In some elections, the candidates agree on the most important issue and fight over who has the best plan and skill set to address it. In others, like this year’s Democratic primary for Travis County district attorney race, they disagree over the issue.
At a debate Monday, Gary Cobb, who heads the grand jury division of the district attorney’s office, said he is running to build bonds between the criminal justice system and minority communities.
“I lived in a neighborhood where, when the police came through, we all ran — not because we were doing anything but because we knew the police weren’t there to help us,” said Cobb, who would be the county’s first African-American district attorney if elected. “In the criminal justice system, if you’re a black or brown victim, your life and your pain matter less than if you’re white. That’s just the truth about it.”
Rival Democrat Margaret Moore, a former county attorney, stressed the need to restore integrity to the office, alluding to the tumult that followed District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s 2013 DWI arrest and making a dig at Cobb that would have been understood by the Democratic insiders in the room. Moore joined the race after the American-Statesman in November revealed that Cobb had a court-ordered debt hanging from a 1994 divorce. He has since settled with his ex-wife.
“I am running for this office because I wanted to give the voters a choice. … I am convinced that the office of Travis County district attorney needs new leadership, leadership that exemplifies integrity,” said Moore, who has twice been appointed to fill vacancies on the Travis County Commissioners Court. “I offer you the choice of someone who has the integrity, the experience, the wide background of sitting on both sides of the budget table as an independent head administrator and as a county commissioner.”
With substantial leads in the polls and in the money race, Moore and Cobb are the front-runners in the race to replace Lehmberg. Fellow Democrat Rick Reed, a defense attorney, did not attend Monday’s debate, which was hosted by the Central Texas Democratic Forum. Civil litigator Maura Phelan is running unopposed for the Republican nomination in the heavily Democratic county.
Although he was not present at the debate, Reed was not forgotten. Addressing an empty chair — as Clint Eastwood did at the 2012 GOP convention to lampoon President Barack Obama — attorney and debate moderator Chuck Herring poked fun at Reed’s role as the anti-Cobb attack dog in the race. (Herring was an early backer of Cobb’s campaign who said he is now supporting both Cobb and Moore, a longtime friend.)
Reed’s campaign on Sunday night released a statement reminding voters of his ongoing attempt to have Cobb declared ineligible in the race because of clerical errors in the packet of signatures Cobb submitted to appear on the ballot. Cobb, who maintains that his signatures were valid, in January won a preliminary district court ruling that kept him on the ballot.
Phelan has since requested a jury trial in the case, which might not be decided until well into the general election calendar. If Cobb wins the Democratic nomination and is later deemed ineligible, Phelan would become district attorney without ever facing an opponent.
The next hearing in the case will be Monday, the day before the election. Early voting is underway.