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As county grows so does campaign spending

Thursday, February 27, 2014 by Mark Richardson

As Travis County grows, so apparently does the amount of money required to run a campaign for County Judge. According to campaign finance reports filed this week, candidates Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt raised a combined $1.1 million since mid-2013 for the March 4 Democratic Primary.


The hard-fought campaign – the first seriously contested race for Travis County’s top job in 16 years – has been fraught with charges and sharp attacks by the candidates on each other’s position on a number of issues. However, both the Brown and Eckhardt campaigns say they are confident that money will not determine the outcome of the race.


Campaign filings this week showed that for the entire campaign, Brown has raised some $733,000, including in-kind donations, with cash donations totaling $662,000. With a week to go, Brown’s campaign says he has spent some $641,000. The Eckhardt campaign has raised $447,000 and has spent about $431,000. Fundraising picked up late in the campaign, with Brown raising about $164,000 since Jan. 24, and Eckhardt raising $93,000 in the same stretch


Despite the big money numbers, longtime political observer Peck Young said that the funds needed to run a credible campaign grows with the number of people in Travis County.


“This is a big county,” he said. “What you’re talking about is the ability to communicate. We’re in a growing urban county with the city that is the heart of that county that is now a million or more people, and the entire area is now 1.4 million.”


Young was an Austin-based campaign consultant for 30 years, and has served as the director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College since 2007. He said with a larger pool of voters comes increased campaign expenses.


“Until we figure out some way to get people free access to television ads and free access to the post office, then it’s really just the cost of communications in those numbers,” he said. “Neither one of their totals are all that surprising or impressive to me. When you adjust for inflation, it probably isn’t much more than (Valerie) Bristol and (Sam) Biscoe spent back in 1998” when they ran for the Democratic nomination for County Judge.


Brown agreed with Young.


“Campaigns are expensive, and I have run one of the most far-reaching campaigns in Travis County history,” he said. “We have knocked on more than 60,000 doors, made more than 150,000 phone calls, and spoken with tens of thousands of voters about the job of county judge. Not a lot of people know what the county judge is or does, and that kind of voter education isn’t cheap.”


Eckhardt’s campaign spokeswoman Genevieve Van Cleve said though her campaign raised about $200,000 fewer dollars than Brown’s, the real difference is in how it was managed.


“Travis County is one of the fastest growing counties in Texas, and the County Judge will influence the movement of billions of dollars,” she said. “We at the Eckhardt campaign have carefully managed our resources. As a result, we are running a lean, strong voter turnout operation. Our spending has been laser-focused on direct voter contact and grassroots support, not on repeated valet bills and fancy restaurants. That’s just one reason why we’re in a competitive position.”


Donations were also up in the other competitive Travis County race, Precinct 2 County Commissioner. In that race, Brigid Shea raised $273,000; Richard Jung has raised a total of $196,000; and Garry Brown raised about $48,000.


Two other countywide races are not seen as being closely competitive. In the Precinct 4 Commissioners race, incumbent Margaret Gomez had raised about $39,000 by Monday, while her opponent, Del Valle School Board Member Darla Wegner has only raised $400. In the race for County Treasurer, newcomer Ramey Ko has raised about $54,000 while 27-year incumbent Dolores Ortega Carter raised about $13,000.

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