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Is money going to decide Travis County races?

Friday, July 10, 2020 by Jo Clifton

With early voting ending today for Tuesday’s Travis County runoff elections, the Democratic candidates for district attorney and county attorney were busy making phone calls trying to coax pandemic-weary voters to the polls. They were also filing campaign finance reports and perusing their opponents’ filings.

In the race for Travis County district attorney, challenger José Garza reported total political contributions of more than $548,000 from Feb. 23-July 4. He had some help in that from a group called the Texas Justice & Public Safety Political Action Committee, as well as the Real Justice PAC out of San Francisco. Other committees helping José Garza include the Workers Defense in Action PAC and the Austin Firefighters Association PAC, both located in Austin.

Philanthropist George Soros contributed $652,000 to the Texas Justice & Public Safety PAC between March 11 and May 29. According to Garza’s opponent, District Attorney Margaret Moore, the PAC spent more than $600,000 on digital media and glossy mail advertisements to help Garza. Moore’s campaign released a blistering attack on those expenditures saying, “The amount of money being poured into the district attorney’s race is alarming and abhorrent. Local elections should be decided by people from this community, free from the crushing influence of outside spending by PACs that are not accountable to this county.”

Garza says this number is incorrect and that his campaign staff have verified that the PAC actually spent $409,000 to help his campaign. They may have spent additional funds to help other candidates, he said.

He told the Austin Monitor, “I am proud to be supported by national, state and local organizations and people who are deeply committed to criminal justice reform. And our campaign is fueled by a grassroots movement that is demanding change. We received over 4,500 individual contributions that average less than $50, but what I think is more important is that in the last two weeks alone over 200 volunteers have made phone calls on behalf of our campaign and we are on pace to easily make over 200,000 phone calls by election day. My opponent, on the other hand, is the single largest recipient of campaign contributions from law enforcement organizations on the July 14 ballot.”

Moore, who trailed Garza in the March 3 primary by just three points – 41 percent to Garza’s 44 percent – reported raising just under $160,000 and spending about $146,000 during the same time, although Garza says Moore far outspent in the March primary. Things have changed considerably since then.

During the March-July period, the Travis County Sheriffs Law Enforcement Association PAC gave Moore in excess of $10,000, while the Greater ATX National Women’s Political Caucus PAC contributed $500, according to Moore’s most recent campaign finance report.

Moore also received contributions of $10,000 from Austin attorney Adam Loewy and Beaumont attorney Wayne Reaud. She also received $5,000 from Ben Barnes, and another $5,000 from former Judge Charlie Baird. Former Sheriff Margo Frasier contributed $350 and retired Admiral Bobby Inman gave $2,000. The winner of this contest will face Republican Martin Harry in November.

Over in the county attorney’s race, there is less money and less finger-pointing going on between Assistant County Attorney Laurie Eiserloh and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza.

There has been a considerable amount of advertising, mostly by mail and online, but except for arguments about whether Garza has enough legal experience to do the job, there has been little back-and-forth. One group called Austin Communities First Political Action Committee specifically stated that it was opposed to Delia Garza on its first filing, but noted instead on the second filing that it was supporting Eiserloh.

Eiserloh reported raising nearly $190,000 between Feb. 23 and July 4. Delia Garza reported contributions of about $102,000 over the same time period.

Eiserloh, who has many years of experience in the county attorney’s office, received a $5,000 contribution from the Travis County Sheriffs Law Enforcement Association PAC in May and an additional $1,500 from the group in June. However, she told the Austin Monitor that she returned those contributions. She also received $15,000 from the law firm of Minton Bassett Flores & Carsey as well as individual contributions from numerous lawyers and the Liberal Austin Democrats, the National Women’s Political Caucus PAC and the political action committee for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Delia Garza – who is not related to José Garza – is a former firefighter. She received $5,000 each from the political action committees for Austin firefighters and Austin EMS workers. She also received contributions from a number of her colleagues on City Council, including Mayor Steve Adler. Armbrust and Brown, a City Hall lobbying firm, contributed $5,000 to Garza’s campaign, as did several other land use attorneys, including Steve Drenner.

In the race for the Democratic nomination for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 3, Ann Howard is facing Valinda Bolton. The Travis County Sheriffs Law Enforcement Association PAC endorsed Howard on its Facebook page, but according to her campaign finance report, she returned a contribution to the group after making a pledge not to accept any law enforcement contributions, according to campaign consultant David Butts. Howard has raised a total of $84,696.

Bolton reported raising less than $27,000 in contributions and spending nearly $47,000 during the most recent time period. She received contributions from three different PACs, but none of them are related to law enforcement. All three are funded by labor unions, including the Communication Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Southwest Laborers District Council PAC. However, their contributions were not large, with the largest one coming from the CWA Cope PAC, which gave Bolton $1,000. The winner of this race will face Republican Becky Bray in November.

This story has been updated to include Howard’s total. Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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