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Brown, Eckhardt Duke it Out in Dem Primary for Travis Co. Judge,

The retirement of longtime Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe has led to a spirited battle in the Democratic primary to pick his replacement. 

One way to view the race is as a battle between connections and experience. Andy Brown has the connections as leader of the Travis County Democratic Party for the last few years. He's participated in multiple campaigns and raised a bunch of money for local Democratic candidates – so maybe it's no surprise that he's backed by a slew of elected officials.

"I've been endorsed by Congressman [Lloyd] Doggett, by Jim Hightower, by every single Democratic elected official who's endorsed in this race," Brown says. "I've been endorsed by the labor union that represents county employees, the one that represents teachers."

On the other side is former Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who's running on her experience.

"I started out as an intern at the juvenile public defender's office, helping out kids in trouble with the law," Eckhardt says. "Then I went to the country attorney's office for eight years. And then was elected to the commissioners' court in 2006, where I had been doing transportation policy, water policy, a lot of environmental protection work."

The "experience" angle helped net Eckhardt endorsements from the Austin-American Statesman and the Austin Chronicle. And she says her knowledge of what's going on in county government gives her a better ability to work on the local problems.

"The biggest issues in Travis County are the fact that we're running out of water, that the transportation system is choked and we're still mostly reliant on our cars, and that we're having to pay for more and more things with the property tax. And that property tax is breaking peoples' backs," Eckhardt says.

Brown has campaigned on solutions for all those problems as well. Both he and Eckhardt want to see a commuter train line from Williamson County to San Antonio, finally up and running.

Brown wants to increase the homestead exemption for older Travis County residents to help offset increasing property taxes. And water-wise, he wants to push for more conservation.

"The county, working with the city, working with LCRA, working with other governments in our area really could have a big impact on reducing the use of water here," Brown says. "And I think we need to do that before we start spending millions or billions trying to buy water from some other entity."

Both Brown and Eckhardt say they oppose toll roads as a way to fix the area’s increasing traffic congestion. Eckhardt did vote for the managed lane project currently being built on MoPac – but says that's not tolling existing roadways since a new lane is being added in each direction.

She's also against building controversial, long delayed State Highway 45 to help bring commuters from Hays County into Austin.

"We have efficiencies that we can put on I-35 and on MoPac," Eckhardt says. "We've got Lone Star Rail that would bring in a considerable number of people. We're making improvements to Frate Barker Road. We're also making improvements to Manchaca Road and to portions of Brodie Lane in Shady Hollow."

One of Brown's big plans revolves around replicating programs in Houston and San Antonio that deal with people who are drunk in public – without taking them to jail.

"You instead could be taken to a sobriety center, where the police officer picks you up, drops you at the sobriety center," Brown says. "Within 10 minutes the police officer's back on the street patrolling, the person has a safe place to sleep off the intoxication, does not get a criminal record because they have not been arrested, and then the next day is steered towards either supportive housing or treatment options if those are needed."

Brown says the center should eventually save the county money by keeping those low level offenders out of jail and the legal system.

Early voting ends tomorrow. Primary day is Tuesday. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Mike McNamara in the fall.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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