Dallas County

These DFW-Area Down-Ballot Elections Shouldn't Be Trumped by the Focus on the Presidential Race

They stand in front of voters at forums across North Texas, laying out their plans, their opponents’ faults and their reasons for seeking the Republican or Democratic nomination in the March 1 primaries. They come in various shapes and sizes, with variety of experience to offer voters. They dress in their Sunday best when they take the stage, some attempting to strike a chord with voters by professing their faith, then spread messages that often fall on deaf ears since a majority of people avoid voting, according to reports from the Elections Project, a national effort geared toward raising voter awareness.

Besides the presidential races receiving 24-hour coverage, other offices being sought in the March 2016 primaries include everything from U.S. House of Representatives for Districts 24, 26, 30, 32 and 33 to Texas Railroad Commissioner, a position that directly relates to oil and gas regulation (or non-regulation, some activists would say). 

Granted, the races at the national and state level are important to follow, and this year entertaining with a candidate like Donald Trump spewing insults, degrading anyone and everyone and misquoting Bible verses. But it’s the local races in the Dallas metro area that directly affect voters' everyday lives. So we decided to take a look at a few of the more controversial races happening across North Texas.

Dallas County
Over in District 3, located in the southern part of the county, John Wiley Price, the 30-year incumbent known as "Our Man Downtown," faces three candidates in the Democratic primary: Balch Springs Mayor Cedric Davis; former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, and developer Micah B. Phillips. Price is also facing off against federal prosecutors over federal bribery charges and tax evasion. FBI agents arrested him in July 2014 in what the Star-Telegram called "arguably the most high-profile public corruption investigation in Dallas history."

Price's political consultant, Kathy Nealy, his top aide, Dapheny Fain, and Christian Campbell, a business consultant, were also charged in the case.  At a news conference after Price's arrest, Sarah Saldaña, a federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Texas, claimed Price "took in more than $1.1 million that he did not report to the proper authorities."  

Price, who was the first black man elected to commissioners court, gives a slew of reasons why he should be re-elected, boasting among other things that he’s brought corporations and jobs to southern Dallas over the years. 

Despite Price's legal woes, SMU political science Professor Cal Jillson predicts Price may well be able to hold onto his seat for another term because of the support that he receives from South Dallas. "Blacks are always suspicious when one of their public officials is investigated or indicted," Jillson says. "Historically, black voters have stuck with black officials until they are convicted," which doesn't bode well for Price's challengers since Price's trial will occur well after the March 1 primary.  

People also see Price as an interesting figure, Jillson continues. He's not just the "downtown man" but someone they see regularly, an official who's not afraid to get up "on his hind legs and wail against the system."

"That is welcomed in the southern sector," he says.

At the county-wide level, Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat, doesn’t have an opponent in the primary, but three Republican candidates have stepped up to challenge her in light of her controversial stance on releasing illegal immigrants charged with misdemeanors from custody: Aaron Meeks, Kirk Launius and Susan Welch Rodriguez. Meeks is one of Valdez’s deputies. Lanius, a graduate of the Dallas Police Academy and Tea Party candidate, is the Morning News’ choice, although voters rejected him in 2012 in favor of Valdez. Rodriguez says she is the most qualified because she spent a majority of her law enforcement career fighting on the front lines of crime in Dallas County. 

Once the Republican victor is announced, the election battle between Republican and Democrat sheriff candidates that follows will be one to remember as immigration once again comes to the forefront in the debate over "sanctuary cities" and, possibly, marijuana decriminalization. But it's a race that Valdez is favored to win, Jillson says. 

"I think Lupe Valdez is comfortably secured," Jillson says. "In Dallas County, unless a Democratic elected official does something to discredit themselves, they can expect to remain [in office]."   

Find polling locations for early voting.

Denton County

Two races that directly affect how crime and growth is handled in Denton County appear on the March 1 ballot: the race for Denton County sheriff and the Precinct 1 county commissioner’s seat, a district that represents people living in Denton, all the way over to Frisco, an area rich with real estate development from Dallas-based businesses. (No sheriff or county commissioner candidates from the blue party even attempted to battle in a county that bleeds red, although a Libertarian candidate, Randy Butler, has stepped up to prove that just a regular Joe without law enforcement experience can be elected sheriff.)

The 2016 sheriff race involves two candidates, one who’s part of a law enforcement agency ingrained in Texas history, and an incumbent who’s a former DEA agent who now finds himself being attacked from all sides as more and more skeletons fall out of his closet and news of his mistakes continue to haunt him.

Sheriff William B. Travis, who claims he’s directly related to his namesake William Barret Travis of Alamo fame, says that he not only reduced crime in Denton County, arrested more people and increased deputy patrols in the older, affluent sections, but also represents the kind of sheriff who should lead the county: a family man who holds true to his faith and integrity. But federal court documents have begun to appear online, alleging that Travis fabricated evidence to obtain a search warrant in the mid-'90s, which led to a convicted drug dealer's release from jail, and that he was terminated from the DEA, which counters the narrative that he resigned to spend more time with his then wife and help raise their newborn daughter.

Allegations leveled against Travis don't end there. He was also under investigation for allegedly having sex with a DEA informant and assuming a fake name at a local credit union in late '99 to threaten former sheriff spokesman Derek Hartsfield, according to a local newspaper report. Travis has denied all of these claims even as more court documents become available to the public.

Travis' Republican challenger Tracy Murphree, a former Texas Ranger, has received endorsements from deputies, police officers and Rangers, and several law enforcement associations have even lined up to endorse him, including the Texas Narcotic Officers Association, Denton Police Officers Association and the Denton County Law Enforcement Association, an organization primarily comprising officers and detention officers from the Denton County Sheriff's Office. Travis has received no endorsements from law enforcement associations. Most of his endorsements have come from local politicians like Denton County Judge Mary Horn and Flower Mound Mayor Tom Hayden.

In an odd move, Murphree’s supporters hired a certified genealogist from Decatur to trace Travis’ father’s roots to see if he really is related to William B. Travis, one of Texas' forefathers. The results suggest Travis is not the great nephew fifth removed from Travis. “It is really quite easy to conclude, from all of the evidence noted, that Judge John A. 'Jack' Travis [the sheriff’s father] is in no way related to William Barrett Travis of Alamo fame, unless it is in generations extending back to England prior to the Revolutionary War,” he wrote in his report notes. But Travis maintains that his father told him that he was related to the Alamo's Travis and his father's father also stressed a family relation.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a UNT political science professor and department chair, pointed out that "there is always an incumbency advantage, barring any catastrophe" on the campaign trail. Travis' scandals have opened the door to the sheriff's office for Murphree, who is storming the office like the Mexican soldiers who killed Travis' possible distant relative at the Alamo. He also claims that endorsements are vital to a local politician's campaign. 

"But with Travis, he seems to be more vulnerable," he says. 

Over in Precinct 1, Hugh Coleman, the incumbent county commissioner and former county prosecutor, is facing off against a relative unknown Republican challenger named Brett Larson, a man with no political experience and campaign finance reports that, similar to the incumbent sheriff, were not filled out properly when filed, according to several sources close to this issue. His campaign finance reports also revealed a couple of developer-associated campaign contributors seeking to bring more special districts into the rapidly growing county and oust Coleman, who's been against giving subsidies to developers for two terms now. Special districts, also better known as "government by developers," are basically developments funded by future taxpayers who are projected to move into the development once it is completed. Coleman has been a staunch opponent of these special taxing districts, speaking out against them on numerous occasions as well as traveling to Austin to battle lobbyists and developer consultants like Kirk Wilson, a former Denton County judge and advocate of using special districts to promote growth, according to sources. 

Not much is known about Coleman's Republican challenger. At a Republican forum in Denton, Larson said he just decided he wanted to run for office, looked at local races and decided to file for county commissioner. Larson, who claims to be a life-long conservative, is a financial adviser by trade, and he favors commercial and residential growth in Denton County. Developers like Mehrdad Moayedi, the CEO of Centurion America, one of the largest developers in North Texas, also favor Larson. Moayedi donated $10,000 to Larson's campaign, according to campaign finance reports. Kirk Wilson serves as a consultant for Centurion America, and he also donated $10,000. 

Like Travis, Coleman has been running political ads this round, and Eshbaugh-Soha says when an incumbent is spending more money on this election than his previous elections, he's worried about his challenger. But Coleman doesn't have much choice but to drop more money with his challenger's "hit ads" being sent out across the county. One of the ads resembled the cover of Time magazine and pictured Denton County Judge Mary Horn on the cover smiling with the word "Trust" in bold letters where the Time logo would appear. Inside the ad, a list of reasons why Coleman needs to leave office, including "a negative campaigner," "conflict of interest" and "been there way too long." 

"I think it's going to be a close race," Eshbaugh-Soha says. 

Polling locations for early voting

Collin County

Collin County races haven’t picked up much steam among sheriff candidates. Collin County Sheriff Terry G. Box isn’t seeking re-election after a law enforcement career spanning 47 years. The only Republican candidate seeking election is Jim Skinner, a veteran peace officer and former prosecutor who spent 30 years serving Collin County. He’s vying for a job that oversees the protection of nearly 900,000 residents and, similar to counties across Texas, a county jail teetering on becoming the unofficial state hospital for the mentally ill.

The Collin County Commissioners Court has two former Boy Scouts racing toward the Precinct 3 seat. Incumbent Commissioner Chris Hill faces off against Jon Cocks in the Republican primary. Hill is an Eagle Scout who made some waves in the news in 2013 after he resigned as chairman of a Boy Scouts district when Scout leaders decided to allow the openly gay boys to join the organization.

“I am grieved and dismayed that the Boy Scouts of America has abandoned the 103-year legacy of its founder to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices,” Hill wrote in a 2013 press release.

Information about Cocks is scarce. He knows about small businesses, attended college and obtained his CPA license, according to his campaign website. If social media are any indication of popularity among voters, Cocks, who shows only two "likes" for his campaign's Facebook page, faces a battle to win the Precinct 3 seat from Hill, whose campaign site has tallied 349 likes. 

Neal J. Catz, the executive director of the Collin County Republican Party,  says the biggest difference between the two candidates seems to be the degrees that they want to reduce the tax rate, he says. It's been a clean race between two candidates who share similar values and backgrounds in finance, he says.

"We've been fortunate that they've been following the 11th Commandant: Don't speak ill about any Republican," Catz says.

Unless, that is, you're Donald Trump.

Find early voting locations.

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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.