February 18, 2020

Local Leaders Emerge in First Wave of Names
for Special Senate Showdown in Austin Area

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The initial pool of potential Democratic contenders in a special Texas Senate election in the Capital City contains an Austin city council member who's been a champion for the homeless and a high-ranking local official who made a bizarre remark about the freakish injury that has relegated Governor Greg Abbott to a wheelchair for almost three dozen years.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Greg Casar expressed their interest on Tuesday in an upcoming opening in the Legislature's upper chamber that Austin Mayor Steve Adler might be inclined to pursue as well in the wake of Democratic State Senator Kirk Watson's decision to resign at the end of April after accepting a job in higher education.

The early sentiment inside the statehouse beltway is that State Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin could have the best odds in a special Senate District 14 battle if she runs for the post as a result of the fundraising and networking advantages that she has as Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa's daughter.

But a pair of trio of Democratic colleagues - Austin State Reps. Donna Howard, Celia Israel and Eddie Rodriguez - would all be formidable candidates as well if any one or all of them dives into the fray that Watson ignited when he revealed that he'd be stepping down from the Senate less than halfway through his current four-year term.

The Republican governor who will call a special election to pick Watson's successor might find the lawmakers who are being mentioned as Senate contenders to be less offensive despite their status as Democrats than the local leaders who are in the early mix of possible candidates in SD 14.

Eckhardt - the first woman to serve as the top official in the county where Texas government is based - sparked a furor in September when she declared that Abbott doesn't like trees because one fell on him. Abbott had pitched his support during a 2017 special session behind a proposal that would have made it harder for local governments in Texas to block private property owners from removing trees on their land without official permission.

Eckhardt had been referring to an accident that cost Abbott the use of his legs when a tree limb crashed down on him while he was jogging in Houston in 1984. The tragedy has been a hot topic of recent conversation in a Texas House primary fight in the Houston area where Republican candidate Claver Kamau-Imani contended last week that Abbott has a "spine of overcooked linguine."

Eckhardt, who won a second term as as county judge in 2018, confirmed that she's contemplating a bid in a special contest in the heavily-Democratic Senate district that Watson has represented for more than 13 years. Eckhardt showered Watson with praise as speculation bubbled on the possibility that the outgoing incumbent had been grooming her to be his successor in the Capitol's east wing.

"If I win, I will switch out Senator Watson's shoes for the first pair of heels to walk in that position," Eckhart said. "I am the first woman county judge in Travis County. I am considering running to be the first woman senator in District 14."

Abbott has appeared to be more preoccupied with a war of words with Adler on the governor's disdain for Austin's approach to dealing with a growing number of homeless people here. Adler has staunchly defended the homelessness policies that have drawn the governor's wrath.

But Casar had the lead role in the homeless ordinance's conception as a second-term council member who's been regarded as its most liberal member. Casar, who's in the midst of his second council term in a north Austin district, is the son of Mexican immigrants.

Casar helped spearhead a statewide legal challenge to the state law that banned sanctuary cities in Texas in 2017.

more to come ...


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