D.A. Challenger Funded Primarily by Right Wing Donors, Wealthy West Austinites

José Garza’s primary challenger, Jeremy Sylestine (Photo via Sylestine Campaign)

Big money is flowing into the Travis County district attorney Democratic primary. Interestingly, D.A. José Garza’s challenger, Jeremy Sylestine, raised several times as much as the incumbent, according to the latest campaign finance reports filed by each candidate.

If Sylestine’s sizable fundraising advantage in January was a surprise, the source of his fundraising was not. The former prosecutor (he departed in 2021, not long after Garza was sworn in) took in nearly $255,000, more than $140,000 of which came from 10 donors who have a history of contributing to Republicans.

For example, 1-800 Contacts founder Jonathan Coon gave $10,300 to Sylestine; in the past, Coon has donated thousands of dollars to GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, Utah Senator Mitt Romney, and U.S. Rep. Roger Williams. Oil tycoon Bryan Sheffield contributed $40,000 to Sylestine – before that, he’d given thousands of dollars to national GOP candidates and tens of thousands to political action committees supporting Gov. Greg Abbott. Heritage Title’s Gary Farmer ($7,500 to Sylestine) has thrown thousands of dollars over the years to Republicans like Ted Cruz, John Cornyn and Ron DeSantis.

But other Sylestine donors have a more balanced political contribution history – representing the “moderate” voter who may be liberal on some issues but remains firmly right wing on public safety. KIND bar founder Daniel Lubetzky ($30,000 to Sylestine) has given Haley thousands of dollars, but he’s given even more to national Democrats like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Tech billionaire Joseph Liemandt ($20,000 to Sylestine) has a donation history that appears to show his mind changing sometime in the mid-2010s: he gave $50,000 to a Donald Trump PAC in 2019, but a decade before that, he was donating tens of thousands to the Democratic National Committee and various other state-level Democratic parties.

Another common thread among Sylestine’s big dollar donors: many of them are big Save Austin Now fans (or are fans of other political groups who share SAN values). Coon donated $10,000 to SAN in 2021 during their successful campaign to ban public camping; Sheffield gave thousands to SafeTX PAC, which pursued many of the same policies as SAN. Farmer has been a long time patron of conservative PACs in Austin, including SAN and one of their offshoots, Restore Leadership ATX – the PAC that supported conservative City Council candidates in 2022.

In another unsurprising revelation from Sylestine’s filing: West Austin loves the guy. People living in just two westside ZIP codes (78746 and 78703) donated more than $101,000 to the Sylestine campaign – which is about 39% of Sylestine’s January haul. In fact, 20 West Lake residents alone gave the candidate more than $65,000.

Sylestine spent about $66,000 in the reporting period, leaving him with about $214,000 to spend as of Jan. 25.

Garza’s January filing was much less interesting (no George Soros donations this round). He took in just over $39,000 – perhaps because he entered the primary with a mountain of cash on hand. He spent $112,000, which left him with about $158,000 in cash as of Jan. 25.

Garza’s largest donations were for $5,000 and he received three of them. One from John Dismukes, a co-owner of the Armadillo World Headquarters, one from local criminal defense attorney Brad Vinson, and one from local healthcare attorney Carlos Zaffirini. All three have a history of contributing to national and state level Democrats – but none have given to Republicans or right wing groups.

And not all of West Austin wants Garza to lose. He received $2,600 from the same two ZIP codes that funded more than one-third of Sylestine’s campaign in January – including three $500 donations from West Lake residents.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.