by Daryl Slusher
One of the most hotly contested local races this time around is the County Attorney contest in the Democratic primary. Four candidates are competing for a seat left open by retiring County Attorney David Escamilla, who has held the office since 2003. Travis County Republicans did not field a candidate so the winner here will assume the office next January.
The County Attorney’s office advises County officials on legal matters, prosecutes misdemeanor offenses including DWIs, and, according to the office’s website also “obtains protective orders for victims of domestic violence” and “obtains involuntary commitments for certain mentally ill persons.” It is divided into divisions including: Civil Litigation; Criminal Trials; Enforcement; Family Violence; Health Services; and Tax Collection. The office employs around 230 people.
The candidates are recently retired County Court-at-Law Judge Mike Denton; current Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh; Austin Mayor Pro Tem/Council Member Delia Garza; and criminal defense attorney Dominic Selvera. Denton also served as an Assistant County Attorney earlier in his career, rising to lead the Criminal Division. Denton also helped create a court dealing with family violence issues then was elected to be judge of that court — a position from which he recently retired. Eiserloh currently leads the Employment Team within the Civil Litigation Division at the County Attorney’s office and previously worked for the City of Austin’s Law Department. Both Denton and Eiserloh have decades of legal experience.
Garza and Selvera come to the race with less legal experience, a hotly debated issue in the contest. Garza has served on the City Council since 2015, was a leader in winning voter approval of the 10-1 single member district system and worked four years as a lawyer in the Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office — the sum of her legal experience. Selvera has been a criminal defense attorney for around four years and is a criminal justice advocate.
Into the Wild
Garza’s presence in the race is what has made it particularly interesting and controversial — even somewhat garishly entertaining. For one thing, this marks the first time a sitting member of Austin’s single member district Council has ventured into the wild outside her or his district to stand before voters. (Former District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, defeated after his first term, is currently running in the Republican Primary for a suburban Austin state representative seat.)
Other members of the Council were instrumental in getting Garza to run. Her close ally Council Member Greg Casar led the way in announcing a Draft Delia PAC and campaign last July which was also backed by Mayor Steve Adler. The PAC raised money to back her candidacy and even more importantly kept her name in the mix as a potential candidate until enough time passed that she could enter the race without having to resign her Council seat. State law requires local officials to resign their post if they run for another seat with more than 13 months left on their term.
Adler, Casar and Garza are leading members of the Council majority currently pushing through the extremely controversial Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite. (The majority also includes Council Members Natasha Harper Madison, Sabino Renteria, Jimmy Flanagan, and Paige Ellis.) Thus, Garza’s candidacy could provide something of a window on how voters are feeling about that.
Key provisions of the LDC proposal strike particularly hard at homeowners in central city precincts like Hyde Park and immediately north, Hancock, Heritage, Allandale, Brentwood, Bryker Woods, Bouldin, Travis Heights and others. The Council majority is proposing to rezone large swaths of single family neighborhoods into transition zones, where developers could build four to six units on lots now housing one single family home. In addition to transition zones, the rewrite proposes to rezone virtually every property in the City; without providing written notice to property owners and while denying petition rights available in individual zoning cases. Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents have turned out to meetings to oppose the rezonings and flooded Mayor and Council in-boxes with email.
The Council majority, including Garza, have stayed their course, already passing the rewrite on two readings — with third and final reading slated for late March or early April.
The LDC also has a major impact on central East Austin through upzonings and transition zones — although transition zones in East Austin were scaled back somewhat on second reading. LDC backers, including Garza, have promoted the rewrite as a path to racial equity and social justice. Numerous East Austin groups and activists, however, strongly disagree with Garza and the Council majority on the LDC — seeing it as a further displacement threat to long time residents, and thus to the stability of existing neighborhoods. For example leaders of venerable organizations PODER and the local NAACP oppose the LDC, at least in its current form, along with leaders of GAVA (Go Austin Vamos Austin), a strong, but more recently formed group. So it will be important to see how Garza fares in central East Austin.
Another element to watch is whether Garza is able to establish a strong base of voters in her own Southeast Austin district.
So how Garza does on Tuesday might shed some light on how voters react to Council Members backing the LDC. At the same time, Garza’s candidacy has been controversial for a number of other reasons, so narrowing it down to a referendum on the LDC alone would not be sound.
Enter Bill Aleshire
For instance immediately after Garza announced her candidacy on December 9, she was hit with a surprise attack from former County Judge Bill Aleshire — a fierce and formidable foe in any contest. Aleshire sent Garza a three-page letter — which he also released to the media — in which he challenged Garza’s qualifications and called on her to either resign or comply with campaign finance restrictions that Council Members are required to follow — but not County Attorney candidates.
Referring to Garza’s limited legal experience, Aleshire wrote, “You lack any significant experience actually practicing law that would be necessary to lead a County Attorney’s Office full of real attorneys who are really devoted to practicing law. If you got elected, you would be—demonstrably—the least qualified County Attorney in Travis County’s history. Your ability to lead that law office would be suspect from Day One.” Aleshire also noted that Garza had allowed her law license to lapse for several years.
Additionally, Aleshire maintained that Garza should comply with strict City campaign finance restrictions even though such rules for a County Attorney race, and other races in Texas, are virtually non-existent. According to Aleshire, however, Garza would be able to accept contributions from lobbyists and others with business before the Council, even as she heard their cases. “These laws (city campaign finance laws),” wrote Aleshire in one of his kinder sentences, “are intended to promote public faith that votes by Council members for special interests—like you so often have done — are not tied to who gave the Council member the most money.”
This barrage and resulting media coverage had to come as a shock to Garza who up to then had never faced a difficult election race, and tended to get glowing press highlighting her status as the Council’s first Latina and documenting her strong advocacy for better City facilities and services in her district. For instance a Statesman article reporting the creation of the Draft Delia PAC said she would bring “star power” to the County Attorney’s race.
Garza quickly fired back at Aleshire, as quoted by the Austin Bulldog, “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.”
Aleshire appeared to have anticipated that retort and to have an answer ready to cut and paste. He rapidly replied: “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.”
Garza later told the Austin Chronicle regarding qualifications, “When I served as assistant attorney general, I was in district court much of the time, in six counties, and I supervised 100-plus state dockets. Aleshire’s charge of inexperience is entirely false.” Garza added that she thought her policy making endeavors on the Council also added to her qualifications.
Aleshire though was not done. Through public information requests he discovered that Garza used City funds to renew her law license, shortly before announcing her candidacy for County Attorney. He pointed out that the other two lawyers on the Council — Adler and Ann Kitchen — did not use City funds for that purpose. Aleshire also revealed that Garza had accepted a donation from a subsidiary of a corporation, not legal under Texas law.
Garza responded that the City paying for her law license was appropriate because it helped her better serve her constituents, although she earlier told the Chronicle, “I exchanged clients for constituents (when she got elected and let her law license lapse).”
Garza returned the corporate contribution. Then Aleshire went on vacation — in a change of pace tweeting out a picture of a Space X rocket sitting on the launching site in South Texas.
Still in town though was County Commissioner Brigid Shea who told the Statesman, “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.” And, County Commissioner Margaret Gomez wrote a letter to the Statesman defending Aleshire. The long time Commissioner who served with Aleshire wrote that he, “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.”
Shea backs Eiserloh in the race and Gomez supports Denton.
The Endorsement Derby
The other campaigns have steered a wide berth around Aleshire’s attacks on Garza, instead concentrating on their experience and platforms, and advertising their support. For example on his website Denton vows: “I’ll fight for criminal justice reform, prosecute polluters, and defend our values” — promises similar to others in the race are making. Denton has a long and significant list of backers on his website including Commissioner Gomez and former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. Barrientos was a strong backer of Garza in her run for Council, but notably is supporting Denton in this particular race. Denton also lists: Nelson Linder, President of the Austin Chapter of the NAACP; former Texas Agriculture Commission Jim Hightower; former Mayor Bruce Todd and a lengthy list of others. The organizational endorsements listed on Denton’s website are law enforcement related groups: the Austin Police Association, the Travis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association, and the Travis County Sheriff’s Officer’s Association.
Eiserloh has garnered an overwhelming majority of the organizational endorsements as well as both the Austin American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle endorsements. In their endorsement the American-Statesman editorial board called Eisherloh, “the lesser-known workhorse of the field” and a “seasoned government attorney. . . who has the strongest experience and the most cogent vision for leading this office”
Eiserloh also won a multitude of local Democratic clubs, everything except Austin Young Democrats which went to Garza. AFSCME – the employee union for both the City and County — endorsed Eiserloh as well. Her website also features a lengthy list of individual endorsers, many of them long-time local Democrats, including Council Member Leslie Pool, County Commissioner Shea and former Council Member Beverley Griffith.
Garza, in addition to the Young Democrats, won the endorsements of the Austin Travis County EMS employee’s group, the Austin firefighters union, Workers Defense Action, and the Hispanic Bar Association of Austin. She was also endorsed by State Representatives Eddie Rodriguez and Gina Hinojosa. Garza also has a base of active supporters. For instance when Aleshire released his first fusilade a supporter on Twitter responded, and Garza retweeted: “A lawyer and public servant with her experience is qualified on day one. Period.”
Selvera hasn’t garnered many endorsements, but he did get one that caused something of a Twitter flare-up — instigated by Garza. In January social and criminal justice activist Chris Harris, who frequently appears before the City Council, announced on Twitter that he was endorsing Selvera. This somewhat understandably miffed Garza who as a Council Member has supported most, if not all, of Harris’ social justice agenda. She responded “Thanks Chris. I guess a dude supporting IDEAS resonates more than a woman who actually has a record of taking the hits and having an actual record of implementing actual progressive policy. Got it.”
This prompted one local Garza critic to ask, via Twitter, why gender had to be invoked, prompting a back and forth from which Garza signed off with, “You realize you are a white woman right? We live a different reality.”
Heading Toward Super Tuesday
It will all be over soon; well maybe not. This race seems a likely candidate for a runoff, which would not be held until May 26. A runoff is not certain, but extremely possible. Part of whether there will be a runoff will likely hinge on how well Garza performs. The Draft Delia group conducted and released a poll shortly before she announced.
In the poll Garza had 34 percent, Denton got 10 percent, Eiserloh pulled 7 percent and Selvera had just 1 percent. We’ll just have to wait until Tuesday to see how things have developed since then.
The Austin Independent, March 1, 2020
The Austin Independent, a publication of The Austin Independent, LLC