The GOP-controlled state Legislature reconvenes next week. But Democrats flipped seemingly obscure seats, from justice of the peace to county sheriff, that have outsized impacts on Texas families.
After the 2020 election, it’s time for Texas Democrats to stop setting unrealistic expectations about top-ticket races and instead start focusing on the down-ballot seats they’ve already won. Over the past decade, Democrats have flipped district courts, appellate benches, sheriff’s departments, and county governments across the state. These positions languish at the bottom of the ballot but assert more direct control over life in Texas than any individual legislator could dream of.
Consider the race for justice of the peace (JP) in Harris County’s Precinct 5, Place 1, where Democratic challenger Israel Garcia beat Republican incumbent Justice Russ Ridgway. The position is so obscure that the Houston Chronicle editorial board didn’t even issue an endorsement in the race. But because JPs oversee eviction hearings, the position holds an outsize power over Texans who rent homes and apartments.
During the pandemic, an eviction can mean the difference between a safe quarantine and exposure to a deadly virus. People can’t follow a “stay-at-home” order if they can’t stay in their homes. That’s why the Texas Supreme Court temporarily halted evictions in March and why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) implemented limits on evictions through the end of the year, so long as renters could prove they met a set of very broad qualifications.
Precinct 5 covers more than 1 million people—including the dense Gulfton apartment complexes that have been home to thousands of low-income immigrant families since the 1980s oil bust. While other justices found ways to delay evictions after the end of the statewide ban, Ridgway rushed to restart his docket. His court quickly had more eviction hearings scheduled than any other JP in Harris County. Between May 1 and November 27, 2,286 eviction cases were filed in his court, according to January Advisers, a data analytics firm based in Houston.
Ridgway could have done things differently. Zoe Middleton, Southeast Texas director at Texas Housers, told me that other justices in Harris County have gone out of their way to help people navigate the process for seeking protection under the CDC order, which required tenants to assert that they’re eligible. Ridgway, on the other hand, developed a reputation for presuming the protective order didn’t apply.
In November, voters removed Ridgway from office. The new JP, Garcia, will assume office in January, just as the CDC moratorium expires and thousands of families face months of back rent coming due. Garcia has said he wants to pause eviction hearings on day one and wait for federal, state, or local guidance. That’s good news for the thousands of families who will now be able to stay safe in their homes during a pandemic.
Garcia isn’t the only significant down-ballot victory in 2020. Democrats flipped constable seats in Tarrant County and the sheriff’s offices in Falls and Williamson counties. In Fort Bend County, while Democrat Sri Kulkarni’s congressional loss made national headlines, Democrats won all countywide races, including the race for sheriff. Eric Fagan, the first Black sheriff in Fort Bend since Reconstruction (see page 5), has promised to reform a department facing accusations of racial profiling and lawsuits over jail deaths.
Fagan now has more direct power to help Texans than Kulkarni would have had as a freshman among 434 other representatives.
But you rarely hear Democrats touting exactly what they’re doing with this power. Republican judges talk about being tough on crime; they boast about protecting business and squashing “jackpot justice.” Where are the Democratic campaign ads talking about protecting families from unjust evictions or saving sons and daughters from needlessly dying behind bars? Good politicians craft a narrative that inevitably concludes with “and that’s why you should vote for me,” and as any good writer knows, you show, not tell.
Texas Democrats can promise to pass all sorts of laws if they ever sweep the Legislature, but a more powerful message would point to the things they’ve already done.
Democrats yet again find themselves with little power in Austin, and even that morsel of authority will shrink in the upcoming redistricting process. But political power doesn’t have to be built in the Capitol. Democrats have the ability to put on a statewide show that demonstrates how they’re leveraging county governments, judicial seats, and even justices of the peace to materially improve the lives of Texas families. And it’s a show that conveniently builds up to a sequel—the race for governor in 2022.
Read more from the Observer:
How We Got Here: Texas’ health system has been underfunded, understaffed, and unprepared for years. Here, COVID-19 found the perfect place to spread.
The Forgotten Children of Texas: Each year, thousands of foster children in Texas are shuffled into little-known “treatment centers” where they are frequently neglected and abused. State officials have largely ignored allegations of wrongdoing and calls for reform.
Bringing the Dead Home: Thirty years after Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, only a fraction of human remains held by Texas’ museums and universities have been returned.