Now is not the time to play political poker in Jefferson County.
Phone lines are burning, gentlemen’s agreements are being considered and a flood of seats will be open for Republicans and Democrats. But one thing is a sure bet.
With the filing period less than a month away, Jefferson County will see a change in district attorney for the first time since the Reagan Administration, a change in state senator since 2002 and a change in state representative since 1998.
Southeast Texas is still facing the shock over the loss of powerhouse incumbents State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland.
The two, who have a combined more than 30 plus years of serving in the Texas Legislature, made back-to-back announcements last week of not running again.
Williams, the current Senate Finance Committee chairman, is expected to resign mid-term to allow for a special called election most likely in May. Ritter, who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, will serve out his term with a successor to most likely come from the Republican Primary.
On the county level, the race for Jefferson County district attorney will headline the local slate of offices and this one is the lead bowling pin waiting to be knocked over.
Incumbent 58th Judicial District Judge Bob Wortham is eyeing being able to serve out the remainder of his term while running for district attorney; however, he might not remain an incumbent for long.
Although state law does not require it, a sitting judicial district judge cannot remain in office if he or she opts to run for another office that is contested, according to the Judicial Code of Conduct.
While District Attorney Tom Maness has not announced his plans, it is widely anticipated that he will not seek another term. That announcement will most likely precede any announcement by Wortham.
Nov. 9 is the first day for candidates to file for the March Republican and Democratic primaries.
E. Perry Thomas, an assistant district attorney with nearly 24 years’ experience, said he plans to run as a Republican, which would result in there being a contested race and thus forcing Wortham to step aside.
Thomas also knows that in doing so he will not have made a political friend with Wortham.
Of course someone running in the Democratic Primary would still make it a contested race but Democrats are expected to spend their time and money in other local judicial and county commissioner races.
Wortham has long-standing Republican credentials dating back to literally the day after Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter when U.S. Sen. John Tower called him to gauge his interest in serving as U.S. District Attorney, a position he would later accept.
Already making a move for the 58th Judicial District spot is Tom Rugg who currently is the first assistant Jefferson County criminal district attorney and who has already named former Tax Assessor-Collector Miriam K. Johnson as his treasurer.
Nederland attorney Rick Williams is also looking at the 58th District Judicial spot but, like Rugg, is weighing whether a gubernatorial appointment is in the offering if Wortham is forced to step down.
Such a move would give the interim incumbent a marked advantage to run for the full term.
Rugg once served as the interim County Court-at-Law No. 1 judge, having been appointed by the Commissioners’ Court to serve out a one-year unexpired term. Williams was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to fill a vacancy for the 279th District Court but lost a bid for a full term.
Jefferson County is not alone in the political shake-up world as Montgomery County is also looking at the void left by Williams.
According to Walter “Wally” Wilkerson, Jr., a retired doctor and 40-year Republican Party chairman for Montgomery County, at least one state representative and current State Board of Education Chairwoman Barbara Cargill are in the discussion mix.
Another state representative might have also been considering a run but had already chosen to run for Texas Agriculture Commissioner, a decision announced but not filed for prior to Williams’ decision not to run again.
It is speculated that Williams might pursue a position with the Texas A&M University System.
Senate District 4 encompasses all of Jefferson and Orange counties but it is the western end of the district, including parts of Harris and Montgomery counties from which Williams’ successor will most likely come from.
A Jefferson County candidate not facing a local opponent in the Republican Primary could, and that is a big could, possibly win given that a May election would be a low turnout affair. However, the possibility of retaining the seat in 2016 would be nearly impossible.
Ritter’s seat also includes all of Orange County. The races to replace Ritter and Williams will likely affect and be affected by the race for Congressional District 36, currently held by U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman.
If it sounds like you need a scorecard to keep track, you do and it would be best to use a pencil.
Just remember that between now and the filing period, all bets are off as to who will do what and when.
Dan Bledsoe has more than 23 years experience in media and politics and resides in Groves.
Now is not the time to play political poker in Jefferson County.
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