Why Is County Judge Gunning for Elections Chief Bruce Sherbet, "One of the Good Guys"?

[Update: For reasons explained in the piece below, Bruce Sherbet tells Unfair Park he has resigned, effective March 1. He says when he spoke to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price today, he told him he would work through the May mayoral election -- or he'd leave earlier, if Price so wanted it. Price told him to leave on March 1. "And I was like, 'OK, March 1 it is.'"

When we spoke this morning, Sherbet hinted he would rather jump than be pushed out of the job he'd done to much acclaim for the past 24 years. After the jump, you will see him mention that perhaps a beach is in his near future. "I'm ready to see what my next adventure is," he says. "Sometimes, you have to take a stand. And I am taking a stand." Now, then, to the original story.]

Dallas County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet -- whose office we named Best Local Government Agency back in '01 -- is too classy to speculate about why Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins has called for a meeting of the County Election Commission on Friday, the first such meeting in more than two decades. As Gromer Jeffers wrote this morning, Jenkins insists he's just going by the book. But as Sherbet explains, the book was closed long ago, when the county lifted the requirement that his position be subject to renewal every two years.

Sherbet will say he "was as shocked as anybody" when he found out Jenkins had called the meeting. And, as of this morning, he had yet to speak with the newly elected county judge.

Speculation among long-time observers of Dallas County politics is that Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is behind this in an effort to replace Sherbet with one of his own people. He refused to give The News a comment about Sherbet's job performance this morning. When I called his office this morning, Price's assistant said, "He doesn't deal with the Observer, so I doubt you'll get a call back." At which point, she hung up. A message has also been left with Jenkins.

[Update: Lauren Mish, Jenkins's chief of staff, explains why the judge called the meeting via e-mail: "Pursuant to Section 31.033 of the Texas Election code, the chair, vice-chair, or three members of the commission may call a meeting of the County Election Commission. As chair, Judge Jenkins intends to call a meeting every two years after each election to affirm leadership of the elections administrator or express concerns, or both. He was surprised to learn that such a meeting had not been called in almost a quarter of a century."]

County Commissioner Mike Cantrell tells Unfair Park he heard about the meeting Tuesday morning from Jonathan Neerman, chair of the Dallas County Republican Party. At that point, Cantell says, he went to see Jenkins, who, he says, "sloughed it off."

"But it's hard for me to understand why you'd even call a meeting if you didn't intend to do something," Cantrell says. "As I've observed over the last 16 years I've been on the court, clearly Bruce has had pressure applied to him by individuals he has stood against by doing what was required by law and not doing stuff he shouldn't be doing. And when you have both party chairs who feel like he's been fair and above-board in the elections, and all of these election judges and precinct chairs who also feel like this, I'm not sure you can meet the standard that talks about good and sufficient cause to remove him. I haven't heard anything that would say there's good and sufficient cause. He's well-respected across the county and state, even across the country. He's a straight-shooter, and he's always accountable."

"Bruce is one of the good guys, and it's terrible the things we put the good bureaucrats through," says Neerman, who sits on the five-member commission along with his Democratic counterpart, Darlene Ewing, who I couldn't reach this morning but who also voiced her support for Sherbet in the paper this morning.

"I've had nothing but good experience with Bruce in the two elections I've been through with him," Neerman says. "If there have been problems with our Republican poll workers, he has called me and made sure I've corrected them. And if I've had issues, he's always responsive."

Neerman says he thinks that Jenkins doesn't have the required four votes on the committee to oust Sherbet on Friday. But if they're not there, asks Cantrell, "then why the meeting? Are they trying to send a message?" Cantrell wonders if perhaps the meeting was called just to force Sherbet to resign, since he wasn't even invited to the meeting.

Asks Neerman, "When you find someone that passionate, why would you want to get rid of that person?"

And Sherbet is decidedly passionate about his particularly thankless task. It is, he tells Unfair Park, "everything I ever wanted to do."

Sherbet will not talk about why he thinks Jenkins called the meeting. But he will speak, at great length, about why he doesn't want to leave a job he's held since 1987 -- six years after county officials moved the job out of the tax assessor's office and created the elections department in an effort to remove partisan politics from the voting booth. Matter of fact, Sherbet says, he has not voted in a primary in the last 30 years, since he went to work as a supervisor in the county tax office.

"It's not the politics -- it's the process," he says when asked why he loves his job. "It's the election judges, the people I look at when I'm training and who are doing it because they believe in it. They're not making a lot of money. They're working their butts off. It's a complicated, stressful job, but they do it because they believe in the process. Whoever wins, I've been able to facilitate voting and give people what this whole country was founded on -- the right to vote on those who will decide their future.

"As corny as it sounds, it's what rewarded me all these years. It's been a good job. It's a hard job. I used to have a lot of hair. Now, I have none. But it's been good. But I've always known there would come a time when I'd look around and know when it's time to move on."

Sherbet, who could have retired five years ago and begun collecting his pension but decided to stay on, spends a long while reciting all the changes he's seen since going to work for Dallas County in '80 -- "from levers to touch screens," he says, "from the National Voter Registration Act to the MOVE Act." He was there when the Reagan sweep of '80 kicked all of the Dallas Democrats out of office, and he was there in '06, when it went the other direction.

"I've seen the pendulum go both ways," he says. "I've seen a lot of stuff in my career, and it's been challenging, fascinating, rewarding. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do, and when I leave I'll do something related -- except run for office. That's the last thing I want. Maybe there's a beach somewhere..."

He laughs.

"But I consider this my legacy," he says. "My life's work."

To which Cantrell would add this: "If Bruce is taken out, it would be a travesty."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky