PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

November 4, 2013

District clerk race major battleground

Dan Bledsoe
The Port Arthur News

— At least four candidates are expected to file as early as Saturday in the Republican and Democratic 2014 primaries for Jefferson County District Clerk.

While Democrats are accustomed to contested primaries, this will be unusual for Republicans who have at least two contested races so far and are expected to field candidates nearly countywide for the first time since the Reconstruction era.

Democrats will hunker down to protect their existing incumbencies while Republicans push for what they see as a long-time-coming slate of willing and qualified candidates.

The phrase “synergy” is being used among Republicans and they have their sights set.

The recent death of former District Clerk Lolita Ramos opened up the field for that seat with at least one Democratic candidate announcing he was running just days before she passed away.

(A vacancy for district clerk is an anomaly in that all district judges must unanimously vote for the replacement. Otherwise, that task falls to the governor. In this case they did and chose longtime assistant district clerk Jane Birge to fill the remainder of the term.)

To the uninformed voter, the $95,373 yearly salaried district clerk’s position might sound just like a clerk position.

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The district clerk is the one person who assigns all civil and criminal cases to the eight district judges. The office is also responsible for the handling of tens of thousands of filings including lawsuits and motions.

Because of that fact, political contributions from attorneys supporting both political parties will pour in by the truckload including more money in that race than some other countywide races combined.

Jefferson County is historically known on the state and national level for being a litigious friendly field for civil lawsuits. It is equally known locally for stringent punishments handed down in criminal cases.

In the Republican Primary, Karen J. Stewart, the current assistant director purchasing agent for Jefferson County and daughter of former tax-assessor collector Miriam K. Johnson, will face Charles Wiggins, Jr., a retired 30-year employee of Jefferson County who previously served in the Constable, Precinct 1 position.

Wiggins held the constable post for two election cycles but lost in 2012 to Nick Saleme by a 17,403 to 16,114 vote.

Democrat and current Beaumont Councilman Jamie Smith announced last week that he would run. Jefferson County bailiff Stanley Hatcher, who once ran against former district clerk Ramos and lost, made his announcement October 9 to also run as a Democrat.

Ramos lost her battle to cancer at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston on October 13.

All candidates for political office on the state and local level can file as early as Saturday and have until 5 p.m. December 9 to file. This includes party precinct chairs, positions that both political parties lean on heavily in getting out their respective parties’ votes.

Republicans also have a contested race to replace State Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, who is not seeking re-election.

Beaumont attorney Dade Phelan is running against Judy Nichols, a Tea Party activist from Nederland and owner of a management and land company.

The Golden Triangle Republican Women, considered by some to be the backbone of the party, meets tomorrow in Beaumont. Meanwhile, Democrats are just as anxious to start their push for countywide and local precinct races.

While the filing period runs Saturday through December 9, candidates will most likely file within prior to Thanksgiving but odds are there will be one or two last minute candidates to file.

Other high profile races Republicans hope to wrest away from Democrats include district attorney, county clerk and the 58th and 172nd judicial districts.

Voter sentiment has changed so much from the last election cycle and there are at least two factors that highlight how Republican strength has grown to where they have local contested primaries and a slate of candidates running countywide.

Not long ago straight-ticket voting favored Democrats which used to account for 75 percent of all those types of ballots cast. In 2010, the gap was narrowed with Democrats accounting for only 53 percent of straight ticket ballots.

Second factor is the recent party switch by Precinct 7 Justice of the Peace Brad Burnett Precinct 2 County Commissioner Brent Weaver. Their announcement last month to join the Republican Party brought state Chairman Steve Munisteri to Jefferson County.

In 2010, Burnett won with 55.5 percent of the vote in a contested Democratic Primary while Weaver received 51.2 percent of the vote. Neither faced a Republican in the general election.

For all candidates, the number of votes received is all that matters but to get there, a candidate has to spend money and it does not hurt to brag on who you know.

While state law no longer requires it, candidates for local and statewide races routinely list their campaign treasurers on all political advertising.

Stewart boasts former Democratic county judge Richard P. LeBlanc while Wiggins has Ron Arceneaux, of Arceneaux and Gates Consulting Engineers, Inc.

If you love politics, this season is like Christmas every day between now and the 2014 General Election and voters are the ones playing Santa.

Dan Bledsoe has more than 23 years experience in media and politics and lives in Groves.