With one election already done, another one fast approaching, and more after that, 2022 may set records for the number of elections in Austin. We just finished one in which Chito Vela won the special election to replace outgoing Council Member Greg Casar in District 4 (more on that shortly). Early voting, which began February 14, is underway in both the Texas Democratic and Republican primaries. Election Day is March 1. Any runoffs in primary contests will be held May 24.
The May 24 primary runoffs will be, by then, the second May election for Austin voters. That’s because the City Council recently set an election for May 7 on a petition driven item that seeks to prohibit no knock warrants and to instruct Austin Police not to arrest people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. May 7 (or more specifically the first Saturday in May) is the day set by state law for spring elections on municipal topics. By the way the Council already has in place a policy directive saying police should not arrest people for low level possession of marijuana. Likewise, in 2020, the Council prohibited no knock warrants in many instances. There could be legal challenges to this petition initiative, but Council put it on the ballot, consistent with City Charter rules for petitions that get the required number of signatures.
Meanwhile all state level statewide offices, all Texas House seats, all Texas Senate seats (because it is a redistricting year), and all Congressional seats are on the Democratic and Republican March 1 primary ballots (though neither US Senator seat from Texas is up this year). That includes long time Congressman Lloyd Doggett running in a newly redrawn District that encompasses most of Austin, west of IH 35 — an area he represented before Republican redistricting in 2003. In Travis County races, the County Judge seat and two Commissioners’ seats are on the ballot (more on the Precinct 2 race further down). There is also a race to replace retiring County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. In addition there is a long list of judicial races on the ballot.
With this number of races, it is impossible for the Independent to cover them all. For that we apologize to the readers and the candidates, but it’s just a reality. It also appears difficult to impossible for other media outlets to cover them all because we have seen scant attention in major media outlets to elections for very important County offices. (We’ll put links to campaign websites in some races, the League of Women Voters Austin Area candidate questionnaires, and sample ballots at the bottom.)
The Republican and Democratic primary winners will face off on November 8 — that is except in cases where one party doesn’t field a candidate. Many of the local races, like the two Travis County Commissioners seats and the County Clerk race will be decided in the Democratic primary because Republicans either don’t field candidates or they field candidates who don’t have a chance in heavily Democratic Travis County. Travis County Judge Andy Brown (who is serving the unexpired term of now State Senator Sarah Eckhardt), is unopposed in the Democratic primary as he seeks a full term. In the fall, however, he will face Rupal Chaudhari who became involved in local politics through opposing the conversion of the Candlewood Suites hotel in the Anderson Mill area (in the City of Austin, but in Williamson County) into housing for the homeless. As with all Republican candidates in Travis County, Chaudhari faces an uphill fight. She does not, however, come from the standard Republican mold and she might mount an interesting race.
Since the mid 1990s all statewide elected officials have really been chosen in the Republican primary. Once again, however, Democrats are bravely fielding candidates for all statewide races. Most notably, former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke is on track to become the Democratic nominee on March 1. He will then face right wing, two term, incumbent Governor Greg Abbott — that is assuming Abbott makes it past the host of Republican challengers trying to get to his right in the Republican primary.
Also on the November 8 ballot will be the Austin Mayor’s job and five City Council seats — those currently held by Natasha Harper Madison, Pio Renteria, Ann Kitchen, Paige Ellis, and Kathie Tovo. (Council seats are intended to be non partisan and thus there are no party primary elections for Council seats.) Renteria, Kitchen and Tovo are all term limited, but could seek a place on the ballot through petition drives, if they so desire. Mayor Steve Adler is also term limited and has already announced that he will not be a candidate in November. Tovo is considering a mayoral run. Former Austin Mayor/former State Senator Kirk Watson is also considering a mayoral run. Kitchen also has long appeared to have mayoral ambitions, but has yet to make any public moves in that direction for this year. State Representative Celia Israel already announced her candidacy, as has former District 10 candidate Jennifer Virden.
To summarize, that’s four election days in the first five months of the year plus a general election with a very long ballot in November. That’s a lot of elections and it doesn’t even count any petition driven elections that might occur to try and straighten out policy disasters initiated by Greg Casar (Haven’t forgotten about you).
I’m sort of kidding about that one, but not entirely. Readers may recall that Austin voters had to go to the polls twice last year to straighten out wayward initiatives that originated with Casar. First was the petition driven effort to repeal the lifting of the homeless camping ban that Casar pushed through the Council without having a plan for what to do next. That was Prop B in May of last year. Then, in November, voters went to the polls on another petition initiative which resulted from the Casar and Delia Garza-led 2020 vote to begin defunding Austin Police (described in an article last week). This time voters determined that the proposed solution — requiring Austin to have two police officers per one thousand residents — went too far. Once it became clear that the measure would result in tax increases and major budget cuts for years to come, a broad coalition of Austin voters shot it down. Thus, voters saved the City from an eternal budget crisis, but the crisis for Austin police and public safety staffing remained.
Vela Takes District 4 Seat
In a moment we’ll take a look at the Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner’s race, but first let’s quickly review the District 4 Council race. We covered that race before the election, but we have not yet reported the results. As most folks know by now Chito Vela won the election and did so resoundingly. Vela won 59% of the vote against six challengers. Monica Guzman finished a distant second with 13.7%. Vela won the seat with only 2,141 votes, but the low turnout, 10.45%, was not his fault. He won a majority of the voters who turned out, and in his Windsor Park home precinct, where he ran particularly strong, turnout was almost double that of the District as a whole.
Shea Draws Further Left Challenge in Precinct 2
Now, with apologies to the candidates we won’t be able to cover, here’s a look at the County Commissioner Precinct 2 race. There, the longtime progressive and environmental stalwart Brigid Shea faces an insurgent challenge from activist Bob Libal. Libal is endorsed by a number of key allies of Casar, including new Council Member Vela and Austin Justice Coalition head Chas Moore. Shea emphasizes on her website that she is “taking seriously” Libal’s challenge. Her personal door to door campaigning also attests to that.
Libal’s challenge to Shea is based on two major issues, the new women’s jail proposed by Sheriff Sally Hernandez and the incentive package which helped bring the soon to open Tesla manufacturing plant to eastern Travis County. On both these issues Shea worked with her fellow Commissioner, and long time ally, Jeff Travillion. Travillion and Shea regularly form a hard working progressive duo on the Court. Like Shea, Travillion has a long record of civic service, including leading the local NAACP chapter during the early 1990s. As an elected official he has been tireless and relentless, although less flamboyant and less headline seeking than some younger local leaders.
Two issues on which Shea and Travillion worked together were the proposed new women’s jail and the Tesla incentives package. On the jail issue Shea and Travillion basically took the position that no matter how successfully or how quickly further criminal justice system reform occurs, there will still be women who commit crimes and have to be incarcerated. Shea and Travillion have been supportive of criminal justice reform, for instance working with community advocates and fellow Commissioners to create a Public Defender’s Office.
Rookie Democratic County Judge Andy Brown, in alliance with now Shea opponent Libal and a number of others, opposed a new women’s jail, maintaining that building one would be a furthering of mass incarceration. After a throng of speakers opposed the new jail, the Court voted to postpone consideration of the jail. Shea voted against postponement and Travillion abstained.
On Tesla, the campaign dispute can be better understood with a quick historical review. Shea and particularly Travillion are well aware of a long time quest, particularly in minority communities, to bring reasonably paying blue collar or working class jobs to Austin. That shortage of solid working class jobs dates back to when Austin was primarily a college and state government town. The gap persisted as Austin transformed into an international high tech center. With that continuing need in mind, Travillion, Shea, their then fellow Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and then County Judge Sam Biscoe (appointed by the Commissioners to serve again as County Judge after Sarah Eckhardt left to run for the State Senate) negotiated and supported an incentives package for Tesla. Commissioner Margaret Gomez abstained on the vote after Travillion turned down a request to postpone. The Del Valle Independent School District also approved an incentives package.
Here’s part of how Texas Monthly explained the Tesla deal: “The proposed Tesla plant, which will produce Cybertrucks and Model Y SUVs, is expected to be a billion-dollar investment that will employ five thousand in manufacturing jobs and benefit hundreds of contractors and suppliers. When the deal was announced, Tesla said that about 65 percent of the factory’s jobs will be ‘middle-skilled’ and will not require college degrees, with salaries starting at $35,000 a year and averaging more than $47,000. The company pledged to make at least half of its hires from among Travis County residents, and stated it would make a ‘good faith effort’ to hire women and people of color.”
It should also be noted that Tesla manufactures electric vehicles, something totally in line with Austin environmental ethos. Sure, Tesla owner Elon Musk is often obnoxious and, by blasting rockets into space, is canceling out a lot of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that electric cars will help prevent. Nonetheless, the Tesla plant will produce one of the most important products possible for fighting climate change while paying decent, if still rather low, blue collar wages in a town that badly needs them.
Opposition to tax abatements is a very legitimate position, but is usually much more complicated than the arguments advanced by opponents. For instance Libal charged in a tweet that “CommishShea, voted to give @ElonMusk millions of public dollars.” That is just not factually accurate. Yes, Shea and the rest of the Commissioners Court voted to grant millions in tax abatements to Tesla as part of an agreement to bring the plant to Travis County. The County, however, did not “give” Musk any money. Instead, as assessed values on the Tesla property rise, Travis County will waive up to $14 million in property taxes over ten years. Tesla will still pay more taxes than the tract is currently bringing in and likely would not have built their factory in Travis County without the package.
So it’s not quite as simple as Libal puts it. There seems to be a pattern developing here. Shea is dependent on folks becoming informed on particular issues and then thinking through them. Libal is counting more on voters not knowing the issues in much detail beyond basic ideology and then reacting to slogans and claims he puts forward. Once you look at the race from that angle, it’s a lot easier to see why Shea might be a tad worried and is taking the challenge seriously.
The Most Competitive Republican Race
Let’s close with a look at the Republican ballot and at one race in particular. Of course Governor Greg Abbott has drawn seven primary challengers. The two most often mentioned are former Texas State Senator Don Huffines and former Florida Congressman/former Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West. Another Abbott opponent is Rick Perry, who is not the same person who was Governor before Abbott. It will be a huge surprise (at least to me) if Abbott doesn’t clobber his opponents — but there are Texans out there who think he’s just too liberal.
The most competitive statewide Republican primary race appears to be the one for Attorney General. In fact, if you want a metaphor for the modern Republican Party, especially the Texas version, this is a good place to look. Also, I realize that some Austin Democrats are a little sheltered and may not have heard about this race. So here you go.
The incumbent is Ken Paxton. Paxton has famously been under indictment on security dealing charges since July 2015, only months after he took office. He has also survived the resignation of seven Deputy Attorney Generals (all at once) who, as the Austin American-Statesman put it in October 2020, “filed a criminal complaint against their boss last week, alleging improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes.” Paxton is also reportedly being investigated by the FBI for potential abuse of the powers of his office, apparently over dealings with a local developer.
None of this has deterred Paxton from filing high profile, nationally oriented, lawsuits. Most famously Paxton filed a lawsuit, on which he recruited numerous other Republican Attorney Generals from around the country, trying to overturn the election of Joe Biden and keep Donald Trump in office. Paxton also spoke at Trump’s pre-storming of the Capital January 6 rally. He has been rewarded with a Trump endorsement. (Trump also endorsed Abbott.) Paxton also filed a lawsuit seeking to get President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional — potentially taking insurance away from 20 million people, during a pandemic. What a guy.
Paxton has drawn three experienced Republican opponents. This is the kind of thing where a Democrat might be tempted to believe that anyone else would be better than Paxton. Any Democrat actually thinking that might quickly reconsider after studying the challengers. Those include the legendarily knuckle-headed Congressman from East Texas Louie Gohmert and current Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the only Bush known to have backed Donald Trump. Also in the race is the lesser known, Eva Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court Judge who is trying to improve her name ID by running ads in which she works hard to further inflame tensions about the border — the Republican go to issue in the 2022 campaign.
Attorney General Candidates Eva Guzman left and Louie Gohmert with wife Kathy, from their respective campaign websites.
P. Bush too is focusing his campaign on the border; a switch from his Uncle W who was actually held a centrist, and even humanitarian, stance on the issue (It really hurt to say that). Gohmert also promises to “Fight to protect Texas’ right to secure our border.” Gohmert, however, is the only candidate directly emphasizing Paxton’s alleged corruption. He leads his webpage with the statement, “With Ken Paxton under indictment for securities fraud and facing a federal investigation for bribery and corruption, Louie Gohmert is running to save Texas and restore honesty and integrity to the office of Attorney General.”
While it remains to be seen just how honest an office Gohmert would run, we can count on Gohmert being entertaining. For just one example, he was years ahead of Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green with food gaffes. As folks may have seen, Taylor Green lashed out last week at “Nancy Pelosi’s Gazpacho Police.” She doesn’t have anything on Gohmert. In a 2013 tiff with then Attorney General Eric Holder at a Congressional hearing, Gohmert accused Holder of “casting aspersions on my asparagus.”
Well, that’s all for now folks. We don’t mean to have cast aspersions on anyone’s asparagus here and we include a few links below that might be helpful in researching other races.
(photo at top is Commissioner Brigid Shea)
This article was corrected to state that Sam Biscoe was acting as County Judge during the deliberations on the Tesla package, not Sarah Eckhardt. Biscoe was appointed back to his previous office of County Judge when Eckhardt left to run for the State Senate. He served until precinct chairs chose a replacement, Andy Brown. And, the last name of the head of the Austin Justice Coalition was corrected.
I also erred in originally saying half of Texas Senate seats are on the ballot. That would be true in a normal year, but in a redistricting year all Senate seats are on the ballot. Terms will be staggered to go back to the usual election pattern.
Links to General Information and Some Races Not Covered Above
Voting Guide/Candidate Questionnaire, League of Women Voters Austin Area
Texas Democratic Primary Ballot
Texas Republican Primary Ballot
Travis County Clerk
Travis County Commissioner Precinct 4, Democratic Primary (In Order They Appear on the Ballot)
Margaret Gomez (incumbent)
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