by Daryl Slusher
It is very difficult to focus on any other local news when one keeps seeing Austin Mayor Steve Adler on national news shows warning that Austin is within 10 days to two weeks of overrunning local intensive care units with Covid patients. It’s an incredibly serious and tragic situation. At the same time, however, there is an election already in progress with huge consequences hanging in the balance. As has been noted elsewhere, American elections have always continued, even during wartime. So Covid is no exception.
I’m referring not to the big election in November, but the Democratic and Republican primary runoffs scheduled for July 14. Early voting is already underway and ends July 10.
The primary runoffs were originally scheduled for May 26, but were postponed due to the coronavirus. Also on the July 14 ballot in much of large parts of Travis County and Bastrop County is the State Senate District 14 race to replace Senator Kirk Watson who moved to Houston to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. In that race, Democrats face a painful choice between two beloved Democrats, State Representative Eddie Rodriguez and former County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. This one has Democrats and Republicans in the same race. Joining Eckhardt and Rodriguez is former Austin Council Member and long time right wing activist Don Zimmerman. Other candidates expected to be further back in the pack are Republican Waller Thomas Burns II, former Lago Vista City Council member Pat Dixon — running as a Libertarian, and independent Jeff Ridgeway.
This article, however, will concentrate on two Travis County races where criminal justice reform is a major issue in both. Those are the Democratic Party runoffs for County Attorney and District Attorney. Before proceeding, however, let’s address a few hard truths about the electorate in Travis County.
First, even Travis County voters sometimes go to the polls unprepared in that they haven’t paid attention to down ballot races. This happens in both parties, yes, including Democrats. In the case of Democrats there is significant evidence that when people face the choice between two people that they don’t know (or know of), and the choice is between a man and a woman, they strongly tend to pick the woman. I know I am getting onto some controversial ground here, and I bristled myself the first time I read about this in a column a few years ago by Ken Herman of the American-Statesman.
Consider though what happened to incumbent Democratic Judge Tim Sulak just this March, as recounted in an American-Statesman story: “Travis County Democrats ousted a respected longtime judge on Tuesday in favor of a lawyer who earned no political endorsements, raised next to no money, was sanctioned by two Austin courts for filing harassing lawsuits — and admits she is not a Democrat.” That refers to Madeleine Connor who describes herself as a “longtime conservative,” previously ran three times as a Republican, and made the state’s list of “vexatious litigants.” As the Democratic nominee she will almost certainly win in November and then preside over a court in Travis County. So maybe Ken Herman had a point.
In the March Democratic primary statewide, reports the Texas Tribune, “women won more votes than men in all of the roughly 30 gender-split contests for high court, court of appeals and district court, according to results from the Texas Secretary of State. Rarely was it even close.”
The Tribune quoted former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Elsa Alcala, “People are voting based on some characteristic that’s apparent from the ballot as compared to knowing who these people really are.”
Just to be clear I have something of a gender bias myself. I try to decide each race based on the merits, but I do believe the world benefits from more female leaders. I believe we are seeing that right now in the U.S. Congress as well as with the Governors of Michigan, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine — and with the executive leadership in Germany, New Zealand, and other countries.
I also believe strongly that the world benefits from broader racial diversity among elected officials and other governmental leaders. I say that as someone who has backed and worked with many African American and Mexican American elected officials and as someone who went to my native state of Virginia in both 2008 and 2012 to walk door to door for Barack Obama. I only, however, choose to back any candidate — regardless of race or gender — after looking at their broader qualifications and how I think their skills fit the job and situation at hand.
That evidently puts me at odds with advice that County Attorney Candidate/Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza recently offered to potential voters on Facebook. Writing in the wake of protests resulting from the police killing of George Floyd, Garza advised voters interested in police and criminal justice reform: “Vote for black and brown candidates at every chance you get.” Garza went on to explain that “it is people with lived experiences who will bring the passion and the courage to implement real change.”
While I think Garza makes a very good point about “lived experiences,” I believe strongly that a more rigorous decision process should be used in determining how to vote. Garza’s own contest is a good example.
If one decided simply on race alone then Garza would win. If one looks at the qualifications and experience of the two candidates, however, it gets much more complicated.
The County Attorney Race
Garza ran into some rough sledding early in the County Attorney race, particularly in the form of former County Judge Bill Aleshire. Aleshire maintained, very publicly, that Garza’s four years of experience in the Texas Attorney General’s Child Support Division does not constitute enough legal experience to quality her for County Attorney. He also pointed out that Garza let her law license lapse while on the Council and then used City taxpayer funds to renew it around the time she announced for County Attorney.
Garza responded, “I’m not surprised with his bullying behind his keyboard and I understand why he is intimidated by a young Latina lawyer. He wouldn’t be the first white man to try to intimidate women of color seeking a leadership position.”
Evidently anticipating the charge, Aleshire almost immediately fired back, ““Playing the distraction tactic of the race/gender card against me might work if my history of supporting women for office was different, including Nelda Wells Spears, Susana Almanza, Margaret Moore, Velva Price, Brigid Shea, Margaret Gomez, Dana DeBeauvoir, Vikki Goodwin, Ora Houston, Sally Hernandez, Leslie Poole, Laura Morrison, etc.”
Commissioner Margaret Gomez later defended Aleshire in a letter to the Statesman, writing that Aleshire, “believes that taxpayers must have officeholders who are dedicated to serving the public, not themselves. . . supports candidates who know what the job is about because that determines quality representation in government,” and added that she “always found him supportive of a large group of candidates of diverse backgrounds . . . Bill speaks forcibly but is not a bully.” .
County Commissioner Brigid Shea who daily deals with the business of the county, and who has interacted with Garza while Garza has been on the Council, went out of her way to oppose Garza, saying, “The person in that position we absolutely need to be experienced and knowledgeable, and my concern is Ms. Garza does not have the necessary experience.”
Garza maintains that her time at the Attorney General’s Office and her experience on the Council make her more than qualified.
In contrast to Garza, Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh has decades of legal experience including working at the City Attorney’s Office, in private practice and currently as a Section Chief at the County Attorney’s Office. Early in her career Eiserloh also served as Executive Director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas at a very rough time for gays and with a lot of hostility in the Texas Legislature — yes, much more than now. She also served on the Board of El Buen Samaritano which, as described on Eisherloh’s campaign website, “helps Latino and other families by offering affordable health care, education and other services.” Eiserloh, her long time partner and their kids also volunteer in the cold weather homeless shelter at St. David’s Episcopal Church.
Eiserloh’s webpage features this very weighty paragraph about her legal experience: “Laurie currently leads the Employment Team in the Civil Litigation Division of the Travis County Attorney’s Office. She has served in the County Attorney’s Civil Litigation Division for 10 years. She has practiced government law since 1993, primarily litigation, starting in the Office of the Texas Attorney General, then working in the private sector at Bickerstaff Heath, Smiley, Pollan, Kever and McDaniel. After a short maternity break, she practiced in the City of Austin Law Department prior to coming to the County Attorney’s Office. She is board certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Labor and Employment Law and Personal Injury Trial law. She is also licensed to practice in Texas, and also admitted to practice in the Federal District Courts of the Western, Eastern, Southern and Northern Districts of Texas and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.”
Eiserloh also has a detailed 13 point criminal justice reform plan. In recent days outgoing County Attorney David Escamilla endorsed Eiserloh. In a statement Escamilla said, “I feel a responsibility to help ensure that this office enters a new era under the direction of a strong, thoughtful leader,” Escamilla said in a written statement. “We need a county attorney who is not only capable of doing the job well, including providing legal advice to dozens of county officials, but one who has the courage and character to fight for what’s right for our community. That’s why I’m supporting Laurie Eiserloh.”
For her part Garza wrote recently on Facebook, “Nothing will change if we elect a county insider to this position. I’ve seen time and time again how Austin is not really as Progressive as we claim to be. This is an open seat and we have the opportunity to choose bold leadership and true change.”
Then there’s the District Attorney race. There, incumbent Margaret Moore faces off against insurgent candidate José Garza. Garza has backing from national social justice advocates and his endorsers include Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
José Garza is the only man in either of the two election contests being discussed here, but Moore is unlikely to benefit from much pro-female gender bias for unknown candidates. That’s because this is a very high profile race. Moore has come under heavy fire for her office’s handling of sexual assault cases and in general as an incumbent, establishment DA during a time of upheaval against the criminal justice system. Moore, however, touts reforms she has underway like converting drug felonies to misdemeanors, reducing the use of cash bail, and establishing a Civil Rights Division and Civil Rights Advisory Council. Moore has the backing of local Democratic Party stalwarts like Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Mayor Adler, most of the state legislative delegation, former County Judge Aleshire and both Sarah Eckhardt and Eddie Rodriguez. So, like Eiserloh, Moore brings a career of experience, plus a term as District Attorney.
José Garza, however, brings a whole different level of experience than Delia Garza does in the County Attorney’s race. According to his campaign website, Garza attended law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and worked for Judge Richard W. Roberts in federal district court for the District of Columbia. He then came back to Texas and worked in the border region as an assistant public defender for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. In that job he represented people charged in the criminal justice system, and says he learned much about the system and the people involved in it.
Garza then went back to Washington, D.C. in 2010 to serve as the Deputy General Counsel for the House Committee on Education and Labor. He next joined the Obama Administration as Special Counsel to the National Labor Relations Board, In that job, according to Garza’s website, “he represented the agency against legal attacks brought by a Republican Congress.” Later, he served as a senior policy official at the U.S. Department of Labor under Secretary Tom Perez.
He now heads the local Workers Defense Project, where he advocates for the rights and safety of workers, particularly construction workers.
To summarize, José Garza has worked for a federal judge, as a public defender, as counsel for a U.S. House Committee and as a midlevel official in the Obama Labor Department. So he would not come to the District Attorney’s office with prosecutorial experience, but he would bring a broad history as a lawyer at multiple levels of government. He would also bring a broad understanding of the criminal justice system and a detailed reform plan.
José Garza would doubtlessly learn that changing the system from within is more difficult that it might look from the outside. And, the problems with Moore’s office are not all her doing. Also, though I agree with his focus on criminal justice reform and ending racial disparities, I would also like to hear Garza say that he will work to put violent criminals in jail comensurate with their crimes. Nonetheless, José Garza is a strong candidate with a broad range of experience who is clearly qualified for the office and running on a detailed reform plan at a time when the public is clamoring for change.
To read an earlier Austin Independent article on the County Attorney race click below