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Hernandez narrowly avoids runoff to become new sheriff nominee in town

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Constable Sally Hernandez did the unexpected on election night by winning a clear majority of the vote for the Democratic nomination for Travis County sheriff in a crowded field of four candidates.

At her packed campaign headquarters inside a downtown Austin duplex on Tuesday night, Hernandez reflected on her relief at narrowly avoiding an extended runoff race.

“There is something to be said about not having 12 more weeks of campaigning,” Hernandez said of avoiding the May 24 runoff. “It feels great. It’s very humbling.”

When early voting results came in after polls closed at 7 p.m., Hernandez had just under 49 percent of the vote, leaving her staring down the prospect of merely winning a plurality.

But as election day returns crawled in throughout the night, she kept building distance between herself and her closest contender, Lakeway Police Chief Todd Radford.

Just after 10 p.m., the news came in that Hernandez had breached the majority, a turn that was met with cheers inside the crowded duplex.

Afterward, Hernandez described that moment to the Austin Monitor. “It was amazing,” she said. “I was excited. We’ve been working hard since December, and this team has been like a family. I was very proud of what they accomplished.”

In the end, Hernandez had won 50.62 percent of the vote. Radford trailed with 21.37 percent, and Travis County Deputy Don Rios had 18.92, leaving former Austin Police Lt. John Sisson with the remaining 9.09 percent.

Radford told the Monitor that he was also happy with his effort, despite the results. “It was nothing but a good experience,” the first-time candidate said. He noted that he had very little name recognition when he first began his campaign last year but still managed to secure the endorsements of Austin’s two legacy newspapers, the Austin American-Statesman and The Austin Chronicle. But he said it is still way too premature to predict whether he will use this campaign as a springboard for a future run for office.

“Right now, I just got to step back and catch my breath,” Radford said.

Hernandez’s clean victory saved her from three additional months of campaigning against a well-financed rival ahead of the May runoff. That date, plus the winnowed two-person field, would have changed the topography of the race. Turnout is expected to be much lower then, and Hernandez could have lost a demographic edge by not having Hillary Clinton at the top of that ticket.

Instead, she clinched an unusual four-person race that was filled with qualified candidates. Hernandez, Radford, Rios and Sisson can collectively boast of almost a century’s worth of law enforcement experience in different capacities.

It was their individual resumes that set them apart in a race where there was little daylight between the candidates when it came to the major issues. All four largely agreed that federal immigration enforcement programs should be kept out of Travis County jail facilities, and each argued for more accountability at the Sheriff’s Office.

Yet Hernandez argued that her status as the only elected official in the race proved her political acumen. She also touted her time as constable in Precinct 3, an office she says was in a bad way when she took charge but is now a highly respected outfit.

If Hernandez beats hero opponent Republican Joe Martinez in November, she will inherit an office that had been in the hands of incumbent Sheriff Greg Hamilton since 2005. Despite winning three consecutive terms, Hamilton leaves with a reputation that took a ding or two over his participation in an unpopular federal immigration enforcement program.

On Tuesday night, Hernandez denied the suggestion that there is a figurative cloud hanging over the Sheriff’s Office. But she did concede, “There could be new energy. I think a new person with new insight coming from the outside will give a fresher perspective.”

Before she transitions her campaign to focus on November’s election, Hernandez said she has more immediate post-primary plans.

“I think I’m going to sleep in,” she said with a relieved chuckle.

This story has been corrected.

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