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Rare drama for persistent optimist Gómez

Wednesday, December 27, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Commissioner Margaret Gómez, generally the most unassuming member of the Travis County Commissioners Court, will start off 2018 with an unusual amount of attention on her and her alone.

The Precinct 4 commissioner is the only one among her colleagues to face competition in the March primary elections, drawing as her challenger Del Valle Independent School District Board of Trustees member Susanna Woody.

The contest will be the sixth time Gómez has defended the seat she originally won in 1994. Combined with her 14-year run as a county constable, Gómez has a streak of political victories dating back to 1980.

“Everybody has a right to run, and they always want to do their best, but I’ve always told them, ‘Please understand that I’m also going to do my best,’” she told the Austin Monitor during a short conversation in her 15th-floor office overlooking downtown Austin.

With her diminutive stature and grandmotherly sweetness, it might be no surprise that opponents have consistently underestimated Gómez. But beneath the surface is a dogged voice for Precinct 4 and other vulnerable county residents.

In 2017, she pushed for stronger provisions for affordable housing in the county’s public improvement district policy. Like her other colleagues, she said she believes that there is still work to be done on the question of what to do with money paid by developers as a fee in lieu of constructing new housing. Theoretically, that revenue could be used by the county to build its own developments, but that presents some daunting challenges.

“The issue is where do we get the land? Where is it available so that we can build that affordable housing?” Gómez asked rhetorically.

In any case, developers of market rate housing are continuing to look eastward and there are projects aplenty in the pipeline for Gómez’s precinct. In 2017, voters approved a bond package packed with infrastructure projects that will help Southeast Travis County absorb that growth, and pave the way for future development.

Gómez could hardly contain her glee over the referendum’s success.

“Oh my gosh, I’m real pleased,” she beamed. “It’s up there at about an eight, and now if I can just get those projects on the ground as soon as we can, then it will be a 10.”

2017 was a year of tension between the county and state government and featured showdowns over immigration policy, a matter of importance to Gómez and her precinct, which contains large Latino and immigrant populations. She noted that she can see from her office the many protests and demonstrations that took place at the state Capitol’s south steps this year.

Some of those came in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s revocation from the county of state grants that funded important criminal justice programs such as the veterans court and prostitution court. Abbott’s move was a reaction against Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s modification of a policy dealing with federal immigration enforcement agents. The county ultimately found in its own general reserves and through the assistance of a fundraising drive the money to keep those programs going.

“We’re able, thank goodness with the help of the community, to offset some of those cuts,” Gómez said. “I don’t know how long we can dodge, but I think we’ll keep trying.”

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