Statesman: Little-known race for Travis County judge is bigger than you may think

Posted on in News Clips

BY FARZAD MASHHOOD – AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF ~ Posted: 7:16 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, 2013

Sarah Eckhardt was block walking recently in the Bouldin neighborhood of South Austin when she had a surprising encounter.

She met a voter who’d actually heard of her.

Sarah Eckhardt talking to Voters

“You do? How?” Eckhardt told resident Steffanie Audel, a longtime Austin resident and school librarian who said she recognized the candidate’s name from being familiar with local government.

For the past few months, former county Commissioner Eckhardt and her opponent, former county Democratic Party Chairman Andy Brown, have been knocking on strangers’ doors, introducing themselves and the little-known county judge campaign to likely voters.

Brown faces a similar climb out of anonymity. “Oh, I’ve seen your signs and asked my husband, ‘Who is Andy Brown?’” resident Janie Martinez said as the candidate visited with voters in the Holly neighborhood of East Austin. Both candidates are also finding few voters are familiar with the elected post that helps set their county taxes and fix roads mostly in unincorporated areas.

A common misconception is that Eckhardt and Brown — who will square off in the March primary, where races in Democratic-leaning Travis County are typically decided — are running to be a robe-wearing, bench-sitting type of judge. “It’s not that kind of judge,” is a helpful line for both candidates.

In fact, the position is more akin to being mayor of the county, the head of the Commissioners Court who sets the agendas and runs the meetings where officials decide everything from how to give tax breaks to businesses moving here to setting the $857 million annual county budget. The county judge is the first among equals on the commission, representing the whole county’s electorate instead of a geographic district, stepping up as a leader in times of crisis.

And, for the first time since 1998, there’s a competitive race for this seat in Travis County.

County Judge Sam Biscoe will relinquish his powerful incumbency by retiring next year, at the end of his fourth term in the county’s top administrative post. Eckhardt and Brown have jockeyed for the better part of the past year for the job, a four-year post that pays $118,373 a year. The race is already on pace to be one of the most expensive countywide races ever, with both candidates raising a combined $420,000 in the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013, according to the most recent reports available. The money is still rolling in, the campaigns said.

The county judge post has an antiquated name born out of 19th century Texas, when sparsely populated counties elected a person to not only act as the chair of county commissioners’ meetings — essentially the city council of a county — but also handle trials as well. In many small counties today, county judges still tend to some judicial roles while also working as the executive of the county. But in urban counties like Travis, the county judge doesn’t handle any trials. (Biscoe does, however, occasionally exercise his judicial power to preside over weddings, usually of friends.)

While four months out from the March primary seems early for candidates to campaign, they’ve been at it much longer. Eckhardt formally announced her candidacy in May; though she was widely speculated to run for the job, state law prohibits sitting commissioners from running for county judge, so she had to resign to formally run. Brown held his announcement ceremony later that month, but he had filed papers for his candidacy and started raising money in July 2012, bringing in donations in earnest in November 2012. (Republican Mike McNamara is also running for the post.

In 1998, the last time an incumbent didn’t run for county judge, the race was fought in a much tighter time frame, as both candidates were sitting commissioners who had to resign. Biscoe and his opponent then, Valarie Bristol, held off until about a month before the filing deadline to announce their candidacy. By the time Biscoe and Bristol were formally running in December 1997, they had about three months until the primary election. Through the eight days before the 1998 primary, they raised about $180,000 between the two of them, just a fraction of what Brown and Eckhardt raised through June, with more than eight months of fundraising ahead of them.

And while traditional campaign events like block walking, meeting with voters at coffee shops and bars and doing paper advertisements are still the central focus, Brown and Eckhardt each have carefully managed Facebook pages and campaign websites. (Biscoe, notably old school, has no significant online presence and relied in his campaigns on events, signs, fliers and an occasional TV advertisement.)

Brown’s and Eckhardt’s campaign offices, each with a complement of full-time workers and volunteers, buzz with staffers making calls and preparing materials around makeshift tables and a mishmash of desk chairs. Brown’s campaign, in a former halfway house overlooking Interstate 35 and the Erwin Center, has a little family touch: The candidate’s mother polished up the place with a fresh coat of campaign blue paint on the door and banister. Eckhardt’s office has a family touch, too: a black-and-white poster from one of the campaigns of her late father, U.S. Rep. Bob Eckhardt, a Democrat who represented part of Houston from 1967 to 1981.

During their visits to voters’ doors, the candidates stuck to many of the messages they’ve been giving at campaign events and in emails.

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.”

State Sen. Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial run might generate more enthusiasm in the Democratic primary, but a jump in party turnout is more likely for November, when Davis is likely to face Republican state Attorney General Greg Abbott. Brown’s background as a political organizer also gives him an advantage in the typically low-turnout March primary, Young said.

“You’re lucky if you get 10 percent turnout, so organization is critical,” Young said.

Still, Eckhardt is a strong campaigner, having defeated an incumbent commissioner in 2006 and maintaining strong support in her Precinct 2, which encompasses mostly Central, West and North Austin.

Ultimately, the campaign could come down to which candidate can best explain themselves and the county judge position to voters. Eckhardt and Brown should take heart: Even after 16 years in office, Biscoe comes across people who still think he handles trials.

“Even today, when I talk with a whole lot of people who I know have supported me for decades, they have no idea what I do every day,” he said.

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