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Lawyer says Garza should follow city finance rules

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Within hours of signing up to run in the March Democratic primary for Travis County Attorney, Delia Garza had an opponent whose name will not be appearing on the 2020 ballot. Bill Aleshire, who retired from his job as county judge at the end of 1998, sent a letter via email to Garza urging her either to immediately resign from the Austin City Council or pledge to voters that she would abide by the city’s campaign contribution regulations.

Garza announced that she would not run for reelection to her District 2 seat about a month ago, but she could not officially announce her candidacy for Travis County attorney until the last couple of days or she would lose her Council seat under state law.

If Garza were running for reelection, the city’s campaign finance regulations would prohibit her from receiving more than $400 from any individual. Lobbyists are prohibited from contributing more than $25 to any campaign. Travis County lacks such regulations and candidates for county positions have been collecting donations for several months. Although Garza has not done so, a political action committee has been gathering campaign funds to assist her in the race.

Aleshire went on to denigrate Garza’s experience as a lawyer and stated that if she were elected, she would be “the least qualified County attorney in Travis County’s history. Your ability to lead that law office would be suspect from Day One.”

Garza was an Austin firefighter before attending law school and worked in the child support section of the Texas Attorney General’s office before running for City Council. She now serves as Council’s mayor pro tem.

She told the Austin Monitor via text, “I disagree with this position and I’m not intimidated by his tactics.”

Other candidates in the Democratic primary are former Judge Mike Denton, Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh and defense attorney Dominic Selvera. Andy Hogue, spokesman for the Travis County Republican Party, said there were no Republican candidates for the post as of 5:45 p.m. on Monday, 15 minutes before the deadline to file. So the winner of the Democratic primary will be the presumptive county attorney.

In addition to criticizing Garza for her lack of experience in practicing law, Aleshire said the city’s campaign finance laws are intended “to promote public faith that votes by Council members for special interests – like you so often have done – are not tied to who gave the Council member the most money.”

Aleshire picked one of Austin’s preeminent lobbyists, Richard Suttle, as an imaginary example, saying he could contribute $10,000 to Garza’s campaign and she would cast her vote “his way” on the Land Development Code. Suttle told the Austin Monitor that he has not given Garza or her PAC any money and that he does not make such large contributions to candidates.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, an ally and friend of Garza’s, took a break from Monday’s lengthy consideration of revisions to the land use code to tell the Austin Monitor, “Delia and Council members have followed much stricter campaign finance rules for years than county (elected officials ) have to. It’s so clear that Delia has followed not only all of the county’s ethics rules that have applied to people like Bill and all the county elected officials,” and she has also “not accepted contributions for months while other people running for office have accepted money. So I think it’s absurd if not dishonest to call out Delia for this when frankly county officials have always been able to accept unlimited contributions for years.”

He also criticized Aleshire for calling out Garza, “a young, progressive woman of color … while he’s excluding any of his friends,” though he did not name any friends of Aleshire’s who might be affected by such rules.

“I’m fine with the county having their own rules. But it’s wrong to blame Delia for following the rules. If he had these concerns he should have brought this up for himself and other county officials” long ago, Casar said.

Casar later sent a text saying that the PAC to draft Garza “is following all transparency rules and will post all our donors and all the dollar figures on schedule just like anyone would.”

Garza’s situation appears to be unique at this point, because City Council members rarely run for another office while sitting on Council. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson stepped down from his city job in 2001 to run against Greg Abbott for attorney general. Later, Watson was elected to the Texas Senate, where he still serves. In 1948, Homer Thornberry was elected to Congress from his seat on the Council before going on to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The date that Watson stepped down from Council has been corrected since publication. Photo courtesy of ATXN.

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