Governor, local candidates feel May elections in doubt

Published 2:46 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Elections for Port Arthur, Jefferson County, state and federal offices are expected to go on as scheduled.

Port Arthur City Secretary Sherri Bellard confirmed all six city council seats except Mayor Thurman Bartie’s are up for election May 2. Jefferson County Clerk Carolyn Guidry said that runoffs for county, state and federal offices will be held on May 26 as scheduled.

Bellard and Guidry said any decision to cancel or postpone elections would have to come from Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, but Bellard cautioned that decision could come at any time.

“We are wiping down our voting machines, getting them clean as possible,” Guidry said. “We’re in the process of doing our part to make sure what we send out is safe and virus-free.”

In speaking Tuesday with pool reporters after his video conference with Texas hospitals, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything’s on the table” in regard to potential changes to the May 26 runoff elections due to coronavirus:

When asked if he is considering any changes to the May 2 or May 26 elections due to coronavirus, he said:

“For the municipal ones, we are still evaluating that and we know we need to make a decision very swiftly. One thing that we are looking at, and that is whether or not the governor has the authority to make a decision on that…. It may only be the municipalities have the power to make that decision, and so there’s that legal issue that we are making a determination on. That said, if I don’t have the legal authority, we may provide suggested guidelines.”

Abbott said under his 418 authority, he has the ability to waive and alter state laws, state rules and regulations.

“I don’t have the authority to alter municipal ordinances or waive them, et cetera,” he said. “That pertains in hurricanes, that pertains to this also. So this is going to be up to the municipalities to make their own decisions, but we may be offering guidelines on it.’

Concerning the May 26 runoff specifically, Abbott said he is “focused on that runoff and we will be making decisions about that shortly. So on that runoff, those are state elections, which I oversee in my emergency capacity, and so I will be able to make decisions about that.”

Council hopefuls’ response

Recommended precautions against the spread of coronavirus prompted Port Arthur City Council hopeful Ingrid West Holmes to look at different ways to get her campaign message across.

West Holmes mentioned a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that “in-person events” of 50 or more people be canceled for the next eight weeks.

The Port Arthur City Council elections are less than seven weeks away.

West Holmes, a former Beaumont Health Department director, is a candidate for District 1 councilmember, running against former councilman Willie “Bae” Lewis Jr. and former educator Mike Mason.

“As a former public health director, I will always follow the guidelines of what public health is saying,” West Holmes said. “If we have situations where more than 50 people are in an environment and if we have a case, I think that changes things. I think it’s all precautions that are recommended.”

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick on Tuesday issued a revised disaster declaration in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Under that declaration, events that include more than 50 persons at public facilities across Jefferson County must cease.

The new declaration expires April 15.

Lewis doesn’t think the precautionary recommendations against coronavirus should affect the election schedule.

“There’s not going to be crowds, that’s for sure,” Lewis said. “Participation for local elections has always been less than 20 percent, so there’s never going to be a high concentration of voters.”

Only 24.1 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the March 3 countywide primary.

Still, Lewis urged citizens to heed calls from the CDC to help stop COVID-19’s spread.

“Rule of thumb is no more than 50 people should be in an area,” Lewis said. “We have no reported outbreaks yet. It doesn’t mean that it’s not here. … We have to continue to do the things we need to do to protect ourselves because we don’t know.

We have to treat and consider it as if it’s here.”

Mason said his campaign team has conducted its business through conference calls.

“I’m first of all concerned about the safety of everyone involved,” Mason said. “Our team will follow the guidelines for us to follow. We walk about the cleanliness to help prevent us from contracting the virus or spreading the virus, but our team hasn’t sat down to determine any strategies. I’m sure in the next few days, we’ll have that discussion based on what the state and federal governments tell us to do. We’ll try to comply with all of that because safety is important.”

Council races

Democratic races for the May 26 runoffs impacting Jefferson County include:

  • U.S. Senator: Royce West vs. M.J. Hegar (winner to face incumbent John Cornyn in the November election);
  • Railroad Commissioner: Chrysta Castañeda vs. Beto Alonzo (winner to face Jim Wright in November); and
  • Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Precinct 1, Place 1: Naomi Showers Doyle vs. George Milhouse.

The only Republican runoff in Jefferson County is for Chief Justice of the Ninth Court of Appeals, Colleen Cordts Rice vs. Chuck Meyer.

“We hope people take advantage of the mail ballots, and for those who can’t, please go to the polls and vote,” Guidry said.

The runoff date for Port Arthur offices, if necessary, is June 20.


About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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