant

Incumbent Elfant has been a stalwart of both constabulary efficiency and progressive action for many years and is a local moral anchor among officials sometimes more interested in self-advancement than serving the people. We welcome the opportunity to praise and endorse Elfant.

City of Austin, Proposition 1: YES

Shall the City Charter be amended to provide that city council appoint a city auditor for a five-year term, during which term the city auditor may only be removed by a vote of three-fourths of the city council, and at the conclusion of the term, by a majority of the city council?

Proposition 1 (which originated from a council proposal) is designed to insulate the city auditor – who investigates wasteful spending and fraud and conducts more general administrative reviews – from political pressure by making the position a fixed, five-year term and requiring a council supermajority (at least six of seven, currently) to remove the auditor. The point is to insulate the auditor from outside pressure should uncomfortable questions emerge from the auditor's office. As the auditor's office has occasionally been subject to political or managerial arm-twisting in the past, Proposition 1 is a commonsense way to better government at little cost.

City of Austin, Proposition 2: NO

Shall the City Charter be amended to prohibit the City from entering into future agreements to provide financial incentives in connection with the development or redevelopment of property that includes one or more retail uses, and to stop the City from providing financial incentives under certain existing agreements in connection with the development or redevelopment of property that includes one or more retail uses?

An amendment to the City Charter – the municipal equivalent of the federal Constitution – is a serious decision that requires all the reflection and due diligence voters can muster. While we were not unanimous in our opposition, as an editorial board we're recommending a "no" vote on this broad amendment that rejects any and all retail development incentives. We're doing so because punishing the Domain – the North Austin mixed-use development that Proposition 2 targets – is not worthy of a charter amendment of unknown general consequences. Equally important, the potential damage to the city's reputation and the murky amendment language itself will likely generate negative consequences. This amendment is a risk we don't need to take.

Certainly we sympathize with the impulse to protect local businesses by forbidding the kind of subsidies provided to the Domain and reining in city largesse to commercial developers and national chain stores. In hindsight, the 2003 deal the city of Austin made with the Domain's original developer, Endeavor, gave away too much (up to $25 million in subsidies, in 2003 dollars) while asking for too little in return. But the city did get the benefits that council contractually demanded in exchange: a redesign as a mixed-use, New Urbanist project planned for mass transit, with some affordable housing and a complement of local businesses.

Voters need to clearly understand that this amendment will not affect only the Domain. With some exemptions, it would eliminate incentives – including, for example, affordable housing buy-down grants – for any project that includes a retail component. Used well, incentives of various kinds have been a valuable tool for positively shaping developer behavior and mixed-use projects. Yet the full amendment (not visible on the ballot) would broadly "restrict the use or expenditure of tax revenues or other resources of the city to provide subsidies, financial benefits or advantages for development of real property that includes one or more Retail Uses" (emphasis added) – whatever the extent or kind of those uses and regardless of the community goals the subsidy might achieve.

In particular, the amendment would affect the Mueller neighborhood, another project subsidized in part by its own sales taxes. The inability to make grants from the city's Afford­able Housing Fund could also negatively affect the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment, as well as mixed-use projects too small for tax-increment financing (exempted from the amendment) yet crucial to the redevelopment of inner-city neighborhoods.

The current council has already enacted a new policy that forbids future Domain-style subsidies. Unlike a charter amendment, that policy can be changed at will without waiting on another charter election. While we understand and respect the frustration of proponents who want to end large-scale retail subsidies and who don't trust City Hall to hold the line of its own accord, most of us believe this charter amendment is not the right solution.

[For a behind-the-scenes look at our Prop. 2 decision, see The Making of an Endorsement.]

AISD, Tax Ratification Election: YES

Even in the face of dire economic times and after the Austin Independent School District bond election in May, the real no-brainer on this ballot is the 3.9-cent property-tax raise for education funding. Tying the teachers' pay raise to the tax increase may seem like extortion, and Education Austin made a sensible argument that the district should have asked for the maximum 13 cents allowed by the state, saving it from having to come back, cap in hand, next time it has any additional expenditure. (Despite rises in property value, additional collections do not benefit AISD but are "recaptured" by the state for other districts.) The reality is, until someone in the Legislature has the spine to separate school funding from the political kick ball of property tax, the staff and students of AISD should not be penalized for a flawed funding system. We strongly endorse the tax increase and implore legislators to make school finance again a prime issue in the next session.

Propositions 1 and 2

Download the city ordinance mandating the charter amendments, including the ballot language and the full amendment proposals.

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