A Dem Sweep in Travis County Commissioners Court?
As Commissioners Court's lone Republican Gerald Daugherty steps down, four democrats vie for a shot at the last red seat
By Austin Sanders, Fri., Feb. 21, 2020
Four Democrats are hoping for the chance to flip the lone GOP-held seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court, as Precinct 3 incumbent Gerald Daugherty steps down after more than a dozen (nonconsecutive) years in office. All the candidates agree much progress needs to be made on issues facing the county, and especially its western portions that make up Pct. 3: better mass transit, more efficient use of water, protection against inevitable wildfires.
As the population within the county shifts, Democrats are hopeful that if they win the seat in 2020, they can keep it for years to come. So the competition in the primary has been intense, with former state Rep. Valinda Bolton and former Ending Community Homelessness Coalition Director Ann Howard pulling ahead as front-runners past contenders Sheri Soltes and Shiloh Newman. The winner of the primary (or the potential run-off in May) will face Republican Becky Bray in November.
Bolton is familiar to precinct voters, having represented many of them as District 47's member of the Texas House from 2006-2010, when she narrowly lost to Republican Paul Workman amid the tea party surge. (Workman was in turn unseated by Democrat Vikki Goodwin in 2018.) It's that experience Bolton is citing to appeal to Pct. 3 voters, saying she can build coalitions among the communities within the county and Pct. 3. "In the [Legislature], there are members you can barely agree on the day of the week with," she said, "but you agree on a particular issue. You've got to be able to build those coalitions by listening to people and providing vision on how policy can become reality."
Working with the city of Austin to build out a regional mass transit system would be among her top priorities, she told us, specifically one including more park-and-ride stations on the suburban periphery. Doing so would not only enable more people to commute into Austin, she says, but also help city dwellers visit their suburban neighbors without having to rely on a car. She's also been pleased with progress made by diversion programs in the county's criminal courts; ensuring those remain funded and are expanded would also be a priority.
In the seven years she worked as director of ECHO, Howard helped reshape the way local leaders view homelessness. That work also brought her close to the mechanics of local government, experience she says will help her turn policy ideas into realized programs. "I know how to pull the levers of local government to actually get things done," Howard told us. "That's what I did at ECHO, and I am ready to do it at the county, too."
She pointed to the successful collaboration between ECHO and its service-provider partners on reducing to net-zero veteran homelessness as evidence of her ability to bring groups together to tackle complex problems. Bringing together emergency service districts throughout the county to help prepare the people living in the heavily wooded areas of Pct. 3 for looming urban wildfire would also be another top priority for Howard.
Soltes will also be familiar to Democratic voters, as she ran in the 2018 House District 47 primary against Goodwin. Soltes has spent 30 years running Service Dogs Inc., which trains dogs to assist people living with a range of disabilities. In that time, she has also worked with state and federal policymakers on accessibility policy. She told us that ensuring Travis County voters had access to fair elections would be a top priority – including opening more polling locations at the UT campus, where students can sometimes wait for hours to cast a ballot. She noted that increasing access to the vote was important for anyone who shared progressive values. "When we have more people voting for progressive Democrats, we'll have more elected leaders enacting progressive policy," she said. "People all over the precinct, regardless of income level, can benefit from that."
Improving road safety is another important issue for Soltes – enough so for her to consider asking voters to pay more in property taxes. If voters approved a tax rate higher than that prescribed by the state's new revenue cap, Soltes told us, she would use the money to pay for more law enforcement along dangerous roadways and to improve conditions of those in poor repair.
Newman is also concerned about roadways and traffic; he's most likely of the four candidates to pick up Daugherty's mantle as King of the (Paved) Road. Newman told us that he'll work to build a "real highway loop" around Austin, with at least six lanes, to cut down on traffic. "How are we the 10th- or 11th-biggest city in the nation and we don't have a single functional loop?" he wondered. "I want to work on growing our regional mass transit system, but we also need a loop that runs around the whole city."
Newman has worked in construction for nearly four decades and has owned bars and restaurants in Austin. He currently serves as the president of the Lake Travis Youth Association, and has said he's not particularly into politics. But from his perspective, that makes him uniquely suited to take on some of the challenges currently facing the county.
That would include the currently somewhat frayed relationship between county and city elected leaders. The City Council and Commissioners Court are currently feuding over a share of Hotel Occupancy Tax that voters last November (overwhelmingly) authorized for renovating the Travis County Expo Center – but city leaders say they need it to pay off outstanding debt from the Austin Convention Center's 2002 expansion, which they say may not happen for a decade. All four candidates agree the Expo Center project should move forward, paid through HOT revenues. "We've got to work together on this," Newman said. "I feel like America in general is so much focused on hate and negativity, but we've got to collaborate."
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