Election Ticker: Travis County Races Heat Up

Noises from the March 2020 primary

Delia Garza (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Filings for the March 3, 2020, primaries closed Monday, and while there were no major surprises in local races, some details bear notice, and some races look juicier than others.

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza finally ended the (mild) suspense, joining the queue to run for the Dem nomination for Travis County attor­ney (incumbent David Escamilla is retiring). The others are already announced: Judge Mike Denton, Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh, and defense attorney Dominic Selvera. Garza's long-anticipated announcement was instantly greeted by a scathing open letter from former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire (1987-98), who accused Garza of (potential?) campaign finance ethics violations by continuing to hold her City Council seat through next year, and, more generally, of not being qualified (in Aleshire's baleful judgment) for the C.A. position. City campaign finance rules are much stricter than Travis County's, and the "Draft Delia" shadow campaign responded, saying that Garza was following all the relevant finance rules, and calling Aleshire's letter "an insincere political hit job" and hypocritical, as during his own tenure as county judge, Aleshire was free to continue raising campaign funds with few restrictions...

Elsewhere on the Democratic ballot, Realtor Shiloh Newman joined the three existing candidates for Precinct 3 county commissioner: former state Rep. Valinda Bolton, former ECHO Director Ann Howard, and nonprofit director Sheri Soltes. Newman, little-known in Democratic circles, also coaches youth soccer in Lakeway, and until recently was apparently voting Republican. The pending retirement of GOP incumbent Gerald Daugherty (see "End of an Era at Travis County as Gerald Daugherty Retires.") presumably thins Republican chances, but civil engineer Becky Bray (who ran for City Council in 2014) has filed on the GOP side...

There was a brief Facebook dust-up concerning the congressional race in TX-25 (San Marcos to Fort Worth), where Democrats Julie Oliver and Heidi Sloan are facing off to challenge deep-pocketed GOP incumbent Roger Williams. Former state Senate candidate Steve Kling (he lost to Donna Campbell) posted that Roger Garza of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had called him to gauge his interest in that seat (or perhaps another), and he fumed: "Instead of letting voters decide their primaries, they meddle. They try to put in people they can control." Kling told us he considered Oliver a "sister in arms" and he resented the DCCC trying to "parachute a male into a race with two women." Oliver said she considers the matter closed; the Sloan campaign said, "We believe the DCCC's meddling in primaries is undemocratic, and based on the caliber of the candidates the DCCC backs they seem motivated to elbow progressive candidates out of elections by backing more moderate, business-friendly Democrats." A spokesperson for the DCCC declined to comment...

Mean­while, Oliver continued to announce endorsements from Democratic officeholders – her list now includes U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar and Lloyd Doggett as well as local state Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Celia Israel, and Vikki Goodwin...

Speaking of endorsements: Workers Defense Project Director José Garza, candidate for the Democratic nomination for district attorney, has been endorsed by the Texas chapter of the Working Families Party (better known for its East Coast affiliates, but active in Texas for a few years). The WFP said, "As District Attorney, Jose will continue his history of fighting – and winning – for Black and brown working people, and will use the power of his office to build racial, social, and economic justice for all."...

The Democratic side of the Travis County sheriff race now has three entries: incumbent Sally Hernandez, former Austin Police Department Sergeant Liz Donegan, and late-filer John Loughran, who was terminated by Hernandez in 2017 in connection with incidents that occurred under her predecessor, Greg Hamilton. Former Sgt. Loughran appealed the termination, sustained by the Civil Service Commission...

The race to succeed Mike Denton as judge in County Court at Law No. 4 seems poised to become a battle between interim Judge Dimple Malhotra – a longtime family violence prosecutor – and the defense bar, represented by challengers Margaret Chen Kercher, a defense attorney, and Municipal Court Associate Judge Tanisa Jeffers. All three candidates were finalists for Malhotra's interim position (appointed by the Commissioners Court). Criminal defense attorneys have been critical of what they consider institutional bias against family violence defendants in the court and a prosecutorial mindset that promotes family divisions rather than reconciliation or rehabilitation...

Among Democratic state district judicial candidates – for whom nomination usually means November confirmation – there will be a half-­dozen potentially competitive races (more on that later), and on the bottom of the ballot, a predictable (and often caustic) scrum of county constable candidates: four in Precinct 1, two in Precinct 2. On the Republican side, most of the Travis County would-be nominees are unopposed. The exceptions include state House District 49, currently held by Dem incumbent Rep. Gina Hinojosa (Jenai Aragona-Hales faces Charles Allan Meyer), and five familiar names in HD 47 (to face incumbent Democratic Rep. Vikki Goodwin): Austin police Officer Justin Berry; attorney Jennifer Fleck; attorney Jenny Roan Forgey; veteran and attorney Aaron Reitz; and former City Council Member Don Zimmerman.

Also on the endorsement beat, no less than 21 former Beto O'Rourke campaign staffers issued a formal endorsement of Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez for U.S. Senate (in the Democratic primary race to challenge GOP incumbent John Cornyn). The headliner is former O'Rourke campaign manager Jody Casey, but the list also includes seven former "Beto for America/Texas" staffers who are now working for the Tzintzún Ramirez campaign. The announcement is somewhat of an anti-climax, considering the candidate has readily acknowledged that Beto campaign people – notably Beto field director Zack Malitz, now a senior adviser to the Tzintzún campaign – worked hard to persuade her to run. In addition to Malitz, the campaign staff includes manager Ginny Goldman and senior adviser Katelyn Coghlan. Said Tzintzún Ramirez, "I am really proud of what Beto's team did in 2018, and am really excited to have so many of them supporting me now." Casey echoed, "I believe that Cristina's incredible work ethic and community-focused approach will inspire and activate Texans, and will be the key to defeating John Cornyn in 2020."

About 200 people gathered at the South Congress Hotel Monday night to help Progress Texas celebrate the holidays (and fundraise), including plenty of bold-faced political names: state Reps. Donna Howard and Celia Israel; candidates Mike Collier (lieutenant governor), Julie Oliver (TX-25), and José Garza (Travis County district attorney); social justice wonks Dick Lavine and Glenn Smith; former Rep. Elliott Naishtat (Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission member) ... and undoubtedly many more. PT Executive Director Ed Espinoza began the speeches (and the fundraising): "A wise man once said money would solve most of his problems. He was wrong; it would solve all of his problems"). The headliners were former state senator (and TX-21 candidate) Wendy Davis and retiring state Sen. José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, to receive a "lifetime achievement award." Davis called Rodriguez a "true, authentic, and courageous voice for the values we all hold dear," championed his work for the people of El Paso and Texas, his support for the LGBTQ community, and even suggested he might have been the "greatest feminist" in the Senate, embodied in his support for Planned Parenthood. Rodriguez deflected that compliment, but enthusiastically recalled Davis' Senate work, and especially the legendary 2013 filibuster in defense of women's reproductive rights: "It will live with me forever," he said. He joked that a "lifetime achievement" seems premature at age 72, thanked his wife Carmen and his staff members, and said he and Carmen would rest, and then return to political engagement, especially in the El Paso community. Despite Republican attacks on basic human rights and particularly on immigrants, he remains optimistic about the state's future. "Next time," he said, pointing to next November, "We will show the nation that Texas is finally, finally taking back this state to be as progressive as any other state, and to provide opportunity for every single person regardless of their background, regardless of their race or nationality, regardless of their orientation. ... I predict that in the next couple of election cycles, Texas is going to be leading the rest of the country. ... Once Texas turns blue ... there's no turning back."

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