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Meet the Democratic candidates for Travis County district attorney

A split screen with a man in a suit and tie standing in front of law books and looking at the camera at left and a man in a suit and tie speaking into a microphone.
Renee Dominguez (left) and Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
Attorney Jeremy Sylestine (left) is running against incumbent José Garza for the Democratic nomination for Travis County district attorney.

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Travis County voters will decide between two Democratic candidates for district attorney in the March primary: Jeremy Sylestine and incumbent José Garza, who has held the office since 2021.

The winner will face Republican candidate Daniel W. Betts, who is running unopposed.

Early voting in the primaries runs through Friday, March 1. Election Day is Tuesday, March 5.

Jeremy Sylestine

The Travis County district attorney prosecutes major crimes and felonies. Sylestine said he believes he could do that better than Garza, largely because of his track record in Travis County.

Sylestine was a prosecutor in the Travis County District Attorney's Office for 15 years. He spent much of that time in family justice, which included handling child abuse and domestic violence cases. For the last several years, he has been working as a criminal defense attorney in private practice. He said he's "done it all" and that's what makes him the better candidate.

"I think that is kind of the main difference between my opponent and me, is that I’ve actually done it," Sylestine told KUT. "I came up through the ranks and worked in the courtrooms, so that I know exactly what it takes to put these cases together."

He said he left the office in 2021 because he believed it was heading in the wrong direction. He said the focus should be on victim and survivor safety, and that hasn't been happening under Garza.

“There are very lenient sentences that are being given out for various serious and violent crimes," Sylestine said. "That, to me, is incongruent with what I know Travis County expects from its felony cases and felony prosecutors."

Sylestine argued Garza has relied too heavily on plea deals and that has not kept Travis County safe.

He was also critical of the backlog of felony cases under Garza. He blamed that on the DA's office moving away from jury trials, the pandemic shutting down courtrooms and subsequent staffing shortages.

Sylestine said the backlog means justice is being delayed and in some cases denied. He said he would get back to trying more cases, returning that power to juries, prosecutors and attorneys.

"We know that the system only works when it has that community input," he said.

He said he'd like to see fewer defendants with mental health issues end up in jail and would push to put more resources in jail-diversion programs when appropriate.

Despite not winning any high-profile Democratic endorsements, Sylestine said he has the community’s backing. He has raised more than $250,000, according to a campaign filing from Feb. 5. That’s 10 times more than he reported in January.

José Garza

Back in 2020 when Garza was the challenger, he ran on an unabashedly progressive platform: He was going to prosecute police accused of misconduct and address gaps in sexual assault investigations.

He has tried to make good on that pledge. His office has prosecuted more sexual assault cases than his predecessor, while also tackling gun violence.

Garza has also indicted dozens of police officers, with mixed results. He invoked two high-profile cases in his 2020 campaign: those of Javier Ambler and Mike Ramos. Two sheriff's deputies were charged with manslaughter after Ambler died in police custody in 2019. Jury selection begins this week in that case.

Garza’s office, meanwhile, failed to secure a verdict last year against Christopher Taylor, the Austin police officer who fatally shot Ramos in 2020. Garza also dropped assault charges against 17 APD officers late last year after that wave of indictments made national news in 2022.

Garza told KUT these cases haven't always led to guilty verdicts. They have a high burden of proof and, ultimately, those decisions are up to a Travis County jury.

“These [police misconduct] cases ... are fought more vigorously from the opposition than capital murder cases," he said. "In many of these cases, not only are we litigating against well-funded defense counsel, but also the City of Austin itself.”

Garza’s office did secure a guilty verdict in one high-profile case that also drew national scrutiny. Daniel Perry, the former Army sergeant who fatally shot a Black Lives Matter protester in 2020, was convicted of murder last year. The verdict got the attention of now-fired Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who pressured Gov. Greg Abbott to intervene. Abbott has sought to throw out Perry’s conviction.

Garza's overall approach painted a target on his back — so much so that state lawmakers have sought to rein in “rogue DAs” whom they accuse as being soft on crime. The assertion has also been made against him by his primary opponent.

But Garza argues the DA's office, in conjunction with APD, have worked together to deter crime in Austin.

He admits working with the department has been difficult at times — especially as his office investigates police misconduct and some officers and their union express outright mistrust of his mission.

"I believe there is a gap between the men and women who put themselves in danger every day for the safety of our community and their ... leadership," he said. "Our commitment is to work with law enforcement, to continue to work with law enforcement every day despite those attacks."

Garza points to data from the Austin Police Department that show property crime is down, along with violent crime and homicides — despite claims from Sylestine that suggest the opposite.

Garza said Sylestine is misrepresenting the severity and frequency of crime in his campaign messaging and that he's backed by the Republican establishment.

"It’s not surprising to me that given that that is where his support is coming from that his campaign has been parroting false right-wing talking points for the last several weeks," Garza said.

While Sylestine denies he's being backed by the GOP, three of his top donors collectively gave $200,000 to Gov. Abbott over the last few years. Another paid for an Abbott family trip in 2012. 

Money aside, Garza says he thinks Travis County voters will support him in the primary. 

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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