On Sunday, Travis County Democrats nominated attorney and former Beto O’Rourke advisor Andy Brown as their candidate for county judge, the county’s top executive office.
Brown will face off against a Republican opponent who will almost assuredly lose in November. In 2014, the last time a Republican candidate was on the ballot, now-retiring incumbent Sarah Eckhardt won her first election to the office by 29 percentage points.
Brown, who sought the office in 2014 after leading Travis County Democrats for five years, tells the Signal he is taking nothing for granted and plans to campaign hard to boost turnout as much as possible in Texas’ first presidential election without straight-ticket voting.
If elected, Brown would begin his term as soon as votes are counted instead of waiting until January to be sworn in — a result of Eckhardt’s resignation to run for the Texas Senate. The winner in November will fulfill the remainder of Eckhardt’s term, set to expire in 2022. Brown says he plans to run for county judge again.
He is promising criminal justice reform, economic relief from COVID-19, including continued rental assistance and eviction moratoriums, more testing and tracing, more county dollars for healthcare and housing, and a Green New Deal for the county to reduce emissions and combat climate change.
The latter is an eye-catching pitch that fits right at home in Travis County, won comfortably by Sen. Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday. Brown’s proposal for a fun-sized Green New Deal would see the creation of a county works program to improve watershed stabilization and transportation as well as preserve and restore local lands.
On healthcare, Brown said he wants more county funding for mental and behavioral healthcare in underserved areas and is pushing for a new healthcare clinic in Del Valle.
Brown is also advocating Medicare for All and plans to work with state legislators to push for the state to cover residents. Last year, Washington became the first state in the nation to create a state-sponsored health care plan for universal coverage. Similarly, more than a dozen state legislatures across the country have seen bills filed for their own single-payer plans. Many of those bills would consolidate federal funds from Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act to provide universal coverage in their state. Texas has yet to meet the initial hurdle of expanding Medicaid to replicate those measures. In a dangerous game of political brinkmanship that has cost the lives of thousands of Texas, Republicans have repeatedly declined to accept federal federal funds offered by the ACA to expand Medicaid, keeping Texas’ uninsured population too high for the state to feasibly offer universal coverage to fill in the gaps.
“The state has a duty to provide health coverage for people in Texas,” Brown said. “Instead, that duty falls to the counties, which are hamstrung by the way they can collect taxes through property taxes.”
In Texas, cities and counties can only raise property taxes by 3.5 percent before triggering an election due to a new law opposed by municipalities signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott last year.
Brown said many of his ideas won’t be possible without serious criminal justice reform first. Reducing county investment in jails, reducing jail populations, and reducing the number of people flowing through the criminal justice system would allow the county budget to be used in more creative ways, he said.
He pointed to scrapping plans for a $79 million women’s jail as a good place to start.
Plans for the jail were halted in 2018 after pushback from activists but the proposal has since resumed.
“The minute we are talking about building a new jail, we’ve failed,” Brown said. “We don’t want to be building jails, we want to be doing things that will keep people from going to jail.”
Brown views major criminal justice reform in the county not just a moral obligation, but a fiscally-minded budgetary concern too.
Of Travis County’s $882 million general fund budget, 22 percent is allocated to the justice system, 17 percent to the general government, and another 17 percent for corrections & rehabilitation. Those agencies and services make up the top three appropriations for the county budget. Health, infrastructure, economic and community development collectively make up 13 percent of the fund.
Due to the pandemic-driven economic recession, counties across the nation are already tightening their budgetary belts, including Travis County, where commissioners court has frozen employee salaries, increased property taxes, and is planning for concessions and cuts — including to jails — to balance the budget, according to the Austin Monitor. It comes at a time when protests against police killings of Black Americans have motivated cities to trim the budget of police departments and reinvest funding elsewhere. Most recently, Austin City Council targeted up to $150 million in funding for its police department.
“Because of the economic strain that we’re in, we just can’t afford using any of our bonding capacity on a new jail,” Brown said. He said the county’s pre-pandemic work of reducing jail bookings through diversion programs and a Sobering Center, which he helped found in 2014, have saved the county millions annually.
Misdemeanor jail bookings dropped dramatically under Eckhardt’s tenure, but accucastions of the county’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, reports of racial disparities in the county jail, coupled with the fact that an overwhelming majority of pre-trial defendants in the jail had yet to be convicted of a crime, were some of the issues that drew the ire of activists and criminal justice advocates over the years. Most of that pressure was faced by incumbent Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who was defeated last month in a primary against public defender and Workers Defense Project executive director José Garza.
The pandemic has further pushed Travis County to reduce the number of people in its jails. Officials have accelerated inmate releases and chose not to levy cash bail for people accused of nonviolent offenses. A total of 1,861 people are currently in jail in Travis County, down from 2,164 in March when officials began to reduce jail populations because of the pandemic.
“We need to keep that same attitude going forward and even improve beyond that,” Brown said.