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Brewster County Judge’s race draws crowded primary field as incumbent prepares to leave office

The Republican and Democratic primaries for the rural county’s top executive seat have each drawn three candidates, a more active field compared to other races in the Big Bend region.

<i>Listen above for a conversation between Marfa Public Radio's Bárbara Anguiano and Travis Bubenik.</i>

By Travis Bubenik

With early voting underway across Texas for the March 1 primary elections, a contest for the top executive seat in Brewster County has emerged as one of the most competitive races in the Big Bend region.

Late last year, incumbent Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano, a Democrat, announced he would not seek reelection. Cano cited family reasons in his decision, saying he wanted to spend more time with his children in San Angelo.

Cano’s decision to not seek reelection after being in the county’s top office since 2015 has sparked a flurry of contenders looking to take his place.

Marfa Public Radio spoke with the Democratic and Republican candidates in the race - three on each side - over the past week. Here’s an overview of how the primary contests are shaping up, and what issues have emerged as focal points so far.

Candidates in both parties point to recent hurdles with EMS services as a key issue

Since the start of this year, local officials in Brewster County have been scrambling to find a new long-term ambulance provider for the county’s northern half, after the area’s longtime provider shut down.

While multiple candidates acknowledged that officials are likely to settle on at least a short-term solution well before the November general election rolls around, the situation has sparked conversations about what the county could do better to maintain emergency services.

Ryan Skelton, one of the field’s Republican candidates and current chief deputy for the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office, said he has on “several occasions” driven ambulances himself when the former local ambulance crew was short-staffed.

“Even when we get that issue solved, there’s situations like the Marathon Fire Department, the Alpine Fire Department, I would like to address maybe some funding, but also address some recruiting events and try to get those two departments up and running,” he said.

Mimi Smith, an attorney and one of the Democratic contenders who also publishes the Big Bend Gazette newspaper, said her takeaway from the situation was that county leaders could do a better job planning for the future of essential services.

“Why do we have to be in crisis mode? Why didn’t we have a plan to have a subsequent ambulance service?” she said. “We’re going to be surprised by things like COVID, but we didn’t have to be surprised by this.”

One of the Republican candidates, businessman and Terlingua Fire and EMS Chief Greg Henington, is currently leading a local task force focused on finding a solution to the ambulance issue.

Transparency in county government could be improved, candidates say

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple county governments in West Texas moved to make their public meetings available online for the first time, through tools like Zoom and Facebook Live.

Still, most of the Brewster County Judge candidates interviewed by Marfa Public Radio pointed to a need for even greater transparency in county commissioners’ discussions and decision making.

Benjamin Barrientes, a Democrat candidate and professor at Sul Ross State University, said as county judge, he would push county staffers to be more thorough in their reports at public meetings about the goings-on of local government.

“I will ask questions, and I will ask people to be a little more prepared,” he said. “Everybody needs to just pay a little more attention and ask questions.”

Monty Kimball, a former federal prosecutor and Republican candidate, said he’d push for more transparency in county government around pressing issues like the county’s ambulance services situation.

“The public as a whole is not getting the information as to what all these options are and why they’re leaning one way or the other,” he said. 

Oscar Cobos, a Democratic candidate and local community and political organizer, echoed the other candidates’ calls for more public-facing discussions among local officials.

“I do see the importance in any entity [for] accountability,” he said. “That’s a top priority, to have transparency, accountability and working relationships for the people.”

Henington, the south county business owner, referenced his experience with early-pandemic public health measures in pushing for direct communication from local officials about decisions that will affect businesses.

“I probably would’ve liked a little more communication from my county,” he said. “You’ve got to be reaching out all the time and talking to your folks, business leaders all the way to community leaders.”

On politics, candidates largely downplay party affiliations, hope for crossover voters

Most of the Brewster County Judge candidates interviewed by Marfa Public Radio sought to downplay their party affiliations, describing the local-level race as more about the individual contenders than their respective parties.

Some highlighted the fact that Texas is an “open primary” state, meaning voters can choose which party primary to vote in regardless of their own party affiliation. That suggests the candidates are hoping for votes from across the political aisles.

Betse Esparza, a former Republican Brewster County commissioner (who said she no longer considers herself a Republican), said she has heard from local Democratic voters who plan to vote in the Republican race this year. 

“I think that they are feeling like the Republican candidates have backgrounds that lend themselves to administration more than the Democratic candidates this cycle,” said Esparza, who has been following the race on her “Hear Me Out Alpine” podcast.

Still, it’s far from unclear whether that prospect will actually play out, particularly given how increasingly loyal Americans are to one party or the other.

The Brewster County Judge’s race could easily head to primary runoffs

In Texas, primary runoff elections are triggered when a race has a field of at least three candidates where no single candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Given the state’s history of abysmally low voter turnout in primaries and recently-enacted voting restrictions that could lead to even lower turnout this year, it’s easily plausible that the top two candidates in each of the Brewster County Judge primaries could go on to a runoff in May.

“I would anticipate that,” said Kimball, one of the Republican candidates.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.