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Sarah Eckhardt

Rep. Rodriguez concedes in SD14

No runoff after all.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt will succeed former state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, in the Texas Senate after state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez said Monday he is dropping out of the race. Eckhardt and Rodriguez, both Democrats, were poised to face off in a special election runoff for the seat after the two finished first and second, respectively, in the six-way race on July 14.

After Rodriguez’s announcement, Eckhardt said she looked “forward to joining forces with him in the next session to advance our shared progressive values” for the community. Rodriguez congratulated Eckhardt on the race in an email he sent to supporters and said he is looking “forward to working with her to carve a progressive path forward for our shared community.”

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt

Pressure had been building over the past several days for Rodriguez to end his bid for the Senate and instead focus his efforts in the House, where he has served since 2003. Eckhardt finished first in the six-way race for Senate District 14 on July 14 with 49.7% of the vote — just shy of winning outright. Rodriguez, meanwhile, received nearly 34% of the vote for the historically Democratic seat that covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

[…]

Some Eckhardt supporters and Capitol observers argued that Rodriguez was better off helping Democrats gain control of the House, which they are effectively nine seats away from doing, instead of focusing his energy and money on a Senate bid that Eckhardt nearly won outright earlier this month. There were also questions about the timing of a special election runoff and how that could impact Rodriguez’s seat in the House if he were to win the Senate race. Such a vacancy during a legislative session, some argued, could have implications if there is a slim margin between Democrats and Republicans next year.

First, congratulations to Sen.-elect Sarah Eckhardt. This race was a tough choice between two stellar candidates, and I have no doubt she will be a fine, fine Senator.

Second, this is a true team-first move by Rep. Rodriguez. Sure, Eckhardt had a commanding lead and came very close to an outright win on July 14, but Trey Martinez Fischer had a larger lead over now-Sen. Jose Menendez in the SD26 special election in 2015, and we know how that turned out. Because the two candidates were so well-qualified and differed so little on the substantial issues, this would have been the kind of nasty intramural fight over perceived differences and other minor issues that everyone pretty much hates, all happening at a time when we’re otherwise completely focused on November. And yes, you could imagine partisan control of the State House being affected by the need for Rodriguez to resign if he won, since a special election to replace him could not happen until after November. By far, this was the cleanest and least disruptive solution from a holistic perspective.

But even with all that, it’s still asking one person to put aside their legitimate ambition and aspirations for someone else’s, and given how fierce the competition can be to move up the ladder, that’s asking a lot. Rep. Rodriguez deserves a ton of thanks from Texas Dems. If there’s a way that his next preference for something, whether a legislative push or electoral opportunity or whatever, can be prioritized, that would be great. You can see Rep. Rodriguez’s announcement of his concession on Twitter. Go thank him there if you feel so moved.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

Interview with Sarah Eckhardt

Sarah Eckhardt

I have one more interview to present for the July 14 special election in SD14. As noted, there are six candidates running to succeed Kirk Watson, but really just two that merit your attention. Today I have a conversation with Sarah Eckhardt, who just stepped down as Travis County Judge to file for this race. Eckhardt has an LBJ School Master of Public Affairs and law degree from UT. She served six years as Travis County Judge, following two terms on Commissioners Court and eight years before that in the Travis County Attorney’s office. She has served on many boards and commissions, including the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, the Clean Air Coalition, the Texas Freedom Networ, and the LBJ School Dean’s Advisory Council. Here’s what we talked about:

My interview with Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is here. I will be reviewing the primary runoffs of interest going forward.

SD14 special election field is set

There are six candidates in total, but really only two that matter.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Six candidates, including some well-known Austin-area politicians, have filed to run for the July 14 special election to replace retired Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to file to run for the seat.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a longtime Austin Democrat, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are widely considered the two most prominent candidates for Texas Senate District 14, a historically Democratic seat that covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

Sarah Eckhardt

Rodriguez has served in the House since 2003 and has support from most of Travis County’s state House delegation. And Eckhardt, whose last day as county judge was Tuesday, has helped to oversee the community’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two Republicans are also running for the Senate seat: Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member, and Waller Thomas Burns II, who initially filed as an independent.

Former Lago Vista City Council member Pat Dixon is running as a Libertarian, while Jeff Ridgeway is running as an independent candidate. Several others, including Austin City Council member Greg Casar, had been eyeing a run but decided not to join the race.

See here, here, and here for the background. This election was also originally scheduled for May and postponed till July due to coronavirus. I say that only the two Democrats matter in this race because SD14 is a safe Democratic seat. I have a very hard time imagining a scenario where either of the two mainstream, broadly popular Democrats who have previously won multiple elections fail to finish in the top two. One of the could win it outright, but if not then these two will be in the runoff. I may reach out to them for interviews – Lord knows, it will be good to talk about electoral politics again – but in the meantime, you voters in SD14 have a clear decision to make, and can’t go wrong either way.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The election to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat leaving office at the end of April, has been moved to July 14, Abbott announced Monday evening. It ordinarily would have been held May 2.

Two candidates have already announced they’re running for the historically Democratic seat: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who announced last week that she would resign from her position to run for the Senate. Several others have been eyeing a potential run at the seat.

Abbott’s office said postponing the election “is another step the state is taking to protect health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” noting that it was consulting with the secretary of state’s office “on additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election.” It’s unclear whether additional action will be taken to delay municipal elections across the state, which are also slated for May 2.

See here for the announcement of Watson’s resignation, and here and here for the declarations by Rodriguez and Eckhardt. I had been assuming that Abbott would not set a date until after Watson’s resignation was official. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the Sylvia Garcia “intent to resign” saga from 2018, I don’t know. Be that as it may, if there had been a previous announcement of a May 2 special election date, I didn’t see it, and I looked at Greg Abbott’s news releases going back to the date of Watson’s announcement. It may just be that this Trib story is not as clear as it could be, as this tweet demonstrates:

Whatever the case, the proclamation is here. Let’s hope that circumstances do not force it to be pushed back again.

Eckhardt declares for SD14

And now there are two.

Sarah Eckhardt

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt resigned from her position Tuesday ahead of a run for the open seat in the Democrat-leaning Texas Senate District 14.

“I’m leaving the warmth and friendship of public service at the county to seek public service at the state as your next state senator,” Eckhardt said during a tearful speech at the end of a commissioners court meeting. “I’m running to succeed Senator [Kirk] Watson. I can’t fill his shoes, but I am running to succeed him.”

Eckhardt is the second candidate to enter the race to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, who will resign from office at the end of April to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Over the weekend, longtime state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, became the first candidate to formally launch a bid for the Senate seat, which covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

[…]

Eckhardt, who was elected Travis County’s first female county judge in 2015, was required under the Texas Constitution to resign from that office before running for the Legislature. Eckhardt and Rodriguez, who has served in the House since 2003, could soon be joined in the race by Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who recently filed a campaign treasurer report for the Senate seat.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of Eckhardt’s statement. Eckhardt had the tougher decision to make, since Rep. Rodriguez doesn’t have to resign to run for this office; neither will the other candidates, with the possible exceptions of Casar and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer. I get to be neutral in this one, they all look fine to me. My best wishes to the voters of SD14 who will not only have to make a choice among all these good candidates, but as is the case with what is essentially a primary among contenders who won’t differ much on the issues, will also have to survive another primary-type election, complete with inevitable runoff. Godspeed, y’all.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez announces for SD14

Others are sure to follow.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, announced Saturday that he is running for Texas Senate District 14.

“It is truly an honor to even be running [for] the Senate,” Rodriguez said at B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub in Austin, where he kicked off his Senate campaign with supporters. “I want to run for the Senate because I want to make Texas a more progressive place for everyone.”

Rodriguez, who has served in the House since 2003, is the first candidate to formally enter the special election for the historically Democratic seat, which will be vacated by retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, a fellow Austin Democrat, at the end of April. The seat, which covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County, overlaps with Rodriguez’s House seat.

The special election for the seat hasn’t yet been called by Gov. Greg Abbott. The winner will represent the district for the remainder of the term, which ends in 2023.

Rodriguez, flanked by supporters and a fellow member of the House’s Austin delegation, underscored his experience and the relationships he has built while serving in the House — and briefly outlined what he wants to continue working on if elected to the Senate: increasing access to health care and making “sure the government stays the hell out of our bedroom.”

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, introduced Rodriguez before he delivered his remarks, saying the delegation is “100% behind Eddie Rodriguez being the next senator.”

See here for the background. The election will be called by Abbott after Watson’s resignation becomes official, which should put it in November. I know that Rep. Israel had said she was not going to run, as had Rep. Donna Howard, and this makes it sound like none of the other State Reps from Travis County will jump in. Other potential candidates mentioned in the story include Austin City Council member Greg Casar, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt (who has set an agenda item to discuss how her replacement would be named when she resigns as required to run for the legislature), Austin-area attorneys Jose “Chito” Vela and Adam Loewy, and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer. And as previously discussed, this is a safe Democratic seat.