AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Election Day, voters in Travis County will pick the new county judge.
The Travis County Judge leads the commissioners court as it sets the county’s budget and important policies. The county judge also approves some permits like Mass Gathering Permits and Wine and Beer Permits and is a member of several boards, including the Juvenile Board and the Bail Bond Board.
Former long-time county judge Sam Biscoe has been filling in after Sarah Eckhardt stepped down in May to run for State Senate.
The two men vying to fill that spot next are Democratic candidate Andy Brown and Republican candidate Michael Lovins.
Brown is an attorney who also works on political campaigns.
He is currently the finance director for “Power by People,” Beto O’Rourke’s effort to register voters and promote voter turnout in Texas. Before that, Brown served as finance director in O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race and a senior advisor during O’Rourke’s run for President.
Brown served as chair of the Travis County Democratic Party from 2008 to 2013. He also worked as an EMT at one point. Additionally, he helped create the Austin-Travis County Sobering Center, which opened in 2018.
Brown says his main focus, if elected, would be spending less of the county’s budget on the county jail and more on crime deterrents like affordable housing and health care.
“I think we need to invest more in mental health, behavioral health, things that will help prevent people from going to jail in the first place,” Brown told KXAN.
One specific project he’s passionate about is securing a new brick and mortar clinic in Del Valle, where many people don’t have enough access to health services, through a county agreement with Central Health.
“I’d like to work with Central Health to help get that clinic up and running, because I think when you look at the way that COVID hit our community, it hit disproportionately in lower income, high Hispanic, high Latino and high African American populations, and I think one way one lesson that teaches us is that we need to do more to make sure that we have clinics.”
Lovins has been working as a personal injury attorney for about 13 years. Before that, he represented Fortune 500 companies. After graduating law school, he did a judicial clerkship in Travis County.
“I’m a weird Republican in a lot of ways,” Lovins laughed, noting that he’s both in the conservative legal movement and the Trial Lawyers Association. “I’m a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer. I represent people who have been through catastrophic injuries or suffer the loss of a loved one due to a terrible decision made by somebody else. Not very many Republicans do that.”
Lovins says he wants to expand the Travis County Sheriff’s Office’s duties to have deputies step in where Austin City Council made police cuts.
“These are not things that the county judge should normally be running on,” he said. “It should normally be some of the more, what I call blocking and tackling of local government. The roads and the administering the justice system and things of that nature, but the city has made such a mess. But, the county can step in and correct some of that, and that’s what I aim to do.”
Lovins says he also wants to address the school to prison pipeline and make sure the county’s new Public Defender Office offers the best defense possible for those with minor charges.
“People need to have representation so that they’re not railroaded through the system,” Lovins said. “Because they don’t have access to good representation, they get sucked into a criminal justice system and by the time they get out, they don’t really have any other options left. There are a lot of things that can be done at the county level to really address that.”
Both candidates acknowledge handling the ongoing pandemic will be a large part of the job.
Lovins says he would like to address what he feels has been flawed communication with the public when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, including mask orders.
“The edict that you must wear a mask is given with not a whole lot of explanation as to why, and then it’s followed up by no enforcement, or in some cases, selective enforcement that doesn’t make sense to anybody, and that calls into question the credibility of the people who are making the mask orders,” Lovins said. “I think the better way to do this is to say, ‘You know what? Texans are smart people that care about each other. Let’s issue guidelines and say these are the things that you should do, which probably include wearing a mask and in a lot of situations.'”
Lovins went on to suggest, “Make these things optional, because I think people will do a lot better in taking the right measures when the communication is better, and people are actually trusted to make smart decisions for themselves for them their families and the people around them.”
Brown says he would like to respond to the pandemic with more resources and services for those struggling.
“I would like to see additional efforts to help people get through the COVID crisis economically, through, you know, rental assistance, through eviction moratoriums and through job creation with with private employers,” Brown said.