TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas - Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said she isn't ready to step down.
"We are not done, there are so many things that we need to complete,” said Hernandez. "As the sheriff, my strength is collaboration and that experience over the last 30 years, I want to continue, I want to continue building those collaborations working on the community and changing lives."
Hernandez became sheriff in 2016 and has since been a staunch advocate for marginalized communities. She fought for immigrants when the county was up against Senate Bill 4, banning sanctuary cities. Over the years, she's turned her sights to mental illness in the judicial system. Hernandez said she was inspired by one woman's story about being an inmate fighting substance abuse; after that, resources and treatment became a priority.
"Every time I thought about someone in a mental health crisis, I never saw hope I just saw a bad situation, when you work in law enforcement you don't see a positive outcome, but she changed my mind on that,” Hernandez said. "This is a race where experience matters and I have proven leadership experience as the chief investigator at the Travis County Sheriff's Office, as an elected constable in precinct three and as your Travis County Sheriff and I know that experience will continue to move us forward."
Democratic challenger John Loughran said his mission is focused on mental health awareness for both inmates and deputies.
"I'm running for Sheriff because I don't like to be the kind of person that points out problem but having solutions and there is a lot of problems at the Travis County Sheriff's Office right now,” Loughran said. “I've worked there for 25 years about half my life. I know what it can be and I don't like to see what it has become, with the morale of the men and women who work there, it’s at an all-time low."
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Loughran said he was fired by Sheriff Hernandez due to a mental health injury. On September 18, 2014, deputy Jessica Hollis called out for help on her radio as floodwaters were sweeping away her vehicle. Loughran's shift was first to respond.
"For nine hours we searched for her and we couldn't find her and 36 hours later I was part of the dive team that recovered her from Lake Austin. That wore on me, it wore on the entire agency," said Loughran. "I had a mental injury and I emerged from it stronger because I addressed it, certainly the death for someone I felt responsible for, a 35-year-old mother of a 12-year old and yes I have undo guilt that I process with help from friends and counseling and that needs to be embraced. If we don't take care of the men and women on the streets and their mental health, they are not in the best frame of mind to take care of our citizens."
Retired APD sergeant Liz Donegan brings her experience with the sex crimes unit to the table. The challenger said she was motivated to run after Hernandez left the county's Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team.
"With her leaving was the reason why I decided to get in because it was significant and I could not stand on the sidelines and watch this unfold if I had an opportunity to do something and effect change,” said Donegan. "What I bring that separates me out is that I am the only candidate in the race that has brought national prominence as a best practice to the sex crimes unit and I do that work nationally and internationally."
Under Donegan's leadership, APD’s Sex Crime Unit was recognized in 2013 by Human Rights Watch. Donegan said the role of sheriff calls for someone who has done the work and she has done just that.
"It's having someone in place that is willing to think outside traditional policing,” said Donegan. “Who's willing to accept the fact that our criminal justice system is broken, that people of color, people who are poor are disproportionally represented in our jails and in our prisons and we have to do something significant to effect change."
The lone Republican challenger is Raul Vargas. Early voting for the primaries ends February 28th but there is always Super Tuesday.
To learn more about the primary election and for voter information, visit the FOX 7 Austin election page.