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Howard wins decisive victory

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 by

Democrat picks up 9 percent over January election

Fueled by an army of disgruntled teachers, Democrats took back another house seat from Republicans Tuesday as Donna Howard decisively defeated Ben Bentzin in the special election for Texas House District 48. Despite Bentzin’s heavy support form the state Republican Party—including an endorsement from Gov. Rick Perry—Howard won with 57.62 percent of the vote. Claiming the win in 32 of the 39 precincts, a total of 12,618 voters chose Howard as compared to 9,281 who favored Bentzin.

The former Eanes School Board trustee almost won the January special election—leading into the runoff with more than 49 percent of the vote. Howard beat Democrat Kathy Rider and Libertarian Ben Easton to face Bentzin in the runoff. Democrats clearly were motivated to return to the polls, increasing overall turnout from 13.8 percent last month to more than 22 percent yesterday.

It’s the second Travis County House seat taken back from the Republicans in two years. Democrat Mark Strama defeated incumbent Republican Jack Stick in District 50 in 2004. Republican Todd Baxter triggered this election when he resigned the District 48 seat in November to become a lobbyist.

As the returns came in, Howard never trailed, starting with a significant lead in the early voting results and building on that during the evening. Bentzin phoned Howard shortly after 9pm to congratulate her.

Howard said last night that she planned to enjoy her victory party, but would get down to business.

“Tomorrow morning, I am meeting with my campaign staff and talk about what steps we need to take,” she said. “There are so many things we need to be looking at; I don’t know what the specifics are yet.”

At the election-night watch party for Bentzin, the focus was on the November general election as Howard’s lead grew from the early voting totals to the final margin of 58 percent. “We knew going into the runoff election that we had a margin that we needed to improve, but I’m proud to say that we have definitely improved. We obviously have not improved enough,” said Bentzin.

“This runoff election was about energizing the bases of both parties, and what we saw in early voting was that my opponent’s party was more energized.” In fact, Bentzin gained only 4 percent—from 38 percent last month to 42 percent Tuesday. Howard, on the other hand, increased her margin by bringing in another 9 percent of those voting.

Since Bentzin is the only candidate in the GOP primary for the District 48 seat, it appears he will be back on the ballot this fall. “The November general election is a very different kind of race,” he said, noting that just under 22,000 voters took part in the runoff. “In a general election, you’re looking at maybe having 70,000 votes cast.” Howard may be the only Democrat on the ballot but it is not clear whether Brown’s name will appear on March 7.

The Bentzin campaign went all-out for the runoff, ending the race with less than $10,000 cash on hand according to campaign consultant Ted Delisi. He said the results showed that District 48 had gotten “bluer, not redder”, and that “there’s a hard-core liberal base in Travis County that we’re going to have to work to overcome.”

Howard scored her decisive victory by use an innovative targeting program, hundreds of volunteers working to turn out the vote Tuesday, and a positive TV ad campaign that relied heavily on cable television time. Democratic campaign consultant Kelly Fero praised consultant Leland Beatty for developing a “surgically precise” targeting program for the campaign.

“We knew who we had to reach,” said Fero. In addition, Howard was able to brand her opponent as the same as the incumbent without attacking him on TV. Mail pieces tied him to indicted Republican fundraiser John Colyandro, who helped Bentzin in a previous election.

“This is also a harbinger for this election year,” Fero said, saying 2006 is a year for change—one in which frustrated voters will continue to reject the status quo. “Everything harkens to this being a dramatic change year,” in Texas and across the country, he said.

Fero is also working for Democrat Katy Hubener, who is facing Republican Kirk England in a special election for House District 106 in Grand Prairie. That election is set for February 28.

A large part of Howard’s support came from organized education, with hundreds of teachers walking blocks and manning phone banks. Education Austin President Louis Malfaro said “we sent them a message, loud and clear, that they (Republicans) can’t ignore,” he said. “We let them know that things are going to change.”

In analyzing her victory, Howard said that in her opinion, the voters were tired of the state quo at the Capitol and wanted a change.

“I think that people are very tired of the Legislature talking about doing something about taking care of our schools, and then not doing it,” she said “Regardless of party ideology, people want their schools to be good schools for all kids. It sends the message that people want positive change.”

Howard said attack ads sponsored by the Republican Party late in the campaign didn’t seem to help her opponent much.

“People told me that they did not want to see negative ads, they wanted us to be focused on the issues,” she said. “That’s what the campaign did and that’s what I think the voters wanted.”

The win means Howard will serve out the balance of Baxter’s term though December, including a likely special session this spring.

CAMPO to wait on mobility study

Board postpones votes until alternatives study is done

The big word at this week’s Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board meeting was “postpone,” and some of it had to do with the mobility alternatives study being proposed by Council Member Brewster McCracken.

The Transportation Policy Board pledged to take no irreversible action on toll projects before McCracken’s mobility alternatives study was completed, and Monday night’s meeting made the impact of that promise clear. The board agreed to delay its approval of the statewide mobility program list – prioritized road projects for the region – until the alternative study is completed. That could be as early as June or as late as September.

Engineer Ed Collins of the Texas Department of Transportation told the board the delay in CAMPO’s vote would cause no negative consequences for the mobility program. The agency, however, doesn’t intend to stop its work, either. The board’s vote, however, was a recognition that the future regional work program does hinge on the study’s outcome, even down to the contract work it completes between now and then.

The board also agreed to delay two other votes: transfer of travel demand modeling from TxDOT to CAMPO and approval of a consultant contract to tweak the CAMPO 2030 travel demand model to update some of the parameters.

CAMPO staff wants to shift travel demand modeling from the state to the local metropolitan planning organization, an action typically taken when the local MPO considers the workload and population sufficient to support its own staff. Executive Director Michael Aulick presented three options – no action, mid-range and full action – to the board, with the maximum alternative requiring the addition of six staff members at a cost of about $600,000 to CAMPO.

Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) wanted to see a guarantee of matching funds from Capital Metro, TxDOT and the CTRMA. C ouncil Member Betty Dunkerley requested to see a fuller scope of work for the proposed staff members. And McCracken asked for more details about the experience of the Houston and Dallas MPOs that had moved the planning function in-house.

The fireworks of the night came from Rep. Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin). Dukes had sharp words – and a motion to postpone – a decision to hire an outside consultant to tweak the CAMPO 2030 travel demand model, in anticipation of CAMPO 2035.

Wilbur Smith Associates was the firm chosen by a panel that included representatives from TxDOT, Capital Metro and CAMPO. The scope of work included adding a route-choice function for toll road modeling; implementing the Texas Department of Transportation’s trip generation and trip distribution programs; adding evening peak to existing morning peak modeling functions; and develop a speed feedback loop that would incorporate the impact of congestion.

The Texas Engineering Council protested CAMPO’s request for a budget from the three professional service providers, saying it was simply a request for qualifications, Aulick said. As such, the proposals judged by the panel lacked specifics on the percentage of use of historically underutilized businesses, although all agreed to make the required “good faith effort,” Aulick said. Good faith typically is interpreted at about 25 percent.

Dukes criticized the lack of documentation, saying state law required HUB (historically underutilized businesses) plans, even when a budget was not specified. She added it wasn’t the first time CAMPO staff had failed to provide documentation on minority business participation. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas joined Dukes in her concern.

After some brief talk about using Chair Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) as an intermediary to verify minority participation, the board agreed to delay the vote. The transportation consultant’s contract would be in the range of $100,000. Wilbur Smith Associates, present at the meeting, said it intended to use 25 percent minority business participation through Rudy J. Rivera and Associates, although no letter of intent had been signed with a sub-contractor.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

More on the moratorium. . . Council Member Lee Leffingwell reported that he and two colleagues met Tuesday with members of the Texas Home Builders Association to discuss the McMansion moratorium approved by the Council last week. Leffingwell said he, Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken had a good meeting with “a bunch of very reasonable people concerned about how their businesses are going to be affected” by the moratorium. Leffingwell said there might be some minor changes to the ordinance when the Council considers it on second and third reading this week. In addition, he said the Council might look at some zoning changes that could mitigate hardships caused by the moratorium. That would not happen for another month, however. Leffingwell said he would be surprised if the homebuilders decided to file suit over the moratorium, adding that it is important that builders, remodeling contractors and neighborhood advocates work together to come up with solutions through a task force. If the groups work together, he said, they will understand each other’s concerns and help provide solutions . . . Filings . . . City Clerk Shirley Gentry reports that Mayor Will Wynn has filed for re-election and Darrell Pierce has filed for Place 6 on the City Council. Pierce announced that Aaron Demerson, director of economic development for the Governor’s Office, is chair of the campaign’s finance team. His political consultants include Peck Young, Albert Black, Jack Goodman and Mark Littlefield . . . Meetings. . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:50pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Lower Colorado River Authority Board meets at 9am at LCRA Headquarters at 3700 Lake Austin Blvd. . . . Doggett calls for study . . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett(D-TX) yesterday announced that he has written the Environmental Protection Agency calling on them to commission the National Academy of Sciences to perform a nationwide study of the dangers posed by coal-tar sealants. Coal-tar sealants are surface finishes for parking lots, driveways, and airports. An active ingredient in the sealant has been identified as a carcinogen. In November of 2005, the City of Austin banned the use of coal-tar sealants after linking local waterway contamination with use of the sealants. "The City of Austin took a stand on this when it decided to ban the use of coal-tar sealants within the City limits," said Doggett. "I would like communities across the Country to learn from Austin's experience with coal-tar sealants and the impact they can have on aquatic life and waterways.". . . Walk with the Sheriff—and the Governor . . . Republicon Governor Rick Perry will join Democratic Sheriff Greg Hamilton in a “Walk with the Sheriff” event this Saturday. The event is built around students in training for the Texas Round-Up Fitness challenge, but is open to the public and free of charge. “There is a need to improve the fitness of the entire community,” said Hamilton. “I am distributing ‘Wanted’ posters for everyone to join us.” Mayor Will Wynn and the Mayor’s Fitness Council will join the Sheriff and students from Jordan, Pickle, Blanton and Metz Elementary schools for the two-mile walk around Town Lake. The event begins at 8am on Auditorium Shores near the First Street Bridge and Riverside Drive . . . Black History Month event . . . Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk will be the keynote speaker at the City of Austin’s Employee Black History Month Program from 11am-1:30pm today at the Lester E. Palmer Events Center. Kirk was the first African American mayor of Dallas and served two terms prior to running for the U.S. Senate. The program celebrates the African-American community with a tribute to black fraternal, social and civic institutions..

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