Austin Chronicle: Brown and Eckhardt Make Some Distinctions

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Brown and Eckhardt Make Some Distinctions
What’s the difference between the Dem Travis County Judge candidates? It all comes down to personality.
BY AMY SMITH, FRI., DEC. 13, 2013

As progressive Democrats, Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt agree on nearly every major issue facing the community – they both oppose the construction of State High­way 45, they endorse the Lone Star Rail project and other multimodal transit options, and they support long-term water management plans. But at a candidate forum Monday night, the two Travis Coun­ty Judge candidates did manage to differentiate themselves from each other in one key area: personality.

On that score, if Brown came across as Mr. Affable – joking with moderator Joy Diaz and demonstrating his Spanish-language finesse – then Eckhardt left her mark as Ms. Moxie – someone who won’t “fade in the heat or run from powerful interests.”

The forum, co-sponsored by In Fact Daily (soon to be rebranded as the Austin Monitor) and KUT, was the first public opportunity the challengers had to lay out their platforms outside the special-interest clubs that candidates routinely attend in seeking their endorsements. The crowd at the North Door also heard from the three Dem candidates vying for the Precinct 2 seat on the Commissioners Court – Garry Brown, Richard Jung, and Brigid Shea (see Newsdesk online for debate coverage, and look for more reporting in next week’s Chronicle).

In the competition to succeed retiring County Judge Sam Biscoe, Brown, who most recently chaired the Travis County Democratic Party, argued that he was the best candidate for the job based on his record as a uniter and consensus-builder. “I have 20 years of experience of bringing people together to stand up for progressive causes and getting things done,” he noted several times throughout the evening. During his tenure leading the local party, Brown said he raised “more money than ever before” and increased minority turnout by 18% in 21 East Austin precincts. Brown also distinguished his candidacy with calls for more transparency at the county with the creation of an ethics commission and the requirement that lobbyists register, as they do at the city level. Brown also vowed to re-evaluate and reorganize an archaic county government system that hasn’t seen any significant structural changes since 1994.

Eckhardt, who left her County Commis­sion Precinct 2 seat in May to run for judge, hammered home her record as a public servant and took several opportunities to tout her campaign slogan of “experience, courage, and heart.” She recounted her days working in the trenches of domestic violence cases as an assistant county attorney and then continuing her advocacy when she arrived on the Commissioners Court in 2006. Once seated, she worked to lower taxes for seniors and defend the reproductive and health care rights of women; she helped secure a $3.5 million settlement from developers whose construction project polluted the popular Hamilton Pool swimming hole in western Travis County, and championed fair wages for workers. She said she also made some tough – albeit not always popular – decisions on how county tax dollars were spent, saying no to tax giveaways to large corporations, and voting against the higher of two salary-hike proposals for sheriff’s deputies.

“[The job of] Travis County judge is not an entry-level position and it’s not a political stepping stone,” she said. “When you’re Travis County judge it’s easy to bring people together – you call a meeting. The question is what do you get done and who do you get it done for?”

Eckhardt’s tone reflected the tensions that rose between the campaigns last week as the two candidates vied for key endorsements from labor groups. As Michael King wrote for Newsdesk on Dec. 7, the endorsement fireworks began the evening of Dec. 5 at the candidate screening held by AFSCME Local 1624. The local had gotten crossways with Eckhardt, over its early decision to support Brown without a public screening of both candidates. Local 1624, which represents 2,500 city and county employees, does not endorse directly – the decision is made by the board of its PEOPLE political action committee, which collects funds from politically active union members willing to contribute. The PAC makes recommendations to the Cen­tral Labor Council, which, after hearing from candidates in its Dec. 7 session, announced its endorsement of Brown.

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