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Election Day worries for local Democrats, and a pro-Prop.1 rally

Tuesday, November 2, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Election day is upon us and it’s shaping up to be a big one for Republicans. Pundits and politicos from across the ideological spectrum are predicting a Republican wave that could trump even the election of 1994, when that party took back the U.S. House of Representatives. Many have even expressed doubts about the Democrats holding on to the Senate.


But while many people will be concerning themselves with Florida, Nevada, Washington, and Ohio, we here in the Austin area have our own races to watch. And as in the rest of the country, many of these local contests are looking like tough fights for Democratic incumbents.


Take House District 47 in southern Travis County, for example, where two-term incumbent Democrat Valinda Bolton is in a dogfight with her Republican challenger, Paul Workman. Workman, the founder of a construction company, has kept the race tight by sticking to the Republican playbook, accusing his opponent of being a big-government liberal who supports tax increases and federal health care while fighting against Second Amendment rights and border security. Libertarian Kris Bailey could be the spoiler in this race.


Another two-term Democratic representative who is facing a stiff contest is Donna Howard, from District 48 out west. Challenging Howard, a community activist, are Republican Dan Neil and Libertarian Ben Easton. Meanwhile, there’s an even bigger question about whether Representative Diana Maldonado can hold on to her seat in the Republican-leaning 52nd District, which stretches all the way from Jollyville to Thorndale. Maldonado’s toughest competition is coming from Republican Larry Gonzales, but she also has a Libertarian opponent.


In Hays County, four-term Democratic incumbent Patrick Rose is trying to hold off a challenge from Republican Jason A. Isaac, a transportation consultant running on a platform of fiscal conservatism. Democratic County Commissioner Jeff Barton is squaring off with Republican Bert Cobb for county judge, a position currently held by Democrat Liz Sumter. Sumter won the seat four years ago after long-time Republican power broker Jim Powers retired.


Of course, it’s not all house seats and judgeships on the ballot this year. One of the most important decisions facing local voters is Proposition 1, the $90 transportation bond package. In an effort to cut down on traffic congestion and curb emissions, bond supporters put together a multi-modal package in July designed to fix roads, construct new sidewalks, expand the number of bike lanes, and complete the Lady Bird Lake trail with a boardwalk.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who strongly supports the bond package, was quoted in Monday’s newspaper about his worries that the bonds will not win approval.


Yesterday, supporters of the bond package staged a rally outside City Hall to urge Austinites to vote for Prop. 1. Speakers included Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, Terry Mitchell from the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and Hill Country Conservancy Executive Director George Cofer. Their message was simple: Prop. 1 is a good, economically responsible first step toward fixing Austin’s transportation problems.


Leffingwell began the rally by reminding those in attendance that when he declared his candidacy for mayor 22 months ago, he said that one of his top priorities would be taking on what he called “the city’s traffic crisis.” His first step, he said at the time, would be to get a multi-modal transportation bond on the ballot in 2010.


“Now we’re (almost at the end) of that 22-month journey,” Leffingwell said. “Victory on Proposition 1 is not the end of that journey but only the first step on that journey. It took us many years, and many mistakes, to screw up (Austin traffic) this badly, and it’s going to take many years and many successes to fix it. True congestion relief will be a generations-long undertaking.”


Martinez called Prop 1 “the most comprehensive, most transparent transportation package we’ve ever put on the ballot in Austin.”


Mitchell, the chair of the Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Committee, took on critics who say that the package, with its money for hike-and-bike trails and traffic lights and other non-road projects, won’t solve the city’s traffic problems. They argue that the package should be primarily about building and improving roads.


Mitchell disagreed. He said that when the chamber conducts surveys of city employers every year, traffic and transit are consistently rated number one and two on their lists of pressing issues.


“They didn’t say we need more roads,” Mitchell said, “they said we have traffic problems and our transit system is not effective. That means a multi-modal system of transportation and that’s what this bond issue does.”


Several people at the rally also took on critics of the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk. Opponents have said that the boardwalk, which will run between the Congress Avenue Bridge and Lakeshore Park and complete the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail, will do little to alleviate traffic congestion. Instead they view the project (which, at $14 million, is far and away the most expensive in the package) as a recreational expense incurred during a time of fiscal insecurity.


But supporters argue that the boardwalk will curb congestion by allowing commuters living near downtown to commute by bike or by walking, instead of by car. Boone Blocker, who was a member of the citizens task force set up to help create the bond package, told In Fact Daily that as more and more people move into or near downtown, the importance of the completed trail will become clear.


“The city has had density problems and many people are moving downtown, and you can’t have all those people driving around town,” Blocker said. “When the trail is connected it will provide one more east-west connection.”


Susan Rankin, executive director of the Trail Foundation, also took issue with the notion that people would not use the completed trail for transportation. “We’ve already reached the tipping point where people are commuting to work by biking,” she told In Fact Daily. “The trail serves working people on the eastside who want to bike to work or school.”


That’s an issue that strikes a particular chord with Cofer, who emceed the event. As the executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, Cofer believes Prop.1 will go a long way toward reducing the negative environmental effects caused by traffic congestion. But as a lifelong Austinite, he seemed just as excited by the package’s potential for “reconnecting the east side to the rest of the city.”


“When TxDot built I-35, it cut the city right in half,” Cofer told In Fact Daily. “We’ve got to get east and west reunited. I think connecting the Lady Bird Lake trail system is part of ensuring the economic health of east Austin. The only way we’re going to get that community economically and environmentally healthy is to be one city. We need to have make Cesar Chavez and Fifth Street more accessible east-to-west under I-35 by making them truly multi-modal transportation routes.”


Meanwhile, critics of the proposition ran a full-page ad in Monday’s Statesman urging voters to vote no, saying, “It’s a very big, bad lie.”

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