Voters take to polls for primaries on Tuesday

Published on Saturday, 1 March 2014 21:46 - Written by Adam Russell arussell@tylerpaper.com

Smith County voters will decide contested Democratic and Republican primaries Tuesday, which in many local races will decide who takes the position in January 2015.

Three Democrats and 26 Republicans are running in local contested and uncontested party primaries.

Party primaries will decide all but two races: the contest between Democratic incumbent Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 Quincy Beavers and Republican Flor de Maria Nichols and House District 6. Libertarian candidate Joel Gardner will face the winner of the Republican primary in District 6.

A full slate of statewide races from U.S. Senate and governor to land commissioner and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also are on ballots.

EARLY VOTING

Smith County residents eclipsed previous early voting totals for gubernatorial primaries with 11,812 voters turning outduring the two-week period that ended Friday, compared to 7,600 in 2010. The Smith County Elections Office will release early voting results when polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Candidates leading after early voting maintain leads historically, especially when leading by 5 percent or more.

TEXAS HOUSE DISTRICT 6

The race for House District 6 has been a clash of differing ideologies about how a legislator can and should represent their district.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer faces Skip Ogle for the Texas House District 6 seat. Schaefer is being challenged after his freshman legislative session. He defeated longtime incumbent Leo Berman in the 2012 GOP primary.

Schaefer, 37, an attorney, developer and Naval Reserve lieutenant commander, said he hopes the coming primaries will broaden the conservative foothold in the state House. He said he was excited by the number of new conservative voices among members (roughly half the 150-member House were freshman or sophomore legislators in 2013) but, frustrated with House leadership’s unwillingness to utilize GOP numbers to pass conservative legislation.

Schaefer blamed leadership for poorly navigating conservative legislation — such as the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was filibustered temporarily — through the House.

The election of more like-minded legislators would bolster efforts to scale back government, reduce business regulation, increase individual liberty and fight lobbyists and social progressives, Schaefer said.

Schaefer served on the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and the Defense and Veterans Affairs committees.

Ogle, 47, a longtime lobbyist and businessman, with more than a decade of experience representing companies, such as Southwestern Bell and Suddenlink, and local entities, such as The University of Texas at Tyler, and in Austin. He said he is entering the race to “lobby for the community” and will focus his efforts on improving the quality of life in his district, East Texas and the state.

While protection of innocent life, the Second Amendment rights and Texas residents along the Texas-Mexico border would be a priority, Ogle said, he would try to rise above polarizing political rhetoric to build coalitions and find agreement.

Ogle said the state’s future starts with education, entrepreneurs and job creation. He believes he has the experience as a businessman to challenge obstructive regulations, higher taxes and ignorance in Austin.

The race has garnered statewide attention from political action committees. Groups are wagering via campaign donations that their man will prevail. Groups and individuals, both locally and from around the state have donated more than $570,000 to Schaefer and Ogle combined.

Political observers say the race represents a bellwether test for grassroots conservatives such as Schaefer who are facing criticism from business leaders and Main Street residents who want conservative leadership that does not come at the expense of the community’s seat at the table in Austin.

COUNTY JUDGE

The race pits two-term Smith County Judge Joel Baker against retired Texas Army National Guard Maj. Gen. John Furlow, a local certified public accountant.

Baker, 45, has been in office during ups-and-downs within county government. He was judge as the court sought a solution to jail overcrowding and the state-mandated shipment of inmates to other counties. The county endured four failed jail bond proposals before the passage of a $35 million expansion package under construction now. The added capacity will bring its inmates back to Smith County and is expected to give the justice system space for long-term growth.

He has overseen the purchase of several properties as the court sought creation of a “downtown campus” for all county governmental operations. Several department offices have been moved as part as a “pay-go” facilities improvement plan. Pay-go means the county did not incur debt to pay for improvements.

Projects included renovations within the courthouse, the new sheriff’s administration building and new or renovated offices for several elected officials. Pay-go projects represent a $10 million capital investment.

Baker and the court also have faced criticisms and lawsuits during his tenure. The county experienced an $11 million budget shortfall in 2010 due to poor economic conditions. In the end, the court cut $9 million from its budget and raised the tax rate.

Furlow, 58, said he wants to bring a “bottom-line, results-oriented approach” to county government. He served 31 years in the military and has an accounting and business background.

Furlow believes the court needs to be more transparent and begin every budget process with a zero-based budget. Furlow pledged he would not raise taxes but would find efficiencies and ways to cut costs. Furlow remained critical of the pay increases for court members and what he called a lack of “genuine transparency” regarding the number of executive sessions entered to discuss agenda items.

Furlow has been critical of what he calls the county’s lack of long-term planning with regard to roads and infrastructure, which he said will be critical for exiting from stagnant economic conditions.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY

Incumbent Matt Bingham, 46, will face 34-year-old attorney Austin Reeve Jackson, of Lindale.

Bingham became district attorney in 2003 after serving as assistant district attorney under 241st District Judge Jack Skeen Jr. He has prosecuted several capital cases and said he will continue “aggressive prosecution” of criminals if re-elected.

Jackson gained prosecutorial experience in Gregg County and is double-board certified in criminal and appellate law. He said the office should be run like a business and would offer him an opportunity to give back to the community.

He has criticized Bingham for the number of cases prosecuted by Bingham’s prosecutorial team, which were later overturned on appeal because of errors. Bingham said experience matters most for a prosecutor and that on-the-job training could cost victims an opportunity for justice.

COUNTY COURT AT LAW

The race to replace retiring County Court at Law Judge Thomas Dunn features four candidates. Candidates include attorneys, Jason Ellis, 31, James Huggler, 44, Brent Ratekin, 45 and Mike Patterson, 63. If no candidate emerges with a 50 percent-plus one of ballots cast, a runoff would feature the top two vote getters.

Ellis said he can cut costs and move cases by enforcing court schedules. He said simple changes would mean taxpayer savings and a more expedient court.

Huggler believes his experience handling some of the most difficult defense cases in the county makes him the most experienced candidate. He said he has the experience to try cases and hold hearings efficiently to move cases and unclog dockets.

Patterson said his experience in civil and criminal matters sets him apart. He served as a prosecutor, a civil attorney for 15 years and as a mediator for the past 17 years. He said a judge is an umpire and should apply the rules in a limited but even-handed manner.

Ratekin also believes there are ways to speed up the court process and that criminal and family cases should be resolved in a timely manner. He is a former prosecutor and believes his work as criminal and family law attorney makes him the most qualified candidate.

321ST DISTRICT COURT

Certified public accountant and attorney John Jarvis, 46, will face longtime incumbent 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark.

The 321st court’s budget overruns and handling difficult family cases have been the focus.

Judge Clark has served as judge for 15 years and handles family court cases, such as divorces, child custody matters and removals when there is alleged neglect or abuse. Jarvis, 46, a Tyler native, began his career as a certified public accountant but has practiced law for 17 years and has been active in all Smith County courts, including family courts.

He said he could use his accounting and attorney expertise as an asset to keep the court’s budget in line. Clark said costs are driven by cases and state mandates.

In June, the commissioners court, which monitors the county budget put Judge Clark on notice they would not pay non-contracted attorneys after July 18.

The action followed two budget transfers equaling $350,000 since early May to pay attorney fees associated with Child Protective Service removals. The court’s 2013 budget for attorneys’ fees was $732,000.

State law requires children be assigned legal representation. Parents who meet indigent defense requirements also are mandated to receive representation.

About 360 children had pending cases in the court at the time.

Judge Clark said the court experienced a ‘tsunami” of cases and that the court’s nine contracted attorneys, who are paid $6,500 a month, were overwhelmed.

JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

Pre-law college student Noah Butler, 23, faces incumbent James Meredith, 57, who has been in office since 2002, for Justice of the Peace Precinct 3.

Butler said the constable’s office needs changes, but Meredith said his office runs efficiently and effectively. Meredith said his experience matters and that Butler doesn’t understand what the job entails.

COUNTY COMMISSIONERS

PRECINCT 2

Precinct 2 Commissioner Cary Nix faces challenger James Barry Barnett.

Nix, 54, of Whitehouse, a fourth-generation rose grower, is seeking his second term as Precinct 2 commissioner.

Barnett, 50, of Troup, owns East Texas Jet Services LLC, an aviation management company, which oversees maintenance for a local charter company at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport.

County roads have been the predominant topic in the race.

Nix said the county road department has done an admirable job with the money it is allotted. He said it was frustrating that his initial campaign promise to address roads was derailed by the national recession. He said core services, such as law enforcement and the jail, and elected officials, have to be funded and that Road and Bridge bore the brunt of budget cuts. He said he hopes paying off debt and savings from the jail will allow the court to inject needed funds into Road and Bridge as consultants develop a long-term plan of action and the county hires a road engineer.

Barnett said the court should have a road plan. He said more savings should be found in other areas to implement any plan developed. But he said he would consider all options with regard to making roads a priority, including cutting other departments or raising the tax rate.

Animal control was the first issue put to the candidates.

Nix said he has worked closely with the city and nonprofits to develop a long-term solution for Smith County animal control, but he is looking out for taxpayers. Barnett said the county needs to do a better job finding homes for the animals and that he pledged to help raise money to improve the county’s program.

PRECINCT 4

The lone Democratic primary race pits the senior member of the commissioners court against a former city councilman.

Incumbent Commissioner JoAnn Hampton is seeking her fourth term on the court and said she had experienced the ups-and-downs of county government.

Mrs. Hampton said she has been an active part of major shifts in county policy and procedures that have cut costs, enacted efficiencies and led to better business practices and service in county government. She said she would stand by her experience on the court.

Former District 2 Tyler City Councilman Donald Sanders, 61, said his six-year tenure on the council and community activism translates into proven leadership and experience and has given him an open ear for the community. He said Mrs. Hampton has not made herself available to constituents and effectively represented their concerns.

Mrs. Hampton said she is “out-and-about” within her precinct every day and has held town hall meetings to hear and discuss concerns.

Both candidates said county roads would be a focus.

Mrs. Hampton said the court is conservative with its budget each year but that she hopes court members will look for additional money to inject into future road plans. She said she would consider all options regarding how to fund the Road and Bridge Department effectively.

Sanders said the court should utilize resources it has to focus on projects rather than tap taxpayers for more funds.