Six candidates for state and local offices met on the Howard Payne University campus Friday morning for a political forum and luncheon hosted by the Early Chamber of Commerce.
Rep. Mike Lang, Greg Risse, Brown County Judge Ray West, Dr. Paul Lilly, Joel Kelton and Eddie Lord attended the event, as moderator Rick Phelps asked a series of pre-prepared questions and then several submitted from the audience. Dr. Jim Largent, who is running against incumbent Lang and challenger Risse for the Republican nomination in Texas House District 60, was unable to attend the forum but did submit responses to questions which Phelps read aloud throughout the event.
Candidates were given three minutes to make an opening statement, then one minute each to answer questions from Phelps. The candidates’ questions were tailored to the seat they are running for — Lang, Risse and Largent for the House, West and Lilly for Brown County judge and Kelton and Lord for Commissioners Court Precinct 2.
The forum touched on many topics like immigration, public schools, the role of government, public trust, and even the quality of county roads.
Notably, West used the forum to address recent media reports that placed a new spotlight on past courthouse controversies, from the flow of illicit prescription drugs to abuse of power allegations. In response to an audience question, West said he has been absolved of all wrongdoing by the Texas attorney general and in the courts, and that the allegations are resurfacing now for political purposes.
“On the eve of the primary election, the complainants are reasserting their accusations through two mass-media outlets that seem desperate for a sensational story,” West said. “I can categorically deny all the allegations against me.”
West also said that it is important for a lawyer to occupy the role of county judge. “It is imperative that the county court … have an attorney serve as the county judge. The reason for that is … if a non-lawyer is elected, the caseload that I carry will be sent to two courts — the district court and the county court at law — who are already booked solid.”
But West’s opponent Lilly disputed that assertion later in the forum. “I just spoke with the Texas Association of Counties a few weeks ago, and they categorically told me that an overwhelming number of county judges in Texas are not attorneys,” Lilly said. “The position was never created to be held by an attorney.
“There are a few cases that I would have to refer to a judge who is a licensed attorney, and those are juvenile cases. But not all juvenile cases, just some that meet very specific qualifications. The rest of the duties of county judge go far beyond the judicial bench. The county judge is the chief executive officer … of the county.”
Lilly also said that “80 percent” of the voters he talks to have expressed “some sort of mistrust or some sort of concern” for the ethics of the county courthouse.
Lang and Risse — and, in his written responses, Largent — generally agreed on broad-strokes conservative principles like opposition to abortion and tighter border security. But while Lang is campaigning on the experience of his first term, one where he voted as one of the most conservative members of the House, Risse admitted that he still has much to learn and said his main priority is solving the problems of illegal immigration.
“I don’t have quite the qualifications that some of these people have, but I’m willing to get into it hard and heavy,” Risse said. “Immigration’s my thing. I can’t sleep at night — I’m trying to figure it out. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and I’m putting all the pieces together and solutions for all the things we’re up against.”
Lang and Risse also differed on the idea of school vouchers — government stipends that follow students from public schools to alternatives like private, charter or home schools. While Lang generally supports such efforts, Risse said the money should “be channeled to the public schools” and that his own family homeschools two children without government assistance.
Largent is also opposed to school vouchers, according to his comments. “The voucher scheme would be the largest big-government money grab in our state’s history,” he said.
Kelton and Lord offered a similar vision of responsive, accessible and transparent oversight of Precinct 2. Both promised to make the county’s deteriorating roads a top priority, and said they will be good, conservative stewards of the limited county budget.
“I’ve lived in Precinct 2 all my life,” said the incumbent Kelton. “I’ve always done my best to bring a commonsense approach to county governing, to be fair and honest, and I’d like to continue to be your commissioner for Precinct 2.”
Lord said he was inspired to run after a washed-out road near his home took over 18 months to address. “It inconvenienced a lot of people,” Lord said. “I know as commissioner, I would be working with many people … to see their needs are met, their safety is met, and I’d work with the sheriff’s department to help ensure the safety of those people and to better the roads of our community.”
There will be another candidates forum on Feb. 19 at the Adams Street Community Center. The primary election is on March 6.