The Austin Chronicle

Early Returns

Travis County Commissioners Court primary, Pct. 1

By Michael King, October 2, 2015, News

Although it's possible another candidate or two will emerge in the next few months before next spring's primaries, it appears that the Democratic field to succeed retiring Travis County Precinct 1 County Commissioner Ron Davis is essentially complete. There are four declared candidates, with two having already held official campaign kickoffs, and another two ready to do so in the next couple of weeks.

• Attorney James Nortey was the earliest to declare, way back in June ("Nortey Announces for Precinct 1," June 23), and at 29, is the youngest of the four. He says he wants to bring "new energy" to the precinct (which includes Pflugerville, Manor, and Webberville in addition to most of Northeast Austin), and cites his experience on the city Planning Commission, Zero Waste Advisory Commission, and other volunteer engagement as preparing him for the position. Early on, he has emphasized affordable housing and equitable services, and county jail reform (restoring in-person visitation, and keeping Immigration and Customs Enforcement at arm's length).

• Activist Richard Franklin, 59, was next to declare. President of educational nonprofit Youth Unlimited, and formerly a Del Valle ISD trustee, Franklin ran against Davis in 2012. His early campaign has emphasized his personal rededication after a bout with cancer, and transparency and openness in government, inviting public discussion of the precinct priorities ("Franklin Enters Precinct 1 Race," Aug. 4).

Arthur Sampson, another returning candidate from both 2004 and 2012, was set to kick off his campaign Sept. 30, as this story went to press. Sampson, 65, has lived in Precinct 1 for more than 50 years, and has worked as a project coordinator for the city of Austin, run his own construction business, and also served for 12 years as a peace officer and a deputy constable. He cites his experience as an administrator of city projects (including work on the new City Hall) as well as building affordable housing, and promises to be "responsive, respectful, and resourceful" in addressing residents' basic needs: public safety, transportation, infrastructure, and affordable housing.

Jeff Travillion is already campaigning and ready to formally announce soon. He's currently a division manager in the city's Code Department (working on the Restore Rundberg project), and with a longer experience in Public Works and Austin Ener­gy, as well as a lengthy administrative career at the state, for the comptroller, the Com­mis­sion on Environmental Quality, and the General Land Office. Travillion, 52, told the Chronicle that as a commissioner he wants to focus on three major service areas: health care, transportation, and youth development. He testified in the redistricting lawsuit that split Travis County into five congressional districts anchored elsewhere, and says county officials must look for ways to overcome that kind of division imposed from above.

That's an early and very basic thumbnail of the candidates' experience, perspectives, and their approaches to commissioner responsibilities. One early wrinkle in the race erupted last month after a campaign overview in the Statesman, unremarkable except that consultant Dave Butts (who is supporting Travillion) noted that only African-Americans have declared for the seat, and reportedly called it an unofficial continuation of the "gentleman's agreement" that traditionally reserved seats on City Council and the Court for minority candidates ("Candidates line up to replace Travis County Commissioner," Aug. 20). In fact, Butts told the Chronicle, the Statesman reporter introduced the term "gentleman's agreement" – "I didn't say that, because I don't believe there's ever been any kind of 'agreement' about this seat; I said only that plenty of people, including me, believe there should be African-American representation on the Commissioners Court."

No single ethnic group predominates in the precinct – the recent voting demographic is roughly 24% African-American, 36% Hispanic, and 45% Anglo – but it is considered both a "coalition" district (for which candidates need to draw an ethnic coalition of support) and an "opportunity" district for minority candidates. (Incumbent Davis, an African-American, has been a commissioner since 1998.)

Butts lives in Precinct 1, but his campaign presence and remarks to the States­man evoked an op-ed ("Needs of Precinct 1 are more than generational differences," Aug. 25) from Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, who, without directly naming Butts, accused "political consultants" of trying to manipulate the race. The gentleman's agreement, wrote Linder, "was about the white establishment choosing and funding a candidate who would be beholden to their interests." The clear implication was that Butts is attempting to determine the winner – and Linder didn't shy from that implication when asked about it last week. "Let's be honest," said Linder. "Consultants bring in the money. I'm very concerned about David Butts choosing the candidate for Precinct 1. Folks who live there should choose the candidate, African-Americans and Hispanics and whites, but especially African-Americans."

Butts said Linder's animosity toward him apparently dates from their differing opinions on the city's single-member district charter commission – where Linder supported 10-1, Butts a mixed system – although he notes that in the preceding SMD campaign, Linder opposed districting on the grounds that it would "dilute African-American representation." "That's fine," said Butts, "but we each get to choose which candidates we wish to support."

Linder insisted at first that he's "not specifically supporting any candidate yet," then said, "I haven't made any announcement." Butts said that's not true: "It's common knowledge that he's supporting Nortey." Butts said he respects Nortey, but that he believes Travillion has more relevant experience, and that's why he's decided to support him. "I'm not gonna wave a magic wand, and somebody gets elected," he concluded. "It doesn't work that way."

For his part, Travillion said Linder is welcome to his opinion, but that "each campaign has significant Anglo support," and will need it to win. "This is a coalition district," he said, "and a candidate needs to appeal to as many voters as possible."

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