County Commissioner Precinct 4: New Guard vs. Old
Two generations square off for Precinct 4 county commissioner
Unlike many longtime local Democratic officeholders, Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez has never had the luxury of running unopposed in primary elections. Yet beginning with her first run for constable and continuing through each of her four terms on the Commissioners Court, she has always managed to overcome her opponent at the ballot box, thanks in large measure to a reliable voting bloc in Travis Heights, a high-turnout area of educated and reasonably well-off residents. Now Gómez, currently seeking a fifth term, faces possibly her toughest campaign challenge yet in opponent Raul Alvarez, a former City Council member with a history of grassroots activism.
Gómez proudly notes that she's won every political contest by dint of hard work on the campaign trail. "I've always run hard," she says. "I don't take anything for granted." Except for a 1998 challenge from former Commissioner Richard Moya (Gómez's mentor and former boss), the incumbent has typically drawn only token opposition. But Gómez acknowledges she faces a formidable test in Alvarez, given his experience as a two-term City Council member who also served time with Gómez on the Capital Metro board. Unlike her previous primary opponents, Alvarez has already succeeded in siphoning away a good chunk of Gómez's base, including endorsements from labor groups and Democratic clubs – groups that Gómez swept in her 2006 race against Yolanda Montemayor.
The shift in the political wind is evidence of a county that has dramatically changed since Gómez first arrived on the court in 1995. Though the county has no ordinance-making power and very little land-use authority, a new crop of voters has grown weary of the commissioners in general, and Gómez in particular – resigning themselves to the limitations of county government at a time when the economy is in the tank and growth and planning issues have assumed center stage. In Precinct 4, there's a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots; the demographics vary widely, from new condo dwellers Downtown to low-income residents in Southeast Austin (many who have been priced out of their earlier East Austin neighborhoods by gentrification) to rural areas of southeastern Travis County marching toward urbanization with new roads and new subdivisions.
"The issues are very different now," Alvarez said recently over a cup of soup at Texas French Bread. (By coincidence, Beverly Griffith, his former ally on City Council, happened to be seated at the next table.) Even if the county has little regulatory control, Alvarez argues, "we need to try to identify the best role for the county to help residents improve their quality of life, and we need to encourage more participation in the process."
After 15 years on the court, even Gómez's onetime staunchest supporters – including Hispanic leaders who, for business or political reasons, don't want to be named – say it's time for new blood on the court. "For better or worse," said one graying activist, "we're on our way out. This is a young community, and we really need young leadership."
Alvarez says he was first approached to run against Gómez in 2002, but he had only recently arrived on the City Council and decided to stay put. Then, last summer, he was approached again – this time by Hispanic leaders who were angry over Gómez's role in the controversial firing of two high-level county employees, both of them women, one Hispanic, the other African-American. (For more on that controversy, see "Travis County 'Death Spiral,'" Oct. 2, 2009.) Alvarez was advised early on, however, not to turn the personnel matter into a campaign issue, and he has dutifully stayed out of that fray. He says he first made certain that he "wouldn't get [his] head cut off" if he entered the race and consulted "more than 70" people before he made his decision. "What it came down to," he told the Chronicle, "is that people kept telling me that Margaret has simply lost touch with the community."
Alvarez knew he'd have an uphill battle. "Running against an incumbent is very challenging," he said, "because usually all the money and endorsements are with the incumbent." And a loss to Gómez would represent a bruising defeat for Alvarez, after he twice won an at-large seat on the City Council. "I have more to lose now from running in one precinct," he said.
While Alvarez's campaign, after getting off to a slow start, has steadily gained traction and financial muscle, Gómez, long a loyal Democrat and supporter of progressive causes, still maintains support among high-profile Dem players. Chronicle columnist and former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, activist Bettie Naylor, and former Travis County Attorney Ken Oden are among the prominent names that appear on her supporters list. Alvarez, on the other hand, has attracted a number of boots-on-the-ground activists such as Susana Almanza of PODER and Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen.
To her detriment or credit, Gómez has never been one to make dramatic rhetorical waves. She plays it safe on issues, enumerating her successes in phrases like "I voted for" rather than "I took the lead on" particular issues. For example, a recent campaign mailer boasts that she "voted to increase funding for SafePlace" (a facility for spousal abuse victims), and she "voted" to fund Meals for Kids, a poverty-fighting program. And, the mailer continues, she "voted" for a bond measure calling for the preservation of open space and the addition of parkland. "I am not a person who will grandstand, who takes the mic," she says. "But I am very much aware of the issues. My style is to listen very carefully to understand all sides. The better part of communication is listening."
Yet Gómez is more often criticized for not communicating enough. Her last four years in office have been particularly rough, due in considerable part to her tenure on the Capital Metro board, where she served for 11 years – her final year as chair – until stepping down at the end of her term late last year. She drew criticism for sitting on her hands on labor issues, preferring instead to point to the board's legally bound "third-party" status as a reason for not wading into personnel matters. (She can cite specific laws by chapter and code number to explain why she – whether as a commissioner or a Cap Metro board member – cannot take a public stand on any given number of thorny issues.) On the Commissioners Court, Gómez most recently voted with the majority in clearing the way for the expansion of a controversial gravel mine in eastern Travis County. In 2007, she was the swing vote on the county's decision to abandon its fight against a BFI landfill in the northeastern sector of the county (both facilities are located in Commissioner Ron Davis' Precinct 1). Her express rationale at the time was that if the landfill weren't allowed to grow at its present site, it would result in more landfills in her precinct. While she defended her action as a win for Precinct 4, activists countywide, including some in her own precinct, were (as one put it) "embarrassed" by Gómez's explanation, saying, "You don't dump on somebody [else] to avoid getting dumped on yourself."
Even with Gómez's faults, some of Alvarez's supporters privately wonder if he would be able to assert himself effectively on key issues that come before the court. Like Gómez, Alvarez was regarded in some circles as someone who did not play a visibly active role in setting City Council policy. Yet Alvarez can indeed point to a record of leadership roles on a number of fronts, most prominently for a measure that led to the expedited closure of the Holly Street Power Station in East Austin and on establishing an economic development district for the central Eastside. On the whole, Alvarez remained true to his base when voting on issues pertaining to the environment and affordable housing. "When it comes to neighborhoods and the environment," he says, "I can put my record up against anyone." Even, he says, if he comes up on the losing end of a vote.