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Daugherty faces a challenger for his western Travis County seat

Friday, February 26, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The old saw holds that liberal Travis County is the blueberry in conservative Texas’ tomato soup, but look closer and you’ll see the gradient gains an increasing ruddiness the farther west one travels from MoPac Boulevard.

Western Travis County could be called the conservative capital of county civics, insofar as the handful of elected officials affiliated with the Republican Party hail from this escape hatch to the Hill Country.

County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s Precinct 3 spreads across most of this suburban and rural land, minus a peninsula of Precinct 2 that reaches from Capital of Texas Highway to the eastern edge of Lake Travis. It includes a number of communities such as Jonestown, Lago Vista, Lakeway, Rollingwood, Manchaca and – by a curious trick of redistricting – Zilker Park, downtown Austin and part of West Campus.

That diverse mix has safely kept the precinct’s politics more pragmatically purple in recent years, with Daugherty’s third term in office coming after a brief spell in the wilderness thanks to Democrat Karen Huber. But now the Republican is fending off a challenge on his right from a political outsider who casts doubt on Daugherty’s conservative bona fides.

“I think Gerald Daugherty has fallen too far into the middle of the scope and gives in a little too much and forgets what his constituents ultimately really wanted,” attorney and businessman Jason Nassour told the Austin Monitor at his office inside KOKE FM headquarters on Thursday. The fifth-generation Texan was one of several business partners who resurrected the iconic country station back in 2012, and he raises his experience in the private sector as the battle flag of his campaign.

“Quite frankly, I think that we need someone that has knowledge of business actually running the business of Travis County government,” Nassour said. “I think it’s time we get someone that has some knowledge about business in there to truly deal with how to maximize our money and the things that we need – without increasing our taxes – on a daily basis.”

Nassour told the Monitor that he was motivated to run in the Republican primary by the Commissioners Court’s unanimous vote to send the $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond question to voters last November. That proposition, which lost by a narrow margin, would have built on prime downtown land a new civil court facility to relieve pressure on the aging Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, which was built in 1931.

Despite the outcome of that election, the Commissioners Court has not surrendered the consensus that a new courthouse is needed. Nassour, whose law partner is former Republican state Rep. Terry Keel, confidently bucks that consensus.

“They don’t have to go spend $287 million,” he claimed. “They can immediately remedy the problem and ease the pressure just by using what we already have.”

Nassour suggested that the packed Sweatt Courthouse could offload some of its crowding to the adjacent Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, which Nassour maintains is relatively empty half of the business day.

When asked how he would deal with judges who may not want to share their bench with others, Nassour replied, “I couldn’t care less. I really couldn’t. I would say, ‘This is what’s going to happen: We have a problem. We can’t just go borrow $300 million. You’re finished with your courtroom at 12 o’clock. Vacate. I’ve got someone who needs it.’”

That bull-nosed approach differs from that of Daugherty, who may seem gruff to casual observers but upon closer inspection is more strategically pragmatic. While he did vote to put the Civil & Family Courts Complex bond on the ballot, he maintains that he only did so to give the voters of Travis County their own chance to weigh in on the proposal.

“When you come over as the conservative, you do have to find a way to deal with the court members if you ever want to get anything done,” Daugherty explained to the Monitor on Thursday morning. “I’m not so dogmatically partisan that I’m gonna find a way to just sabotage things.”

That’s not to say that Daugherty is quick to compromise his values. He has long been a stalwart of fiscal responsibility and was the only commissioner recently to oppose the budget guidelines for the next fiscal year because they don’t rule out a tax hike. He also recently voted against a largely symbolic proclamation of support for Planned Parenthood, though – true to his pragmatic predilections – he did praise the embattled abortion provider’s larger mission of providing women’s health care services.

But the biggest feather in Daugherty’s conservative cap is the imminent launch of construction on State Highway 45 Southwest. The controversial project has been in limbo since voters approved in the 1990s, but Daugherty managed to hammer it through after he was re-elected in 2012. While environmental groups and other opponents led by Commissioner Brigid Shea are doing their level best to once again halt the construction, Daugherty says he’s confident work will start later this year.

In fact, that’s one of the key reasons he opted to run for another term.

“If I’m not in office, you might be able to somehow unravel 45 Southwest,” he warned. “And I’ve just worked too damn hard to not see that thing get started.”

His opponent Nassour is also a full-throated advocate for the roadway, which would connect the terminus of MoPac to FM 1626 just across the Hays County line. He says he’d also like to see it ultimately connect north to U.S. Highway 290 in Oak Hill and south to I-35. However, he said the true way to bring congestion relief is to encourage alternative business districts, or regional downtowns, to compete with Austin’s urban core.

“If they don’t build a new downtown district out there at the pig farm at RM 620 and Highway 183, maybe the Bee Caves area, in Del Valle, and start getting traffic going in different directions, it’s not gonna get worse,” Nassour said. “But it’s just not ever going to get any better because it’s already as bad as it’s ever going to get.”

Nassour also wants the county to sell all of its properties inside Austin city limits and relocate all services to Commissioner Margaret Gómez’s Precinct 4. He says that gesture, combined with the ascendancy to outgoing Commissioner Ron Davis’ Precinct 1 seat by either Jeff Travillion or James Nortey – both of whom seem to Nassour, he says, more Libertarian than Democrat – will give him better political footing against both Shea and the liberal captain of the court, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

For his part, Daugherty wants the voters to judge him for his record. “Experience means an awful lot,” he explained. “If you’re really looking for someone who has a chance to get something done, experience is somewhat irreplaceable. And I think that you’ve got to show people that it’s not a partisan deal. It’s what is the right thing to do for the community.”

Of course, for now it is an intrapartisan primary fight between both Republicans. Meanwhile, watching from the wings with a smile is former legislative aide David Holmes, the only Democrat in the race. The Monitor met with him Thursday afternoon at a crowded South Austin coffee shop where he said he respects Daugherty’s service even though he said the incumbent has shown a lack of innovative thinking.

As for Nassour, Holmes said: “When I hear Jason talk about a number of things, he talks about them in a way that shows a basic lack of understanding of how county government works.”

Having worked for former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the Permian Basin native said he’s no stranger to the rightward edge of Democratic politics. But he also echoed Daugherty’s claim that the business before the Commissioners Court transcends party identity.

“With the number of cities in the precinct, with the amount of unincorporated land, the precinct is simply different from the other three,” Holmes said.

Whether its Republican voters want to move in a different direction – away from Gerald Daugherty and toward Jason Nassour – remains to be seen until Election Day.

This story has been altered since publication to correct a typo

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