Texas Tribune state politics reporter Cassi Pollock sat down with former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, a Democrat, for a discussion on her bid for state Senate, the response to the coronavirus outbreak and how the pandemic has reshaped her campaign. In March, she declared her candidacy for Senate District 14, left vacant by former Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who retired. She is one of six candidates running in a special election for the seat.
Here are some of Eckhardt’s responses to questions during the interview:
What motivated Eckhardt to run for state Senate, and how has her campaign been affected by the coronavirus outbreak?
- “I've loved every minute of being Travis County judge and I'm always going to miss that,” Eckhardt said. “At the local level, we've done a really good job working through collaborative leadership. We find ways to cross partisan divides, geographic divides even, to get things done ... and I think I'd like to take a little bit of that to the state Senate.”
- Eckhardt also noted that greater representation for women in leadership is something that she would like to see at the state level. "Central Texas is comfortable and supportive of women in leadership positions," she said.
- Since announcing her candidacy, Eckhardt’s campaign has undergone several transitions. “I decided to run before COVID-19 had hit the shores of the United States, or at least before we knew it had ... so a July race meant that I needed to take a good, hard look at what my community really needed from me. And so I decided that I was going to announce my candidacy and put it on hold while I stayed as county judge in order to keep our emergency response team together as long as I possibly could.”
- Eckhardt is serving as the special assistant to Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe while simultaneously campaigning for state Senate. “It is a challenge to fit campaigning in around my work ... I've got to do this work,” she said. “If I lose the Senate race because I was responding to my community's need in a pandemic, I will sleep well at night."
- On the subject of voter turnout and how it might be affected by public concern over the coronavirus, Eckhardt said, “Everyone's scared, and it is absolutely appropriate to be scared." Expanded access to voting by mail will be essential to addressing those public fears, she said.
- Eckhardt said that while a virtual campaign is not without its challenges, it has the benefits of being more substantive and less costly than a traditional campaign.
- When asked how the economic downturn has affected her campaign's fundraising efforts, Eckhardt said: “Everybody is in a space of uncertainty economically, so definitely people are thinking twice about how they want to spend their money. And I completely understand that and respect it." She added that she is not looking to buy a state Senate seat but rather earn one.
- When asked how she rationalizes continuing her campaign in the midst of a pandemic, Eckhardt said, “We have a deep bench in Travis County and the team for emergency response is seasoned, and I haven't left them ... I may be changing my hat but I'm not going anywhere. I will do this kind of work with or without title, and I will do this kind of work with or without pay.” She went on to say that while she has full confidence in her former office’s ability to respond to the current crisis, “I am not so confident in what will happen at the state level to help us get out of this health and economic crisis quicker." That, she said, is why she wants to bring her unique perspective to the state level.
What distinguishes Eckhardt from her opponents, and what kind of state senator would she be?
- “The people of Senate District 14 know me well and they know the quality of my work,” Eckhardt said, “so I think I'm in a good position to win this.” Eckhardt later added: “I’m not only a policy-maker, I’m also a practitioner, so I know what happens when the rubber meets the road, and I’ve had to make tough decisions to figure out how to get people served.”
- “I think that I am a solid choice to succeed Sen. Watson in this position,” Eckhardt said. “Sen. Watson really set the standard for reaching across the aisle, getting beyond partisan politics, to really provide a template for progress. And I'd like to build on that, and expand our ability to really get down to work.” Eckhardt added of the state Senate: “It’s true that there's only 12 Democrats in a body of 31, but everybody wants to govern. Everybody wants to make life better for their constituents.”
What are Eckhardt’s thoughts on the local and state response to the coronavirus outbreak? What challenges brought on by the pandemic does she intend to address in the state Senate if she is elected?
- Eckhardt said that the response from the state has been “a bit of a mixed bag,” adding that recent and extensive disaster-related experience on the local level has shown that it is local officials that will take the lead on responding to such disasters. She went on to say that despite earlier signs from Gov. Greg Abbott that the state was going to be taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to the coronavirus pandemic, “he's begun making statements and taking actions ... that divide us, they're confusing and they're scaring us.”
- “I think what's frightening people is that when their leaders say something that doesn't match their experience on the ground ... it should rationally make us concerned and make us afraid,” Eckhardt said. “We are still doubling our infection rate,” she added, “at a pace that will overrun our hospital capacity if we don't continue to flatten our curve. So, by relying on medical science, we will find ways to adapt that balance our health recovery with our economic recovery, because you can't have one without the other. We absolutely have to have a balanced approach. And I think the governor wants a balanced approach, and I would like to help in that.”
- “One thing COVID-19 has illustrated ... in a deep way is that you can't be pro-business without being pro-worker,” Eckhardt said, adding that members of the state’s workforce will need access to things such as child care and job training in order to “keep up to speed with the changing economy.”
- On how she will take on issues related to public and higher education, Eckhardt said, “We must invest in our future generations by investing in public education, K through 12, as well as our community colleges and ... our four-year institutions. Our economic livelihood depends on it.” Eckhardt also said that improving teacher salaries and retirement benefits are two important components of the broader issue of ensuring “our educational system [is] appropriately funded, resilient and proud.”
- On the subject of a potential zero-based budgeting that state Sen. Jane Nelson recently proposed, Eckhardt said, “You can't zero out Texans’ education, health care and well-being,” highlighting the need for public education, health care access and workforce training.
- Eckhardt said that she would also like to address issues related to access to mental and general health care, increasing protections for sexual assault survivors as well as criminal justice reform. However, in light of the ongoing pandemic, “the first order of business in the Senate is ... to scrub the books, look for every opportunity inside statute and the Texas Administrative Code to speed assistance to our families that are struggling to survive economically under COVID-19,” Eckhardt said.
Eckhardt became Travis County’s first female county judge in 2015 and presided over the county’s commissioners court. Previously, she spent eight years as an assistant Travis County attorney and was elected to represent Precinct 2 on the county commissioners court in 2006. Eckhardt also served as vice chair of membership on the Texas Conference of Urban Counties’ board of directors.
In the state Senate race, Eckhardt will face off against state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat; Republicans Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member, and Waller Thomas Burns II; Pat Dixon, a Libertarian; and Jeff Ridgeway, an independent.
The interview was streamed on the Tribune’s website, Facebook page and Twitter, as well as by our media partners at KXAN and KPRC2 to a live audience of more than 3,400 viewers.
Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state and the Texas Conference of Urban Counties have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Our conversation series is presented by AT&T, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, TEXAS 2036 and Walmart. Media support is provided by KXAN and KPRC2.
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