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Precinct, political lines becoming clearer for Travis Commissioners
Wednesday, September 28, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves
The true impact of redistricting on Travis County’s four commissioner precincts is becoming clearer – both logistically and politically.
Consultant George Korbel presented Commissioners Court with three maps for consideration on Tuesday. The final map, sent to the Department of Justice this month for pre-clearance, shifts Pflugerville from Precinct 2 (Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt) to Precinct 1 (Commissioner Ron Davis); Steiner Ranch from Precinct 3 (Commissioner Karen Huber) to Precinct 2; and some downtown precincts, include a high turnout box at the University of Texas, from Precinct 4 (Commissioner Margaret Gomez) to Precinct 3.
All four commissioners are Democrats. County Judge Sam Biscoe, who is also a Democrat, is elected at large from across the county.
The immediate logistical question, posed by Intergovernmental Relations coordinator Deece Eckstein yesterday, was what to do with Steiner Ranch now. The map, for electoral purposes, goes into effect next year, but recent fire victims need to be directed to the right offices immediately.
“That’s really a question of policy for the court,” Eckstein said. “It’s not really a legal question. It’s just a matter of how you all, amongst yourselves, want to divvy up your work loads, so I would appreciate any direction or discussion the court wants to do with respect to that.”
Technically, Steiner Ranch now belongs to Eckhardt. Eckhardt and Huber, however, agreed the community needed to be served by both offices. Pinning down boundaries, however, would be helpful to staff, Eckhardt said.
“We have subdivision plats that come up, we have park issues, we have road issues, we have law enforcement issues,” Eckhardt said. “I think it would be — it would certainly alleviate my office staff to be able to know specifically which constituents are — are ours and be able for all of us to sing from the same hymnal, as it were.”
A number of existing projects still remain in the current pipeline, and commissioners agreed they would need to work together in the transition between offices. New plats and plans, however, will go to the office under revised maps, moving forward.
Other issues also have to be resolved, Eckhardt noted. For instance, Eckhardt and Davis once shared an emergency services district. Eckhardt appointed most of the board members because most of the district was in her precinct. That’s no longer true, and that probably needs to be adjusted, she said.
Long term, issues surrounding the new precincts will be political, and there have been some clashes between commissioners during recent map revisions. Huber, for instance, attempted to shift the precincts with her SH 45 opponents in Shady Hollow over to Gomez, but failed. Davis, however, did win his wish to pick up the two precincts of the historically African-American Austin Colony, and Gomez kept her precincts in Travis Heights, despite Huber’s plea that pulling those Democratic precincts into her precinct would increase the Hispanic representation in Gomez’s district.
Huber’s precinct, at this point, appears to the most vulnerable of the four to a Republican challenger, given the heavy Republican population in Western Travis County. Political consultant Peck Young, director of ACC’s Center for Public Policy & Political Studies, said Huber could benefit from the fact her next election is during a presidential election cycle, in 2012.
“Unless the Democratic Party just collapses and has an incredibly poor showing, I do think she is probably safe, at least for 2012,” Young said. “That would be as long as Obama performs. He might be that weak this time. He’s certainly not as strong as he was three years ago.”
Young predicts at least one of the western county seats likely will swing into the Republican column in the next couple of election cycles. That could easily be Eckhardt’s seat, given that it will be up during a gubernatorial election year, when the Republican turnout is typically higher, Young said.
“She’s lost Pflugerville, which is traditionally a Democratic area, and she’s picked up Steiner Ranch, which is a Republican area,” Young said. “I would say that overall, because it is anchored by Austin, her district is still more heavily Democratic.”
The minority representation of Davis and Gomez’s precincts both are protected under the Voting Rights Act. Young is a friend of both elected officials, but he admits that all three of them are aging residents in a younger county. Both Davis and Gomez have faced strong challenges in recent years.
“They’re going to be challenged by a younger generation, by people who think that it’s their turn. It’s a dynamic area, especially for Gomez, in terms of growth. Ron is going to have folks who don’t necessarily oppose him but just want their turn,” Young said. “I’m not predicting that either one of them is going to lose right away, but they’re not going to be serving a decade from now.”
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