Mar 4, 2024 - News

Travis DA campaign heats up

Jeremy Sylestine and José Garza

Jeremy Sylestine, left, and José Garza. Photo courtesy of the Jeremy Sylestine campaign; photo by Win O'Neal, CCR Studios, courtesy José Garza Campaign

A shadowy group's campaign mailer has roiled the Travis County district attorney's race.

Why it matters: The Democratic face-off between incumbent José Garza and Jeremy Sylestine is the marquee local race in tomorrow's primaries, involving key questions about Austin's public safety priorities amid tensions with the state government over policing.

  • Garza told Axios he is focused on ending gun violence, addressing the root problems of domestic violence and treating drug use as a public health crisis.
  • Sylestine said Garza has "a weak approach to crimes that matter to Travis County citizens."

Driving the news: A group called Saving Austin, with an address of a UPS store in Irving, has sent out mailers last week declaring that Garza is "filling Austin's streets with pedophiles and killers."

  • Sylestine tells Axios his campaign had nothing to do with the mailer.
  • "That kind of discourse doesn't have a place in a race like this," he said. "If anything, it has turned potential voters off for me. That stuff gets attributed to me. I would never lead with that kind of message at all."

Behind the scenes: No entity called "Saving Austin" has registered as a political action committee with the Texas Ethics Commission.

  • On Friday, lawyers for the Garza campaign sent the group a cease and desist letter. "This sham organization — 'Saving Austin' — is flooding Travis County with cowardly, misleading, and divisive attack ads, violating multiple laws in the process," Garza campaign attorney Mimi Marziani said in a statement.

The mailer "will turn off a typical Dem voter," predicted Adam Loewy, an Austin trial lawyer who long has been considered a potential mayoral candidate.

By the numbers: Between late January and late February, Garza raised $204,000 and spent $137,000, finishing the period with $133,000 in hand, per the most recent campaign finance reports.

  • Sylestine spent far more — about $1.2 million — as he tried to introduce himself to voters and raise questions about Garza's policies. He also raised nearly $1.3 million during the period, finishing with $192,000 on hand.

Between the lines: A large handful of donors are responsible for some major donations to Sylestine's campaign during the period, including a total of $160,000 from Kind Snacks founder Daniel Lubetzky, $100,000 each from Telecom executive Danielle Royston, investor Brian Sheth, and the estate of Majid Hemmasi, an Austin business owner who was murdered in 2017.

  • $50,000 came from private equity financier Philip Canfield, $41,000 from 1-800-Contacts co-founder Jonathan Coon and $25,000 from investor Joe Lonsdale.
  • Many of Sylestine's major donors previously donated to a political action committee that in 2021 successfully restored a ban on camping in Austin's public spaces.

What they're saying: "Thanks to the donations of hundreds of hardworking folks and committed advocates who have been working together to fix a broken criminal justice system and keep our community safe, we believe our campaign has the resources to get our message out and win this election," Garza tells Axios.

The other side: Sylestine tells Axios his fundraising advantage "shows that ​people are behind the message, and looking for somebody qualified who won't over-publicize that office and just do the same dang job."

What we're watching: Turnout. Just a shade over 50,000 Democratic votes in Travis County were cast early, or just under 6% of Travis County's 891,000 registered voters.

  • Garza likely holds the upper hand with core Democratic voters — he has the endorsements of major local Democratic clubs, labor unions and U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Greg Casar.
  • But a low-turnout election can lead to unexpected results.

Go deeper: Read our two-minute interviews with Sylestine and Garza.


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