by Daryl Slusher
The next Travis County Judge, the county’s top executive position, will be chosen on Sunday August 16. The new County Judge will in January join a new County Attorney and a new District Attorney.
As discussed in a previous article, the electorate will consist of 136 Democratic Party precinct chairs from throughout Travis County. (The earlier article discusses the election/selection process and the role of the County Judge — not a judicial position. So if you have not read it you might want to read that one first, right below this article on the home page.)
This odd situation results from Texas State Senator Kirk Watson leaving the Senate. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt resigned from her seat and successfully ran for Watson’s old seat. Under state law, a new County Judge to serve out the remaining two years of Eckhardt’s term must be chosen in the November election. Watson’s departure, however, and Eckhardt’s resignation, occurred too late for the County Judge position to be on the ballot in this year’s Democratic primary. So, under Texas law, and under Democratic Party rules flowing from that law, the candidate chosen by the Travis County Democratic Party precinct chairs will be the Democratic nominee on this November’s ballot.
Republicans have the right to do the same thing, but so far haven’t bothered in Democratic dominated Travis County. So, almost certainly, whoever the precinct chairs choose on August 16 will be the next County Judge of Travis County.
There are currently 136 precinct chairs eligible to vote. At least half of them must be present, on the Zoom call, to constitute a quorom. Half of those, plus one, could conceivably pick the next County Judge — with as few as 35 votes. Party officials though say turnout will be much higher, especially in the Zoom age.
The precinct chairs face a tough choice among three candidates: current County Commissioner Precinct 1 (northeast Travis County) Jeff Travillion; former Travis County Democratic Party Chair Andy Brown; and the most recent former Travis County Democratic Party Chair Dyana Limon Mercado.
This is all a bit bizarre. Whatever one may think of it though, one group of people who is not to blame for this situation is the Democratic Party precinct chairs of Travis County. So before taking a look at the candidates, let’s show the precinct chairs a little respect and understanding.
What is a Democratic Party Precinct Chair?
It would be easy to characterize the precinct chairs as Party insiders gathering to wheel and deal and pick a new County Judge — in a smoke free backroom. Even this reporter briefly referred to them as party insiders in the earlier article. There are certainly party insiders among the precinct chairs, but many precinct chairs are just dedicated Democrats willing to volunteer a lot of time to organize at the grass roots level.
For one thing, there is not a lot of competition to get the jobs. Precinct chairs are elected by the voters in their precincts every other November. Frequently, however, there is only one person on the ballot, or sometimes none because it is so difficult to get someone to do it. Given that, a person can also become a precinct chair between elections by simply filling out an application and then getting a majority vote of the Travis County Democratic Executive Committee — to which all precinct chairs belong.
There are actually over 200 precincts, but only 136 had chairs in time to qualify to vote in the County Judge contest. As Donna Beth McCormick, chair of Precinct 236 near 45th Street and Burnet Road, explains, “We are constantly recruiting to fill vacancies. We have a lot of precinct chair vacancies.”
To find out more about the precinct chairs who will pick the next County Judge, the Austin Independent emailed a survey to precinct chairs, several of whom were kind enough to respond. From our survey, Democratic precinct chairs in Travis do not appear to be power hungry insiders maneuvering for still more power. The ones that responded to us were more people that really want Democrats to win and are willing to give a lot of time for free to try to help make that happen.
According to a local party one-pager, sent by a precinct chair: “The Precinct Chair is the Democratic Party’s elected representative and leader in the precinct. . . The main responsibility of the Precinct Chair is to contact, organize, and guide Democratic voters in their precinct. Precinct Chairs are also members of the County Executive Committee (CEC), which conducts the local business of the Party.”
The one pager lists some more specific duties as well:
“Motivating and mobilizing voters to get them to the polls; Registering neighbors and friends to vote; Serving on the County Executive Committee (CEC), and attending monthly CEC meetings; Serving on CEC committees; Plugging volunteers into county-wide efforts and local campaigns; Encouraging primary voters to attend precinct/county conventions; Bridging the gap between voters and elected officials; and Assisting in recruiting election judges for Primary and General elections ”
Consistent with other precinct chairs, Carol Teitelman, chair of Precinct 136 in Pflugerville, reported, “Being an effective precinct chair means really getting out to meet people and not be shy about supporting candidates and policies.” That includes: “building a coalition of neighbors to help with the tasks of voter registration, making calls, door knocking, texting and putting up signs is essential.”
Precinct chairs also report attending between two to four meetings per month, although now by Zoom. Those include County party meetings, meetings they organize in their precincts, and attending Democratic clubs and functions.
Some, also take classes to become Voter Deputy Registrars and do even more volunteer work. Precinct chairs responding to the survey also reported working with others in their area to form Democratic clubs and other alliances.
For instance Leslie Currens, precinct chair of 337, which covers “Jester/Lakewood and some surrounding areas,” said she became active when Beto O’Rourke was running for Senate in 2018. She was soon asked, more than once, to serve as precinct chair, but declined because she was “extremely busy with work, parenting and other things.” Ultimately though she agreed to become precinct chair because, “it was so important to turn our state and our country around that I had to do the work whether I had time or not.”
Currens then heard about a group in Southwest Austin called “Blue Action Democrats,” which she describes as “a bunch of Mom’s” who had joined together to promote Democratic candidates and causes. She then met a neighboring precinct chair, Theresa Pham and together they organized Blue Action Democrats North Austin.
Karen V. Smith, chair of Precinct 105 in Manor described various organizing efforts and added, “In my community the Democratic precinct team and club are often the ones volunteering in the schools, healthcare, and pandemic relief. We really do believe that we are our brothers’ keepers.”
Saundra Ragona, chair of Precinct 139 in northeast Austin, related how she came to Texas: “I was sitting in my home in Iowa, watching Wendy Davis and her Speech (on abortion rights), while also watching ten feet of snow threaten to destroy my deck. When my son, who lives in Austin called to see what I was doing I told him and asked what he was doing. He said, ‘I”m sitting by my pool drinking a margarita,; I immediately called a realtor sold my house, and moved to Austin to work for Wendy Davis.”
Margot Clarke, chair of Precinct 240 which straddles MoPac near Hancock Drive, likely speaks for numerous other chairs when she writes: “Having to make two important decisions/votes like this [party chair a few weeks ago and now county judge] as a precinct chair is way out of the ordinary. For me, it is stressful to chose our county executive with such a small electorate, especially from among dedicated people who I know and respect for their intelligence and hard work. It is somewhat unfortunate that this difficulty should come in what is such a difficult time already. Nevertheless, while unusual, it is our duty, and I expect all 136 eligible PCs will do it thoughtfully.”
Now, let’s take a look at the candidates, in alphabetical order, followed by a discussion of issues on which they differ.
Andy Brown grew up in Austin. He first graduated from Colorado College, then earned a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. He is founder and managing member of Andy Brown & Associates, PLLC, a local law firm. Brown has a background working in Democratic Party campaigns. He was a field organizer for the Texas Democratic Party during the 1996 campaign. He also served a stint as a legislative aide to then Texas Speaker of the House Pete Laney in 2001, and in 2004 he served as campaign manager for Congressman Lloyd Doggett. He served as Travis County Democratic Party Chair from 2008 to 2013.
Brown sought the County Judge seat in 2014. Through most, if not all, of the campaign he was widely considered the frontrunner. He based much of his campaign on endorsements from Congressman Lloyd Doggett, on whose staff he once served, and former Mayor/former Travis County Democratic Party Chair Kirk Watson. Brown also worked other party leaders and had a long list of prominent endorsers. When election day came, however, Eckhardt prevailed.
This time around Brown also has a heavy hitting celebrity endorser, Beto O’Rourke. Brown served as Financial Director for O’Rourke’s Senate campaign — a not insignificant role given the breakthrough fundraising of that campaign. Brown also served as a Senior Advisor on the O’Rourke presidential campaign. Brown’s website prominently features a quote from O’Rourke: “Andy will fight for fundamental, progressive change. That’s what he did on my campaign. He’ll do the same as your County Judge.”
Brown does not, however, rely on high powered endorsements alone. His website link features a lengthy campaign platform covering a wide range of issues and Brown can discuss his platform thoroughly — something he has done with many precinct chairs and other community leaders. Brown says the small electorate in this race makes it“a little like the Iowa caucuses” in that he has been able to have in depth conversations those who will be voting.
“My number one priority,” says Brown, “is overhauling our criminal justice system.” A core issue there, he says, is dramatically reducing the number of people held in Travis County jails. He cites for example that a number of people were released in attempts to prevent the spread of Covid with no apparent negative effect on the community. Brown also opposes the building of any new jails, including a new women’s jail now under discussion.
On his website Brown lists a number of issues he wants the County to tackle, including: “combating sexual violence;” changing practices at the sheriff’s office including funding body cameras and eliminating no knock warrants; and developing “a Travis County Green New Deal for watershed stabilization, transportation improvements, trails to connect people, and preserve land.”
Some of Brown’s proposals are specific items the Commissioners Court could do, like increasing funding “for programming aimed at diverting people from jail. ” Other proposed initiatives such as “lead an effort to demilitarize law enforcement” will require more extensive work with different County office holders as well as community members. Still others, like “Advocate for Medicare for All” and “ensure that every single person in Travis County has access to quality healthcare” would require statewide and even national alliances, as well as a shift in national direction.
Brown cites as his most important qualification for County Judge: “I have taken a public policy idea through from start to finish.” Brown is referring to his work on establishing the Sobering Center, which diverts people from jail to treatment programs. He says more than 3,000 people so far have been diverted from jail to sobering center. Brown chaired a committee charged with researching similar centers around the country and determining what would work best for Austin. He says he worked with judges, members of the Commissioners Court and City Council and even helped persuade a doubtful Police Chief Art Acevedo. He believes he can apply those skills to a wide array of issues as County Judge.
Dyana Limon Mercado
Dyana Limon Mercado is an Austin native and proudly points out that her family’s history in Austin dates back 130 years. She also says she was the first in the family to graduate from college. Mercado earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from Texas State and an MBA in International Business from the University of Texas at San Antonio.” Limon Mercado also says that at times in her life she experienced homelessness, having “slept in a storage facilitiy, in cars” and at the homes of friends.
After earning her undergraduate degree, Limon Mercado landed a job as a courtroom clerk at Austin’s Municipal Court and the Central Booking Facility. There she began an education of a different kind. Working in the intake section, Limon Mercado says she saw affadavits filed by police officers “that made no sense.” She saw people brought in who were obviously guilty of “driving while black or walking while brown.” She also says she witnessed instances in which people with traffic offenses ended up getting deported. And, she saw the jail often function as “essentially a debtors prison.”
Limon Mercado recalls regularly asking superiors why the system functioned as it did and was told that the state legislature set it up like that. After hearing that for a while, she determined to do go to the source. So ultimately Limon Mercado quit her job at the Bookig Center and took an unpaid intern position for a state legislator from El Paso. There she was able to work with committees on bills regarding health care for prisoners who are pregnant and a bill to provide more access to education materials to prisoners.
Later Limon Mercado worked for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition where she was part of a team that created a reentry manual that detailed resources available to newly released prisoners in counties across the state. She also worked directly with prisoners in preparing them for release, including advising them on how to take advantage of educational opportunities while still in prison.
Speaking of her experiences working in the criminal justice system, Limon Mercado says, “That is something that I have carried with me throughout my experience.”
Mercado later went to work as an executive with Planned Parenthood Texas Votes which, as described on her website is a “statewide health advocacy organization that defends patients and health centers against ongoing attacks from Governor Abbott.” Limon Mercado still works there. In that job she says she has seen not only the impact of high profile legislation on women’s health care, but also the daily impact of these policies on women’s lives. She adds that her job at Planned Parenthood has toughened her to endure legislative battles as County Judge.
In 2018 Limon Mercado was elected chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, a position she held until recent weeks.
Mercado Limon advances a governing philosophy of “co-governance” which means “government and communities working together to co-create policy and solutions.” She elaborates that she wants to include “first hand people who are impacted” as major players in policy development.
As County Judge, says Limon Mercado, she would concentrate on “bolstering public defense, ending cash bail and enhancing alternatives to incarceration.” She also emphasizes health care including, working with “Central Health to better meet the needs of our changing county, including by providing consistent care and resources to the communities outside Austin’s city limits, and by working with other community partners to expand care for both the working poor and indigent populations.” She also wants to create “a 10 year plan among community and health care partners in the region to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities.”
Limon Mercado summarizes that her experience with criminal justice and health care through her Planned Parenthood job and her overall life experiences lead directly into duties of the County Judge, “I think I am very uniquely situated at the intersection of a number of issues that are weighing heavily on our community right now.”
She adds that she would be the first Hispanic County Judge, the youngest, the second woman, the first woman of color, and the first County Judge from Precinct 4 — the historic predominately Hispanic neighborhoods of lower central East Austin and then all the way south and east to the county line
Limon Mercado is also not shy about expressing her view that the electorate of the precinct chairs does not reflect Travis County as a whole. “One hundred twenty of them are white,” she points out, adding the precinct chairs are also, “an older electorate.” Their “experiences are different,” than hers, she adds. Limon Mercado says her differences in life experiences should also weigh on those voting, explaining that she had to overcome significant “obstacles just to be seen as equal.”
Jeff Travillion grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University. At Jackson State he was a member of the first class of the W.E.B. DuBois Honor’s College. He was also selected as an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow which allowed him to also study at Carnegie-Mellon University and Harvard University. Travillion next came to Austin where he attended the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and graduated with a Master’s in Public Administration.
Travillion stayed in Austin. He worked for the General Land Office and spent eight years working for then Comptroller John Sharp — famous for his audits of state government. It was there that Travillion honed a focus on the importance of process in policy making, something he quickly became known for on the Commissioners Court, to which he was elected in 2016, representing the northeastern section of the City and County.
Travillion promises to bring these skills to the County Judge role. For example, says Travillion, in developing policy or evaluating proposals from staff or others, he would ask, ‘what problem are we solving,” and make sure the Court and staff have a clear understanding of data, establish who will be in charge, set a timeline, and establish when the Court can expect professional recommendations from staff.
He later served in several executive roles for the City of Austin including at Austin Energy, Public Works and Code Enforcement. Travillion was always active in community affairs as well. Among other roles, he served as Austin NAACP President from 1990 to 1997. In 1992 Travillion was central to the NAACP endorsing the citizen initiative Save Our Springs (SOS) Ordinance. The SOS Ordinance resulted from a fierce, long-running battle between environmental forces trying to protect Barton Springs from destruction and the Chamber of Commerce and other members of the then establishment who said stronger water quality protections would destroy the local economy and stop growth.
In the years leading up to the SOS initiative, a number of minority elected officials and community leaders frequently sided with the Chamber and developers in Austin’s long raging environmental and neighborhood battles. In those years such environmental and neighborhood battles were often framed as economic development versus environmental and neighborhood protection. Many leaders in the minority community sided with economic development. These battles became particularly intense in the early 1990s as the region emerged from the mid-1980s bust.
These years and issues marked a fraying of the mulitracial coalitions of the 1970s that was central to electing the first wave of African Americans and Mexican Americans to local and state offices, and in electing progressive whites as well.
Travillion bucked the economy versus neighborhoods and environmental protection framing when he led the Austin NAACP in endorsing the SOS Ordinance. This not only was important in passing SOS, but also began a revival, or reconstituting, of multiracial coalitions supporting social equity and environmental protection simultaneously. In the next five years progressives won all the seats on the City Council.
Travillion says the core motivation for his support of the SOS Ordinance was “why build over the water table” when communities not over the water table are seeking investment and jobs. Travillion connects his recent leadership role in luring Tesla to the Del Valle area as a continuation of that same spirit and philosophy. He also points out that the Tesla jobs will largely be jobs in the middle of the pay scale, as opposed to the pattern in Austin, and the country, of high paying jobs and low paying service industry jobs, with not enough in the middle.
Travillion cites a number of accomplishments on the Court which he feels he can build on and broaden as County Judge. He also points out that he was working effectively on issues now termed “progressive” long before it became the current rage. He sees progressive as “a series of actions that help the average person. . . Do you fight against discrimination in employment? Do you fight for an equitable wage for everyone? Do you fight for just cause protections for County employees?”
“It is not enough to just say you support utopia,” he adds.
Among other initiatives while on the Court, Travillion cites the County’s creation of a Public Defenders Office, a task that involved extensive work with judges, defense attorneys, and an array of community advocates as well as his colleagues on the Commissioners Court. He also cites a program he helped create with the Central Texas Mobility Authority to train ex offenders to obtain commercial drivers licenses. Then many are hired by CTRMA to drive the agency’s trucks.
On health care, Travillion points to working with Central Health to co-locate clinics at Overton School and in Manor. He also worked with Capital Metro to help fund a CARTS (Capital Area Rapid Transit Service) project in Webberville. Additionally, he led in expanding bus service in Manor, from one stop to four, which he says has dramatically increased ridership from Manor.
Issues on which they differ – Women’s Jail
Although the candidates share similar policy positions on criminal justice reform and health care, there are at least a couple of areas where they differ. One is whether to build a new women’s jail. Sheriff Sally Hernandez says the old women’s jail in Del Valle is obsolete and beyond salvageable, adding that women prisoners have to walk through the nearby men’s jail to attend programs and to get medical care.
Many criminal justice reform advocates oppose building a new jail and cite declining numbers in the jail population. The Commissioners Court, including Travillion, reluctantly voted to move forward with the new women’s jail. Travillion explains that “several buildings had been in use longer than the amount of time they were designed to be in service” and that a new jail was intended to provide broader mental health care and new medical facilities. Travillion adds, however, that he and Commissioner Brigid Shea held up the project when they learned that planned medical services were not as “comprehensive” as they intended. That is where the project stands now.
Brown opposes building any new jails, including a new women’s jail. “The minute we are talking about a new jail,” he says, “we have failed.”
Limon Mercado calls that a “politically expedient” position. She explains that she wants to “de-carcerate Travis County”, but that will require a multi-year plan and effort. In the meantime she doesn’t want to eliminate the option of building a new facility and wants to retain flexibility to determine the need herself. She adds that there needs to be broader discussion across the community about whether or not the current jail meets acceptable standards.
As the issue began to draw attention from precinct chairs, Travillion wrote to at least one of them:
“Commissioner Shea and I have worked together to replace outdated warehouse space with a state-of-the-art pod facility in which women inmates would have more freedom of movement and would be safer than in the current facilities, where they are mixed in with the male population. We will also be able to better meet women’s specific health needs and provide better mental-health and addiction services more safely.”
He added, “Travis County has a sad history of having to upgrade jail facilities in response to federal lawsuits filed by inmates. Not only is this kind of litigation time-consuming and expensive, but we shouldn’t wait to be sued to do the right thing. I believe in more humane treatment for all inmates under our care, and I think it would be tragic to delay these better facilities. As County Judge, I will work hard to move this project forward, and I believe I will have the support of the other commissioners in doing so.”
Voter Registration and Election Administrator
Another area of disagreement concerns whether or not to create an Elections Administrator office. Brown has advocated for this on the campaign trail, saying most urban counties in Texas have one, including Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant and Harris (approved, but not yet in operation).
Travillion, however, is sharply opposed in large part because the statute allowing creation of an Elections Administrator requires placing both elections and voter registration under that office. Travillion points out that this would mean removing the responsibilities for voter registration from the Tax Assessor-Collector Office led by Bruce Elfant. His concerns flow from Elfant’s voter registration efforts which have resulted in Travis County having the highest percentage of eligible voters registered of any urban county in the state, 95%. Travillion also worries that the top priority of an Election Administrator’s office would be elections and that voter registration would become a second priority.
In addition, an Elections Administrator would not be an elective position, as the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor are — thus removing direct accountability to voters. Instead an Elections Administrator would report to a five member committee consisting of the County Judge, County Clerk, Tax Assessor, and the chairs of the Travis County Democratic and Republican parties.
Elfant, while emphasizing that he in no way wants to become involved in the County Judge’s race, confirmed that his understanding is that the relevant statute requires placing voter registration under the Elections Administrator if such an office is created.
Travillion, in a swipe at Brown, says this is the kind of information he would find out from the County Attorney before trotting out a proposal.
For his part, Brown counters that he does not like to make policy based on what individual is in a position at any particular time and adds that an Elections Administrator office could not be created without a majority vote of the Commissioners Court — of which the County Judge is just one member.
Limon Mercado said this was another question where she would not give a “politically expedient” answer. “There are lots of benefits to an election administrator,” she continued, but added that the particular “politics” and realities of Travis County have to be taken into account. That, she said, includes serious consideration of the views of Elfant and County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir — who runs elections.
Limon Mercado also invoked the “racist history” of voter registration being located in the Tax Assessor’s Office, pointing out that it was originally done so the Tax Assessor could collect the poll tax and thus help disenfranchise people of color. She said it is important to recognize this history in any decision on the matter.
Asked if that history is affecting the way the office operates now, Limon Mercado replied, “I don’t know if it’s affecting the way that office acts now, but I think it definitely plays into how complicated of a system we’ve made voting in Texas and voter registration. Thankfully we have Bruce and Dana who are very committed to making accessible systems, but we could certainly do some more to streamline it overall and an elections administrator seems like a step toward that.” She also criticized Brown for not bringing up the racist history of the Tax Assessor-Collector office as he advocated for an Elections Administrator on the campaign trail.
The issue heated up further as the Independent went to press. A group of prominent Voter Deputy Registrars sent a letter to precinct chairs asking, “Why would we want to remove voter registration from a duly elected, highly successful Democrat and create an opportunity for the Republican Party to get even a small foot through the Travis County door? Why make such a radical change? No doubt there will be future talented Democrats to oversee Voter Registration, as well.” They pointedly added, “As fellow Democrats and as Travis County VDRs, we urge you to select a County Judge who will guarantee our award-winning voter registration will not be removed from democratically elected Bruce Elfant.”
Brown also released a statement on Sunday which he sent to the Independent. He wrote, “First, I think we need a County Judge willing to hear everyone’s opinion. This idea might work in Travis County, but it might not. We should hear from the community on this issue.”
He then invoked the racist history of the Tax Assessor-Collector office, writing: “I believe asking our community to consider a position that could improve our elections and rid the system of historical oppression is a conversation we must have at some point.”
Brown continued, “For many, this is about ending institutional racism and bias. Our next Tax Assessor-Collector may not make voter registration a top priority, as our current Tax Assessor-Collector has. We can’t just hope the next Tax Assessor-Collector will do as good a job. We have to create an equitable system that doesn’t rely on the whims of any one elected official. Our voting rights are fundamental to the continued success of our democracy.”
He added, “I’d like to hear from our County Clerk, County Tax Assessor-Collector, voting rights leaders, and community activists on the matter.”
The precinct chairs will doubtlessly receive more letters, phone calls and other entreaties as the Sunday vote nears and they have to make the tough choice of who will be the next County Judge of Travis County
Those interested can view the proceedings on Facebook Live beginning Sunday at 4:30 pm, on the Travis County Democratic Party Facebook page.
Photo at top by Adela Mancias.
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