The Austin Chronicle

'Chronicle' Endorsements

February 14, 2014, News

Here are the Chronicle editorial board's endorsements for the March 4 party primaries.

Travis County Races

County Judge: Sarah Eckhardt

Eckhardt's greatest strength is that she has been knee-deep in county work for many years, first as an assistant county attorney, and then for six years as Pct. 2 Commissioner, working on all kinds of initiatives to improve quality of life and making the county more "efficient, just, healthy, mobile, and green," as her campaign material states. She has also clearly articulated progressive goals for the whole region on matters like transportation and the environment, and she's done good spadework on CAMPO, building regional partnerships where a great deal of time and energy must be spent to make very slow progress.

An endorsement of Eckhardt is not to disparage her opponent, Andy Brown. There are solid reasons why Brown has garnered the lion's share of endorsements from Demo­cratic public officials and local political organizations. He has a long history in the local party, beginning as a fieldworker in Travis County campaigns stretching back to Ann Richards (and notably in 2004 as Rep. Lloyd Doggett's campaign manager). As chair of the county Democratic Party, he helped revitalize a placid operation, and was instrumental in increasing fundraising and turnout, especially in the county's eastern precincts. That success has carried over to his ability to amass a sizable war chest and to run a smooth campaign with an impressive field operation. His broad support, including visible minority support (his fluency in Spanish is a bonus) reflects that he's clearly able to win friends and influence people.

Nevertheless, there are hard questions raised about both Brown's experience and his insider managerial style. He hasn't worked at the county itself, and he would take time to understand and use the available levers of action, or evoke cooperation from county staff (and county attorneys) long used to doing things in a fairly unimaginative way. On that score, a commissioner's seat would have been a better place for Brown to learn the ropes before making a run for county judge. Our sense is that he's been coming up to speed on current policy issues as the campaign progresses.

The main criticism we've heard against Eckhardt is that she would rather be right on principle than successful in practice, making it difficult to build consensus either among her constituents or on the court. But that's not an entirely true or fair representation. During her tenure on the court she helped secure a majority vote, if not unanimous support, on several seismic changes in county policy, including stricter groundwater regulations, a more inclusive economic development policy, and a means of improving the county's lackluster record of awarding contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses. Should she become our next county judge, Eckhardt would do well to temper her leadership style. At the same time, we recognize and applaud Eck­hardt's abilities as a skilled, tough negotiator who would work in the best interest of the entire county. We believe the current court is often too easily swayed by monied interests, and voters would be wise to elect a county judge with a backbone.

Precinct 2 Commissioner: Brigid Shea

There are three very qualified candidates in this race to fill the seat vacated by former commissioner Sarah Eckhardt: Brigid Shea, Richard Jung, and Garry Brown. Two of the candidates might find themselves in an equally competitive run-off – one reason the campaign has become more polarized in the final laps. Jung brings a legal résumé and business experience, and is keen on addressing economic inequities in the county; Brown's Democratic Party work and depth of knowledge about county operations are impressive; and Shea's lengthy record of activism – working on progressive causes ranging from environmental issues and affordability to education advocacy – has made her a leading figure in the community. Of the three, however, Shea offers a formidable combination of policy and political skills that would benefit the entire court as it navigates weighty regional issues like water and transportation. We believe Shea's demonstrated ability to bring people together and her capacity to reach across the aisle to find common ground make her the best of three good choices here.

Precinct 4 Commissioner: No Endorsement

We are disappointed that incumbent Mar­garet Gómez did not draw a strong opponent in her bid to retain the seat she has held since 1995. Darla Wegner, a Del Valle ISD trustee, filed for the Democratic nomination but has done little to mount any sort of serious campaign in this historically low-voter-turnout precinct concentrated in southeast Austin and Travis County. That's too bad, because Gómez has done little in the last four years to convince us she deserves another term. Though she was absent for much of the first part of her current term due to poor health, she nevertheless managed to secure for herself an office on the 15th floor of a newly renovated county building, literally putting her needs and desires – whatever those may be – above the county judge and fellow commissioners who maintain offices on the second floor. And we're still not convinced, as Gómez would have us believe, that the fast-tracked road work at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack was needed to improve economic development opportunities in her disadvantaged precinct. No, we believe bond dollars – $16.6 million – were fast-tracked to benefit COTA, ironically at a time when some of her constituents were – and still are – trying to recover from the Halloween flood that devastated their Onion Creek neighborhood. While we cannot recommend her underqualified opponent, neither can we lend another endorsement to an incumbent who appears to have become a careerist politician whose priorities are no longer those of her constituents.

County Court-at-Law #3: John Lipscombe

Lipscombe was first elected to this bench in 2010 after spending most of his career as a prosecutor. While we crave more diversity on the bench – that is, the inclusion of other points of view, such as those offered by Lipscombe's opponent, defense attorney Paul Evans – we think Lip­scombe should remain on the bench so that he can continue to work on the rehabilitative justice programs he vowed to embrace in the last election. He's instituted a night docket for youthful offenders and others who have trouble making it to the courthouse during regular business hours. This is a good first step to leveling the playing field for those who can afford justice and everyone else.

County Treasurer: Ramey Ko

In her 27 years as county treasurer, Dolor­es Ortega Carter has been a competent office holder, fulfilling her fiduciary responsibilities. But Ko – an immigration attorney, former municipal judge and longtime Dem­o­cratic activist – makes a convincing argument that she has allowed the post to become moribund. He has a point: How many people even know we have a county treasurer? He proposes new blood at a time when county finances will only become more challenging. Even as Travis County becomes more heavily populated, the inevitable result is that the city of Austin will incorporate its wealthiest bits, and leave county government to do more with less. Ko's experience and proven ability on bringing disparate groups together, and his understanding of both the county itself and its governmental entities, could provide vital new collaborations that can help fill some of the funding gaps. He will also be a bridge to a community that so far had worryingly little involvement in local politics. As co-founder of the Capital Area Asian American Demo­crats, a lecturer at UT Austin's Center for Asian American Studies, and a commissioner on President Obama's White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Ko can give a voice in local affairs to Central Texas' growing Asian-American population. We thank treasurer Carter for her service, but believe that is time for new energy in the office.

Justice of the Peace, Pct. 5: Herb Evans

Though we admire the gumption of James Braxton Forrest, who has said that, if elected, he would use his power as JP to "legalize" pot use and gay marriage in Austin – two causes we certainly support – we find it difficult to imagine that this is the proper venue for such a stance. The job of JP is not a glamorous one, but an absolutely necessary one. This office handles civil and criminal matters that are very important to the people whose lives they impact. Evans is a level-headed and progressive judge and should be allowed to continue to improve the quality of justice for those who come before him.


U.S. Senate: Maxey Scherr

Five Democrats have filed in the fight to remove John Cornyn, but only two have strong reasons for taking the nomination. David Alameel, a Lebanese-born Army veteran and founder of Jefferson Dental Clinics, has the kind of personal war chest that can give him a real fighting chance against the incumbent. Maxey Scherr, on the other hand, is an El Paso human rights lawyer and single mom. Of the two, Scherr has more hands-on experience in political life and social justice; that, combined with her time on the staff of former U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, gives her a head start in the run for Capitol Hill. The remaining candidates have little to sell them to voters, and two may well be DINOs – Democrats in name only. Michael "Fjet" Fjetland ran three times as a Republican against Tom DeLay, while the fact that Google Search autofills Kesha Rogers' name with "is not a democrat" should tell you everything you need to know about this Lyndon LaRouche-supporting libertarian. Similarly, Scherr has criticized Alameel for a history of bipartisan donations over the years, with sizable contributions to both Republicans and Dem­o­crats. However, since the 2008 election he has become a firm supporter of Democrats only, giving portions of his wealth from his Dallas-based dental chain to key races. If Scherr does win the nomination, we can only hope that Alameel will donate to her and help her dislodge Cornyn.

U.S. Rep., CD 25: Marco Montoya

Travis County is barely an afterthought in the 13-county, Fort Worth-anchored CD 25, which runs from there to Wimberley. It was radically gerrymandered to be roughly 70% Anglo, voted 60% for Mitt Romney, and is represented by auto dealer, former secretary of state, and GOP fundraiser Roger Williams. It will be an uphill battle for either Democratic candidate: former public health officer Montoya or attorney Stuart Gourd. Both bring strongly progressive backgrounds and attitudes to their campaigns. Gourd served as an unemployment hearing officer at the Workforce Commis­sion, and in his campaign promotes the public interest over corporate power. Mon­toya has worked in public health, environmental protection, and various higher education programs, and has been a congressional liaison. Either would be an immediate improvement over the incumbent. On balance, we recommend Montoya as having a broader range of relevant experience for a congressional office.

Governor: Wendy Davis

It's only February, but of course the Texas gubernatorial campaign is already at full throttle – seemingly debating everything but the issues most important in the lives of Texans. That explains in part Sen. Davis' determination to reclaim the narrative this week, by talking forcefully about public schools and public health care, the two issues that most propelled her into this uphill challenge against the deep-pocketed, brand-tested Attorney General Greg Abbott. Her campaign thus far has not been exactly smooth sailing; the uproar over her imprecise but legitimately rags-to-riches bio has been much ado about very little, but it has also exposed Davis' somewhat ineffective response to an attack that should have been anticipated.

Nevertheless, Davis represents not only the Democrats' best hope to upset the longstanding statewide GOP domination, but the best pathway toward shifting the public discussion back toward the neglected ground of state service of the public welfare. Her stout defense of public education, in company with her legendary defense of women's health care and reproductive rights, rightfully made her a statewide and even national hero, while her opponent (pleading attorney-client privilege) refuses even to discuss public education and stoutly defends the frankly extremist GOP anti-abortion positions.

Like most mainstream Texas Democrats, Davis is not uniformly "progressive" – for example, her recent call for open carry of handguns has been her consistent position, though it's nuanced by "local control" that would still mean more guns everywhere. It's likely that other policies she'll promote will be tough for some Dems to swallow; but consider the alternative. With Lt. Governor candidate Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, Davis represents the strongest hope for a truly substantive political conversation about the real needs of Texans, and possibly a generational shift to the left in Texas politics.

Retired photographer and longtime Lati­no activist Reynaldo "Ray" Madrigal is also on the ballot, though he's not even attempting a serious campaign. In this instance, he might serve to bring a few more Hispanic voters to the polls – and provide an excuse to issue a formal endorsement of Wendy Davis. She's been a terrific senator; she'll make a great governor of Texas.

Lieutenant Governor: Leticia Van de Putte

It's rare that we endorse in an uncontested primary – after all, it's a done deal. But in this case, we'll make an exception. While national attention has fixated on Van de Putte's colleague from Fort Worth, gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, the San Antonio senator has a serious chance at taking the state's second most powerful office. In some ways, the lite guv race is more important than the governor's anyway, since the post also entails becoming president of the senate. As a Democrat running a GOP-dominated Senate, Van de Putte would be juggling some extremely angry cats. But few would be more qualified. After all, she has maintained her district, with its major military population, as a Democratic stronghold, not least because she has translated her solidly Democratic values in a way that has attracted centrist voters. There is also iron beneath the velvet glove. It was Van de Putte's now-famous words at the end of the abortion restriction debate – "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized?" – that stirred protesters to their feet and put Texas' repressive legislation and culture of legislative misogyny under the national spotlight. Yet she is also a staunch defender of process, tradition, and fairness in Senate operations. Under Van de Putte, we can honestly see the upper chamber returning to the collegiate atmosphere of restrained diplomacy that, until recently, defined its approach to lawmaking.

Agriculture Commissioner (DEM): Hugh Fitzsimons

In a race marked by hucksterism and hyperbole, Fitzsimons has distinguished himself by his experience and earnestness. The third-generation rancher became a vocal advocate for climate change policy after surviving the 2011 drought. That led him to the Wintergarden Groundwater Con­ser­va­tion District in the Eagle Ford Shale, where he fought for environmental sanity amidst the state's fracking boom. The Agriculture Commissioner acts as the chief ambassador of a $106 billion industry, administers the state school lunch program, and regulates pesticides and fuel pumps. It's a serious job that requires a sober approach. Kinky Friedman's pro-pot populism may be entertaining, but Texas deserves a commissioner who's not just blowing smoke.

Agriculture Commissioner (GOP): Tommy Merritt

There are many ways in which we disagree with former Republican State Rep. Tommy Merritt. His views on prayer in school, on open carry, and on gay marriage are antithetical to every position we hold. But, at the same time, Merritt was a conscientious thorn in his party's side. He repeatedly pushed to cut back on dark money in elections, helped remove the repressive Speaker Tom Craddick in 2007, openly challenged his own party's attempts to ignore procedure during the 2009 Voter ID debate, and resisted the Tea Party revolution in 2010. Inevitably, he paid the political price. Merritt is a firm believer in collaborative process, and his decades of experience in the Lege will parlay into an understanding of how to bring all parties together. Make no mistake – this is a critical time for Texas agriculture. The statewide drought has almost completely slaughtered the beef industry, and now water-hungry crops like rice and cotton seem set to follow. Of all the GOP challengers – Merritt's former House colleague Sid Miller, former Republican Party of Texas Executive Director Eric Opiela, and Uvalde Mayor J. Allen Carnes – Merritt seems most likely to take the post seriously in these catastrophic times, and bring all voices to the table. Most importantly, it will also be a refreshing change to have a statewide officeholder who is interested in the job they have, rather than turning it into a stepping stone to higher office.

Railroad Commissioner: Steve Brown

This marks the first time in several election cycles that we have not endorsed Dale Henry in a Democratic primary race for a seat on the Railroad Commission. (Despite its name, this is the agency that regulates the state's oil and gas industry.) As with other statewide offices, Democrats face long odds when running for a seat on the Railroad Commission, and Henry has lost each of his consecutive attempts. Henry has again launched another minimally funded campaign, but we believe Steve Brown gives Dems their best shot at breaking the Republican stronghold on the commission. What Brown lacks in oil and gas experience he makes up for in working knowledge of politics and government. The former Fort Bend Democratic Party chair has worked on the campaigns and in the offices of U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, Rep. Sylvester Turner, and then-U.S. Senate candidate Ron Kirk. He's the only candidate who openly supports an aggressive review of wastewater injection wells to determine if they are indeed the cause of earthquakes in North Texas; Republicans are largely dismissive of the mere suggestion of such a link. Brown is also the only candidate from either party willing to take a fresh approach to balancing the state's energy productivity with sustainable energy policies.

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