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Precinct chairs ready to elect new county judge

Thursday, August 13, 2020 by Jo Clifton

With former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt taking her seat in the Texas Senate, and no name on the November ballot for Travis County judge, the duty of selecting that nominee falls on the 136 Democratic precinct chairs who normally work on efforts such as getting out the vote. Republicans could also select a nominee for the position, but the party has not chosen to do so. That means whomever the precinct chairs pick this coming Sunday in their Zoom meeting will be the presumptive Travis County judge and will take office in November. Aug. 21 is the deadline for naming that person, according to party Chair Katie Naranjo.

While the three candidates – Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion, former Travis County Democratic Party Chair Dyana Limon-Mercado and former Travis County Democratic Party Chair Andy Brown – may be fairly well known in Democratic political circles, they are not so well known to the general public. Brown, an attorney, lost a race for county judge to Eckhardt in 2014.

Travillion is African American, Limon-Mercado is Latina and Brown is white. According to data gathered by Travillion’s campaign, there are 28 precinct chairs from Precinct 1 (Northeast Travis County), 27 chairs from Precinct 4 (Southeast Travis County), 35 chairs from Precinct 2, and 46 chairs from Precinct 3 (southern and southwest parts of the county). There are numerous vacancies for those unpaid positions and about two-thirds of the precinct chairs are 50 or older, while only about 20 percent are younger than 40. The vast majority of the chairs are white.

A group of 29 local leaders of color, the majority of them women, released a letter Wednesday titled, “Now Is the Time for a Progressive Woman of Color to Lead Travis County,” endorsing the candidacy of Limon-Mercado. The signees include Lesley Varghese, chief of staff for Mayor Steve Adler; media personality Olga Campos; Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the primary; and longtime activists Yvonne Massey Davis and Martha Cotera.

The letter concluded, “An election decided by the people must reflect the people. Our current election process leaves it to 136 individuals to decide the outcome on behalf of 1.27 million people. No doubt this puts enormous pressure on those individuals to decide their vote in a manner that takes into account the full and rich diversity of our county. Travis County is 34 percent Latino, 9 percent African American and 8 percent AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders). We are a diverse community and we deserve leaders that have deep appreciation of who we are; unfortunately, we do not see ourselves represented in this process.” They go on to urge the chairs to elect Limon-Mercado.

The Austin Monitor spoke to the three candidates, all of whom are busy reaching out in different ways to those precinct chairs. (For a full description of the process and conversations with a number of the chairs, see Daryl Slusher’s comprehensive story.)

One of the many important topics the new Travis County judge will face is whether to continue to use the dilapidated jail facility that houses women prisoners. As a commissioner, Travillion has been dealing with questions about rehabilitating facilities or building new ones even while planning for a better outcome than incarceration.

Travillion said that while the jail population has been reduced because of Covid-19, there were 168 women in the jail as of Wednesday morning. He explained that the current women’s facility is old and dilapidated, not worth the cost of rehabilitation. He and the other commissioners had asked for a comprehensive health clinic in the jail that would provide not only health resources, but also treatment for mental health problems, since that is a major problem for many of the prisoners.

“When we got the diagram back it didn’t include the clinical resources we expected and there was even discussion of making it more of a warehouse design,” Travillion said. “That was not acceptable.” He said commissioners still want to ensure that they have medical and mental health resources at the jail. “I know some people would rather not have any jail at all. That is not practical. We need an outstanding facility that prepares people to go back into the community,” he concluded.

Brown rejected the idea of building a new jail facility. He said, “The moment we start talking about building a new jail, we have failed.” Instead, he said the discussion should be about how to “divert people away from jail in the first place.” Brown has said his No. 1 priority is overhauling the criminal justice system, while acknowledging that others, such as the district attorney and the county attorney, have more to do with the issue. The money that the county would spend on the new jail should go into mental health programs, Brown said. He has expressed sympathy for the many people of color who end up in jail, and led an effort to get the Sobering Center set up.

Limon-Mercado said Brown’s thesis that everyone could be diverted from the jail was not practical. “The reality is we have people in jail,” she said, “we want them to have good conditions.” The question for her is, what is the facility we need and how long do we need that facility to last? She said there are questions commissioners and the community must answer as they plan for the new facility. Limon-Mercado described the chairs as “probably the hardest votes to get in all of Travis County.”

Each of the candidates has reflected on the issues facing Travis County. One of the most critical issues is how to fund the numerous things Travis County residents need, especially in light of the economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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