Travis County Commissioners Court District 3 runs from Austin’s downtown core westward to the edge of the Hill Country, so the district covers a lot of ground in more ways than one.
It’s that challenging terrain, literally and metaphorically, that attracted the two Democratic candidates in the July 14 runoff: Ann Howard and Valinda Bolton.
The commissioners court sets and administers policy for county government. It oversees a budget that topped $1 billion last cycle, which funds jails, courts, health care and other services.
Ann Howard led after primary night in early March, but fell a few percentage points short of avoiding a runoff. Until last year, she was the executive director of ECHO, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.
“My record is one of collaboration and coordination with others. And I will continue that,” she said in an interview. “I've never run for office before. I've just been doing the work, the progressive work over the last decade in this community around housing and health care.”
Former state Rep. Valinda Bolton finished second, but believes she will win the runoff. She touts her experience on the House Committee on County Affairs and the fact that her former House district overlapped portions of the county commission district she’s running for now.
“I learned a lot about what counties are dealing with in terms of the pressures of growth and development and all the things that come with that traffic transit, emergency response, disaster preparation, housing affordability,” Bolton said.
House District 47 flipped back to the Republicans in 2010, but now it's in Democratic hands. That leaves the District 3 commissioners court seat as the last Republican-held office in Travis County. The Republican who holds it, Gerald Daugherty, is leaving the commissioners court. He’s served twice, once from 2003-2008 and again from 2013 to the present day.
While Daugherty has historically been opposed to large transit proposals like the current Project Connect, both Howard and Bolton support it. But they also want the southwestern portion of the county to get its fair share of other projects.
Howard says shifting Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization money to a proposed I-35 expansion is important, but it also delays projects along roads like Loop 360 and R.M. 620.
“I need to get to the bottom of how long is the delay then for 620 and 360? Where else can money come from to get those projects done?” she said. “I think we just constantly have to, you know, use a regional lens to know that we're moving people all across the region.”
Like Howard, Bolton favors a regional approach to reducing congestion. But she also says there’s a need for smaller projects, like adding secondary roads to help those who live in the many subdivisions and developments in southwest Travis County get around.
“There's only one way in a lot of them, one way ahead and one way out,” Bolton said. "Every time you want to go somewhere, you have to get out on the main highway, whether that's [State Highway] 71 or 360 or Bee Cave Road.”
Recent protests have highlighted demands for change in the criminal justice system. Both candidates said it already had been on their minds. Howard said she has a comprehensive plan for change.
“Everything from doing what we can to decrease incarceration of people who are not a public safety threat at all to making sure that when folks get out of jail, we know where they're going to live," she said. "So they're safe and we're safe.”
Bolton highlighted her advocacy work for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. She said she would support using the commissioners’ budgetary power for added support of speciality courts and more mental health and drug abuse treatment.
“We could, you know, channel funding and attention and resources differently and put those to work keeping people out of jail in the first place,” she said.
The current commissioners court could decide soon whether to give millions of dollars in tax incentives to Tesla. The electric vehicle maker wants to build a truck manufacturing plant in southeast Travis County.
Howard said she has concerns about Tesla’s labor record and hiring practices, but also believes the potential factory comes at a time when jobs are needed, particularly in East Austin.
“I think if we draft the agreement in a way that we can enforce the agreement or not pay [the incentives],” Howard said. “I will most likely inherit this agreement, and I will enforce it. I will be a hawk to make sure that Tesla is a good community partner.”
Bolton said she also has concerns about the potential deal at a time when local governments and schools are dealing with drops in revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If nothing else, I would say the timing is not great on this issue,” she said. “For the company to bring it forward at this point in time, I think it's maybe, I don't know, a little tone deaf.”
Both women applauded the county’s approach to COVID-19 so far, particularly the cooperation with the City of Austin.
The winner in the runoff will take on Republican Becky Bray in November. She ran unopposed in the March primary. No matter who wins in November, women will once again hold at least three of the five seats on the court.
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