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Baxter, Strama eke out victories

Wednesday, November 3, 2004 by

District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter scored a narrow victory last night over Democratic challenger Kelly White, winning by only 171 votes in a mostly Republican district. The numbers came in after a lengthy delay caused by a combination of computer and human errors, a power outage at one precinct resulting in use of a few paper ballots, and a lengthy list of write-in candidates for President.

Baxter did finally claim victory, but not until Travis County employees and a Republican vote watcher had assured him that all the ballots had been counted. White was not available for comment, but White’s campaign manager, Robert Jones, was not ready concede. He told In Fact Daily, “With a 171-vote margin, obviously, it’s a tight race. But there’s a lot of issues we don’t know about. There’s some paper ballots floating around out there, there were some power outages. So we don’t have enough information to move forward right now. It’s kind of a waiting game because we don’t even know if that 171-vote margin is real or not.”

Baxter said, "We worked up to the very end in this campaign. I stood outside polling places for 12 hours today non-stop. I shook hundreds of hands today." As for the slight changes in the margin of victory throughout the night, Baxter said that was par for the course. "This is very similar to what happened in 1998 when I became the first Republican on the Travis County Commissioners Court. What we saw was a slight lead in early voting, then as the more central boxes came in first, we actually dipped down because those lean more Democrat," he said, "and the further out boxes in the county came in later and those lean more Republican."

Earlier in the evening, Democratic consultant David Butts was pouring over the early vote totals. White held a 234-vote lead with about 45,000 voters casting ballots in District 48 during the two-week early voting period. If White were to win, Butts said, it would be because she was able to pile up big margins in West Austin and Northwest Hills.

With the numbers so close—and so slow to come in—Baxter came to Travis County’s election count headquarters to crunch the numbers for himself. He and his campaign strategists were frustrated because they did not know which boxes were still outstanding. At that point, White had 50.19 percent of the vote and Baxter trailed by fewer than 200 votes. But he, as well as White’s supporters, were unable to get the data they needed to figure out which precincts had been counted and which had not.

Employees of Travis County had distributed a CD with a cumulative report of some of the precincts, but then hastily withdrew it. At about 11pm, Elections Administrator Gail Fisher came out to report that the problem was due to ballots cast for one write-in candidate in the race for President. When county workers tried to correct an error that showed that one candidate with a negative number of votes, the whole system bogged down.

But with all 261 precincts and a record total vote of 354,976 voters casting ballots, Baxter has won his second term in office.

The Baxter-White race was marked by animosity, including an e-mail from Baxter's wife Courtney that called White a "lying man hating liberal." White's campaign raised about $250,000 to Baxter's $350,000. Baxter's money included significant contributions from the Stars over Texas Political Action Committee, the funding arm of the state's Republican Party leadership.

Travis County Democrats have posted signs around North Austin, urging Baxter and Rep. Jack Stick to return money from the Texans for the Republican Majority PAC from the campaign two years ago. The source of those contributions is currently under investigation because of allegations that candidates that promised to vote for Rep. Tom Craddick for Speaker of the House in exchange for significant campaign contributions.

White drew a lot of her support from women’s groups. As a former battered wife, she became a leader in the area and is the former director of the Safe Place shelter.

Baxter, an attorney who practices real estate and environmental law, was the first Republican to serve on Travis County Commissioners Court since Reconstruction. He served from 1998 to 2001, when he left to run against incumbent Rep. Ann Kitchen. Baxter won the race against Kitchen with a 52-45 margin, with Libertarian Michael Badnarik, this year's presidential candidate, taking 2 percent.

Kitchen was one of four candidates who filed suit against the Texas Association in Business shortly after her defeat at the polls. Kitchen's suit alleged that TAB illegally spent $2 million in corporate contributions, and the matter is still pending.

This election, Baxter had the endorsements of most of the public safety groups in HD 48, as well as business associations such as the National Federation of Independent Business PAC, Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC and the Texas Association of Realtors PAC. White has the endorsement of the Austin American Statesman and her website lists endorsements from individuals from various business communities.

Strama victory may be part of new pattern

Although his margin was thin and less than 50 percent of the total votes cast in the House District 50 race, Democrat Mark Strama celebrated a victory last night. Strama beat Republican incumbent Rep. Jack Stick by 556 votes out of a total 64,535 votes cast in the district. The joker in the race was Libertarian Greg Knowles, who got 2,389 votes.

Democrats don’t mind help from time to time. Political consultant David Butts told In Fact Daily, “It’s almost like the Democratic Party has been fighting a rear guard action here in Travis County,” but he said 2004 was not a part of that pattern.

With one win and one loss, the contests between Stick and Strama and Rep. Todd Baxter and Democrat Kelly White, show that Travis County is moving more solidly into the Democratic column again. Democrat Stephen Yelenosky also beat District Judge Patrick Keel, a Republican and brother of State Rep. Terry Keel. The third Keel brother, Thornton, also lost his bid to become constable for Precinct 3.

For Stick to win, he said, Republicans in areas like Balcones Woods, such as Precincts 333, 335, 336, and 326 through 329 would need to vote heavily in his favor. Evidently, not enough of those voters cast ballots to make a difference for Stick.

Strama’s job was easier than White’s, Butts remarked, because “he’s got a little bit more of an institutional edge,” meaning more voters in District 48 participate in the Democratic primary than in District 50. In addition, he said, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are moving into the district in growing numbers. So, the demographics of the district—drawn to help a Republican win the seat—have grown distinctly more Democratic.

When Strama begins his new job in January, he will be joining two other freshman Democratic House members— David Liebowitz of San Antonio and Hubert Vo of Houston. According to the Quorum Report ( www.quorumreport.com), Vo defeated District 149 Republican incumbent Rep. Talmadge Heflin by 100 votes. Liebowitz, one of two Democrats who sued the Associated Republicans of Texas to stop the political action committee from taking corporate contributions, defeated Republican Rep. Ken Mercer.

The election may indeed mark a turnaround for Texas Democrats, who have seen their power eroded over the past 30 years.

All systems go for commuter rail

Voters last night approved Capital Metro’s scaled-down commuter rail program, giving the transit agency a convincing 62 percent of the vote, leaving supporters jubilant.

Capital Metro Board Member John Treviño said, “This is the beginning of something good for Austin. We appreciate the vote of confidence by the public and promise them we’re going to be good stewards. We will involve the citizenry in designing connections to the State Capitol, the University of Texas, Seaholm,” and other important areas. Treviño, who was celebrating with his longtime friend, former Mayor Gus Garcia, at Nuevo Leon, added, “In years to come, the people are going to realize how important the decision we made today was.”

Former Mayor Kirk Watson, one of the leaders of the All Systems Go! campaign, was also pleased. They had hoped for a win, he said, but 62 percent was “very gratifying. But what I’m happiest about for is for the region…because what this shows is that people in the Austin region really want transportation options and choices and I think offering them an existing rail, without raising taxes, and they know precisely what they’re getting. They really turned out and said OK, we will embrace that.”

The clear margin of victory for commuter rail was not unexpected among those who opposed the proposal. "Well, it's not surprising at all," said rail critic Jim Skaggs. He attributed much of the success to Capital Metro's information campaign, which he criticized as an illegal use of public money for advocacy purposes.

"I think Capital Metro spent several million dollars of our tax money promoting this referendum. Our objective all along has been to not match their spending but to raise the awareness of this issue to a level that, as this issue goes forward, it will be under a magnifying glass and that accountability will be established at Capital Metro," he said.

“It's possible that we will make that point. I think that there's been a very large deception in this campaign by Capital Metro in any ways. I think that where they're supposed to present actual information, they've presented deceptive information," he said, citing the agency's ridership projections and cost figures as examples.

Capital Metro CEO Fred Gilliam earlier released the following statement in response to Skaggs’ charges: “I assure you that we have conducted a thorough legal review of every aspect of the education effort that began in September. Internal and external legal teams have reviewed every word and image to assure that our educational materials comply with the law. To ensure that we are following the letter of the law, we sought informal counsel from attorneys with the Texas Ethics Commission and the Travis County Attorney’s office.

“To qualify for federal matching grants, Capital Metro will have to verify with the Federal Transit Administration that we have received extensive community input. Our outreach and education efforts will fulfill that requirement.”

What voters approved Tuesday is a plan to operate a commuter rail service along 32 miles of railroad track already owned by the agency, which currently leases the track to a freight operator. According to Capital Metro it will cost about $60 million to buy the equipment, refurbish the tracks and build the stations along the route. No taxes or bond funds will be spent on the initial project.

Officials say they hope to begin service by 2008. The line will originate in Leander and would run southeast along US 183, veering south along Airport Road, crossing under I-35, and winding through East Austin before terminating at the Austin Convention Center. There will be nine stops along the route, mostly in conjunction with other Capital Metro park-and-ride facilities. Buses to nearby locations will be timed to be available for riders for timely transfers at each stop.

The trains are described as modern hybrid power engines and passenger cars. A one-way trip the full length of the line will take about an hour and 15 minutes, and cost $1. Capital Metro planners say when operated at full capacity in a few years, the system could take up to 16,000 drivers off the road each day.

This system is a much scaled-down version of the plan offered on the ballot in 2000. That system, called “light rail,” would have built tracks on several city streets as well as on rail right-of-way, and would have had cars operated in all parts of the Capital Metro Service area. That system had a price tag of $1.9 billion, but failed by about 1,800 votes.

Hays County chooses Rose, Conley

Voters in the three counties south of Austin demonstrated the split-ticket nature of suburban communities by re-electing Representative Patrick Rose, a first-term Democrat in the Texas House and by advancing Republicans in areas that have traditionally been rural Democratic strongholds.

Rose won re-election by 9.5 percent of the vote beating well-financed Republican Alan Askew of Wimberley, who touted his experience as a religious conservative and an avid supporter of President George W. Bush.

One Rose supporter said all he had heard in terms of criticism of the young representative was that he followed his party to Oklahoma during the redistricting battle of 2003. “Hell,” the man said, “if that’s all you can think of, you ought to vote for him.”

Rose addressed his supporters and the press at his San Marcos headquarters, saying, “It’s early, but it’s positive. It’s going to be a long night.” He said his priorities in the next legislative session would focus on education. He said he hoped to help lower property taxes and would introduce legislation mandating lower insurance rates.

In the only Hays County Commissioners’ race in contention this year, voters in a precinct that stretches from San Marcos to Wimberley chose Republican Will Conley over Wimberley Democrat and environmental advocate David Baker. Conley, 27, will take over the seat currently held by Commissioner Bill Burnett. Conley, who owns a car wash and detail business in San Marcos, also raised the most money in the race.

Conley won over Baker 8,005 votes to 6,232—56.23 percent to 43.77 in the commissioners race. Rose beat Askew by 5,725 votes out of over 60,000 votes cast in Hays, Blanco, and Caldwell Counties. The final count in Rose’s House District 45 was 34,228 to 28,503.

“We had a great candidate,” said Democratic stalwart Matt Curtis, who worked on Rose’s campaign. “We have the best campaign team assembled and a grassroots effort unlike any I’ve ever seen. And working together they got that message out and the people of this district understand that Patrick is working hard for the district and making the right choices for the people who live in the district.” He noted that Rose Texas Monthly Magazine named the Hays County Democrat ‘Rookie of the Year.’

Rose, who voted against his party on tort reform, might have been in trouble given Askew’s well-financed campaign and the lack of support from trial lawyers, a key Democratic constituency. But, unlike many Democrats, Rose had support from statewide business groups who liked his tort reform stance. And Rose himself is a prodigious fundraiser. The Democrat led from the beginning of the evening. Askew conceded the race from his headquarters in Wimberley.

Thursday’s Council meeting. . . The City Council will attend the funeral of Officer Amy Donovan Thursday morning, so the meeting is not expected to begin until sometime after Noon . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Environmental Board is scheduled to meet at 6pm tonight in Room 325 of One Texas Center. Following the resignation of Lee Leffingwell, who will be pursuing a City Council seat in the near future, Mary Ruth Holder was elected chair and Karin Ascot moved up to vice chair. The board now has two vacancies and the city is looking for public spirited citizens who know about—or would like to learn about—variances for cut and fill, construction on slopes, and generally parsing the city’s various environmental regulations . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission is also meeting at 6pm tonight at Waller Creek Center. Items on their agenda include recommendations on a proposed amendment to an agreement with the City of Rollingwood for Wholesale Wastewater Service . . . ZAP birthday . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission last night sang Happy Birthday to an embarrassed Commissioner Janice Pinnelli, at the insistence of Chair Betty Bake r. They then finished their business quickly and went off to watch the election returns with the rest of the country.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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