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Lehmberg beats Montford with 65 percent for DA job

Wednesday, April 9, 2008 by Austin Monitor

First Assistant DA Rosemary Lehmberg sailed to a convincing victory in the race to be Travis County’s next District Attorney. She received 65 percent of the vote in the Democratic Party’s primary runoff, compared to fellow prosecutor Mindy Montford’s 35 percent.


Turnout in the race was down dramatically from March 4, with only 5 percent of registered voters taking part in the runoff. Fewer than 30,000 voters cast ballots Tuesday and in early voting, compared with more than 140,000 who voted in the four-candidate March 4 DA’s race.


Lehmberg’s campaign consultant David Butts told In Fact Daily he believed the lack of other high-profile races on the ticket may have hurt the Montford campaign.


“Their votes seemed to come more from voters who were recent participants in the Democratic primary, and our vote was very much from traditional Democrats, people who voted in primary after primary after primary,” he said. “That was something we couldn’t buy, but they couldn’t buy either. I’m sure they spent more than $400,000 on TV. They were trying to go with younger voters, voters who turned out in the presidential primary. But structurally, they had a problem getting them out.”


Montford had endorsements from several public safety employee unions, Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, and one-time candidate Rick Reed. However, Lehmberg had the endorsement that appeared to matter most to the small number of voters who took part in the runoff, which was the backing of outgoing DA Ronnie Earle.


“Ronnie has been my friend and my mentor and my boss for so many years. He gave me the biggest gift of all… he gave me his good name,” Lehmberg said to a crowd of supporters during her election-night watch party at Joe’s Bar & Grill. “I appreciate your endorsement and I will forever be indebted to you.”


Earle praised Lehmberg Tuesday night, saying she had the experience necessary to follow in his footsteps. “I think the real winner of this race are the people of Austin, because they’re going to get the most qualified candidate I could ever imagine to be our district attorney,” he said. Both Lehmberg and Earle said they planned to meet with each other and the DA’s staff in the coming weeks to discuss possible changes in the office and a transition plan. Earle’s term runs through December 31, 2008.


Lehmberg said she would consider some of the suggestions offered by her fellow candidates and even her critics during the race. “I think there were a lot of great ideas, and what I’d like to do is…when I get back to work, I want to sit down with my staff and with Ronnie and with Gary (Cobb),” the other candidate who endorsed her. “I want to talk about what this campaign means and what I heard. I will start establishing my priorities once we start planning over the next few months.”


Lehmberg also said she would welcome Montford back to the DA’s office. “I think Mindy’s a good prosecutor. She said tonight, and I agree, that we will first and foremost be friends,” she said.


Montford ran her campaign against Lehmberg with a message that she would bring needed changes to the District Attorney’s office, such as a 24-hour prosecutor to screen cases, pretrial diversion programs and enhancing the technical capabilities of the office.


In the last week of the runoff campaign, Lehmberg began a pointed TV ad campaign linking Montford to lobbyists who peddle influence at the State Capital. Montford never really put out a strong defense on the issue.


Montford’s campaign spent more than $600,000 and only pulled in 35 percent of the 29,520 votes cast in the runoff. She only slightly exceeded the 31 percent she polled in the March 4 primary.


Montford said she was disappointed in the overall turnout. “I would have liked to have more turnout on election day and in general,” she said. “I think all of us overestimated the number of people we would see today. We’re going to really have to look at the numbers to figure that out. What I actually thought is the people would still have been engaged in the political process, and that they would come back, but that’s not what we saw.”


Montford said she wasn’t certain what factors led to her defeat, but she did not believe that the issue of who her contributors were made a significant difference.


“That’s the route they were going to go before I even raised a dime,” she said. “So it wasn’t really a last-minute issue. And we did not hide the occupations of any of our contributors. The reports don’t require you to list occupations but we went ahead and listed them. We weren’t trying to hide anything. I still continue to believe that if people looked at the numbers, they would be surprised because there’s only six percent lobby money. At the end of the day, who knows whether it made a difference in the election, but I continue to be proud of my supporters.”


Montford said she would have to sit down and contemplate her future. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and who knows if I’ll go back to what I’ve been doing or if it will open up some new doors for me,” she said. “This is what I always wanted to do. If you knew me way back when, I’ve always wanted to be a prosecutor.”  Montford did leave the door open – ever so slightly to a political future. “It would have been my honor to be the district attorney – and maybe that will still happen – but this was definitely not a stepping stone to other office. This was special.”


Butts said he, too, was disappointed in the low voter turnout, especially given the high-profile nature of the race. “I think it’s pretty surprising that both campaigns spent more than $500,000 in the runoff….and turnout was pretty puny,” he said. “People should care who holds that office.”


For those voters that did participate, Lehmberg said she appreciated the vote of confidence reflected by her strong margin of victory. “What this campaign means is the people in Austin want their district attorney to have Austin values,” she said. Lehmberg also offered her thanks to her family, Butts, fellow campaign advisor Mark Nathan, and campaign manager Joene Grissom.

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