Soon to be 70-year-old Republican commissioner clears the field for fresh blood
Hailed as the “Godfather of Travis County Republican Party” in last evening’s press release, County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak thanked Gerald Daugherty for his 14 years of service on the dais of the Travis County Commissioners Court.
His Precinct 3 turf lies in southwest Travis County, over the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. That’s an area of a vast underground karst rock formation through which flows much of the water that recharges iconic Barton Springs Pool. Also importantly the aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people who live in homes and depend on wells.
Representing that fragile area has often put Daugherty in the crosshairs of environmental organizations as he sought to push through completion of a 3.6-mile toll-road segment of State Highway 45 that connects Loop 1 (MoPac Expressway) in the west to Farm to Market Road 1626 in the east. The roadway traverses the sensitive karst aquifer and raises fears that pollution from car traffic and potential spills will pollute the irreplaceable source of drinking water.
Long a foe of transit
Daugherty has been an ardent foe of mass transit projects for decades. Back in the late 1990s, anyone who attended a breakfast meeting at the Metropolitan Business Club, which starts at a red-eyed 7am, were bound to hear him take his turn to stand up and introduce himself by asking, “How many of you rode the bus to get here this morning?”
His relentless criticism of Capitol Metro boiled over in opposing bonds for the construction of Metro Rail service in a November 2000 election. Along with retired high-tech executive Jim Skaggs, and aided by former City Council Member Max Nofziger, that tiny team narrowly defeated the bond election that would have paid to build rail lines.
Liberal supporters of the rail bonds included massive numbers of high-tech executives who poured big money into supporting the bonds. But their ill-organized political ground game was stopped cold by Daugherty’s little band of opponents.
What stopped the bond supporters were chiefly two things:
• A bumper sticker that said, “Costs too much, does too little.” Rail
advocates never managed to undercut those deadly six words.
• Perhaps just as importantly, the Texas Legislature—which was to meet in January 2001, just two months after the rail election—was salivating over the possibility of taking Capital Metro’s one penny sales-tax income in addition to breaking into the $100 million-plus piggy bank the agency had put aside to help fund the rail project.
It was literally now-or-never for Capital Metro and rail advocates to woo voter approval for the bonds. Under that deadline, Capital Metro’s plans were not quite as refined and vetted with concerned citizens as they needed to be. So the public was offered a rail route with unknown or unpopular rail-station locations and not enough of an explanation to overcome resistance.
Plans to run a rail line down the middle of South Congress, for example, had the Merchants Association up in arms over the perceived loss of parking and impeded customer access, due to a road-blocking rail station in the middle of the avenue.
Some of the neighborhoods that would be bisected by the rail lines were also strongly opposed.
Though outspent by 6 to 1, Daugherty and company prevailed with a margin of 50.4 percent “no” to 49.6 percent “yes.”
The city demographer’s chart shows that, the closer to the city’s core, the higher the support for the bonds. But support quickly faded outside that central core. There also were large pockets of even more anemic support in north Austin as well.
That narrow but highly significant victory over the mountains of money pushing light-rail plans made Daugherty, who at that time owned a softball facility in East Austin, more of a force to be reckoned with than the grumpy curmudgeon he might have been viewed as before.
He used that victory to launch his political career and win a seat on the commissioners court two years later.
Teflon escape from public information lawsuit
If efforts to halt SW 45 over the aquifer the Save Our Springs Alliance generated open records requests for records of Daugherty’s involvement in the project.
Bill Bunch, SOS executive director and lead attorney, mounted a concerted legal attack to get emails from Daugherty’s personal email account.
The Austin Bulldog covered the litigation as well as the criminal complaint against Daugherty that Bunch filed over correspondence sought in a public information request that Daugherty failed to cough up. (For details dive into the five stories linked below.)
The SOS Alliance won a victory in the form of a December 10, 2015, ruling by District Judge Stephen Yelonosky to allow a trial on the merits in the civil case. At trial the SOS Alliance task would be to seek a finding that violations of the Texas Public Information Act had occurred. SOS also wanted the commissioner or Travis County, or both, to change records retention policies.
Because the county commissioner was represented by the County Attorney’s office, the criminal case was assigned to a Marble Falls special prosecutor who ultimately moved to dismiss the criminal case and that motion that was granted.
International acclaim for reelection video
When Daugherty sought reelection in 2016, his one-minute video “Please re-elect Gerald, Please,” a line pleadingly delivered by his long-suffering wife who has to listen to his wonky conversations about county jail and tax rates. He even cut the meat on his plate in slices to represent a string of rail cars that strung together could carry no more than 300 people and would do little or nothing to move people in a community of more than a million people.
The ad was an absolute sensation. It was viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube, according to an MSNBC segment. Daugherty credited Chad Crow, a guy who, incidentally, ran for Austin mayor in 1977 and City Council in 1999, with producing the funny and wildly popular piece that won coverage from the Washington Post, Time, CNN, and USA Today, among others.
You just have to conclude that all that attention made the crucial difference in a squeaky reelection victory that got Daugherty 61,110 votes (50.13 percent) to Democratic Party challenger David Holmes 60,805 (49.87 percent). A margin of 305 votes out of the 121,915 cast, according to the Travis County Clerk’s online records.
‘Godfather’ won two, lost one, came back from defeat
Daugherty, whose 70th birthday will come late next month, may be called the Godfather now but his lengthy tenure has not been uninterrupted. He wasn’t the first GOP candidate to grab the only commissioners court seat not held by a Democrat.
Republican Todd Baxter won the Precinct 3 commissioner’s job in the November 2000 election, after the position was vacated by Democrat Valerie Bristol, then stepped down to run for and win the District 50 seat in the Texas Legislature, unseating Representative Ann Kitchen (now an Austin City Council member).
In 2002 Daugherty won the right to fill Baxter’s unexpired term. Netting 54.83 percent of the votes he beat Democrat Margaret Moore (now Travis County District Attorney) with 42.72 percent and Libertarian William Brooks with 2.45 percent.
The Democrats didn’t put up a candidate in 2004 so Daugherty was unopposed in the November 2004 general election.
In 2008, Daugherty lost the Precinct 3 seat to Democrat Karen Huber, 44.8 percent to her 50.92 percent and Libertarian Wes Benedict’s 4.28 percent.
Four years later, in November 2012 Daugherty won a comeback challenge by getting 50.16 percent to beat incumbent Democrat Karen Huber at 45.73 percent and Libertarian Pat Dixon with 4.12 percent.
Brawl ahead to turn Precinct 3 blue again
In the epic Godfather trilogy, the 1972 original title role went to a superb Marlon Brando. In the 1972 Part II, Brando was succeeded by actor Al Pacino and eventually, late in the 1990 Part III, Andy Garcia inherited the supreme mob authority.
In a fast growing Travis County where Democrats dominate virtually all elective offices, and even a well-entrenched Daugherty only barely got reelected in 2016, the obvious question is: who can Republicans put up to follow Daugherty’s tough act?
I’ll leave that for the sequel, coming to a GOP primary election next spring.
After Daugherty’s long tenure on the commissioners court, and having kept the seat for the last eight years, we can be certain that the Democrats will work like hell to once again remove the red spot from the otherwise blue commissioners court.
This story originally said that Daugherty would turn 69 in January. Actually he will be 70 years of age.
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