In the Democratic primary race for Travis County judge, voters would be wise to look past popularity to experience. If they do, they will reach the same conclusion we have: Sarah Eckhardt is the best person for the job.
Eckhardt has a tough contest against the affable Andy Brown, who has garnered the lion’s share of endorsements from Democratic organizations. Brown, former chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, has ties to key Democratic officeholders, such as U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson. He has used that network to his advantage, besting Eckhardt in campaign fundraising by more than $100,000. But when it comes to knowledge of county government and the challenges the county faces from rapid growth and urbanization, Eckhardt, former Precinct 2 county commissioner, has the clear advantage.
With the departure of retiring Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, there is for the first time since 1998 a competitive race for this open seat. The job, a four-year term that pays $118,373 annually, is one of five positions on the policy-making Travis County Commissioners Court, where officials decide on everything from building roads outside city limits to setting the county’s annual $857 million budget. Only the county judge is elected at-large by all Travis County voters.
Throughout this campaign, Eckhardt has demonstrated a superior knowledge of a county with a population that now exceeds 1 million. Eckhardt handily discusses Travis County’s challenges in managing diminishing resources, such as water, building infrastructure to accommodate growth and spurring economic development in the county’s blighted and less-affluent areas.
As a commissioner and candidate, Eckhardt, 49, did her homework and has accurately been described as a policy wonk. Those characteristics made her the best prepared commissioner on the court. As such, she helped write county policy for awarding tax rebates to businesses that move to or expand in Travis County. The policy requires construction workers be paid at least $11 an hour. We appreciate that Eckhardt has focused on affordability issues and helped expand the homestead exemption for seniors and people with disabilities. All homeowners receive a 20 percent exemption, but seniors and people with disabilities receive a $70,000 exemption on top of that. On budget matters, Eckhardt has taken a balanced approach. She has supported pay raises for county employees but voted against the outrageous 10.5 percent pay raises three of her colleagues approved for county peace officers.
Brown, by contrast, comes across as a nice guy, but far less prepared about the workings of county government. Brown, 41, has a good idea in establishing a sobriety center in Travis County that would prioritize treatment over jail time for people who are charged with public intoxication. But he has been vague on how to pay for that except to say that the approach would ultimately generate a savings for the county in the way of jail expenses. Brown also wants the county to “keep up with the market” in paying county employees, even, he told us, if it means continually raising property taxes to keep up with the Joneses. That is worrisome. Two commissioners – Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis – have rarely, if ever, met a pay raise they didn’t like, including the one they gave to county peace officers. Brown likely would be a third vote for such political favors. We’re not against pay raises, but they must be balanced against the public’s ability to pay for them.
If elected, Eckhardt would be wise to mend fences with some in the business community who feel alienated by some of her rhetoric. A good county judge seeks to build consensus. Eckhardt should do more of that and use the skills she employed to bring together the county’s 14 autonomous emergency services districts to improve the county’s patchwork system for providing fire and emergency medical services. The limits of that system were on display when the 2011 Labor Day weekend wildfires broke out within hours of one another in Pflugerville, Pedernales Bend and Steiner Ranch. When other county officials gave up on breaking down turf barriers among emergency service districts, Eckhardt rolled up her sleeves and went to work. That too, is how she approaches transportation matters, one of the toughest problems facing county commissioners.
With Biscoe’s departure, the county commission loses a moderating voice that has kept the court from sliding too far left. Biscoe’s institutional knowledge of the county’s many diverse functions, including running a jail, will be missed. Eckhardt is prepared to fill that void.
Remember early voting starts Feb. 18.