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DA candidates work on boosting voter turnout

Monday, April 7, 2008 by Austin Monitor

While the District Attorney’s race drew an impressive turnout of more than 140,000 voters in the March Democratic Party primaries, it appears the runoff between Mindy Montford and Rosemary Lehmberg is drawing much less interest. Final early voting totals from the Travis County Clerk’s Office show slightly more than 11,500 people casting ballots during early voting compared to more than 74,000 who took advantage of early voting during the primaries. The busiest polling stations last week were the Randall’s store at Research and Braker and the Travis County Courthouse.


On Friday, the final day to vote early before Tuesday’s election, 3,254 voters cast ballots—about a third more than showed up on any of the four previous days. It is impossible to know whether negative campaigning from the two sides—and the complaint filed by Republican former Sheriff and State Rep. Terry Keel against a Lehmberg campaign consultant—drew people out to vote—or whether it was simply the last opportunity to vote early.


David Butts, a Lehmberg campaign consultant and longtime election watcher, predicted last week that overall turnout would be less than 30,000—perhaps as low as 20,000-25,000.


Montford told In Fact Daily on Friday, “I’m trying not to get distracted…to me that’s the important thing…At the end of the day it’s all about turnout.” She predicted about 25,000 voters would cast ballots in the race.


Meanwhile, the two candidates are busy trading accusations of negative campaigning in the final days before Tuesday’s runoff election. Mindy Montford and Rosemary Lehmberg have both stepped up their attacks as they vie to replace outgoing District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is not seeking another term in office.


While the two have been polite and even complimentary at times during recent candidate forums, the focus late last week shifted to allegations of improper campaign tactics. Lehmberg dismissed one of her campaign consultants, Kelly Fero, after it became evident that he had used comments in campaign literature that came from a blog he ran. The blog focused on Republican support for Montford. There is no Republican candidate for the post, so whichever Democrat wins the election will become DA when Earle retires at the end of the year.


During a debate Friday evening on KLBJ-AM, Lehmberg denied any knowledge of Fero’s involvement with that blog. “I have severed my campaign’s relationship with a consultant named Kelly Fero, because he didn’t inform me that he was affiliated with and was contributing to,” that blog, Lehmberg said. “There was a sentence in a mail piece and an e-mail that was sent out that may have been generated by him. I don’t’ tolerate that sort of conduct.”


While Lehmberg described the incident as a “mishap”, Montford took a much dimmer view. She said the case was similar to those she had prosecuted while working for the DA’s Public Integrity Unit. “When we were over there reviewing some of these cases, the controversy surrounded around not knowing who was funding certain campaigns…where certain materials were coming from and I have to say…from a first glance it sounds exactly like the things we have investigated over in that unit,” she said.


The two also traded accusations over which candidate would be obligated to special interests based on campaign contributions. Lehmberg’s campaign ads have focused heavily on Montford’s donations from registered lobbyists. Friday evening, Lehmberg told host Kenny Rahmeyer that “about one percent” of the $380,000 raised by her campaign had come from seven individuals who are registered lobbyists. Montford, who has raised just over $550,000, said six percent of her donations were from lobbyists.


However, Montford described that as a “manufactured issue”, saying that “before I even collected a dollar, the other side was already coming out saying ‘she’s going to raise all this lobby money.’ So I do believe they created that issue.” She suggested a more telling measure of a candidate’s independence would be measuring the amount of campaign contributions from defense attorneys.


Lehmberg countered that reporters, not her campaign, had raised the lobbyist issue. “All of the mainline print media in this town have raised this issue about campaign contributions,” she said. “We have public reporting about campaign contributions for a reason. And that is because people need to know who is supporting whom.”


Just two days prior to Friday’s debate, the candidates met for a forum sponsored by Democracy for Texas at Scholz Garten. They focused on their priorities for changes within the office. Montford said she would establish a “DA intake” office like the one in Harris County, which has prosecutors available 24-hours per day to work with police officers as they investigate crimes. Lehmberg said she would work to find a way to divert first time, youthful drug offenders into treatment programs as a way to relieve jail overcrowding.


During that forum, the two also were asked how they would work together after the campaign. “Hopefully, we can continue to be professional and try to avoid negative campaign tactics to sort of protect and preserve that relationship,” Montford said. In response to the same question, Lehmberg said, “I think we get along pretty well. I, too, hope to be the next District Attorney, and as far as my administration is concerned, Mindy Montford is welcome there.”

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