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TravCo Precinct 1 race attracts diverse voices

Thursday, February 11, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

For the first time in a generation, the Travis County Commissioners Court Precinct 1 chair is up for grabs, and a crowded field has emerged with five candidates squaring off for their chance to grab it.

With early voting set to begin in less than a week, it’s crunch time for Richard Franklin III, Marc Hoskins, James Nortey, Arthur Sampson and Jeff Travillion. Each faces the daunting challenge of selling himself to potential voters for whom county government is a little-understood concept.

While the five campaigns echo one another through deferential nods to the twin bugbears of Central Texas civics – affordability and transportation – the personal distinctions between the individual candidates are decidedly clear.

Nortey, an attorney with an impressive resume, blends youthful energy with wonkish policy chops. Travillion peppers his soft-spoken soliloquies about coalition-building with anecdotes about Thurgood Marshall and the American Basketball Association. Franklin, feisty and combative, boldly declares that his campaign is a matter of “life and death.” Contrasting that altogether is Sampson’s buttoned-down willingness to let his website do the speaking for him. Throw in Hoskins’ quest for redemption after a youthful indiscretion that has dogged him for nearly two decades, and the race is only a billionaire reality star away from the stuff of national spectacle.

In addition, a crowded field sharply increases the likelihood of a two-man runoff. In order to qualify for that – or to even win outright – all five men have hit the club circuit in recent weeks, speaking to various Democratic groups to outline their candidacies and seek support. Signs have sprouted up like spring flowers in front yards and along roadways across East Austin. On a recent visit to Nortey’s campaign headquarters – the garage in his Mueller town house – the Austin Monitor saw a small team assembling materials and monitoring block-walkers in the field.

Days before early voting starts on Feb. 16, Nortey said his path to victory includes having a “frank conversation” with voters about his platform of expanding affordable housing, reducing traffic congestion and focusing on economic empowerment in the precinct.

“We’ve been pretty pleased with the results we have, but we’re not taking anything for granted,” Nortey explained while literally knocking on a wooden desk. “We are working hard until Election Day.”

Indeed, his resume speaks to a penchant for hard work. With degrees from both Harvard Law School and the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Nortey has complemented his legal career with active participation in civic life, including a stint on the city of Austin Planning Commission as well as serving as the president of the Black Austin Democrats.

Nortey is quick to identify the problems facing the precinct, which mostly covers the part of the county east of I-35 and north of the Colorado River. He points to the rising cost of living in East Austin as well “a sense of a lack of investment, lack of infrastructure, lack of resources” outside of the city.

He told the Austin Monitor that proper planning can redirect the precinct’s long-term prospects and noted the seeds – sown in the 1990s – of today’s vibrant downtown Austin. He said his experience on the Planning Commission, among other things, makes him perfectly suited to guide that planning as a county commissioner.

Nortey also pointed out that he’s the only candidate who has released multiple policy papers outlining detailed positions and ideas, including a proposal for paid parental leave for county employees.

According to January’s campaign finance filings, Nortey raked in the most contributions, followed closely by Travillion. Like Nortey, Travillion also studied at Harvard and received a graduate degree from UT – in this case, the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Travillion is also a former president of the Black Austin Democrats.

On paper, the most significant distinction between Nortey the millennial and Travillion the baby boomer is perhaps age.

During a one-on-one conversation with the Monitor at his campaign offices just blocks from Mueller, Travillion suggested that his life of civic involvement sets him apart. “All of those experiences have given me the insight that’s necessary to assess where we are and to make recommendations about how we go forward as a community,” the Pflugerville resident and city of Austin staffer explained.

In contrast to Nortey’s tendency toward detailed pontification about policy, Travillion spoke more broadly about bringing the cities, school districts and other jurisdictions in the community to the same table in order to achieve “a regional planning approach” to address the issues facing the precinct. He did, however, say that he would facilitate discussions between the county and the school districts in order to explore jointly funded after-school community centers at campuses outside of Austin.

Travillion also expressed interest in removing the tolls from State Highway 130 as a means of relieving pressure on I-35 without a large upfront investment. “You can do that without any cones, without any construction, without digging under Town Lake, without elevating MoPac,” Travillion said. “That is something that can be done right now with current resources.”

While Nortey and Travillion are hoping their ideas find traction with a majority of Precinct 1 voters, it’s safe to assume they have an uphill battle impressing one of their opponents.

Richard Franklin III recently sat down with the Monitor at east side staple Mr. Catfish & More to explain why he’s in the race. He said, “I wasn’t going to run until I saw the slate of candidates who had decided to run and realized, ‘I’m in trouble. My community is in trouble. My kids are in trouble.’”

He did not demure from an offer to elaborate.

“Jeff Travillion is a slime bag,” he said without hesitating. “I’m not gonna pull any punches with you. On the record, he is a slime bag.”

Franklin’s penchant for speaking off the cuff aside, the candidate – also a former president of the Black Austin Democrats – spoke passionately of a connection to his community and the problems it faces. He adamantly declined to list a set of top priorities but rather offered that he would rely on his constituents to let him know what to do.

“The priority is what’s in front of you right now that’s affecting you the most,” Franklin said. “So I’ve got to sit down, and the people in Precinct 1 have to come to me and talk to me – wherever I’m sitting that day, that week, that month – and tell me what they see as the problems, and we’ll talk about how we facilitate some solutions.”

One potential problem that neither Nortey, Travillion nor Franklin brought up in these interviews was the issue of public safety. Sampson, a former peace officer, lists public safety on his website as his second priority, after fiscal responsibility.

“I want to improve response time for Sheriff, Fire, and EMS. Sheriff Department patrols approximately 205 square miles in Travis County Precinct One,” Sampson’s site declares. “I have a plan to add additional Sheriff Deputies in Precinct One and I want to have community policing.”

Sampson turned down the Monitor’s request for an interview but said – as he also told the Black Austin Democrats – that his website is the best way to learn why he’s running.

Hoskins, a former Galveston City Council member, was a late entrant in the race, filing only on the mid-December deadline. The former legislative staffer also reported the smallest campaign war chest, of just $1,350. He did not reply to the Monitor’s attempts to reach him for this article, but he has been actively campaigning. He has preached a platform of making it easier for ex-convicts to re-enter society through education and jobs programs. Hoskins himself was removed from office in Galveston in 2006 over a drug-related arrest in 1999.

With early voting opening next week, Nortey, Travillion, Franklin, Sampson and Hoskins are in the final stretch of campaigning. If one should win the nomination outright on March 1, he is all but guaranteed to win against a token Republican rival in November – and thus replace outgoing Commissioner Ron Davis, who was first elected in 1998. If the outcome in March is a runoff, the top two vote-getters will have until May 26 to duke it out.

“It’s time for results, not just rhetoric,” Nortey told the Monitor, describing his candidacy. But until one of these five men wins, the rhetoric will remain.

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