Today I read an excellent post by Jessica Luther about the race for Travis County Judge and the upcoming March 4 primary. The Democratic candidates for Travis County Judge, Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt, are both fairly well-known political figures in Austin. I have met them both at numerous events around town, and they are both respected members of the progressive community.
Deciding who to support, especially publicly, has been difficult. How do you pick a favorite between two people you like? And what do you do when you reach a decision that will likely be unpopular with even more people you like? It’s not easy to criticize people you respect, but in this case I think it’s more important to come out in support of the best person for the job than to avoid some anxiety-inducing social situations. This is a democratic election for an influential position in local government, and it shouldn’t be a popularity contest.
Ultimately, Andy Brown is is better funded and has key endorsements from plenty of Austin-area progressive groups. He seems to be the popular choice among Travis County politicos. I think Andy is a talented campaigner and skillful activist, but Sarah is an experienced and proven public servant, and I’m voting for her because she is just better qualified for the position. I was planning to write an entire post about the Travis County Judge race, but Jessica W. Luther’s detailed, thorough post perfectly sums up my thoughts on the matter. You can read her original post on her website, and I’ve also posted it below in it’s entirety.
THE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY FOR TRAVIS COUNTY JUDGE: WHY I’M VOTING FOR SARAH ECKHARDT
This post has three parts:
- Why I am voting for Sarah Eckhardt for Travis County judge in the March 4 primary
- What’s troubling about the democratic primary races for Travis County offices when it comes to gender.
First, the race for Travis County Judge.
I am new to local politics. I care *deeply* about voting local (EVERYONE SHOULD DO IT EVERY CHANCE THEY GET) but have never really been in the middle of a contentious campaign where I know a whole bunch of people on both sides. I mean, you run into these people all the time in your real life. They are not just names on a yard sign. Still, I feel that it’s important to make an endorsement in the Travis County Judge race even if that means I will face some uncomfortable real-life moments.
What does the Travis County Judge do? “The County Judge is the presiding officer of the Commissioners Court. [The] office is responsible for preparing the court’s agenda each week.” The agenda often covers such issues as transportation, health and human services, and the environment (such as water use and distribution). Travis County has a population of roughly 1.1 million people and covers 1,000 square miles. The Judge manages about 5,000 county employees and oversees an $800 million budget. The position is for four years and pays $118,373 a year.
This race is drawing a fair amount of attention in Travis County because of the Democratic primary between Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt. Both are well-known in the Austin community, Brown as a top campaigner with the Travis County Democratic party and Eckhardt for her time serving on the Travis County Commissioner’s Court.
In preparing to write this post, I had hoped to speak with both Brown and Eckhardt to ask them a series of questions, identical in nature and then to publish those answers here in this space. I contacted Brown and was told by someone in his campaign that because I was on Sarah Eckhardt’s website as supporting her, that I could not talk to Brown since he does not do interviews with someone who publicly supports his opponent. I then saw him a few days later, he said he would be happy to get coffee with me and talk, so I emailed him a week ago and have not heard anything back. I decided that I would not interview Eckhardt since I could not interview Brown.
So, this is the part where I explain why I am voting for Sarah Eckhardt. The hardest part for me is that I will have to explain, in some fashion, why I am not voting for Brown, a man I know and see on regular basis and, as far as I can tell, is a swell guy. Both are native Texans and native Austinites. Both are lawyers with a love for this place.
When it comes down to it, Eckhardt is more qualified for this particular position.
Brown’s main experience is in campaigning. He volunteered as the Travis County Democratic Party Chair and, as his website says, “we raised more money and generated more straight-ticket votes by knocking on more doors and talking to more neighbors face-to-face than ever before.” Eckhardt, on the other hand, served on the Commissioner’s Court from 2006 to 2013 (she resigned because you cannot be on the court and run for County Judge). Before that, Eckhardt was an assistant county attorney.
Here is Brown’s site where he lists his experience. Here is his pages under the label of “issues,” he has one that outlines his priorities and his values.
Here is Eckhardt’s site where she lists her experience. On her pages under the label of “issues,” you can see her ideas for and experience with County efficiency, environmental protections, quality health care, economic justice, and transportation challenges.
In November 2013, Farzad Mashhood at the Austin-American Statesman wrote a story about the race that both candidates posted on their site. For me, the following paragraphs explain why I’m voting for Eckhardt:
Eckhardt, who served as county commissioner for six years and an assistant county attorney before that, touts herself as the “only candidate with actual county experience.” She mentioned that she’d be Travis County’s first female county judge and, with a long voting record to review, cited her record of opposing tax breaks for corporations moving to Austin, such as Apple Inc.
Brown, a longtime party operative, relied on his endorsements from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson. “That’s gold. Democratic primary voters have a lot of loyalty to Congressman Doggett and Senator Watson,” Brown said. He often speaks about growing up in Austin, attending Lee Elementary School and seeing the area’s growth over the decades.
“Andy has a really good opportunity in that he’s been the party chair and that he knows all the party activists, all the party clubs, all the party chairs, and each of those people have good constituencies,” said Peck Young, a longtime Austin political consultant who isn’t involved in the judge race and isn’t taking sides. “Sarah is a good Democrat and has activist support, but she’s at a different kind of disadvantage … running against somebody who knows every political member of the Travis County Democratic Party.”
Why would I vote for a party operative instead of the person who has the experience in County government? And because he is a party operative, he has the public backing of a whole lot of big political names in Travis County (despite the fact that the 2010 elections did not go so well for Travis County under Brown’s leadership – see below for more on Valinda Bolton loss and Donna Howards’ near loss in the Texas House, as well as the loss of Karen Huber’s position on the County Commissioner’s Court).
[UPDATE: It was pointed out to me that 2010 was an all-around difficult year for Democrats (again, my knowledge of local politics is limited and I’m happy for corrections). From the Burnt Orange Report in 2009, after Brown announced that he would be seeking re-election for the position of TCDP chair: “Brown has made major progress for the county party. In 2008, he raised a record-breaking $560,000 for the TCDP’s coordinated campaign that helped deliver the greatest Democratic margins Travis County had ever seen.”]
Endorsements are not experience and we should not confuse the two.
Additionally, in this year when the entire Texas Democratic Party is running under the historic banner of Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, after a summer that saw thousands rally week after week for reproductive rights, and at a time when politics in Texas feels like it is shifting, there is a big part of me that is grateful that in voting for the most experienced candidate, I also get to vote for a person who, if elected, would be the first woman to serve as Travis County Judge. Ever.
I like both Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt, but if you want to talk preparation for the job of Travis County judge, it’s hard to debate who has the deeper and more valuable experience in broad-spectrum management with positive outcomes. If we want diversity in public office, we can’t limit it to a discussion of race and ethnicity: An eminently qualified Eckhardt stands to break open a white-male-dominated field, and that’s diversity, too.
If you are on the fence, I beg you to please watch the debate between the candidates held in December:
If I could have interviewed Brown, I would have asked him three pertinent questions:
1) First, why does he want THIS position? Why Travis County Judge? Eckhardt’s progression from a lawyer at the County to Commissioner’s Court to County Judge makes sense. How did Brown decide this was position he most wanted (he tried to run for what is now Donna Howard’s seat in the Texas House back in 2005)? I need to hear that it wasn’t a choice based on what was available and most powerful.
2) My second question would be about his experience. Brown talks often about his 20 years of “bringing people together” but it’s not very clear on his timeline what exactly adds up to those 20 years. Beyond that,what will make him good at being County Judge? I’m not convinced that he will actually be able to “bring people together” to do what is necessary to run the county. And that’s not to say that he doesn’t have a history of “bringing people together,” just that I’m not sure how that history translates into specific knowledge that will help him in this position.
And question 3 is related to what Karen Huber, a former County Commissioner, wrote the Austin Chronicle in January:
Andy Brown and many of those supporting and endorsing him have two things to consider: 1) Is it possible you don’t know “what you don’t know” about the office of county judge? 2) Is there a serious movement afoot to put someone in that office who can be “managed” by more powerful “others”? And on the last question, speaking as one who knows, I note that Andy Brown’s most recent campaign finance report looks a lot like Gerald Daugherty’s – heavy in real estate and engineering dollars and, equally concerning for the Democrats, heavy in Republican leadership dollars. Is there a long-term strategy in this notable support by the “other” party leaders? Would a weak and poorly performing Democratic county judge give opportunity for the Republicans to 1) allow the partisan interests better chance to “manage” that inexperience, and/or 2) set the foundation for a successful Republican bid for judge in the future?
The Democratic machine had better be careful of that for which it wishes. The county judge’s powers are complex and seriously misunderstood by most voters, yet this is probably one of the most important locally elected positions because of its potential to influence/impact – positively or negatively – local taxes, social services, public safety, and infrastructure. Voters should be analytical about this race and pay serious attention to the candidates’ relative qualifications, not the superficial hype and endorsements.
When Huber mentions her concerns with Brown’s campaign finance report (.pdf link), I share her concern. The Austin Chronicle reports that the largest contributor to Brown’s campaign is $15,400 from the Travis County Sheriffs’ Law Enforcement Association PAC. I worry about this because in 2012:
The union representing sheriff’s deputies made the case for a pay raise based on a survey the organization commissioned. Gómez, Davis and Huber voted for big pay raises despite repeated cautions from county human resources staff about the survey’s skewed methodology.
Travis County law enforcement and corrections officers are the highest-paid county officers in Texas. And commissioners chose pay raises for them over more pressing public safety priorities, such as the need to greatly expand the county’s firefighting capabilities, given the region’s increased risk of wildfires.
Eckhardt voted against the sheriffs’ pay raise.
My question, for Brown, is will he stand up to groups like the Travis County Sheriffs if/when they push for more money and, in turn, take away from other parts of the county that need that money more?He can say “yes” to this question all he wants – if he chooses to answer it – but the truth is that we don’t know this to be true because he has no record for us to measure him by.
Again, all I can go off of to make my decision is who has the experience necessary for this job. I saw Brown and Eckhardt debate on January 10 on environmental issues. In her closing statement, Eckhardt said that it’s not so much a difference in what we believe, but rather in what we know.
I agree. I’m voting for Eckhardt in the March 4th primary. Early voting begins February 18.
Second, on women getting elected in county-level races in Travis.
As I said above, if Eckhardt is elected, she’ll be the first-ever woman to hold the position of Travis County Judge. A woman has never been Travis County Judge.
The city of Austin has had a single female mayor, from 1977 – 1983.
Jan Soifer became the chair of the Travis County Democrats after Brown resigned. “[Soifer] is the first woman to be elected TCDP Chair in more than three decades.”
The US House of Representative districts that cover Travis County (which have been re-drawn repeatedly in gerrymandering attempts over the last few years) have always been held by men: TX10,TX21, TX25, TX31, TX35.
Texas state senate district 14, which covers the vast majority of Austin, has never been held by a woman.
Texas house districts that represent Austin:
- D45: a woman has not held this office since at least 1992.
- D46: Dawnna Dukes has held the position for 10 years and was second woman to do so.
- D47: Valinda Bolton, the second woman to be elected to this office, held it for 4 years until 2010 election when – despite a big fundraising lead – lost to Paul Workman.
- D48: Donna Howard was first elected to the position in 2006 but had a famously close race in 2010,winning re-election by 4 votes. Like Bolton, she had a huge fundraising advantage. This district has mainly be held by women.
- D49: has only been held by Elliott Naishtat since at least 1992.
- D50: Cecilia Israel just won this seat in a special election. It has been held by two women previously, including Dawnna Dukes.
a woman has never held this office.In fact, Lena Guerrero held this office from 1986 – 1990 (it has been 23 years then). D52: Diana Maldonado was the only woman to hold this office, which she did for four years. She lost in a re-election bid in 2010, despite seemingly in a better financial position going into the election.
[UPDATE: the Austin City Council is currently equally split between men and women. And House District 52 is in Williamson County, but does cover the part of Williamson County that contains the City of Austin.]
Finally, this political campaign season in Travis County.
- Travis County Judge: Brown vs. Eckhardt
- County Commissioner, Precinct 2: Garry Brown vs. Brigid Shea vs. Richard Jung
- Travis County Treasurer: Dolores Ortega Carter vs. Ramey Ko
Last week, the Travis County Democratic Party hosted a Multi-Club Candidate Forum with 6 Democratic clubs. Of the three women listed above, only Ortega Carter received an endorsement and only 1.
As a woman in Travis County, I look at all of this put together and I wonder why any woman would want to run for office here, even in this supposed lefty paradise.
And I want to say publicly that piece like this one at The Texas Monitor are unfair and not-so-subtly sexist. Sarah Eckhardt pointing to her opponent’s weaknesses (which Brown tries to do on the regular during debates), noting that Brown is a party operative (which he cops to by posting an Austin-American Statesmen piece on his site that calls him that), and his lack of experience (which is true) is labeled by a site that is run mainly of young Travis County male democrats as “bullying,” “strange,” “sad,” “mudslinging,” “mean,” “offensive,” and “negative.” Eckhardt is running a political campaign. That you don’t like it doesn’t make it “bullying” or “offensive” or “mean.” The scrutiny of women’s political campaigns are always seen as out-of-line even if a woman is just doing what male politicians do because, in a sexist society, women are not even supposed to be participating at all in politics; all moves they make look wrong. Resist the urge to prop up that silly idea, please.
I’m voting for Eckhardt because she’s the most capable candidate.
I’m voting for Eckhardt because I believe that experience should win out over endorsements and being a political insider.
I’m voting for Eckhardt because in this year of awesome women running for office in the great state of Texas, I’m excited to vote for one locally.
And I would ask that if you live in Travis County, you seriously consider WHY you are voting for the candidate that you are.
[NOTE: I’m happy to have a debate in the comments about these two candidates but ad hominem and/or sexist attacks will be deleted or never posted.]