Feb 15, 2024 - Politics

Q&A with Travis County DA candidate Jeremy Sylestine

Jeremy Sylestine

Photo: Courtesy of the Jeremy Sylestine campaign

The March 5 primary election is thin on high-profile, locally contested races, but one of them revolves around key questions about Austin's public safety priorities.

What's happening: We talked with Jeremy Sylestine, who is challenging Travis County District Attorney José Garza in the Democratic primary.

Why it matters: The Travis County DA, with the power to prosecute felony offenses, sets the tone on criminal justice priorities for our community.

By the numbers: Sylestine had $215,000 on hand for his campaign, per a Feb. 5 Travis County campaign finance report, the latest filing available.

  • The single largest contribution — $30,000 — he received during the January period covered in the report is from Daniel Lubetzky, who founded KIND.
  • Major contributions to the Sylestine campaign also come from Jonathan Coon, co-founder of 1-800-Contacts; car dealership owner Bryan Hardeman; Austin FC co-founder Eddie Margain; and Heritage Title president Gary Farmer.

Background: Sylestine, who grew up in East Texas as a member of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, served for 15 years in the Travis County district attorney's office and is now in private practice.

Why are you running?

"Because I know how to do the job. I was a prosecutor for 15 years in that office before leaving on my own terms in 2021. I watched things disintegrate the last couple of years, and I want to improve community safety."

How has it disintegrated?

"I think a lot of people on the victims' side have been left holding the bag right now. The district attorney has a weak approach to crimes that matter to Travis County citizens. Domestic abuse cases are being pled down from felonies to misdemeanors, sexual assault is not prosecuted as promised.
The lack of jury trials is apparent to me — and that's the most responsive way to get a sense of what the community thinks. I think they don't trust the community. They think they know better."

How would you term the relationship between the DA and law enforcement?

"It's obviously fractured. There's always going to be tension with law enforcement, but there has to be a working relationship. Garza's politicized prosecution of officers has really turned the trust factor down. The rate of attrition is high because officers out there doing the work don't want to be targets."

How would you improve that relationship?

"When I was there, I built a brand, and APD and other agencies knew their work had to be in really good shape for my cases. The people I worked with are now in leadership positions, and given that trust, that's going to create more willingness to work together."

Are there any endorsements you particularly want to highlight?

"I haven't gotten endorsements from any Democratic clubs. I'm a loyal Democrat, based on my lived experience, as someone growing up with a foot in both worlds, half-Native American, half-white. But the issues are not Republican and Democratic, they're about safety. People are horrified about what's happened here."

Of note: Sylestine said he has received endorsements from former State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez and former Austin City Council member Ora Houston, among others.

What are your goals for the office?

"Be stronger on domestic violent cases and child abuse cases. They are not being taken as seriously as they should be. Generally speaking, there is a huge backlog of felony cases. Victims are being ignored. We have to get the office back in trial."
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