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County judge selection up to precinct chairs

Friday, June 12, 2020 by Jo Clifton

When Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced in March that she would resign from her job as the leader of the Commissioners Court in order to run for Senate District 14, it set in motion a series of events that will likely culminate in county Democratic precinct chairs electing the next Travis County judge.

So far, three Democrats are seeking to have their names placed on the November ballot for county judge: Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Travis County Democratic Party Chair Dyana Limon-Mercado and attorney Andy Brown. Brown is a former chair of the Travis County Democratic Party and ran against Eckhardt for the party’s nomination for county judge in 2014. Eckhardt was reelected in 2018, so whoever wins the seat in November will fill out the rest of her term, which ends in 2022.

Limon-Mercado, who has served as party chair for the past 27 months, announced last week that she would be resigning in order to pursue the county judge nomination. Her last day as chair will be Aug. 3, and precinct chairs will select her successor on that day.

There were no county judge candidates on either the Democratic or Republican primary ballot on March 3, because Eckhardt was expected to continue in her position. So, there is no Republican candidate running for county judge. Party spokesman Andy Hogue said Wednesday that because it is so difficult for Republicans to win countywide, no one has come forward to ask for the job. However, if that were to happen, Republican precinct chairs would have the job of choosing that candidate.

Cindy Flint, executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party, said there are 136 precinct chairs who are eligible to vote, both to select a county judge candidate and to choose a new party chair.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott postponed the May runoff elections to July 14 as well as the election to take over the Senate District 14 seat that Sen. Kirk Watson vacated in order to become dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. In addition to Eckhardt, state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is running as a Democrat, former Council Member Don Zimmerman and attorney Waller Thomas Burns are running as Republicans, Pat Dixon is running as a Libertarian, and Jeff Ridgeway is running as an independent candidate for the Senate seat.

In an email to all county chairs, Limon-Mercado said each candidate for party chair should notify her in writing before the agenda is sent out on July 27. The agenda will include the names of those who have notified her of their intentions, she wrote, but “a candidate who did not provide written notice may still offer themselves as a candidate for consideration at the meeting.”

So far, there are two candidates for Travis County Democratic Party chair: Ed Espinoza and Katie Naranjo. Both have considerable political experience.

Espinoza, 47, is executive director of Progress Texas, which promotes progressive voices in traditional and digital media. Espinoza has worked on five presidential campaigns and was the Democratic Party’s western states director during President Obama’s first term. He told the Austin Monitor he has “an 80 percent win record in 15 or 16 states,” and his work includes local, state and national races. “We are at a critical point in Travis County where we have to elevate black and brown voices,” he told us. “Democrats run Travis County, but the way we can really make an impact in the state of Texas is by running up the score in Travis County.” He managed Council Member Paige Ellis’ campaign and is her partner.

Naranjo, 34, founded a political consulting firm called GNI Strategies, which she sold in 2018. Although she lives in Austin, Naranjo serves as CEO for her family’s home health care company in East Texas. In addition to working on more than 120 campaigns, including state, county and city races as well as ballot propositions, Naranjo pointed out that she has been involved in politics for many years, including a stint as president of the College Democrats of America. She has consulted on numerous campaigns, including Mayor Steve Adler’s first race.

Both Espinoza and Naranjo stressed the importance of supporting democratic ideals and racial equality during this time of upheaval.

According to an email from Limon-Mercado, another possible candidate for county chair, Ana Gonzalez, has indicated that she will not be pursuing the position. However, she urged more people to apply for the unpaid position. Limon-Mercado told precinct chairs that they should not “get caught up in the conversation about who can raise the most money.” She said she did not grow up in a wealthy family, but was a highly successful fundraiser for the party, bringing in more than $1.1 million in 27 months, according to her email.

In February, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes named Limon-Mercado as its new executive director. According to the group’s announcement, under her leadership as deputy director, the organization has grown to 1 million supporters since 2013.

Limon-Mercado said she decided to run for county judge as a result of her experience in Austin, where she was born and raised. She said her family has been in Austin for the last 130 years and she is the first member to graduate from college. She has a master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, as does one of her opponents, Commissioner Jeff Travillion.

She also stresses her experience in organizing, noting that she has experience working at Austin Municipal Court, where she saw injustice in the processing of complaints, and at the Texas Legislature, where she worked on legislation to remedy some of those problems.

Travillion was elected to the Precinct 1 seat in 2016 and is currently slated to be on the November ballot for the same job. Before his election, Travillion had more than 30 years’ experience working in the public and private sectors, including 16 years with the city of Austin. He retired at the end of 2016 as the leader of the neighborhood enhancement team in the Austin Code Department. He has also served as chair of the communications committee for the Texas State Conference of the NAACP. Travillion told the Monitor, “I just felt like I’ve had pretty significant experiences in state and local government and civil rights organizations, and I thought if there was a time to step up, now might be that time.”

If Travillion is selected as the Democratic nominee for county judge, precinct chairs in Precinct 1 will then be asked to select the nominee for that commissioner’s seat, he said. If Travillion is not selected for the county judge position, he will run for reelection to his current position as previously planned.

Attorney Andy Brown sent precinct chairs a glossy flyer pointing out that he is the only candidate in the race for county judge with experience as an EMT. “We can count on him to make sure our first responders receive the personal protective equipment they need to stay safe and keep our families safe,” his flyer says. Brown told the Monitor that his service to Travis County as chair of the committee that eventually convinced city and county leaders to set up the county sobering center was pivotal in his decision to put his name forward as county judge. (Full disclosure: Brown serves on the board of directors of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the Austin Monitor.)

The county judge vote will likely take place Aug. 16, the day previously set for a meeting of all precinct chairs. Democrats have until Aug. 23 to notify the Texas secretary of state what name they have selected for the November ballot.

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