Inside Senator Sarah Eckhardt’s Big Gamble

by | Jun 10, 2021 | Austin, Politics

In the pantheon of Texas royalty, there are few politicians with more cachet than State Senator Sarah Eckhardt (D-14). Her mother, Nadine, worked as assistant with LBJ and legendary political firebrand Molly Ivins, and was also the first wife of author Billy Lee Brammer—the heralded, if mercurial, mind behind “The Gay Place.” Her father, Bob, a U.S. congressman who represented Houston’s 8th district, was one of the most important liberal voices in Texas politics for decades. 

Growing up in that environment, one so ensconced in political discourse, left an indelible mark on Eckhardt, she said. For one, she learned early on that fighting for progressive values in Texas was an uphill battle long before the likes of George W. Bush, Rick Perry, and Greg Abbott resided in the Governor’s Mansion. But just as importantly, she was exposed to the intangible, but oftentimes vital, strategies needed for winning hard-fought political victories. Namely, a seersucker suit and a twangy drawl. 

9:10“My father was a Southern gentleman with a ridiculously thick Southern accent. He wore a bow tie and seersucker suits and a Stetson Statesman. One time, I asked him where he got that ridiculous accent… because it did not sound like was from Texas,” she said. “He told me, ‘Well, when I was coming up as a boy, the height of polite society in the traditional South was to sound like you were from a Georgia plantation. If you dress like I do and sound like I do, the Dixiecrats won’t see you coming. They’ll think you’re one of them.'”

Eckhardt didn’t adopt her father’s accent, but she absorbed the meaning behind his message: Fighting for your beliefs, especially in a roomful of people who don’t agree with you, isn’t all about bluster. It takes patience, a strategy, and, at times, a little creativity.

Lessons like that stick with you, Eckhardt said. So, after an acting stint in New York City that included graduating with a theater degree from NYU, she returned to Texas to work with Ann Richards’ 1990 gubernatorial campaign—an experience that further ignited her political passions. In the decades since, the Austin resident has blazed her path as an acutely skilled defender of Democratic values in Texas. The past 15 years, during which she served on the Travis County Commissioners Court and was subsequently elected as a county judge, have been especially formative for the senator. But it wasn’t until stalwart state Senator Kirk Watson announced his resignation last March that Eckhardt had the chance to truly put her father’s advice into practice. 

Running for Watson’s suddenly vacant seat wasn’t an easy decision, Eckhardt admitted. It also wasn’t one that was made conventionally. Standing in her front yard on a spring day last year, she flipped a coin to determine if she’d embark on a journey that would carry her far beyond the cozy confines of Travis County, where she’d become a revered protector of progressive policies. If the coin came up “heads,” she’d stay put; if it landed on “tails,” she’d ramp up her campaign. It was a fittingly 2020 way to consider such a weighty decision. 

“Truth be told, it came up ‘heads,’ meaning I wouldn’t run. But I just felt terrible, like I wasn’t doing the right thing, like I was missing out,” she said. “I felt like the next step, the real work, was at the state level, no matter how grueling and unfun it may be. That’s where change is so sorely needed.”

So, rather than bending to the will of the coin gods, Eckhardt ran anyway—a move that irrecoverably altered her professional future and sharpened her political wits. After winning Watson’s vacant seat last summer on a platform that championed criminal justice reform, pandemic-related health and economic aid, and water preservation–centric climate change policy, she geared up for a 2021 Texas Legislature that promised to be among the most harrowing to date. Needless to say, she wasn’t disappointed.

Over the past several months, Lone Star Republicans have levied a relentless onslaught against voting rights, public safety, and a variety of vulnerable populations. From severely limiting women’s access to abortions and codifying permitless carry to doubling down on election laws that will irrefutably damage Texans’ ability to cast a ballot  (especially those in communities of color), conservatives have left no extreme right-wing stone unturned. It’s been crushing blow after crushing blow not just for Democrats, but residents of the state, who are sorely in need of things like an updated power grid and Medicaid expansion. 

It’s also been one hell of a time to be a freshman senator. 

“I haven’t been surprised by this session—or, as I call it, suppression session. It’s been as bad as I thought it would be,” Eckhardt said. “The main takeaway is we, the Legislature, are suppressing the hell out of people who are traditionally suppressed. Not shocking whatsoever. What is surprising, though, is that the current leadership is also suppressing the hell of their own people.”

The latter point is a bit of insider baseball from Eckhardt, who’s watched Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick relentlessly (and oftentimes aimlessly) deploy bully tactics against his fellow Republicans to kill otherwise popular bills. It also speaks to the perspective she’s gained in her first go-around as a state senator, an experience that will include at least one special session and redistricting in the coming months. Given how frustrating it’s been to watch Texas’ leaders forgo any semblance of responsible government, it’s fair to wonder: Does she regret her decision to wander beyond Travis County? 

That’s where Eckhardt points to her early schooling in Texas politics. Yes, she said, this has been an undeniably difficult session. But given her father’s days of battling Dixiecrats, given the memories her mother shared about LBJ’s numerous political obstacles, given the inspiration she gained from observing Molly Ivins for so many years, she knows this is hardly the first time democratic ideals have been under attack in this state. Even more, she sees this as the latest opportunity for Democrats to amplify Texas’ true values and boldly protect the will of the people. 

“There is this fabricated mythos of Texas, of what it means to be Texans. You look at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who’s not even from this state, and he appropriately personifies this brash, callous set of values that’s taken root in our reputation and our politics,” she said. “But the real Texas is one grounded in people arriving here looking to build a new utopia, a melting pot—one based in progressive, democratic values. Yes, we are undoubtedly living in interesting times. But this is our time to shine.”

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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