Published online by the Austin Monitor, January 10, 2014
By Mark Richardson
Travis County Judge candidate Sarah Eckhardt continued her verbal campaign against billionaire businessman Red McCombs Thursday, taking him to task for asking taxpayers to contribute millions of dollars to build the Circuit of the Americas race track but going to court to get his property tax bill on the facility lowered.
Eckhardt, a former Pct. 2 Commissioner who is running for the top job in Travis County, issued a statement criticizing McCombs – one of the developers of the Formula 1 race track – for throwing his political and financial weight around to get what he wants.
“Like most billionaires, Red McCombs is used to getting his way,” she wrote. “After handing out big bucks, the big-time car dealer got part of the UT football stadium and the entire business school named after him. And, after getting a huge tax subsidy from Texas taxpayers, he helped convince a majority of the Travis County Commissioners Court (that didn’t include me) to hand over local tax dollars for his Formula 1 racetrack.”
She added: “And McCombs gets really upset when he doesn’t get his way.”
The San Antonio-based McCombs built his wealth through the Red McCombs Automotive Group, a chain of car dealerships, and has also had interests in oil, broadcasting, real estate and sport franchises.
He was most recently in the news for making derogatory comments after University of Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson named Charlie Strong as UT’s new head football coach. However, news reports Thursday said McCombs had talked with Strong, apologized for his comments and offered his full support.
But Eckhardt maintains that McCombs’ influence was evident in the recent vote by Travis County Commissioners to spend some $13 million to essentially extend Kellam Lane from SH 71 to the COTA front gates.
She said that while McCombs’ name was never invoked during debate about the roadway, his influence over the project was felt a couple of weeks later, when McCombs wrote a letter of complaint to Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd over a suggestion the some of the funds earmarked for roadway be used to help victims of the Halloween flood.
“The public proponents of that proposal maintained all along that it wasn’t for COTA. But, the letter from McCombs to Commissioner Todd blows that cover,” she told the Austin Monitor. “Mr. McCombs cannot insulate himself from criticism on this matter. If you take public money you should have to deal with the public from whom you are taking it.”
She was particularly critical of McCombs for filing lawsuit against the Travis County Appraisal District, claiming the tax bill for his racetrack is too high at roughly the same time he was seeking county funds for a road to COTA.
In response to Eckhardt’s comments Thursday, Andy Brown, her opponent in the Democratic Primary, said that unlike Eckhardt, he has a plan to bring ethics reform to Travis County.
“The truth is, I’m the only candidate in this race who is actually proposing to do something about the problem – ethics reform – meaning establishing a Travis County Ethics Commission and requiring lobbyists to register and report who they represent,” he said. “We also need campaign finance reports that are indexed and searchable online. Only then can we have true transparency at the county level. We don’t need demagoguery, we need reform and action.”
He did, however, compliment Eckhardt for her efforts to fight corporate influence in county politics.
Eckhardt has criticized McCombs and his influence in the past, issuing an open letter to him in November seeking a one-on-one meeting with him to discuss issues surrounding COTA. However, she was turned down by one of his executives.
“I thought long and hard and decided I needed to speak truth to power when McCombs takes so much from the taxpayers and then tries to skate on his own taxes. And, given his refusal to speak to me one-on-one, this was my only avenue of communication with him.”
The Austin Monitor made several attempts Thursday to contact McCombs about this article but did not receive a reply.