Biographical / Historical
Samuel T. Biscoe was born on November 5th, 1946, in Tyler, Texas. One of four children, he was raised primarily by his single mother who labored as a housemaid and seasonal factory worker. Biscoe grew up in a racially divided Tyler, Texas, where “separate but equal” was still practiced and opportunities for African Americans were extremely limited. As a teen, he worked as a dishwasher at a whites-only country-western restaurant and as a caddy at a whites-only country club. He attended Emmett Scott High School, Tyler’s black high school, and was an athlete with the school’s football, basketball, and track teams. After graduating high school in 1965, Biscoe was encouraged by his mother to continue his education and pursue a college degree. He decided to attend Tyler Junior College where, in 1967, he received a Bachelor of Arts in History. At Tyler Junior College, Biscoe excelled in most of his classes, including a speech class where he was first introduced to public speaking and debate. His hard work was rewarded with a scholarship to attend North Texas State University, now known as the University of North Texas. A generous benefactor assisted him with his living expenses in college, assuring Biscoe that if he kept up his grades he would receive $500 each semester. He succeeded and graduated from North Texas State with a degree in history in 1969. After graduation, Biscoe worked as an Assistant Department Head at Sanger Harris Department Store in Dallas, Texas, before deciding to go to law school at the University of Texas in 1970. He received his Juris-Doctorate from the University of Texas School of Law in 1973 and was admitted to the Texas Bar that same year. While in law school, Biscoe was president of the student bar association and the University of Texas School of Law Class of 1973. In his last year of law school, he served as a law clerk for Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson, whom he credits with building his interest in serving in public office.
In his first year out of school, Biscoe was an Earl Warren Fellow with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco, where he assisted on civil rights cases. In 1974, he began working in private law practice and continued his work on civil rights, taking on cases that focused on Austin school desegregation, employment discrimination, and jail conditions. From 1975 until 1977, he served as general counsel to the Texas House Labor Committee. As general counsel, he worked on a piece of state legislation that authorized state agencies to establish internal grievance procedures. The legislation set up department grievance committees that reviewed workplace disputes and discrimination. Biscoe worked in private law practice until 1983 when Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower selected him to be the Texas Department of Agriculture’s general counsel. For the Department of Agriculture, Biscoe fought for safety regulations that protected farm workers from dangerous pesticides. In spite of the fact that these regulations were strongly opposed by the Texas Farm Bureau and state agribusinesses, they were eventually adopted, forcing farm owners to keep workers off the fields after spraying, provide protective clothing, and follow other restrictions meant to help workers.
Biscoe began a campaign for Travis County Commissioner Precinct 1 in 1986, intending to unseat incumbent commissioner Jimmy Snell. He campaigned on bringing more economic development and affordable housing to Precinct 1 and ending wasteful spending by the county government. His campaign was successful and he won the Precinct 1 seat in 1988. As a county commissioner, Biscoe was able to undertake a range of significant projects. In eastern Travis County, he secured a state grant to install a water and wastewater system for the residents of Kennedy Ridge. In 1992, he became chair of the Travis County Housing Finance Corporation, where he was instrumental in the issuance of $125 million in single-family mortgage bonds at no cost to Travis County. He was part of a team that attracted the companies Applied Materials, Samsung, and Motorola to northeastern Travis County. With the help of the City of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, he secured tax abatement policies for these three companies and convinced each to open offices in Precinct 1. When County Judge Bill Aleshire decided not to seek a fourth term in 1997, Biscoe resigned from his commissioner’s seat and began a campaign for the position of Travis County Judge. In the Democratic primary for the position he faced his colleague and Travis County Commissioner Precinct 3, Valeria Bristol. He won the Democratic primary and competed against former Travis County Commissioner, Hank Gonzalez, in the general election. On November 3rd, 1998, he was elected as Travis County Judge, winning the seat with a margin of victory of 14 percentage points over Gonzalez.
As a new county judge, Biscoe sought to improve the county’s responsiveness to resident needs and increase accountability. He worked to expand the county’s funding of social services and promoted programs for poor families and youth. He supported the issuance of over $40 million for the funding of affordable rental units in Travis County and sponsored bonds to promote home ownership. He helped establish workforce development programs that partnered with large employers to find work for the unemployed and he raised funds to create a summer program that put more than 800 county youth in summer jobs. Believing that jail space should be reserved for serious repeat offenders, Biscoe advocated for services that would help ex-offenders with job training and counseling. On county job applications, he worked to “Ban the Box” by removing the question about convictions and arrests where it wasn’t required. After promising during his campaign to collaborate with the City of Austin and other government entities on the broad issues facing Travis County, Biscoe served in leadership roles in the Community Action Network, the City of Austin Social Equity Commission, and the Executive Committee of the Capital Area Planning Council, among others. As chairman of the Central Texas Air Coalition, he worked with local governments in central Texas to monitor air quality in the region and advocate for stricter air pollution regulations. In his final years as county judge, Biscoe promoted the building of Texas 45 Southwest Tollway and the construction of a new civil county courthouse in downtown Austin. As an individual and as a member of the commissioner’s court, Biscoe was known for his calm and friendly demeanor and his ability to broker cooperation and compromise among the county commissioners. Biscoe announced his decision not to seek a fifth term as county judge in 2011. After 25 years with Travis County, he retired at the end of 2014. Former county commissioner Sarah Eckhardt succeeded him as county judge in 2015.