Three months before an election that will decide the next Travis County district attorney, two candidates vying for the position are approaching the remaining stretch of their campaigns with strikingly different strategies.
Margaret Moore, a Democrat who solidly won in the March primary, is assembling a leadership team and offering conditional jobs to several in the local criminal justice community. Her most recent appointment came late last week — along with a plan that will rely on him in part to help restore state funding to one of the most high-profile and controversial divisions of the office.
Maura Phelan, who ran unopposed for the Republican nomination, is taking a different tack. Phelan said she will focus on campaigning in the remaining weeks before the Nov. 8 general election — speaking to community groups, raising money and placing signs throughout the county.
Travis County hasn’t elected a Republican to the district attorney position in more than a half-century. In the first six months of 2016, Moore raised $79,750 and spent $33,116, according to her July 15 campaign finance report. She had $63,036 on hand at the end of June. In the same period, Phelan raised $40,103 and spent $4,469. She had $35,633 on hand.
Phelan said that Moore is acting as though the job is already hers by making the conditional appointments, including tapping Travis County defense attorney Mindy Montford as her first assistant.
“She has to do that because she doesn’t have the experience and has no idea how to run the office unless she has other people on her roster,” said Phelan, who has 25 years of experience as a trial and appellate attorney and has worked as an assistant for the Harris County district attorney and Williamson County attorney.
Moore, who has worked as the Travis County attorney, served as a county commissioner and an assistant Texas attorney general, said the months between the Democratic primary and general election has given her a chance to prepare should she be elected, including assembling a leadership team. She said the three people she has tapped for key positions understand her offer is conditional.
“I couldn’t take over that position in January and perform at the level I expect of myself without proper planning,” she said. “Waiting seemed irresponsible.”
Most recently, Moore has offered a position to a state District Judge Don Clemmer, who she describes as bipartisan, to take over the office’s special prosecutions division, which houses the Public Integrity Unit. Clemmer has worked at the Texas attorney general’s office and as deputy general counsel for the governor’s office.
Moore said the appointment will help as she tries to convince state lawmakers to add funding to the Public Integrity Unit when the legislative session begins in January. The unit has statewide jurisdiction and prosecutes state officials on ethics violations and other official misconduct.
“Judge Clemmer will be working with me toward that goal,” Moore said.
Phelan said this week that she has extended no conditional job offers, and that restoring money to the Public Integrity Unit is not among her highest priorities.
Instead, she said her goals will be on issues that more directly affect residents of Travis County. For instance, Phelan said, she questions why so many sexual assault cases don’t result in convictions, and she said she wants to establish guidelines for plea bargains to rectify what she said results in a lack of uniform sentencing.
For years, Republicans have complained that the Public Integrity Unit is partisan, targeting them more frequently than Democrats. In 2013, then-Gov. Rick Perry slashed more than $7 million in funding to the unit after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down after a drunken driving arrest, leaving Travis County to fill in much of the funding gap.
Moore said she believes Clemmer’s relationship with the Republican-dominated Legislature will help.
Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Clemmer to serve as the presiding judge of the 450th District Court in Travis County — a new court created by the Legislature last year — in October 2015. Clemmer was on the ballot as a Republican contender for the November general election against longtime defense attorney Brad Urrutia, but submitted paperwork Friday to withdraw his name.
“Margaret came to me, and we talked about it, and I thought it was a great opportunity,” Clemmer said. “I have worked with her and respect her.”
Clemmer would replace longtime prosecutor Gregg Cox in that position, but Moore said, “Gregg’s role in my administration is still to be determined. That’s no comment on Gregg.”
In recent weeks, Moore has also asked Lockhart Police Chief Mike Lummus to be chief of investigations.