The filing deadline for Travis County local elected offices was not nearly as exciting as the drama across the state, but one competitive primary got settled, a few incumbents drew challengers, and after the January 28 runoff in House District 50, Celia Israel and Mike Vandewalle will face each other in a rematch in November.
A primary for the vacant 250th District Court had been developing between Karin Crump and former 3rd Court justice Diane Henson, but that race is now moot. Meanwhile, four local officeholders received last-second primary challengers, some of which are serious candidates.
Endorsements and debates are also starting, so the races will really begin to heat up now. Read your primer below the fold!Karin Crump will run unopposed in the Democratic primary for the 250th District Court; Diane Henson files for 3rd Court of Appeals.
Normally, District Judge seats in Travis County are heavily contested when the incumbent retires. Travis County, being as blue as it is, provides for safe seats for Democratic incumbents. So, when they retire, it's off to the races. It was no exception for the 250th District Court, after Judge John Dietz announced he would retire following decades of service. Two candidates with prior electoral history were set to face-off: Karin Crump and Diane Henson. Crump ran unsuccessfully for Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace in 2010, which before that election was the only Republican-held office in Travis County. Despite losing, she was a well-liked candidate then who set a lot of groundwork for Democrats to win that seat in 2014 (more on that later). Diane Henson was an elected Democrat in the swing-district Third Court of Appeals, but she lost reelection last year, as each of the Democrats running for that seat had a poor showing.
Both Crump and Henson showed strong levels of support across the Travis County legal community, but Karin Crump picked up a lot of momentum among Democratic activists, too. Crump's momentum culminated in a strong endorsement from the Central Labor Council on Saturday. Henson had not yet filed, and as it turns out, Chief Justice Woodie Jones of the 3rd Court of Appeals was retiring, and no Democrat had filed to replace him. So, on Monday, Diane Henson filed to be the Democratic nominee for Chief Justice the Third Court of Appeals. Henson is unopposed in her primary, and Crump will now be unopposed through the entire election. Crump will make an excellent District Court Judge, and Henson would do very well leading the Third Court.
One other Democratic non-incumbent secured victory last Monday.
South Austin Democrats president Todd Wong will be replacing the Honorable David Phillips after Wong filed without any other competitors for the County Court at Law #1. Velva Price will also be replacing Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza as County Clerk. Most incumbents also passed the filing deadline without any opponents.
Four Democratic incumbents drew late challengers.
County Commissioner Margaret Gomez is being challenged by Darla Wegner, who is a Del Valle ISD trustee. Wegner lives near Formula One, which will likely be the main issue of her challenge. However, challenges to Gomez have been unsuccessful in the past, and it's unclear if Wagner will be able to get any traction in this Hispanic-heavy district. County Court at Law Judge John Lipscombe has been challenged by Paul Evans. Lipscombe became well loved by Democratic activists when he last ran, so he will be tough to unseat. But if any sitting Democratic judge is vulnerable, it's Lipscombe, who has been criticized by attorneys privately for being less efficient than his peers. In fact, in 2013's Austin Bar judicial evaluation poll, 22 of 45 County Court at Law respondents said he needed improvement overall. Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace Herb Evans had a last minute challenger file on Monday, James Braxton Forrest, who is a local DWI attorney. And finally, Ramey Ko, who was going to run for House District 50 but did not, will challenge Dolores Ortega Carter for County Treasurer. County Treasurer used to be a much more important office, but over the years its duties have been limited. Ko's candidacy has been rumored for some time, but he only recently let his intentions be known. Ko is the most likely of these challengers to succeed, as he enters the race with an organization already built (along with a warchest) from his House campaign. Ko was also the only of these challengers endorsed by the Central Labor Council.
Your other expected Democratic Primary competitions will still be the same.
It's Andy Brown vs. Sarah Eckhardt for County Judge. The race to succeed Eckhardt on the Commissioner's Court will still be the three-way race between Garry Brown, Richard Jung, and Brigid Shea.
What about Republicans?
The two Republican incumbents wholly within Travis County filed for reelection. Paul Workman will return to the legislature next year, as no Democrat filed to challenge him. Justice of the Peace Glenn Bass also filed for reelection. Bass is being challenged by Democrat Randall Slagle, an Assistant County Attorney who has already gained many supporters on the campaign trail. Oh, and Bass was the only judge to receive a majority “Needs Improvement” mark on that Judicial Evaluation Poll. Republicans also had a couple filers who will face unlikely uphill climbs against the Democratic nominees for County Judge and Commissioner, Precinct 2. Mike McNamara is running for County Judge and Raymond Frank is running for Precinct 2.
And now that everyone's filed, the main event is heating up!
Even before filing began, drama ensued regarding the AFSCME local's recommendation for the County Judge race. It seems Eckhardt didn't think she got a fair shot at the AFSCME recommendation (and then later, the Labor endorsement). As it turns out, the Endorsement Season started early this year — before the filing deadline even happened! In contested races, the Central Labor Council followed AFSCME in endorsing Andy Brown, Ramey Ko, John Lipscombe, Randall Slagle, and Herb Evans, but two thirds of the Council (the requirement for its endorsement) was unable to come to a consensus in the Precinct 2 Commissioner's Race. And the endorsement season won't stop for the holidays just yet, either — the Stonewall Democrats of Austin are holding their endorsement meeting tonight.
The competitiveness already shown in the County Judge Race and the Commissioner seat election continued only hours after the filing deadline on Monday, when KUT and In Fact Daily (soon to be known as the Austin Monitor) hosted debates among the Democrats of the two races. Those who went were able to see a preview of the upcoming campaigns.
And although it's still December, we already saw some political attacks in the County Judge debate. Sarah Eckhardt came out swinging, declaring that the job is not “an entry level position” or “a political stepping stone” and specifically attacking Brown's corporate work and lack of government experience. Brown focused on his own agenda, even declining an opportunity to respond to Eckhardt's comments at one opportunity.
Their debating styles clearly showed where each campaign sees themselves, competitively. You don't go on the attack this early unless you're worried that you're behind. While the public has not seen any poll numbers, it's a safe bet that the Eckhardt camp thinks it has ground to make up, while the Brown team thinks it is ahead. After all, Andy Brown did not feel the need to distinguish himself from Eckhardt in the nebulous category of “leadership style.”
Despite her attacks, Eckhardt looked very strong in the debate, showing off an extremely impressive knowledge of County government. I received a press release from the Eckhardt campaign declaring a decisive victory in the debate. Who wins a debate is always up to interpretation, however, but the Eckhardt campaign was confident enough to show everyone. They put a video of the debate online. If you want to see what the apparent fuss is about, or if you just want to learn about the candidates to lead this County, take a look: