In her bid to unseat openly gay Lamar County Clerk Russ Towers, fellow Republican Ruth Graves Sisson is running on a platform of “integrity” and “family values.”
But there may be a few hitches. Sisson has an extensive criminal record, including 12 misdemeanor theft charges from 1991 to 2006, and police reports contain two separate accusations of racial prejudice against her.
In addition to trumpeting “family values” — a term long used by social conservatives as an anti-gay dog whistle — Towers said Sisson is conducting a “whisper campaign” targeting his sexual orientation.
“I hate to assume what [Sisson] means by ‘family values,’ and I hate to feel as though she’s implying that I don’t have any or that being gay is an issue,” Towers told the Observer. “I do feel it’s hypocritical given her record. We are all worthy of forgiveness in the eyes of God. However, that does not change your criminal history. One mistake, maybe two mistakes, maybe five are forgivable, but I think it’s a problem when someone has used the courthouse as their collection agency, basically.”
Sisson didn’t respond to repeated phone calls, emails and social media messages from the Observer seeking comment.
Lamar County, with a population of 50,000, is situated 100 northeast of Dallas in conservative East Texas. The 39-year-old Towers, whose family has been in the area for generations, moved to Dallas in 1997 before returning home a decade later. He spent six years as the county’s elections administrator before being appointed to his current position by the Lamar County Commissioners Court in 2015, after the previous clerk retired.
With no Democrat running, if Towers defeats Sisson in the March 1 primary, he would become the first openly LGBT person to win an election as a Republican in Texas. According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C. PAC, only 16 of the nation’s 470 openly LGBT elected officials are Republicans.
“I am what I am, and I suppose it’s pretty neat to make history, but all I want to do is come to work and be a good county clerk,” Towers said, adding that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the election.
Sisson, meanwhile, recently told The Paris News — which hasn’t reported on her criminal record — that she’s “raised a family with strong family values in a Christian environment,” and that her work experience in telecommunications has brought her into contact with “many traditional, family-oriented Christians while serving Lamar County.”
“I’m passionate about maintaining integrity, displaying courtesy, as well as keeping strong family values,” Sisson said, echoing the one-paragraph platform laid out on her campaign website.
According to Lamar and Hunt County court records, Sisson wrote 44 bad checks totalling $2,544 from 1990 to 2006. If Sisson becomes county clerk, she would oversee a $500,000 annual budget, and have sole control over trust accounts from contested estates and those with unknown heirs. She’d also be in charge of court records that document her own criminal past.
Although Sisson has been arrested at least three times, records show that nine of the 12 theft cases against her were dismissed after she paid restitution. In the other cases, she pleaded guilty or no contest and was ordered to pay fines and court costs.
Sisson has also faced civil suits over bad checks, including from the Lamar County Appraisal District, records show. Sisson’s landlords filed three separate eviction cases against her between 2000 and 2003 alleging nonpayment of rent.
In addition to civil and criminal woes, public records searches on Sisson turned up evidence of possible racism.
In 2010, Sisson’s sister-in-law accused her of making harassing phone calls and using a racial slur, according to Lamar County sheriff’s records. The county clerk hopeful denied making the calls — in which she allegedly called her sister-in-law a “nigger lover” — and no charges were filed.
In 2009, Sisson kicked her daughter out of the house before reporting her as a runaway, sheriff’s records show. A woman who worked for Sisson later told deputies she was angry that her daughter had a black boyfriend.
Those types of allegations may not sit well in a county with a long history of racial strife, including a series of fiery protests in the wake of a black man’s 2008 dragging death. Since then, the area has managed to shed some of its reputation for prejudice, receiving positive media attention when voters in Paris, the county seat, elected a Muslim Pakistani-American as mayor. “The priority here is, do you perform the job that you’re voted in for?” Paris Mayor Dr. AJ Hashmi told the Observer. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m a cardiologist, and everyone’s heart, when you open their chest, is the same color, and I’m very happy that people in my town think that way.”
Hashmi, who first met Towers when he served as elections administrator, said he wasn’t aware of Sisson’s criminal record.
“I think Russ does a very good job at what he does,” Hashmi said. “His private life is none of my business.”
Lamar County commissioners, all Republicans, knew their elections administrator was gay when they voted unanimously to appoint him clerk, Towers said. Commissioner Keith Mitchell “respectfully” declined to discuss the clerk’s race with the Observer, and other members of the court didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Towers said he’s helped bring both the elections and clerk’s offices into the 21st century — from electronic poll books and real-time online voting results to digitizing the exchange of records with attorneys, bondsmen and title companies, and implementing electronic filing of court documents.
Last July, Towers told the Observer he was proud to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. But he said ensuing media coverage focused on his sexual orientation may have “soured” some Lamar County residents, especially after bodybuilding photos lifted from his Facebook page were published on national LGBT news sites.
“I think there are those who will vote against me simply because I’m gay, and because they don’t know me and don’t know my work ethic,” Towers said. “If you evaluate me based on my job history and performance, it’s pretty clear that I am the right person for the job.”To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.