Valinda Bolton – District 47, Travis County

July 20th, 2006

District 47 is an interesting territory to try to lay political odds on. It encompasses the southwest quadrant of Travis County, including the southernmost chunk of Austin, rural areas along the Hays County line, and a handful of wealthy suburban and lakeside enclaves.

It’s a Republican district for sure – but not by much. Bush beat Kerry with 53 percent there. But in 2002 it gave Sharp 52 percent against Dewhurst. It’s predominantly white and wealthy. Still, it said “thanks, but no thanks” to the anti-gay marriage measure, Proposition 2.

When longtime incumbent Terry Keel decided to run for a judicial spot instead of his House seat, he threw open the door and the candidates came streaming in. Four ran in the Democratic primary, and five lined up on the Republican side. At one candidate forum, all nine were there (an unnecessary brutality for all involved, plain and simple).

So, it was to be runoffs – all the way around. On the Republican side, Bill Welch emerged victorious, with 55 percent against Alex Castano in race that turned ugly and personal, with each candidate running hard to the right on social issues probably not shared by most of the district.

On the Democratic side, Valinda Bolton pulled out a huge win, with 67 percent against Jason Earle – despite his instant name-I.D. as the son of Tom Delay’s arch nemesis (no, not Delay himself – we mean District Attorney Ronnie Earle). That the victory was so lopsided is no small thing, considering the Earle family’s deep roots in Travis County politics.

If you look at the vote totals during the runoff, you might be tempted to lay your November money on Welch. He got about 1,000 more votes than Bolton, even though she won her race by a much wider margin. But it’s tough to know why more Republicans than Democrats came out for the primary races, it doesn’t necessarily translate into more Rs than Ds in the general election, and it doesn’t speak at all to the swing voters who will decide this race.

There are undercurrents in District 47 that may favor Bolton in November. For one, a lot of people are speculating that big numbers sat out the primaries so they could sign petitions to get Kinky or Carole on the ballot. A majority of those folks are anti-Perry voters, and they’ll tend to go by a far stretch for Bolton over Welch.

And there’s the women thing. Around the state white women Democrats – decimated by the 2002 state redistricting – are surging for a comeback. We’ve already seen it with Donna Howard in Austin. Harriet Miller is making a strong run against a Republican incumbent in Dallas. Ellen Cohen (read our profile on Ellen HERE) is looking good against another one in Houston.

And if you take a look down ballot at the 2004 races, you see a curious little blip in District 47. In the three judicial races where a woman ran and there was no incumbent, District 47 chose the Democratic woman twice and the third one missed winning by only a half a percent. Maybe this is like a Rorschach test. One person sees a subtle preference for Democratic women candidates. Another person sees their parents having sex …and has to sign up for ten more years of therapy.

If there is a built-in boost for Bolton, though, it’s probably only enough to even up the odds. After that, it will be a fair fight to see who can capture the confidence and trust of the voters. District 47 is a moderate, swing district where most voters favor conservative economic policy, progressive social policy and, most of all, taking care of core issues like education, taxes and roads without a lot of monkey business.

When we sat down with Valinda Bolton recently to talk about conservation issues and her race in general, she had a little bit to say on the topic of monkey business. She thinks the last few years’ shenanigans at the Legislature will work against her opponent.

“This race isn’t about a partisan agenda,” she said. “It’s about setting priorities. That’s what voters in District 47 want, but the indicators are that my opponent is cut from the same cloth as the current leadership. People are tired of that. Our district doesn’t need another soldier taking marching orders from Craddick. People want bipartisan cooperation.”

Along those lines, Bolton has made government reform one of her key campaign planks. Among other things, she wants to see all votes in the Legislature recorded, instead of the mess we have now – some recorded, some not. She also wants to fix the revolving door practice of legislators retiring from office and showing up as lobbyists in Austin the next day.

Bolton says the biggest natural resource issue in her district, hands down, is water. “Everywhere I go when I’m campaigning, water is on people’s minds,” she says. “It’s both a quantity and a quality issue for us.”

Southwest Travis County – once a primarily rural area – has seen dramatic growth pressures in recent times. “We still have a lot of people on wells, and they’re starting to run dry for the first time ever. Part of this is drought, but a lot of it is just from increased demand and an inability to manage growth.”

“We have a lot of development going on that isn’t taking into account the fact that our land doesn’t accommodate six houses per acre,” Bolton says. “It’s a water quality issue too. We’ve had serious problems with new development fouling the water quality in our creeks. And we also have the issue of development affecting the quality of our aquifer recharge water.”

One of the big problems is that counties, unlike cities, don’t have much in the way of land use authority. And District 47 is mostly county land. Bolton says, “I’d like to see some legislation – bracketed to fast-growing areas like ours that are turning from rural to suburban – giving counties some land use authority so we can manage our growth better.”

Of course, the Legislature has taken every opportunity it could in the past decade to obliterate local control when it comes to growth management. In fact, a good deal of the impetus for these so-called property rights bills has come from developers who look at the hills of District 47 and see money.

To the extent that cities have retained any ability regulate development and protect water quality, it has come from defenders beating back bad bills – often on technicalities – and from victories in court. And almost categorically, these bills have been tailored specifically to apply to forward-thinking cities like Austin and San Antonio. So, it’s difficult to imagine the Craddick Legislature passing a bill that could give counties like Travis meaningful growth management tools.

Bolton thinks the sprawl mongers lose their argument on its own terms, though. Limiting the most intensive development, she says, actually increases property values for other, more appropriate uses – since regulation places a premium on the land and ensures that it will remain desirable into the future. In any event, she says that under the current free-for-all regime, the hill country in District 47 is being loved to death.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Do these folks live in a parallel universe?’” she asks. “Do they not drink the same water we drink? Do they not have children and grandchildren?”