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DATELINE The Battle for San Jacinto BY DAVE MANN 111.1 \( his is the prettiest little county in the state. Anybody power-mad up here is sick in the head.” As Troyce Ellisor talked, it was hard to argue with his words. We were sitting in a park on the bank of the Trinity River, gazing across the gently rolling countryside and imposing pine trees of San Jacinto County. Ellisor was giving me the lowdown on the civil war roiling this tiny tucked-away county of 22,000 people that lies 60 miles northeast of Houston up along State Highway 59. The county’s elected officials and their fervent supporters have split into two rival factions. For the past three years, they’ve been engaged in an epic struggle for the soul of this sliver of Texas and the result has been, well, crazy. Five county officials were indicted on 20 counts of misconduct \(almost all were exonerfederal racketeering suits against his pornography was discovered on the county judge’s office computer \(some rate county officials had to fend off lawsuits to remove them from office; two special prosecutors were brought in to investigate the shenanigans; and one band of concerned citizens protested a state district judge for running a “kangaroo court” and appealed for help from the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and the U.S. attorney’s office, while a rival group of concerned citizens wrote their own pleading letters to the same agencies. It seems both sides believe that, as one county official put it, “We need someone with a badge and a gun to come down here and sort this out.” And that’s only part of the ruckus. Ellisor has lived his entire life in the county. At 78, he’s still a striking figure at well over six feet with broad shoulders. He belongs to the old guard faction, which, depending on who is talking, is either a group of traditionalists who have run the county well and are defending its honor from hostile takeover or a collection of good ol’ boy S thern Democrats awash in corruption. We had met for an interview in the small rotunda of the county courthouse in Coldspring \(population: didn’t want to talk in the courthouse. He thought it might be bugged. So we decamped to my car, and drove literally out of the county. He directed me along 10 miles of back roads until we reached the other side of the Trinity River, the border with neighboring Polk County. We sat along the bank, just down river from Lake Livingston Dam. Ellisor looked out over the river and pointed toward the opposite side. “All this was cotton,” he said. “Imagine blacks and poor whites over there, picking cotton.” As a boy in the 1930s, Ellisor chopped cotton for 37 cents a day \(grown men, family has deep roots here. An Ellisor family member has held the justice of the peace post in the county’s third precinct continuously since 1892. Troyce, though, never went into county government. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 26 years, which prevented him from delving into local politics until two years ago, when, well into retirement, he took over as county Democratic Party chairman. As we talked, it was clear the infighting bothered Ellisor. “I guess the good fishing just ain’t enough for some people,” he said. Indeed, the afternoon I first visited Coldspring, the courthouse doors were propped open to let in the warm air, and the halls were deserted except for two members of the janitorial staff lounging against a staircase. Somewhere the business of the county was probably being done, but it sure felt like everyone had gone fishing. The place exudes peaceful living. So it seems strange that such a tranquil locale, in which everyone knows everyone else, could foster so much anger and mistrust. It’s tempting to blame it all on small-town boredom. There are many other cures for boredom, however, that don’t cost tens of thousands in legal fees. The more likely cause was right before our eyes. Sitting along the river, we had an excellent view of the 1969 dam that stopped up the Trinity River and formed the 90,000-acre Lake Livingston. The construction of the lake altered not only the county’s geography, but also its population. Since the lake was built, San Jacinto County has become a retirement destination. Gated communities with opulent-sounding names like Cape Royale have sprung up along the shores of the lake, attracting wealthy retirees from Houston. The more I talked to Ellisor, the more it seemed the real problem in San Jacinto County is cultural. The newcomers, many of them Republicans, moved into million-dollar houses on the lake, but along with their new tax dollars came the ethos of the Houston business community. Ellisor says the newcomers convinced themselves that the county government has deep-rooted corruption and that they needed to clean it up. “They think we’re a bunch of country hicks,” he said. “When I was in Houston, they thought I was a country hick. They come up here, and I’m a country hick. They look down on us like we don’t know nothing. [They] said we need modern management up here.” And now the old-timers are fighting back. About the only fact everyone agrees on is when the trouble started: the 2002 campaign, when Mark Price, a member of the new guard, won election as 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 10, 2006