Voters will begin deciding a full slate of statewide and local races, including U.S. senator, governor, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas House of Representative District 6, Smith County judge and Justice of the Peace, today when early voting polls open.
Texans will elect a new governor for the first time since 2000 when George W. Bush vacated the governor’s mansion to run for the White House. Gov. Rick Perry’s departure has a crowded political field jockeying for a step up the political ladder.
Ten elected posts failed to draw challengers and will remain without contest, but there are eight contested races to become the Democratic and Republican nominees for the November election. One position, to replace retiring County Court at Law Judge Thomas Dunn, garnered four Republican candidates.
Three Democrats and 26 Republicans are running in respective primaries.
Party primaries will decide all but two races, including the contest between Democratic incumbent Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 Quincy Beavers and Republican Flor de Maria Nichols. Neither drew a primary opponent and will represent their party in November. Libertarian Joel Gardner will face the GOP District 6 winner in November.
TEXAS HOUSE DISTRICT 6
The race for House District 6 has been a clash of differing ideologies about how a legislator can or should represent their district.
State Rep. Matt Schaefer faces long-time lobbyist and businessman 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 but frustrated with House leadership’s unwillingness to utilize GOP numbers to pass conservative legislation.
He blamed leadership for not providing conservative bills, such as the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was filibustered temporarily, with easier passage through the House.
The election of more like-minded legislators will bolster efforts to scale back government, reduce business regulation, increase individual liberty and fight lobbyists and social progressives.
Schaefer served on the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and the Defense and Veterans Affairs committees. He was among 40 freshman lawmakers in Austin last session.
Ogle, 47, is a former lobbyist 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, 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-Mexican border would be a priority, Ogle said, he would try to rise above polarizing political rhetoric to find agreement.
Ogle said the state’s future starts with entrepreneurs and job creation. He believes he has the experience as a businessman to challenge obstructive regulations, higher taxes and ignorance in Austin regarding what businesses need to succeed.
Political observers said 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 doesn’t cost the community’s seat at the table in Austin.
The race pits two-term County Judge Joel Baker against retired 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. He presided over four failed jail bond proposals and 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 have also faced criticisms and lawsuits during his tenure. Baker and a former county commissioner won a decision by a visiting judge about allegations that one of the failed jail bond proposals had been developed without posted public meetings. The judge noted court members used poor discretion about posting open meetings notifications but sided with them.
Court members drew criticism for accepting pay raises they approved in 2006. The court later approved a policy that additional pay increases would not take effect until they were re-elected.
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 taxes.
Furlow, 58, wants to bring a “bottom-line, results-oriented approach” to county government. He has a 31-year military career and accounting and business background.
He said he believes the court needs to be more transparent and begin every budget process with a zero-based budget. He has pledged not to raise taxes but rather 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 about 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.
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.
This race pits two Democrats who got their political start on the Tyler City Council against each other.
Commissioner JoAnn Hampton is the most senior member of the commissioners court and has experienced its ups-and-downs as well. She is seeking her fourth term on the court.
Mrs. Hampton said she has been an active part of major shifts in county policy and procedures that have opened government, enacted cost savings and efficiencies, while providing a voice for her precinct. 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.
OTHER CONTESTED RACES
Other notable races include a crowded race to replace retiring County Court at Law Judge Dunn. Candidates include attorneys, Jason Ellis, 31, James Huggler, 44, Brent Ratekin, 45 and Mike Patterson, 63.
Certified public accountant and attorney John Jarvis, 46, faces longtime incumbent 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark.
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.
Early voting for the party primaries runs today through Feb. 28. Primary election day is March 4.