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Eckhardt defeats Sonleitner for Precinct 2

Wednesday, March 8, 2006 by

Toll roads votes, attack ads and tough politics may have led to incumbent's ouster

Sarah Eckhardt put an end to incumbent Karen Sonleitner’s quest for a fourth term on the Travis County Commissioners Court with a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for Precinct 2. With no official opponent in the November election, Eckhardt will become the new commissioner in January.

A combination of interests – toll road and landfill opponents, disgruntled deputies, and others – may have brought about Sonleitner‘s demise. Democratic activists and even a stealth political action committee funded by law firms offended by Sonleitner’s vote on a delinquent tax collections contract (See Whispers) gave Eckhardt a decisive margin in the race. Tonight, Eckhardt said she was thrilled.

“I am blown away by it,” said Eckhardt, a prosecutor in the Travis County Attorney’s Office. “I expected the margin to be razor thin. Walking into the race this evening, win or lose, I felt like we had raised the consciousness of people about what county government could do. I had no idea it was going to be this kind of margin.”

Eckhardt won the race with 57-percent of the votes over Sonleitner. She appeared at a family-oriented party at Amy’s Ice Cream on Burnet Road. Sonleitner, who has rarely hosted election night parties, declined to put in an appearance last night and sent out a statement after it was clear that she had lost the race for her fourth term.

“I want to thank my friends and supporters for the privilege and honor of serving as county commissioner,” Sonleitner wrote. “The results of today’s election are disappointing, but I have no regrets about running a positive campaign. These election results do not erase a proud record of achievement that will last beyond my term of office; namely, the consolidation of EMS into a countywide system; the acquisition of nearly 8,000 acres of new parks, preserves and open space; and being a voice for increased social services funding.”

Sonleitner did not mention her service as one of the county’s representatives on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board, which made her a lightning rod for the toll road controversy. Eckhardt said the support of toll road opponents did help her campaign, although she said it only pointed to larger issues.

“I think it’s an illustration that people want to be heard and have their concerns addressed,” Eckhardt said. “The toll road issue was an example of a circumstance where so many people were against a decision-making process and don’t feel that they were really considered.”

But while County Judge Sam Biscoe also served on CAMPO, and Commissioner Margaret Gomez served on the Capital Metro board, which has been plagued with labor issues, only Sonleitner faced a serious opponent this election season. David Butts, who served as Eckhardt’s consultant, considered Sonleitner’s loss a combination of factors: the fact that any incumbent has a particular shelf life; the fact that redistricting made the district more liberal; and a lack of responsiveness to constituents.

Butts said full-page, anti-Sonleitner ads in the Austin Chronicle paid for by outside PACs did play a role in the campaign, but they were not the decisive factor. He pointed to Sonleitner’s narrow losses to opponents in prior races.

“To tell you the truth, the defeat of all incumbents almost invariably begins with themselves,” Butts said. “If you recognize that, or see what the problem is, and you feel that it’s a serious enough problem that it needs to be remedied, then by that time, the incumbents have generally undone themselves.”

Peck Young, who served as Sonleitner’s consultant in the race, clearly had a different take on the results and said he had never seen a Democrat use the kind of underhanded tactics he typically associated with Republicans.

“I have never seen a Democratic primary conducted by these kind of Republican rules in which you basically made up charges against someone and lied about someone and distorted their record,” Young said. “I have been involved in campaigns where Republicans did that to Democrats, but in my 30-something years, I have run tough campaigns against people, but I’ve never seen a campaign like this.”

Young said the Eckhardt campaign – and those who presented flyers and material in support of it – distorted Sonleitner’s voting record and even made up facts. A lot of it, Young said, came at the behest of a law firm that lost $10 million in billing when Sonleitner opposed its contract for delinquent tax collections.

Young said his fear is that Eckhardt’s campaign has painted her so far into a Democratic partisan corner that she will be unable to get re-elected once it’s clear she cannot continue to support some of her more extreme positions. That would leave the Precinct 2 race open to a moderate Republican, which could mean that the lines being redrawn for the county next decade could possibly be controlled by Republicans.

Butts and Young take different views of the voting patterns of Precinct 2. Butts says the lines drawn make sure its trending more progressive and Democratic, a fact he says Sonleitner ignored. Young, on the other hand, sees the Precinct as still home to possibly moderate, or even Republican, leanings if growth continues along its edges.

Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez had a relative stroll to return to her seat on the court. Challenger Yolanda Montemayor did not offer the hard-hitting ads that Eckhardt used to oust Sonleitner. But Gómez is much less inclined to argument and uses a softer voice than her colleague. She also sits on the Capital Metro board rather than CAMPO so she was not a target of the anti-toll road sentiment.

Gómez won her race last night with 57.3 percent of the vote, or about 500 votes more than Montemayor. The total turnout in that race was only 3,443. The incumbent told In Fact Daily, “You’re always worried about who will turn out. I wish more people would participate.” Gómez said she stuck to proven methods, talking to a lot of people about her race. “Kind of like (former Congressman) Jake Pickle said, take everything very seriously. You can't take anything for granted…it was pretty much doing the same things that I've always done.”

Judge Charles Holcomb of the Court of Criminal Appeals will face retiring Dist. 47 State Rep. Terry Keel for the Republican nomination. Keel had 31 percent of the vote compared to Holcomb’s 44 percent as of midnight in the statewide race, with 86 percent of precincts reporting.

High turnover ahead on Williamson court

Dan Gattis Sr. wins beats Culpepper for County Judge seat

The face of politics in Williamson County will be considerably different next year. Three new people will be elected to the Commissioners Court, and a new commissioner will be appointed to replace the late Tom McDaniel, leaving first term Commissioner Lisa Birkman as the court’s only “veteran.”

In the Republican Primary yesterday, Dan A. Gattis Sr., surprised many political observers by defeating former Round Rock Mayor Charlie Culpepper with 56.25 percent of the vote. Gattis Sr. is the father of State Rep. Dan Gattis Jr. and a former teacher and business owner.

“The biggest challenge for Williamson County is the same one we’ve had for several years, and that’s growth,” he said. “We need to be able to manage that growth, and keep people moving. We want to continue to attract businesses to come here so that we have good economic growth.”

Many considered Culpepper to be the stronger candidate, with Gattis Sr. being a political first-timer. Culpepper said it was a matter of who got out the vote.

“I ran against a pretty famous last name,” he said. “His son’s a state representative up there and he did a good job of turning his voters out.”

Gattis will take over the judge’s seat from John Doerfler, who is retiring after serving four terms on the court since 1990. Two other members of the current court are also retiring: Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Boatright, who has also served since 1990, and Pct. 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer, who has been in that job since 1999.

Cynthia Long defeated Melissa Beaudoin and Terry Davis in the GOP Primary for the Precinct 2 nomination and will face Democrat Michael Hoffman in November. There will be a runoff between Republican candidates in the Precinct 4 Commissioner race between Ron Morrison and Gary Coe. The runoff winner will face Democrat Brig Mireles in November.

Doerfler is expected to name someone to fill out the rest of Commissioner McDaniel’s term or until a special election is called to fill the vacancy. That will likely mean four out the five commissioners next year will be new on the job.

“It will be a marriage of five new people come January,” he said. “We’ll have to see how long the honeymoon lasts.”

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

More on those ads . . . Tuesday’s edition of In Fact Daily featured a whisper about the Progressive Action PAC, which footed the bill for two pages of ads relating to the race between incumbent Commissioner Karen Sonleitner and her Democratic challenger Sarah Eckhardt in last week’s Austin Chronicle. The Progressive Action PAC’s report of campaign contributions and expenditures filed February 27 showed the only contributors of $25,700 were the law firm of Minton, Burton, Foster & Collins ($7,500); Minton and Burton attorney and PAC treasurer Brian Roark ($6,200); Former County Attorney Ken Oden of the Linebarger law firm ($6,000); and defense attorney Allan Williams ($6,000). Williams is not associated with the Minton and Burton firm . . . Error . . . In Fact Daily erred when it said the two pages were facing each other. The anti-Sonleitner ad was on page 5 and positive ad for Eckhardt was on page 27. The negative ad on page 4 was paid for by the anti-toll political action committee associated with People for Efficient Transportation, PET PAC. The financial documents have not come in showing who gave the money to PET PAC for that ad, but the Progressive Action PAC donated $6,000 last month to People for Efficient Transportation pay for a “mailer in support of Sarah Eckhardt”. . . In Fact Daily asked Alicia Butler of Message Audience and Presentation to provide a copy of the landfill-related letter cited in the Chronicle ad, which noted that 14 environmental leaders had signed the letter. In fact, they did sign that letter. Butler said former Council Member Brigid Shea gave her the letter and assured her it would be fine to use it. There is a disclaimer on the letter that did not make it into the ad (*Organizations listed for identification purposes.) The problem, according to Clean Water Action’s David Foster, was that he did not give permission for his name to be used in the ad. He said he had never heard of the Progressive Action PAC or Roark. Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen said, “We don’t engage in political advertising and we weren’t contacted.” Robin Schneider, who was out working the polls for Eckhardt Tuesday, said she knew nothing about who was behind the ad, but that, “I got a kick out of it.” Susan Moffat said she did not give permission for the use of her name either but assumed once the document entered the public record it had become fair game. Harold Daniel and Donna Tiemann agreed and said they supported Eckhardt . . . Daniel, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, said some members of the organization were upset that Sonleitner had used the SBCA award to all the County Commissioners for supporting bonds for open space. That ad appeared in last week’s Chronicle also. Daniel said he personally thought it made little difference, as we spoke to him on election night . . . Meetings . . . The Telecommunications Commission meets at 7:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Commission meets at 6:30pm in Room 105 in Waller Creek Plaza . . . McMansion regulations task force website . . .There is now an electronic bulletin board, at which you can share comments and ideas with the task force reviewing the issue of residential regulations. That bulletin board is located at The task force is meeting twice a week and is charged with coming up with new regulations by May. The next task force meeting is at 1pm Friday . . . RECA pledge . . . This Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA) will present a $400,000 pledge to the Hill Country Conservancy (HCC) this Wednesday to preserve open spaces in the Texas Hill Country. RECA President Terry Mitchell will present the pledge to HCC President David Armbrust during RECA’s monthly luncheon. The RECA pledge is one of the largest in HCC history, and RECA is the first of HCC's founding organizations to reach a half-million dollars in total donations for preserving open spaces in Central Texas through the HCC. The HCC is a nonprofit land trust committed to preserving open spaces in the Texas Hill Country. It bills itself as members of the business, real estate and environmental communities working together to protect the land and the economy. . . SOS party tonight . . . Friends and family are invited to the historic Scholz Garten from 6-8:30pm tonight for the Save Our Springs Membership Social and Community Forum, featuring the world premier of a new cartoon about AMD’s proposed move to the Barton Springs watershed. Environmental troubadour Bill Oliver will perform his new song about Barton Springs and AMD. There will also be a discussion about the Clean Water Clean Government charter amendment campaign . . . Gale on ballot . . . Frequent City Council speaker and candidate Jennifer Gale turned in the signatures necessary to place her name on the May 13 ballot for Mayor. Mayor Will Wynn had already signed up for a spot. Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas has begun campaigning also but has not made it official. The deadline for turning in signatures or paying the filing fee is next Monday. . . Cuellar, Rodriguez head to runoff . . . As of 1:36am, the Texas Secretary of State was reporting that incumbent Congressman Henry Cuellar (28th District) was in a runoff with bitter Democratic primary rival Ciro Rodriguez. The spoiler in the race was Victor Morales, who took 2,563 votes, compared to 18,365 for Cuellar and 17,268 for Rodriguez. Rodriguez criticized Cuellar for too many votes along Republican lines. They will face each other in a runoff next month in a district dominated by Bexar County.

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