The Austin Chronicle

Eddie Rodriguez and Sarah Eckhardt Jump Into State Senate Fray

State rep. and county judge enter race to succeed Watson

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 13, 2020, News

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, Travis County's longest-serving member of the Texas Legislature, made it official on March 7: He's running to succeed retiring Sen. Kirk Wat­son in a likely May special election, and he's doing so with a solid base of local Democratic allies. Three days later, he got himself an equally formidable opponent with her own strong backing, as Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt resigned her seat and declared for the Senate race.

First, Rodriguez: Among a cheering crowd at Mueller that included his colleague state Rep. Celia Israel, his predecessor and mentor Glen Maxey, and former and current (respectively) AISD trustees Paul Saldaña and Jayme Mathias, Rodriguez described the support for his Senate run as "humbling" and a reflection of time served "in the trenches, where together we fought hard against Republican B.S." First elected to represent South­east Travis County's predominantly Hispanic House District 51 in 2002, Rodriguez has already been endorsed by fellow Reps. Israel, Donna Howard, and Gina Hinojosa, who chaired his short-lived exploratory committee. "This is a big damn deal," Israel noted in her warm-up remarks. "These political changes don't happen very often." That show of force and solidarity, and his campaign's mantra that Rodriguez can hit the ground running at the Capitol, will help define the contours of a contest against Eckhardt and perhaps City Council Member Greg Casar, who last week appointed a campaign treasurer but has yet to formally declare his own run. (The SD-14 election hasn't been called yet by Gov. Greg Abbott, but is likely to be held May 2 – the next uniform election date – not May 26 with the primary run-offs.) Stressing his years of working closely with Watson on issues that matter to Austin – from affordable housing to craft brewing – Rodriguez told the crowd, "I want to work in the Senate because I want to make Texas a more progressive place for everyone."

Rodriguez hasn't had to worry too much about campaigning in his solidly blue House seat – his lopsided victory on Super Tuesday was his first contested primary ever, and he last faced a Republican in 2010. So his ability to raise money and win support across the larger Senate district is untested, and he showed no sign on Saturday of taking either for granted. Pledging to run "headfirst into a grassroots campaign, talking to as many people as possible," Rodriguez followed his Austin announcement with a tour of SD-14, with stops in Smithville, Bastrop, Manor, Pflugerville, and West Lake Hills.

On Tuesday afternoon, when the Travis County Commis­sioners Court voted to accept Eckhardt's resignation and appoint her predecessor Sam Biscoe to the seat ad interim, she told her colleagues and staff at the county (where she's worked for 20 years) that "this is the most fun job I've ever had." Pausing several times to compose herself, Eckhardt pledged that "I will never resign from public service" and lauded Travis County as a "beacon of progressive prosperity" – a status that "will not continue, and may even be reversed, if we don't end the darkness at the state level."

Hence her desire to jump into the SD-14 fray, even as she acknowledged that "if I win, there will be dark days in the Senate chamber when I think, 'What the hell have I done?'" Eckhardt has already mixed it up plenty of times with the state GOP leadership, and Commissioner Brigid Shea cheered her on, saying, "The Legislature desperately needs people who are really public servants; I'm really distressed at the tone coming out of the Lege attacking local government and officials [as] wasteful, reckless ne'er-do-wells. ... You can tell the story of the value of local control [and be] a powerful spokesperson and advocate."

Nobody has yet jumped in from the GOP side, and Com­mis­sioner Gerald Daugherty, the court's lone Repub­lic­an, said, "I don't know what the party is going to do." At tense times like these, he said, "I want good, competent people more than I want philosophies" – coming as close as he likely can to endorsing his outgoing colleague, whom he described as "one of the smartest people I've ever been around, who can be a great public official in any capacity, and if you're over there, I'll tell [my fellow Republicans], 'You need to work with her, because her heart is in the right place.'"

Biscoe will rejoin the court he led for 16 years until the November elections; since Super Tuesday is behind us, both county parties will nominate candidates in June for the contest to serve out Eckhardt's term.

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