March 9, 2020

Austin Representative Has Unique Record to Trumpet
in Special Senate Clash as Trailblazer on Beer and Cars

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

A Texas House Democrat who sponsored a personal income tax during his debut as a legislator 17 years ago will be running as a free market champion in an upcoming special state Senate battle that the top local elected official in the county where he's based appears poised to enter this week.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is set to resign on Tuesday at a meeting of the commissioners court in a move that will clear the way for a bid for the Senate District 14 seat that will be opening up this spring.

Eckhardt's entry into the ring will set the stage for an epic clash with State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez - a veteran Austin lawmaker who launched a campaign for the vacancy that Democratic State Senator Kirk Watson will be leaving behind when he goes to work at the University of Houston. Rodriguez and Eckhardt can expect to be the early frontrunners in a special SD 14 contest that several other Democrats have been contemplating.

Eckhardt and Rodriguez both have been highly popular with liberals in the Capitol City where the lion share of Watson's constituents are based. Both have long records that they will be touting and forced to defend as Senate contenders - with Eckhardt midway through a second term as the county judge while Rodriguez runs for a new term in the House and the SD 14 seat simultaneously.

But Rodriguez might be the more unconventional of the Senate contender pair in light of the starring role that he's had at the statehouse in the high-profile Tesla and craft beer crusades in recent years. In an arena where Republicans constantly complain about excessive government regulations, Rodriguez has been a stereotype buster who's taken the lead at the Capitol in the fights that aimed to make the car and beer businesses more competitive in the Lone Star State.

Rodriguez - an attorney who'd been an aide to the state representative whose place he took with his initial election in 2002 - faced long odds in the Tesla and craft beer battles that put him at odds with two of the most sacred cows inside the Austin beltway.

Rodriguez scored a major victory for the independent brewers during the 2019 regular session when he played a major role in the crafting of a compromise that he shepherded through the lower chamber with creative maneuvering despite stringent opposition from some of the state's biggest and most influential beer distributors.

Rodriguez pulled that off after reaching across the aisle for help from the only Republican state lawmaker in Travis County - State Senator Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway - as the sponsor for the craft beer plan in the east wing. Buckingham was a valuable ally as a relatively conservative senator who's a key player on Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick's leadership team in a part she has now as the Nominations Committee chair. But the House posed the most imposing challenge of the two chambers by far in the showdown on craft beer last year - and Rodriguez received glowing reviews on both sides of the aisle for his work on the issue.

Rodriguez has been one of the House's most powerful Democrats since early last year with seats on the Calendars Committee, the State Affairs Committee and the Ways & Means Committee. But Rodriguez had encountered an insurmountable obstacle as the sponsor of legislation in 2013 and 2015 that would have given Tesla the right to sell the vehicles it makes directly to consumers in Texas in a sharp break from the longstanding dealer distribution system here.

Rodriguez sought a special carve-out for Tesla with a plan that would exempt manufacturers of battery-operated vehicles from the Texas middleman mandate that traditional brand car dealers had conceived more than 30 years and protected from any significant changes ever since.

Tesla made some initial headway at the Capitol during the regular session seven years ago when the House Business & Industry Committee that included Rodriguez as a member approved a bill that he'd authored on a 4-1 vote with three fellow Democrats and one Republican on board. The only GOP representative in the Austin delegation at the time cast the only opposing vote. But the pro-Tesla measure spent the final month of the 2013 session in the Calendars Committee where it eventually died of neglect with a vote on the lower chamber floor.

Tesla attempted a different approach in 2017 with an-Republican lead sponsor cast that failed to get committee hearings or votes on either side of the rotunda.


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