In sheriff’s race, Democrats tout wide range of experience

Posted: 5:43 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016

By Philip Jankowski – American-Statesman Staff

On the issues, little separates the four Democratic candidates vying to succeed departing Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton.

Hamilton isn’t seeking a fourth term, setting the stage for the first new Travis County sheriff in more than a decade.

All four candidates stand united on ending local cooperation with federal immigration officials. They agree that the jail shouldn’t be a housing facility for mentally ill people and that the sheriff’s office should work on better reflecting the community’s diversity.

Instead, the candidates might best be measured by their varied law enforcement experience, giving each certain advantages in their quest to secure a win in the primary election.

The candidates are Constable Sally Hernandez, Lakeway Police Chief Todd Radford, sheriff’s Sgt. Don X. Rios and former Austin police Lt. John Sisson.

Since so many candidates are vying for the electorate, none are assured they will earn a majority of the votes in the March 1 primary. And with no clear front-runner so far, a Democratic primary runoff seems likely.

The eventual winner will face Joe Martinez, the sole Republican candidate, in November’s general election. Sheriff’s terms are four years with an annual salary of $139,980. Early voting begins Feb. 16.

Hernandez has the advantages of being the only woman and the only elected official in the race. As constable for Precinct 3 in West Travis County, she could rally a geographical base that includes parts of Rollingwood, Westlake, Southwest Austin and Bee Cave.

Hernandez, 57, spent 21 years as an investigator in the Travis County district attorney’s office before being elected constable in 2012.

She has focused on giving minors a second chance, regularly calling on her own life story as a 15-year-old runaway during her campaign. If elected, Hernandez said, she would work to deprioritize arrests and prosecutions of first-time marijuana offenders.

“I believe in second chances, and I’m very passionate about helping our kids getting ready for that job of the future,” Hernandez said.

Radford, Lakeway’s police chief, can boast having more executive experience than the other candidates.

Under his watch, the Lakeway police in 2011 created one of the first body camera programs in the state. Since then, body cameras have become widely regarded as a panacea to decrease complaints and use of force while improving community relations with police.

Radford, 48, said he would work to equip all Travis County patrol deputies with body cameras.

His law enforcement career is varied, with 10 years of experience at the sheriff’s office and stints as a law enforcement professor at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and a training coordinator at the Texas attorney general’s office. He became Lakeway’s police chief in 2009.

“I have seen that success in what body cameras can do,” Radford said. “I strongly understand the budget implementation, delivery, transparency and open records process.”

Rios, 46, touts his experience within the sheriff’s office. With 23 years of experience there, he is the only candidate who is a current employee of the department. He would be the county’s first Latino sheriff if elected.

Rios has made transparency and officer accountability a centerpiece of his campaign, advocating for an advisory committee to review the sheriff’s office’s activities and making background checks for new hires more meticulous.

“I know the sheriff’s office from top to bottom,” Rios said. “No other candidate has devoted their entire career to the office and its community of employees. I know their names, and I know their families.”

If there had been a race to be the first to speak out against the sheriff’s office’s cooperation with ICE, Sisson would be the winner. The former Austin police lieutenant and current sergeant in Precinct 1’s constable office made that issue a centerpiece of his unsuccessful run for sheriff in 2012.

Since then, Sisson, 59, has remained well connected to local Democratic Party organizations and has been a fixture in community events, expanding his network of supporters. He is a Pflugerville resident who hopes to improve law enforcement collaboration between his city, the county and Austin.

Sisson continues to make the ICE issue a leading part of his campaign. He also said his 30 years of experience at the Austin Police Department — in which he walked the streets and managed officers — makes him the most knowledgeable peace officer.

“I stood up against Hamilton in 2012, and I am pleased to see the other candidates are following my lead,” Sisson said.

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