Chronicle Endorsements for the March 3 Primary Election
From local judges and representatives to the presidential candidate, here are our recommendations
Fri., Feb. 14, 2020
The Chronicle Editorial Board offers the following endorsements to registered Democrats in advance of early voting (Feb. 18-28) and election day, Tuesday, March 3. We only issue endorsements in contested races, so if you're not seeing an endorsement for a position, that's because a candidate is running uncontested. We urge readers to be thorough with their ballots and cast a vote in every race. Democratic voters will also weigh in on 11 ballot propositions that constitute the Texas Democrats Bill of Rights.
Find a condensed version of these endorsements and all of our coverage from the campaign trail at austinchronicle.com/elections.
U.S. President: Elizabeth Warren
The Chronicle endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, and the Vermont senator has done nothing since to either make us regret that endorsement or make us uncomfortable with the thought of him prevailing this time. But we have quite a few more choices than we did four years ago, so we looked for a candidate that we might like even better than Bernie, and we found one.
Now is the time to make a stand for the progressive values this paper has championed since its founding, to break down barriers and shift the paradigms of the federal government, and to eradicate the political and moral pestilence of which Donald Trump is but a symptom. But it is also time to connect the dots and bring together the diverse American peoples to collectively form a majority that's strong enough to trample Trumpism here and now – not in the nation of tomorrow, or of yesterday, or of our dreams.
This is where we think the senator from Massachusetts has an edge over Sanders. Warren's messages, her experiences, her insights, and yes, her plans all suggest to us that she has the best chance of using the next four or eight years to accomplish real change, to hold the miscreants of the current regime accountable, and to leave the country better off than where we started. Plus, she has the support of Julián Castro, who might very well have earned our endorsement were he still in the race.
U.S. Senator: Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez
A dozen Democrats (of various bona fides) have filed for the nomination to challenge incumbent John Cornyn. Veteran MJ Hegar, state Sen. Royce West, and Latina organizer Tzintzún Ramirez embody the best chances to upset the deep-pocketed Cornyn, and thereby change the state and national political posture of Texas. We admire Hegar's visible energy and her tireless campaign against Cornyn's complacent fealty to GOP priorities, and West has a stellar record as a defender of human rights and supporter of education, engaging the whole range of progressive causes. But as a youthful founder of both the Workers Defense Project and Jolt Action, Tzintzún Ramirez has demonstrated statewide leadership and activism, and sophistication about the specific challenges facing Texas residents: In health care, immigration, criminal justice reform, labor rights, and climate change, she's consistently been on the front lines as organizer, advocate, and activist. Each of these candidates would bring special abilities to the 2020 statewide campaign – we believe Tzintzún Ramirez speaks for the newest generation in Texas politics, and we urge voters to join and amplify her voice.
U.S. Rep. District 10: Mike Siegel
We endorsed Siegel in 2018, when he ran a DIY grassroots campaign that made competitive a GOP-drawn district written off by the national Democratic Party and the pundits. We see no reason to change our minds this time around. Siegel does face stronger primary opposition from qualified newcomers, civil attorney Shannon Hutcheson and primary care doctor Pritesh Gandhi. We were especially impressed by Gandhi's engaged eloquence, and each would mean dramatically improved representation and policies over entrenched GOP incumbent Michael McCaul. Siegel has earned our primary support.
U.S. Rep. District 17: Rick Kennedy
Software engineer Kennedy has soldiered on in this difficult, 12-county district for two cycles and is savvy about what it will take to defeat whoever survives the newly competitive GOP primary (incumbent Bill Flores is retiring). He has two nominal opponents (David Jaramillo and William Foster III). We recommend Kennedy.
U.S. Rep. District 21: Wendy Davis
This seat nearly flipped blue in 2018, and it seems likelier to do so in 2020. Jennie Lou Leeder is an honorable, qualified Dem candidate, but Davis' official experience and (frankly) star power should be devastating in a general campaign against Chip "Sourpuss" Roy. Vote for Wendy.
U.S. Rep. District 25: Julie Oliver
Democrats will choose between two qualified and very hardworking candidates in farmer/organizer Heidi Sloan and attorney/health care consultant Oliver, who can finish each other's sentences on progressive issues. In this San Marcos to Ft. Worth gerrymander, Sloan has anchored her campaign by Central Texas canvassing, with some out-county forays; Oliver has relentlessly worked the entire 13-county district since her 2018 run. A close primary is likely – in a general campaign to take on moneyed incumbent Roger Williams, Oliver's experience and strategy represent the better chance of success, and she is our choice.
U.S. Rep. District 31: Christine Eady Mann
Family practitioner Eady Mann ran a solid second to now-Senate candidate MJ Hegar in 2018, and that race put a scare into feckless GOP incumbent John Carter. Of the four other contenders (Eric Hanke, Donna Imam, Dan Janjigian, Tammy Young), only businesswoman Imam has thus far reflected the resources to contend in a crowded race that portends a run-off. The differences on progressive Democratic issues are marginal, but Eady Mann's field team experience provides an edge on all the others. Pending March 3 ... we recommend Eady Mann.
U.S. Rep. District 35: Lloyd Doggett
We endorse only in contested races, so the presence of San Antonian businessman (and nice guy) Rafael Alcoser III provides a welcome opportunity to enthusiastically recommend lifelong Democratic standard-bearer Doggett. Let's get him some help!
Railroad Commissioner: Chrysta Castañeda
Many Democrats would be worthy opponents to GOP incumbent Ryan Sitton, but Castañeda earns our endorsement because of her real-world experience in the energy industry, which will help her go toe-to-toe with the current commissioners and the RRC bureaucracy that's for years been totally captive to the power of that same industry. Kelly Stone doesn't have a sufficient résumé for this post now, but she is the most vocal champion in this primary for sustainability, climate action, and a Green New Deal, all of which will inevitably conspire in the future to put the RRC as it exists today out of business.
State Board of Education, District 5: Rebecca Bell-Metereau
While Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a school district volunteer and Texas State University professor of more than three decades, sought the District 5 seat in 2010, 2012, and 2016 against right-wing Republican Ken Mercer, this time she has a much stronger shot. With ideologue Mercer stepping down after 14 years, Bell-Metereau – whose margin of defeat hovered below only 5% in 2016 among 13 counties – could conceivably flip the long-held conservative seat. We applaud newcomer Letti Bresnahan's passion for education and respect her experience as an ISD school board member; however, we'd like to see a Bell-Metereau win after all these years.
State Board of Education, District 10: Marsha Burnett-Webster
A now-retired school administrator and teacher of more than 25 years with a doctorate in education, Marsha Burnett-Webster's background, combined with her compassion for students and dedication to education, will serve well on the SBOE, whose members and designated experts – at least historically – have been known to lack actual educational experience. Growing up amid segregated schools, Burnett-Webster's attention to inclusivity and racial and cultural histories will also aid the board as they develop curriculum.
Chief Justice: Amy Clark Meachum
Place 6: Kathy Cheng
Place 7: Brandy Voss
Place 8: Gisela Triana
Although it remains an uphill fight, Texas politics are changing, and the 2020 election represents the possibility of real change in the judiciary, with a return to desperately needed legal and political balance. In the Democratic primary, we are supporting candidates both distinguished in record and holding the best chances of November success. District Judge Clark Meachum is an impartial, powerhouse judge who presides over all the Travis County civil and family courts (and her primary opponent is a vainglorious party-jumper); litigator Cheng is both highly qualified and a hardworking campaigner running to broaden the court's perspectives and its demographic diversity; Voss is an appellate law expert who understands the role of this court in providing standards and guidance for the entire civil court system; and Triana is one of the state's most experienced judges who won a tough 3rd Court of Appeals general election in 2018, overcoming slanderous Republican personal attacks. Triana has also concisely defined for Democratic voters the stakes at the Supreme Court: "This court is sorely lacking in balance. We need a Court that guarantees a level playing field; that does not put special interests ahead of everyday Texans in crucial issues like health care, a clean environment, social justice, and the need for honest economic dealing." We urge voters to work their way down the lengthy primary ballot and cast their votes for these qualified judges.
Court of Criminal Appeals
Place 3: Dan Wood
Place 4: Tina Clinton
In recent decades, the Court of Criminal Appeals – the last resort in Texas for challenges to unjust criminal verdicts – has been stacked with Republicans, with predictably dismal rulings (especially on capital punishment cases). November could take steps to restore a balance: Democrats will contest three of four expiring GOP terms. In Place 9, Brandon Birmingham is uncontested. In Place 3, the Chronicle recommends criminal appellate attorney Dan Wood. In Place 4, we recommend Dallas District Judge Tina Clinton, a former defense attorney with lengthy experience on and off the bench.
House District 45: Erin Zwiener
House District 51: Eddie Rodriguez
Both freshman Zwiener and dean-of-the-delegation Rodriguez have drawn token opposition in the primary; neither should be in any danger, but there is no reason not to (keep going down the ballot and) vote for them just to make sure. Zwiener, unlike Rodriguez, is sure to face a tough reelection fight in her Hays/Blanco swing district in November.
Chief Justice, 3rd Court of Appeals: Keith Hampton
The 3rd Court (of 14) has been another venue where good appeals go to die. The 2018 shift toward better balance may begin to change that. Democratic voters have excellent candidates in legendary appellate attorney Hampton and deeply experienced District Judge Darlene Byrne, a distinguished expert in family and juvenile law. Hampton has been victorious on appellate cases for decades, with hard-fought victories on capital punishment and exonerations such as Lacresha Murray and the notorious Keller day care case. He also sees his candidacy as a strategic response to the hard-right stacking of federal courts – which state appellate justices must be able to counteract. On balance, the Chronicle nod goes to Hampton.
District Judge, 53rd District: Kennon Wooten
Both attorneys and very sportsmanlike candidates, Wooten and Maria Cantú Hexsel are highly qualified to run the civil court: Wooten has worked with the state and local bar as well as the Texas Supreme Court; Hexsel has worked in the Attorney General's Office and supported local nonprofits. However, Wooten tipped the scales ever so slightly for us with her compassionate awareness of transgender legal issues often handled by civil court judges.
District Judge, 167th District: David Wahlberg
The institutional tension between prosecution and defense has somewhat shadowed this campaign, generating speculation that prosecutors' irritation at some of incumbent Judge Wahlberg's rulings generated an election challenge. Nevertheless, former defense attorney Wahlberg and longtime felony prosecutor Dayna Blazey exemplify the best in their chosen professions, and a difficult choice for Democratic voters. The Chronicle recommendation goes to Wahlberg as an effective jurist and for a balanced courtroom mindset that reinforces confidence in local justice.
District Judge, 200th District: Jessica Mangrum
Mangrum and Maggie Ellis would both make great judges, but we feel Mangrum is better suited for the totality of work facing a judge in the 200th. Her background is in trying a broad range of civil cases, while Ellis mostly has experience in family law. We think Ellis would do well overseeing one of Travis County's family courts, but the 200th is not one of them, so Mangrum has our support in this race.
District Judge, 353rd District: Tim Sulak
This one is easy: Thrice-elected Democratic incumbent Sulak is a distinguished, fair-minded judge known for his even-handed demeanor and thoughtful decisions. His opponent is an intermittent GOP candidate who has been officially declared – in two state courts – a sanctioned "vexatious litigant." We strongly endorse Judge Sulak.
District Judge, 390th District: Julie Kocurek
The only surprise here is that 20-year incumbent Judge Kocurek drew an opponent at all. Kocurek is known as a groundbreaking candidate and fair judge (more recently as the victim of a 2015 assassination attempt). There is no reason for voters to reject an accomplished judge who is a leader in local justice reform.
District Judge, 460th District: Selena Alvarenga
This race is another closely contested one, for a new court where the Democratic candidates represent strong professional contrasts. Alvarenga is a 25-year criminal defense attorney (former executive director of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association) – originally a young Salvadoran immigrant – who is also a prominent immigrant rights defender and LGBTQ advocate. Amy Meredith has been a prosecutor for 20 years and currently heads the Travis County District Attorney's important Public Integrity Unit. Each is highly qualified, but we're giving the nod to Alvarenga, who should provide balanced and broadening perspective to the bench.
District Attorney: José Garza
This is the most important race on the local ballot, and it's proved the most challenging for the Chronicle to achieve a consensus endorsement in. But we simply cannot endorse incumbent D.A. Margaret Moore for reelection. As we have reported extensively, Moore is under fire on many fronts for her perceived insufficient commitment to true justice, particularly for women survivors of sexual assault. We acknowledge that these criticisms can be countered by examples of Moore's progressive values put into practice, or offset by her work in righting the ship after the troubled years under Rosemary Lehmberg, or diffused by the recognition that Moore alone did not create what her opponent Garza rightly describes as a crisis of confidence and legitimacy for Travis County's justice system.
But we have also heard the tape and seen the transcript in which Moore's second-in-command, seemingly with Moore's blessing, gets on the phone with a private citizen to discuss and dismiss a woman's account of her own rape in an effort to undermine and defame her. That's one very specific, severe, documented transgression that should be disqualifying to a public servant. Are there others? We don't know.
Of her two opponents, we feel Garza has a broader and deeper grasp of the range of issues the next D.A. must face than does Erin Martinson, and he would also bring to the job a demonstrable commitment to equity and the leadership experience he has honed in his current role as executive director of Workers Defense Project. Either would be preferable to an incumbent who we feel is simply too compromised to continue in office.
County Attorney: Laurie Eiserloh
Bringing criminal justice reforms to the County Attorney's Office should be the top priority of the next occupant of the office, and the four candidates here have each promised to fight institutional bias in the system. We're fans of Delia Garza's work on City Council and her passion toward criminal justice reform, but feel her limited experience in trying cases doesn't fit the requirements of the job. Dominic Selvera, the outsider candidate, has an admirable commitment to disrupting the CJ system, but we feel he's not ready for this level of office. Judge Mike Denton is certainly qualified, but the backlog of cases Denton left behind when he stepped down from the bench at County Court at Law No. 4 raises questions about his time there. All things considered, we value Eiserloh's detailed knowledge of the C.A.'s Office, and we think she offers the best combination of experience, commitment to reform, and achievable policy to actually get that work done. We did pause to reconsider our choice as we've reported on the negative campaigning against Garza (see "Anti-Garza Website Heats Up County Attorney Race" to learn more) – ostensibly by third parties but with disconcertingly close ties to the Eiserloh campaign. We believe our readers, as informed voters, should and will send a signal to candidates now, and at the polls, about what level of mudslinging or dark-money gamesmanship they will tolerate.
Sheriff: Sally Hernandez
Between standing up to Gov. Greg Abbott to defend undocumented immigrants, ending arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and implementing progressive changes at the county jail, Sheriff Hernandez has earned our endorsement. (That said, we're not so keen on a new jail in Del Valle, and we wish Hernandez would rejoin SARRT.) Former APD Sergeant Liz Donegan is another strong candidate, who would be laser-focused on survivors of sexual assaults, but she is not as well-rounded as Hernandez on the range of issues facing Travis County's jail system.
Judge, County Court at Law No. 4: Dimple Malhotra
This blandly named court is crucial as the misdemeanor "Family Violence Court" and has been contentious as a fault line between prosecutors and the defense bar. Incumbent Judge Malhotra was a specialized domestic violence prosecutor when she was appointed last fall by the Commissioners Court; challengers Tanisa Jeffers (also a municipal judge) and Margaret Chen Kercher are experienced criminal defense attorneys. Malhotra has quickly taken necessary steps to reduce the case "backlog" and to include all stakeholders in improving court efficiency and facilitating diversion, while rebalancing the perceived scales between accusers and accused. We believe she deserves a full term to fulfill those programs.
County Commissioner, Precinct 3: Ann Howard
Democrats have come close to taking the only GOP-held seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court in the past two cycles, and with incumbent Gerald Daugherty stepping down, 2020 represents their best shot at taking it – and possibly holding it for years to come. Of the four candidates (Howard, Valinda Bolton, Sheri Soltes, and Shiloh Newman), two have risen to the top – and we feel Howard is best among them. Her tenure as director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition gave her insight into the needs of the most marginalized in the county and an opportunity to learn how to pull the policy levers of local government to impact the lives of all people, including those without homes. Bolton, former HD 47 Rep., is a formidable and qualified opponent who would represent western Travis County well, but Howard's recent on-the-ground experience gives her the edge.
Constable, Precinct 1: Tonya Nixon
Constable, Precinct 2: Adan Ballesteros
What does a constable do? Well, they can do a lot more than serve legal papers, and we're glad to see young, energetic groundbreaker Nixon wanting to take over the Pct. 1 constable's shop from retiring incumbent Danny Thomas. Creating opportunities for responsive community-facing justice and law enforcement, especially in the traditionally African American Pct. 1, is a job Austin needs to do better, and Nixon can do it. In Pct. 2, incumbent Ballesteros deserves voters' continued support.
TEXAS DEMOCRATS BILL OF RIGHTS
Prop 1: RIGHT TO Health Care
Prop 2: RIGHT TO 21st Century Public Education
Prop 3: RIGHT TO Clean Air, Safe Water, and a Responsible Climate Policy
Prop 4: RIGHT TO Economic Security
Prop 5: RIGHT TO Dignity & Respect
Prop 6: RIGHT TO Be Free From Violence
Prop 7: RIGHT TO Housing
Prop 8: RIGHT TO Vote
Prop 9: RIGHT TO a Fair Criminal Justice System
Prop 10: RIGHT TO Immigrant Rights
Prop 11: RIGHT TO Fair Taxation
Editor's note: An earlier version of this used the word "token" to describe Rafael Alcoser III's campaign – intending Merriam-Webster's definition: "representing no more than a symbolic effort : minimal, perfunctory" – but a poor choice of word when discussing a person of color. The Chronicle regrets the dunderheadedness.
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