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In race for Travis Democratic party chair, there’s more to the story

Until a week ago, Austin prosecutor Rick Cofer was next in line to lead the Travis County Democratic Party, the lone contender in a race to lead a group that has helped recruit and elect most local government officials.

His list of dozens of supporters included prominent defense attorneys, former judges and former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

But last week, Cofer abruptly withdrew, saying in a surprise statement that the party would be better served by a woman at the helm, a few of whom he said had recently expressed interest in the office.

On Wednesday, newly released public documents revealed another reason Cofer left the race.

The Travis County attorney’s office, where Cofer serves as a prosecutor, released Cofer’s personnel file at the request of the American-Statesman, showing Cofer was counseled by supervisors in back-to-back incidents in 2012 for actions with women that he acknowledges were unprofessional.

Cofer, 35, said he anticipated information about the incidents would become public, and at a time of national discussion about treatment of women, that it played a role in his decision to step aside.

In one instance, Cofer slapped a defense attorney on the buttocks with a file folder in open court, according to records. The action prompted a judge to ask, “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” the records show.

In the other, he asked a female colleague to sit at the prosecution table in a trial and to “tap her pen or play with her hair” in an attempt to influence male jurors, the records show.

Cofer said he was friends with both women and remains so, with both supporting his campaign for party chair.

The women, whose names were redacted in the records but whose identities were confirmed through sources, did not return calls from the American-Statesman this week.

Neither complained at the time, according to the records, but others who witnessed Cofer’s conduct alerted his supervisors, resulting in two handwritten notes in his file about what happened. Cofer also had to conduct legal research on Texas workplace harassment laws, a document that remains in his personnel file.

Members of the party have in recent days debated the seriousness of his conduct. Yet as discussions of what happened intensified last week, Cofer said he did not want his past to divide the party, especially if other members were willing to place their name on the March Democratic primary ballot.

“My behavior in the past was unprofessional,” Cofer said. “I apologized years ago to my friends and have grown a great deal over the years.

“Progressives should live their values,” he said. “The best way to disrupt a culture that disrespects women is to take real action. That is why I got out of the race for chair, so that any supporters could back a strong woman for chair.”

So far, no such person has announced a campaign. A precinct chair, Michael Lewis, an account manager for a technology company, is the only candidate to put his name in the hat since Cofer dropped out.

Current party Chair Vincent Harding declined to comment on Cofer but laid out his criteria for his successor.

“When I campaigned, I said I wanted to help usher in a new kind of politics based on people and principle over power and money, and I want the next chair to do the same thing,” Harding said.

Harding said that as a rule, chairs typically do not publicly support candidates. But he said he has heard from people interested in running for the unpaid post, and he is optimistic that the party will have a qualified candidate or selection of candidates to choose from.

Cofer has been active in local politics for years, working on various campaigns but also nurturing a desire to seek office himself. He is well-connected, frequently appearing at political parties or dining with elected leaders or Democratic operatives.

He worked three years as an assistant county attorney, prosecuting misdemeanor cases, before transferring to the district attorney’s office, where he worked for four years.

Cofer, who supported district attorney candidate Gary Cobb in a race that led to the election of Margaret Moore, left the district attorney’s office before she was elected in the November general election.

He returned to the county attorney’s office, but recently gave County Attorney David Escamilla a resignation letter saying he will leave his position in January.

Cofer said he plans to enter private practice.

Escamilla said he rehired Cofer after no similar conduct was ever reported since the 2012 incidents, and said it is his understanding that no such incidents were reported during his tenure with the district attorney’s office.

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