Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sitting here tonight, trying to decide whom to support in the Dallas County Judge Race.. What does the Dallas Morning News say about the race...

Democrats gear up for decisive primary

12:00 AM CST on Tuesday, January 5, 2010
By KEVIN KRAUSE and GROMER JEFFERS Jr. / The Dallas Morning News

Dallas County Judge Jim Foster, whose victory in 2006 shocked the political establishment, faces a daunting challenge from his own party as he attempts to capture a second term.

And in constable races that normally draw little public attention, incumbents confront an unusually large number of candidates this year, in part because of ongoing criminal and civil investigations of two Democratic constables.

As the filing deadline for the March 2 party primaries closed Monday, Foster drew two Democratic challengers – Dallas lawyer Clay Jenkins and Dallas County Schools president Larry Duncan.

Foster's victory four years ago as a political unknown against a popular Republican incumbent headlined an election that swept dozens of other Democrats into office and transformed Dallas County into a Democratic Party stronghold.

But his shaky first months in office drew scorn from both sides of the political aisle and convinced many Democrats a stronger county standard-bearer was needed.

Meanwhile, District Attorney Craig Watkins, the Democrat who has emerged as a national figure because of his novel DNA exoneration program, won't have an opponent until November. He will face Republican Danny Clancy, a Dallas lawyer, in his effort to win a second term.

Despite the prospects of a nasty primary battle for county judge, Dallas County Democrats are hoping to maintain their dominance in county elections. Political observers believe the Democratic primary will decide the outcome of many county races.

County Democrats seek to finally unseat Republican County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, thus providing them a chance to gain control of the commissioners court for the first time in years.

Mayfield, who eked out narrow victories in the past two elections, is expected to face another tight race in his attempt for a fifth term. He will face the winner of the Democratic contest between former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia and Rose Renfroe, who nearly beat him four years ago.

Renfroe, who lost to Mayfield by only 709 votes in 2006, is making her third attempt to unseat him. Renfroe, who is not Hispanic, will again use her controversial nickname, "Rosita," on the ballot. A judge ruled the nickname could remain on the 2006 ballot after Mayfield challenged it, saying it was an attempt to trick Hispanic voters.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Darlene Ewing said that the county is now navy blue but that she expected Republicans to fight vigorously to reverse the trend.

"People clearly believe it's a solid Democratic county," Ewing said. "But we knew Republicans would put together a full slate."

Four years ago, Democrats shook up the local political scene by winning every contested countywide race, turning the county in a single night from red to blue. In 2008, Democrats, buoyed by the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama, staged another sweep.

This year sets up a rematch of 2008, with Republicans now on the outside hoping to catch lightning as Democrats eye the last vestiges of GOP power – the Dallas County Commissioners Court.

The county also is the scene of hotly contested state House races, which could dictate whether Democrats or Republicans control the Texas House.

Jonathan Neerman, Republican county chairman, said his party has the momentum.

Along with dozens of judicial candidates, the party has challengers lined up for county judge and district attorney.

Wade Emmert, a Cedar Hill council member, will face the winner of the Democratic primary for county judge.

"The candidates who are willing to put aside a year of their lives believe we have a chance," Neerman said.

County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, who represents a solidly Republican district, is unopposed in his primary this year, and he won't face a Democratic challenger in November.

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said the highlight of this year's election will be Democratic efforts to oust Mayfield and take over the Commissioners Court.

Jillson said Mayfield has pointedly defied demographic shifts in his district, which now is home to more Democratic-leaning Hispanics than in previous years.

"We'll see how it plays out," Jillson said.

He said he expected Democrats to roll up more victories.

"It will be a difficult year for Democrats, but locally Democrats are so entrenched that they will have the advantage," he said.

After a rocky first couple of years in office, Foster has emerged as a vocal advocate for ethics and transparency in county government. He has been the leading voice for reform within the two embattled constable precincts.

"I feel better every day. I think we're picking up steam every day," Foster said Monday.

But critics say he is vulnerable because he hasn't proven to be a strong leader and has failed to amass much campaign cash.

In the constable races, three of the 17 candidates are running against their former bosses who fired them.

Constables Derick Evans of Precinct 1 and Jaime Cortes of Precinct 5 are the focus of a criminal investigation and a civil county investigation into their employment practices.

Evans faces three Democratic challengers, including two former employees he fired. Cortes also has three opponents in the Democratic primary. A Republican constable, Roma Skinner, drew three challengers in his primary.

The last day to register to vote in the March primaries is Feb. 1.

Early voting begins on Feb. 16 and ends Feb. 26.

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