This Tuesday March 5 is primary election day with the Travis County District Attorney (DA) race — between incumbent José Garza and challenger Jeremy Sylestine — being by far the most fiercely contested seat. This is the last of our pre-election coverage. The previous stories can be found on our Home page. 

We will get to some final analysis of the DA race in a minute, but perhaps the best service we can provide is to discuss the dark money group that has inserted itself into the race in the final days. 

Shedding a Little Light on the Dark Money Group

Calling themselves “Saving Austin,” the group (or it could even be an individual, we do not know) sent mailers and produced ads attacking Garza’s record. They used extreme language like “José Garza is filling Austin’s streets with pedophiles and killers.” They also called on recepients of the flyers and ads to “Call District Attorney José Garza and tell Garza to stop cutting plea deals with these monsters.” [The ads were in all caps.]

The suggestion to call the DA reflects the group’s status as a dark money group that cannot tell people who to vote for. Unlike political action committees, dark money groups do not have to report their officers, donors, or expenditures. This lack of transparency is due to Supreme Court decisions and a lack of follow-up action from Congress.

Some Garza backers were quick to blame the Sylestine campaign for the ads and the harsh language. Sylestine’s team, however, denied any connection to Saving Austin.

Sylestine himself posted on social media:

“I want to make it unequivocally clear that I, and my campaign, denounce the demagogic mailer by the so-called Saving Austin PAC attacking José Garza. As a dad of three young girls, it was painful to see.

That extreme rhetoric and imagery should have no place in this race. There are real substantive criticisms to be made about the Travis County District Attorney’s Office under José Garza’s leadership that are appropriate for the Democratic Party Primary and I stand by them.”

KVUE looked into the origins and identity of Saving Austin. For one thing KVUE reported that the leaders of similarly named Save Austin Now said that they have no association with Saving Austin. As to Saving Austin KVUE concluded, “It appears to be a group based in North Texas. The address points to a strip mall near I-635 in Irving. According to the Texas Ethics Commission’s database, the group is not registered with the state, so it remains unclear who is behind it.”

Clearly this type of organization is a corrosive factor in American elections. The best thing voters can do is to try and ignore information whose source they are not sure of. That is asking a lot, but — sadly for our country — there is probably a better chance of that happening than of Congress acting to fix the situation.

The Conflicting Strategies of Sylestine and Garza

One aspect of this race is that Sylestine, as an experienced Assistant District Attorney, knew how to put together court records and official numbers into a narrative. That is no small thing. 

Court records at Texas counties are difficult to access, at least for me. Some are rightly private. This difficulty of obtaining records seems to have been reflected in media coverage of Garza’s time in office. 

One aspect of this race is that Sylestine, as an experienced Assistant District Attorney, knew how to put together court records and official numbers into a narrative. That is no small thing. 

There were solid reports along the way, mainly from local television news, that compared Garza’s performance to that of his predecessors. But, those were sporadic and the same statistics were not reported throughout Garza’s term. 

Local television stations, and their websites, also provided detailed coverage of some of the cases where violent criminals went free, or where perpetrators got light sentences. How much this was the general pattern and how much these cases were outliers was somewhat difficult to determine. 

Perhaps the most revealing story came just before Thanksgiving last year when a KXAN news team demolished Garza’s attempt at using statistics to claim that his conviction rate on violent crime was higher than that of his predecessor.

A few weeks after that, former prosecutor Sylestine filed to run for the office only hours before the filing deadline. Sylestine and his campaign proceeded to put together a thorough and highly unflattering summary of Garza’s record.

Meanwhile, Garza has failed to refute, or even try to refute, major assertions that Sylestine has made about Garza’s record in office. Those assertions by Sylestine were made in a wide variety of media formats.

Garza has failed to refute, or even try to refute, major assertions that Sylestine has made about Garza’s record in office.

Following are a few of Sylestine’s core points that Garza has not specifically challenged.

“In 2021, the current administration dissolved the Office’s intake unit, causing a backlog of over 7,000 pending felony cases to date.” That assertion comes from the Sylestine campaign website. The campaign elaborated on this point in a widely distributed mailer, “Under José Garza, over 7,000 felony cases remain pending while more than 1,000 plea deals have allowed violent offenders to walk free including perpetrators of sexual and child assaults.” 

Another unrefuted Sylestine claim hammered at the widely suspected, but not widely documented, belief that Garza was letting an unprecedented number of crimes go unprosecuted: “The current administration has over 90 prosecutors with access to nine criminal district courts; however, their trial numbers are nearly equivalent to those of smaller counties, resulting in some suspects being released before they ever see a judge.”

That claim was in a mailer which continued, “The current DA’s treatment towards violent offenders is dangerously lenient. This has resulted in a severe lack of justice for victims of heinous crimes and little to no consequences for many violent criminals.”

As far as I can find, neither Garza nor his campaign specifically challenged any of the assertions made by Sylestine listed above. For one thing Garza seemed to avoid the public spotlight. As we have noted here before, Garza never responded to questions from the Austin Independent nor granted an interview — even after we agreed to a request from his staff and held off publication of one story for two days to give the campaign time to answer our questions. They never responded. 

Garza also passed up on attending a forum sponsored by Opportunity Austin and the Downtown Austin Alliance, hosted by the legendary Austin television journalist Judy Maggio. That forum became a discussion between Sylestine and Republican DA candidate Daniel Betts.

Garza did emerge to participate in two recent television interviews where he and Sylestine were interviewed separately. In those interviews Garza defended his record in general terms, but did not cite anywhere that he believed Sylestine was inaccurate or being misleading. For instance Garza told Ashley Goudeau of KVUE, “Of course we hold people accountable who commit acts of violence. . . But, we know that the challenges that face our community, that threaten our public safety, are not challenges that we can arrest and prosecute our way out of, if we are serious about our long term public safety we have to pursue strategies that will strengthen the stability of our community, and that’s what we do.” In this way Garza steers the conversation back to his core ideology and to the themes that won him the office in 2020.

Another oft-repeated Garza line is “broken criminal justice system.” For instance he told Goudeau, “I’m really proud of our record over the past three years, working to fix our broken criminal justice system and improve the safety of our community.” He continued, “We have held our promise to stand by survivors of sexual assault.” 

Here Garza claims to have stood by “survivors of sexual assault.” He still has not, however, addressed cases brought forward by the Sylestine campaign and others reported in the media where men who committed serious violence against women got plea deals from Garza in which they served no jail time.


Goudeau also summarized Sylestine’s characterization of Garza’s record, and asked Garza to respond. Garza said, “As I hear my opponent talk what we hear is more of the same, the same tired old solutions that we have been hearing in this country for almost 200 years, which is that if we want public safety what we have to do is lock up as many people as we can, who by the way happen to be predominately working class people and people of color.” Garza did not address that many of the victims in cases where he let violent perpetrators walk free with no jail time were “working class people and people of color.”

“As I hear my opponent talk what we hear is more of the same, the same tired old solutions that we have been hearing in this country for almost 200 years, which is that if we want public safety what we have to do is lock up as many people as we can. . .”

José Garza

Garza made similar points in an interview with CBS Austin, “What is happening in this race is the question of whether or not we are going to continue making progress fixing our broken criminal justice system and improving the safety of our community or whether we are going to take a step backwards.”

In his interview with Goudeau, Sylestine pushed back on Garza’s framing and laid out a more centrist path. “We can hold those (two) independent thoughts in our head. We can believe in progressive principles and reform in the system and still believe in law and order.”

“We can believe in progressive principles and reform in the system and still believe in law and order.”

Jeremy Sylestine

Sylestine also accurately maintains that “diversion” programs to keep many nonviolent offenders out of jail were in place at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office long before Garza took office. “Diversion is not a José Garza invention,” he told the Austin Independent in an earlier interview. 

In another interview Sylestine also told the Statesman, “You don’t have to tear the system down to make it work.”

To summarize, Sylestine has laid out a comprehensive critique of Garza’s time in office; and Garza has not responded with any detailed rebuttal. Nor has Garza challenged any aspect of Sylestine’s record in the DA’s office or Sylestine’s portrayal of that record.

Garza instead speaks more in generalities that harken back to his 2020 campaign. He is counting on Democratic primary voters to stick with him for another four years of “working to fix our broken criminal justice system.” Garza also appears to be relying heavily on support from like-minded elected officials like The Ten, as described in two earlier stories.

A Quick Look at “The Ten” and Identity Politics

If the details of Garza’s campaign message sound familiar, that might be because readers also read the letter from “The Ten,” that we wrote about earlier. “The Ten” is my term for the ten self described “elected Democratic Officials in Travis County” who, on February 21 sent out a letter demanding that Sylestine “renounce Republican money and Republican attacks in the Democratic Primary in Travis County.” The Ten gave no specific examples of either “Republican money” or “Republican attacks.” Today we will quickly focus on one aspect of the letter from The Ten that we haven’t discussed yet.

While accusing Sylestine of “parroting Republican talking points” The Ten lecture him that Republicans “have pursued policies that cause significant harm for working class members of our community, people of color in our community, young people in our community, women in our community, and LGBTQIA+ members of our community, to name a few.”  The Ten don’t even claim that Sylestine’s policies will hurt the groups of people they list, much less explain how they would. The Ten just let the charge hanging there in the air.

Sylestine counters that he is a lifelong Democrat.

Some might recognize The Ten’s listing of individual groups of people as a hallmark of “identity politics,” one of the names for the brand of politics practiced by Garza and The Ten. (We won’t get into other names for it here.) That’s their right. But, does anyone other than me find it strange that people who are so strong on identity politics are totally ignoring Sylestine’s identity and origin story? 

Sylestine doesn’t lead with it, but he is a Native American who grew up on the Alabama-Coushatta reservation in East Texas. His grandfather was the Tribe’s Principal Chief. Sylestine himself is still connected to the tribe as its Chief Appellate Trial Judge. Although Sylestine doesn’t lead with it, he is obviously proud of his Native American heritage and upbringing. That includes providing a first person biography on his campaign webpage.

Jeremy Sylestine is sworn in as Chief Appellate Trial Judge for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in East Texas – Photo provided by Jeremy Sylestine

The Ten, however, skip right by this and instead frame Sylestine as a closet Republican bringing “Republican talking points” into the Democratic Primary, like he’s some sort of impostor.

Wouldn’t it be an inspiring story if a Native American, who grew up on a reservation in East Texas, became the leading official for enforcing justice in the capital county of Texas?  


Election Day is Tuesday March 5. More information can be found on the Travis County Clerk’s website.

Photo at top of page by Adela Mancías


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