Elections 2020Progressive Candidate José Garza Wins Expensive Travis County District Attorney Race in Landslide

With massive amounts of progressive individual and PAC support, José Garza turned a three-point Democratic primary margin into a nearly 40-point victory in the runoff.
July 21, 2020
Last week’s runoffs featured various marquee, central themes such as the U.S. Senate race, a congressional race nail-biter, and Texas legislative elections.

But a sea change happened in a race that most outside of Texas’ capital city would be indifferent about. And the change was brought on in a landslide.

Challenger José Garza knocked off incumbent Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore 68 percent to 32.

Moore, a more traditional Democrat who has held the office since 2017 received loads of flak for her alleged mishandling of sexual assault cases in Austin, even being accused of going easy on the accused. Moore is currently facing a class-action lawsuit from these allegations.

Travis County, being a heavily Democratic area — a  “D+25” district according to The Texan’s County Partisan Voting Index — means that a Republican or Independent challenger to Moore would essentially have no chance of defeating her.

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Moore’s only vulnerability would come from her own party and in this case, from her party’s left flank.

Garza is the executive director of the Workers Defense Project (WDP), a left-wing labor organization that, while it operates like a union, is not constrained by the financial disclosure laws that regulate unions. What’s known as a “worker center,” WDP has had a complaint filed against it with the Department of Labor for essentially collective bargaining without making union-type disclosures.

WDP has been instrumental in the adoption of multiple labor requirement programs in Texas metropolitan areas such as Austin and Harris County. They spearheaded the advocacy for the programs, lobbying the elected officials to adopt them.

Garza is not the only WDP employee who has moved on to public office. He joins the ranks of WDP founder Christina Tzintzún Ramirez, who lost a U.S. Senate primary bid this year, and Austin City Councilman Greg Casar.

He has also worked as a state and federal public defender and served in general counsel and policy advisor roles within the Obama administration.

In addition to a litany of local progressive figures and organizations, Garza also had the endorsement of former presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-MA), and Julián Castro.

Among Garza’s priorities are mothballing the death penalty, discontinuing the use of civil asset forfeiture in the absence of a conviction, ramping up prosecution of police officers who commit misconduct, and refocusing on sexual assault cases.

Another aspect of Garza’s platform includes ending the cash bail system. “No person should be held in our jail only because they can’t afford to buy their way out,” his website says. 

There are numerous instances in which a defendant could not afford cash bail on the misdemeanor for which they were charged and thus lost their job while sitting in detention — notably before they were found guilty. In fact, the City of Austin lost a 2015 suit in which they were accused of operating a de facto debtors prison.

Cash is used as leverage to ensure the defendant will appear before the court as scheduled. But progressive activists view this as unfair to the working poor and homeless. To that end, in 2017 the Austin City Council instituted a new protocol, essentially requiring “personal recognizance” (PR) bonds be given to those deemed indigent by the court.

Municipal judges overseeing misdemeanor charges had already used PR bonds, for which the ability to pay cash bail was one of a number of considerations but not the most important. However, they were not prioritized enough for the council’s liking, and so they instituted this new rule and fired the judges who disagreed.

But since that ordinance, a number of incidents have occurred in which the offender was out on PR bond — including Dillon Woodburn, the homeless man who maniacally ran into a Freebirds and stabbed three people, killing one and injuring two.

The emphasis placed on indigency relative to other considerations such as whether the defendant is a flight risk, a danger to themselves or others, or has repeated offenses has led to dangerous individuals being let out on the street and harming others.

As with most policy proposals, there are two sides of the cash bail coin and cons always accompany the pros.

But Garza believes the benefits will outweigh the harm and has received a lot of support for his ideas, both electorally and financially.

While Moore came close or avoided total blowout among mail-in and election day voters, she was routed by Garza among early voters 2.5:1 — a raw vote difference of 30,000.

Amazingly, the undervote for the district attorney race was only about 2,000, which illustrates the enthusiasm surrounding the race. For reference, fewer than 1,000 voters cast ballots for the U.S. Senate race and not the district attorney race. 

Garza reported over $548,000 in contributions for his runoff against Moore — over 80 percent of which were in-kind contributions from outside organizations. A series of political action committees contributed those in-kind expenses for Garza including the Real Justice PAC, a San Francisco-based organization; Texas Justice & Public Safety PAC, which received over $650,000 from progressive megadonor George Soros; the Texas Freedom Network PAC; the Workers Defense in Action PAC; and the Austin Firefighters Association PAC.

The Texas Justice & Public Safety PAC made over $380,000 of in-kind purchases for polling, direct mail, and advertising explicitly for Garza’s campaign, according to their filings.

In addition to the PAC support, Garza received over 4,500 individual donations which his campaign says averaged less than $50.

Moore, meanwhile, reported $160,000 in contributions during the runoff.

She lost the primary to Garza by three points.

Garza does have a Republican general election opponent in Austin attorney Martin Harry. But Harry received 2,000-fewer votes in his unopposed primary than Moore did in her runoff loss.

Barring totally unforeseen events, Garza should sail through November into his new position as Travis County District Attorney — bringing his priority list along with him.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.