Dateline Texas

Johnson County Jihad


The primary polls had been closed for just an hour on March 12 in Johnson County, and the third floor of the county courthouse in Cleburne already was packed with politicos, lawyers, party regulars, reporters, and political gadflies. It was standing-room-only in the 249th District courtroom, where precinct-by-precinct results were being projected on a large screen. A television nearby blared statewide coverage. Those who couldn’t find a seat pushed up the aisles or, between updates, circulated outside, sharing the latest gossip. Others moved across to the 18th District courtroom, where there was more breathing room.

This time around, the favored subject of gossip wasn’t who had been spotted at the courthouse, but who had not: State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, the reigning heavyweight of Johnson County Republican politics. Word at the courthouse was that Wohlgemuth, along with her cronies on the party’s county executive committee and her bevy of hand-picked primary candidates, were huddled inside party headquarters, just one block away. As symbolic as that distance was, the split among Republicans in this largely rural district south of Fort Worth is in reality much wider.

Just ask Republican 249th District Judge Wayne Bridewell, host of the return-watching party at the courthouse. Cookies and other treats had been spread on a table inside his chambers for well-wishers. Bridewell, a soft-spoken man with prematurely white hair and a shy grin, didn’t eat a thing. He paced, checking each time another count was posted. A Glen Rose native, Bridewell has been a district judge for Johnson and Somervell counties for 11 years. He was district attorney and county attorney for more than 10 years and Johnson County Judge for five years before that, but tonight his life in public service was on the line. Wohlgemuth, the county’s highest ranking Republican (her district also includes less-populated Bosque and Somervell counties) and her partners in the party leadership had mounted an effort to turn him out of office.

Bridewell wasn’t alone. County Judge Roger Harmon, a three-term officeholder, and former Burleson Mayor Rick Roper, a candidate for county commissioner, had also been targeted, along with District 22 State Senate candidate Kip Averitt. An official resolution of the Johnson county GOP was printed on the back of a Wohlgemuth flier and sent to every Republican voter in the county. It declared that the “beliefs and background” of all candidates must “mirror the principles” of the party’s state and national platforms. The election of the scorned candidates would be a “detriment to the county, and therefore the Party as well,” the resolution said. It was followed a few days later by a flood of ads railing against the four, full of veiled hints, half-truths, and innuendo, and admonishing the faithful that Republican “values” must be upheld.

The implication was that the challenged candidates were not “real” Republicans, though most of the ads didn’t mention specific issues. Wohlgemuth’s supporters–the considerable core of politically active Christian conservatives in the area–know the “issues”: abortion, the decline of moral values, government interference in business, and property rights. A few buzzwords (“family values” is still a favorite) is all they need to hear.

While Averitt, who has represented Waco in the Texas House of Representatives for the last nine years, received the most vicious attacks (including an unrelated flier from FreePAC, a Dallas-based PAC notorious for linking foes to gay-rights causes), Bridewell seemed to most arouse Wohlgemuth’s scorn. Her mailings urged Republicans to vote for his opponent, Bill Bosworth, a local attorney from Somervell County, who she said would “bring integrity back into the Johnson County and Somervell District Court.” Wohlgemuth fixated on a class-action phen-fen suit in which Bridewell had made a favorable ruling for the plaintiffs. The ads insinuated that he accepted campaign contributions from “big-city” personal injury lawyers in return for “special treatment.” The case was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, and the fliers quoted Republican justices Priscilla Owen and Nathan Hecht calling the ruling “a sham and a fraud on the legal system,” because Bridewell had accepted a personal injury case filed by out-of-state residents. What the ads didn’t say, however, is that Owen and Hecht, widely considered to be the two most right-wing judges on the court, made their comments in a dissenting opinion. In fact, the Supreme Court upheld Bridewell’s ruling by a 7-2 vote, and the seven justices who sided with him were all Republicans, too.

“We were shocked and appalled that they would endorse before the primary,” Democratic County Chair Gayle Ledbetter said, failing to keep the chuckle out of her voice. “That’s definitely something we wouldn’t have done.” Even local journalists who cover the county were astounded by the attack. “Attacking Wayne Bridewell is like kicking a puppy dog,” one said. Everyone knew what Bridewell’s real crime was: He, like Harmon, had once been a Democrat. And, like Harmon, he refused to walk the increasingly conservative party line set by Arlene Wohlgemuth.

Most of the blame for the party’s split, says former Republican County Chair Walter Mize, lies with Wohlgemuth. Her railings about party purity are part of an effort to control the party and, by extension, the entire count, Mize said. “She’s been very dogmatic in her positions, going outside the county and the district and recruiting people [like Bosworth] to run as Republicans here, and making spurious claims,” he said.

“I think Arlene could be more effective than she is,” he continued. “Compromise is what makes the world go round.” Mize, who was county chairman in the late ’80s, said some political newcomers don’t understand the way things are done in Johnson County. “I don’t think endorsing one candidate in the party over the other, for example, is the true function of a party,” he said. “It alienated a lot of Republicans.” The county’s population has skyrocketed in the past decade or so, especially in the north, as Fort Worth has moved south. The newcomers, many of them younger and some from out-of-state, often believe in a more ideological style of politics than the old-timers, said County Chairman Jeff Judd. There are also divisions caused by an intense traditional rivalry between Cleburne, the county seat, and Burleson, a Fort Worth suburb, according to Judd. “I think the courthouse crowd are afraid Burleson is going to take over,” he said.

In effect, it already has. In addition to Wohlgemuth, Johnson County voters have elected Burleson-based John Neill, brother of conservative state education board member Richard Neill, to be 18th District Court Judge, as well as County Clerk Curtis Douglas, also from Burleson. But Wohlgemuth remains Burleson’s brightest star. Already active in the Republican Women’s Club and an avid abortion foe, she reportedly entered (and won) her first legislative race to get even with incumbent Bernard Erickson, who made the mistake of switching from Republican to Democrat before the election.

Wohlgemuth’s power base has always been Steppingstone Church in Burleson, where pastor Gloria Gillespie has been known to instruct her politically active congregation on how to vote. The church has become a political power in north Johnson County, electing members to the Burleson City Council, school board, and other offices. Some members are precinct chairs and election judges. Steppingstone also dominates the Burleson Ministerial Alliance and is aligned with similarly minded fundamentalist churches throughout the county. To be elected in Burleson, popular wisdom goes, a candidate has to get the nod from the Alliance. And, increasingly, to be elected in Johnson County, a candidate has to get the nod from Burleson.

Yet Wohlgemuth may have burned some bridges in her home base as well. Supporters of Pct. 2 Commissioner Ron Harmon are also angry. Harmon (no relation to the County Judge), a Burleson Republican, resigned from the commissioners court reportedly to run for Wohlgemuth’s House seat, after she announced plans last summer to run for Congress. When U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis) managed to hold onto the county after redistricting, however, Wohlgemuth decided to run for her old seat instead. Harmon was the odd man out, and Arlene apparently didn’t do much to cushion his fall. His supporters want revenge. “She turned her back on Ron,” said one, who asked not to be identified for fear of raising Wohlgemuth’s wrath. “She isn’t the good Christian she wants everyone to think she is, she’s a ruthless, ambitious bitch.”

When the counting was over on primary night, cheers could be heard from the Johnson County courthouse. Only one of the four committee-endorsed candidates, commissioner’s court hopeful John Matthews, won– and that by a narrow 15-vote margin. Bridewell, who has no Democratic opponent, will be on the bench for at least one more term, and Roger Harmon will be the Republican nominee for county judge. In the state Senate race, meanwhile, Averitt took Johnson County, over candidate Ed Harrison, and won the nomination. “I’m going to stay with the Republican Party,” the mild-mannered Bridewell said, after the smoke had cleared. “I hope that in the future, the executive committee would support all the candidates, though, and let the voters decide.”

Being ignored by primary voters was bad enough, but the biggest blow to the party hardliners was the realization that Wohlgemuth–a candidate so confident that in Burleson her yard signs read merely, “Arlene”–won only 67 percent of the vote against challenger Ron Crook, who hadn’t even bothered to campaign. “That was very telling,” said former county chair Walter Mize. “I think it should tell her a tale about herself, that Crook got something like 2,500 votes. He only had one yard sign… and it was in his yard.”

Wohlgemuth was in Austin and “too busy to talk to the Observer,” or forward a comment, an aide said. “Fortunately, the [Wohlgemuth] endorsements turned out to be the kiss of death,” said Crook, who said he wonders what happened to party icon Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Speak No Ill of Fellow Republicans. “It has to be obvious that the executive committee’s influence only extends to their own group,” he said. “That’s about 10 votes. I think we’ll get Republicans voting Democrat against Arlene, in November.”

Republican Party Chairman Jeff Judd says if there are disgruntled Republicans, they are few. He acknowledged that the controversial resolution was unusual and may have brought out a split between the conservatives and the moderates in the party. But he claimed the reason for the defeat of the endorsed candidates was the Democrats who “crossed over” to vote in the Republican primary for Bridewell and Harmon. “The reason for doing endorsements is that the executive committee felt there was such a clear-cut choice,” Judd said. “Some of the candidates were Democrats who had changed parties and we felt like there wasn’t any change in them personally, but that it was politically expedient for them to be Republicans.” At the latest committee meeting, after the primary, a resolution was passed declaring support for a ‘Vote Republican’ campaign in the fall. In other words, the committee would rather have Republicans than Democrats in all the area’s elected offices, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about some of the candidates they’ve got. Nor should the once-shunned candidates count on any campaign funds from the party, Judd said.

Some Johnson County pundits say more mudslinging can be expected this fall, when Wohlgemuth faces what could be a serious threat from Democratic challenger Greg Kauffman, a real estate manager who also lives near Burleson. Democrats say they would expect no less. “We’ve got a chance for a good showing, with all the widespread support for our statewide candidates,” county chair Gayle Ledbetter said. “Especially since we’re apparently going to be getting the votes of the disgruntled Republicans.”

P.A. Humphrey is a freelance writer who lives in Burleson. She is currently hard at work on a book about a Johnson County murder.