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County Judge Sam Biscoe: Pinch-hitting during an extraordinary year

Tuesday, December 29, 2020 by Jasmine Lopez

County Judge Samuel Biscoe stepped out of retirement this year to reprise his role as Travis County Judge, a position he held from 1999 to 2014. Biscoe’s return to public service came after his successor, Sarah Eckhardt, ran to replace Sen. Kirk Watson at the Texas Capitol.

Biscoe’s colleagues asked him if he would be interested in stepping back into his old role, five years after he had described himself as fully retired. Biscoe admitted that, after five years in retirement, he felt well rested, and didn’t take long to think it over.

“I thought the opportunity would be simple and fun and give me something to do,” Biscoe said. “The key managers at the county had been with the county when I was last employed, so it was more like a homecoming than if I was going to a new job and had to interact with new people.”

Biscoe said two major changes he wasn’t anticipating were the worsening progression of the Covid-19 pandemic and the new workplace culture that came with working remotely.

“(Covid-19) was not nearly as grave of a situation as it is now (when I accepted the position),” Biscoe said. “Telework is really a lot different than facing people every day. If you sit down and talk with a person, the interaction is a whole lot livelier and more meaningful than if you talk with somebody over the phone or computer. ”

Covid-19 also disrupted the transition in power between Biscoe and Eckhardt. Biscoe had committed to starting in March, but worked on a part-time basis before fully settling into the role in May. This came after Gov. Greg Abbott pushed the special election back two months from May to July, allowing Eckhardt to continue to work as Travis County Judge for two more months before stepping down to prepare to run for Senate.

Biscoe said it was during the transitioning period from March to May that he acclimated to working remotely, a method he was not very familiar with, as it had never been previously required.

“When I was a judge, I had four assistants, so I wouldn’t spend my time on the computer,” Biscoe said. “I spent my time talking on the phone, basically giving my assistants directions to do different stuff. That’s how we got a whole lot done.”

His minimal computer skills, coupled with technical difficulties, amounted to a frustrating first few weeks as he adjusted. Now, Biscoe said, his computer skills have improved dramatically.

The pandemic continued to define Biscoe’s interim term as Travis County Judge, leaving him to make community health guidelines with other community members such as city and county health officials, scientists and emergency service personnel.

Biscoe clarified that he didn’t choose to close the bars in the county; rather, that decision was implemented by Abbott, who later left bar reopenings at the discretion of county judges. Biscoe said he thinks the person who closed the bars ought to reopen them, so he shifted that responsibility back to the governor.

“When it comes to making the other decisions regarding Covid-19, it’s pretty much the same sort of group analysis, group communication and group decision-making,” Biscoe said. “For example, I joined the others and basically issued an order prohibiting evictions.”

Biscoe said from his interim term, he is proudest of his role in prohibiting evictions, an attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19 by allowing people to shelter in place in their homes.

Biscoe recognized that banning evictions put a financial strain on landlords. He also said restricting restaurants and bars has been financially damaging to these establishments.

“I would favor providing some sort of financial assistance to those landlords and small-business owners,” Biscoe said. “We have tried to reach out and help some, but it’s really been far below what is necessary.”

Biscoe said the rest of the CARES Act was used to fund programs to help small businesses and individuals impacted by Covid-19.

“In addition to small businesses, we also had to find a lot of other Covid relief measures that help our community,” Biscoe said. “A whole lot of it went into protective equipment, and dealing with medical needs, child care, things that the Covid virus basically caused.”

Biscoe said he would have favored financial assistance to keep small businesses solvent. “And if not enable them to profit more, at least to help them survive. And I think we have fallen short of doing that.”

His interim term also witnessed a renewed urgency in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We have evolved into a better community, and because of that our expectations are much higher,” says Biscoe, who grew up in segregated Tyler, Texas. “And because we believe in those expectations and principles, we will get out there and fight for them. Luckily, the media has helped us keep it on the forefront, put out wrongdoing, emphasize what it takes to do it right.”

Biscoe’s plans for re-retirement include playing golf, donating to organizations dedicated to helping youth, and reading his collection of Western novels, his favorite genre of book and movie.

Photo courtesy of the office of County Judge Sam Biscoe.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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