May 14, 2020

Special SD 14 Fight Has Potential Stalking Horse
Who Could Spoil GOP Visions of Contender in OT

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The emergence of a former federal judge and lawmaker's grandson as an unexpected entry might have ruined the GOP's hopes of scoring a spot in overtime in a special Texas Senate election in the Austin area where the Republicans have rallied behind a contender who's well-known in Capital City political circles.

A pair of seasoned Democratic politicos - former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin - are the clear co-favorites in the special Senate contest that will be on the ballot July 14 in a district that's been a Democratic stronghold.

But former Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman would have had a realistic shot at a runoff in the special Senate District 14 competition if he'd been the lone Republican in the field and Democratic voters split their votes fairly evenly among Rodriguez and Eckhardt.

After falling one vote short of a runoff in an overlapping state House district in the GOP primary election in March, Zimmerman's odds for a comeback in SD 14 appear to have fallen considerably with Waller Thomas Burns II signing up for the special Senate battle as a Republican as well.

The pack of contenders in the race for the seat that Austin Democrat Kirk Watson gave up for a job in academia includes a Lago Vista City Council member Pat Dixon and Jeff Ridgeway filing to run in the special SD 14 election as Libertarian and independent candidates respectively.

The final lineup was set when Eckhardt filed on Wednesday - the deadline for securing spots on the ballot in the special Senate election that will be held on the same day as the Democratic and Republican primary runoffs in Texas.

The special SD 14 vote will be taking place amid unprecedented uncertainty in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that prompted Governor Greg Abbott to postponed the primary election that had been set originally for late May. That could have given Zimmerman more cause for optimism during a pandemic that could have a more adverse effect on Democratic turnout than it does for Republicans. The Democratic Party has been attempting to mitigate that possibility with a push for a reduction in restrictions on voting by mail in a move that Republicans opposed and the courts will decide.

But Zimmerman's visions of a runoff duel with one of the Democratic frontrunners in SD 14 have been clouded substantially by Burns' surfacing as a Republican who will siphon some votes from the ex-local official who GOP leaders and loyalists planned to rally behind.

Burns is an 81-year-old retire Austin lawyer who served as an assistant federal attorney. Burns donated $100 to the Texas Republican Party in 2006 as the only apparent political contribution at the state or federal level during the current century.

Burns' surprise surfacing in the special Senate race will spark speculation on the possibility that he'd been recruited for the contest by Democrats in a move aimed at all but ensuring that one of the frontrunners win.

But Burns has an illustrious family history in politics in Texas where grandfather Waller Thomas Burns had been a rarity as a Republican state senator in a Democratic district in a four-year stint that ended in 1901. Burns was the only Republican in the Legislature's upper chamber during both of the terms that he served there.

The elder Burns who'd been based in Houston as a legislator was appointed to the federal bench by Republican Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 and served on the court for 15 years before falling ill while presiding over a case in Laredo and dying in November 1917.

While the cause of death appeared to remain a mystery, it's conceivable that Burns might have been a victim of the Spanish Flu that was just starting to surface in the months leading up to 1918 when the disease killed an estimated 50 million around the world.

Burns had made headlines around the nation a month before his death when he called for a grand jury investigation and indictments of several U.S. senators who he said should be tried as traitors and executed for opposing the nation's participation in World War I amid news reports that had portrayed them as German sympathizers.

The current state Senate candidate's grandmother who'd been married to the legislator and judge was the granddaughter of the man who'd founded the Central Texas city of La Grange. The grandmother's mother whose maiden name was Maggie Killough was one of eight children whose father was reportedly shot and killed with a double-barrel shotgun at point-blank range in an ambush that the town founder's two sons and a son-in-law were accused of staging in 1878.


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