About a year ago, Jess Herbst became the first transgender mayor in Texas when she wrote an open letter announcing her transition to New Hope town residents and posted it on the town website. “As your Mayor I must tell you about something that has been with me since my earliest memories,” she wrote. “I am Transgender.”
Herbst wasn’t elected mayor. She’d been serving as an alderman and mayor pro tem when she stepped into the role. The previous mayor, Johnny Hamm, suffered a massive heart attack on the night of the election filing deadline and spent the campaign in a coma. He died three days before the election and still beat his opponent, John Miller, by 30 votes. He held the position for 22 years.
“What some of us believe is that the council dragged this out,” Miller told KXAS-TV in early May 2016. “What they should have done legally is assign the pro tem to become the mayor before the election, which would have taken Mayor Hamm off the ballot. I would’ve won the election.”
Since Herbst wrote her open letter to New Hope residents, she has been on the forefront of equal rights for people who identify as transgender. She stood in front of bathrooms at the state Capitol with other transgender rights activists to put a face on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s bathroom bill. She made international news, and her family, which supported her decision to transition, quickly became known as “a modern family.”
Now Herbst is seeking re-election.
“When I was elected alderman, it was as ‘Jeff,’” she says. “This is my first opportunity to be as I am.”
But it won’t be an easy victory. Her opponent is Johnny Hamm’s widow, Angel Hamm, who put her name on the ballot this week.
Hamm couldn’t be reached for comment.
Herbst says New Hope residents seem to have been behind her since she wrote her letter last year. She received mostly supportive emails, some calling her brave for coming out. When she attended her first council meeting as a transgender woman, it was business as usual for council members and residents.
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“Never once did being transgender come up,” she says.
Herbst says she has been trying “to put the town back together as a government” since her appointment as mayor. She helped to establish a planning and zoning commission, appointed a code enforcement officer and hired a municipal judge. If elected, she plans to address an extraterritorial jurisdiction issue with McKinney, which she says could offer the town room to grow.
But more important, this election will prove to her if it was truly business as usual for the town to accept a transgender mayor. She’s run in various New Hope elections since 2003 but always as a male. Now the town will see Herbst's name on the ballot and decide if she will be the first transgender mayor elected in Texas.
“I’m looking forward to know how my town feels,” she says.