The Republican race to succeed retiring Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley has become unusually contentious as the two front-runners scramble to sway voters.
Early voting in the March 1 Republican and Democratic primaries began Feb. 14 and continues through Feb. 25.
There are five candidates on the GOP ballot, but the race for the county judge nomination is clearly between longtime Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, 72, and Tim O’Hare, 52, former chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party and a former mayor and city council member in Farmers Branch.
The animosity between the two centers on conservative bona fides and ideology of governing.
Price, who served as mayor of Fort Worth from 2011-21 and before that as Tarrant County Tax Assessor Collector from 2001-11, said she sees the role of county judge as an extension of the job of mayor.
“It’s very similar to being the mayor of Tarrant County,” said Price. “We need someone who has lived and worked in Fort Worth for this role.”
Running for county judge was not in her plans when her term as mayor ended last spring. But with Whitley and Commissioners J.D. Johnson and Devan Allen leaving the Commissioners Court – the county’s governing body – and other anticipated retirements in the near future, Price decided to step up.
“I was planning to enjoy my life, play with the grandkids and ride my bike but I still have a passion for service so I decided to run,” she said. “I love the service. It’s not about politics, it’s about service and helping people.”
O’Hare touts priorities that include cutting county taxes, supporting law enforcement, reducing the size of government and limiting government actions such as pandemic shutdowns and mask mandates.
But he is also committed to ultra-conservative values and moving Tarrant County further right as the county trends purple.
“Keeping Tarrant County Republican is vital for our state and it is vital that Texas remains a Republican state,” O’Hare said.
O’Hare’s background also includes a history of supporting discriminatory policies.
While serving as a council member in Farmers Branch from 2005 to 2008 and as mayor of that city from 2008 to 2011, O’Hare made national headlines for his efforts to ban landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, make English the official language of Farmers Branch and stop funding programs serving children of undocumented immigrants in a community that has a large Latino population.
The ordinance resulted in numerous lawsuits and was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, according to The Dallas Morning News. The legal battle cost the city about $6.6 million in legal fees, according to the newspaper.
Since moving to Southlake and being elected Republican Party chair in 2016, O’Hare has led the battle over Critical Race Theory (a college academic concept focused on systemic racism and not taught in kindergarten through 12th grade) in Southlake’s Carroll Independent School District.
O’Hare formed the Southlake Families PAC to fight a diversity plan that was created amid complaints of racist comments and behavior by white students targeted to students of color.
“I formed Southlake Families and hired a Fort Worth attorney to sue the school district to stop their Marxist/socialist plan. Southlake Families shined a light on the anti-American, extremely liberal, and unlawful agenda of the then-current administration,” O’Hare told the Dallas Morning News.
O’Hare’s group won the lawsuit and helped elect three ultra-conservative school board members.
In his campaign for county judge, O’Hare has stated that it is time for Republicans who aren’t “conservative enough to retire and let those of us who are passionate enough to fight to keep our county conservative.”
In campaign ads, O’Hare accuses of Price of wasting “millions on a diversity and inclusion office that pushes woke Critical Race Theory propaganda” and is ”disqualified to be a Republican.”
Price fired back on Twitter: “my opponent has proven he will say or do anything to win – even if it means lying. You have my word for this campaign: I will continue to shoot straight, just like I always have. Being honest is the only way to lead as Tarrant County Judge.”
Price’s campaign also pointed to O’Hare’s hypocrisy regarding taxes. While serving on the Farmers Branch council, he pushed a $55 million bond package that would “totally change the face of our city,” suggesting projects such as a water park, new or upgraded library, park improvements and a community arts center that would have resulted in higher taxes, according to The Dallas Morning News.
“There is no way he can cut county taxes without cutting the law enforcement budget,” Price said.
The ideological divide in this race is typical of races up and down the ballot, locally and statewide, according to James Riddlesperger, political science professor at Texas Christian University.
“Tim O’Hare is known as a ‘social conservative’ who claims to represent the ‘real’ Republican party,” Riddlesperger said. “Most people know Betsy Price in her nonpartisan role as mayor but she has run and won a countywide race for tax collector-assessor as a Republican.
“I think it is optimistic thinking that he can be competitive in the county judge race, given Betsy Price’s name recognition, but it is not out of the question,” Riddlesperger said
While Tarrant County remains the last metro county in Texas that is still Republican, it has begun shifting purple in the last four years. Democrat Beto O’Rourke lost statewide to Ted Cruz in the 2018 race for the U.S. Senate but narrowly defeated Cruz in Tarrant County, and Democrat Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump here in the 2020 presidential matchup.
“At the county level, especially in the judicial races, Tarrant County is still solidly Republican,” Riddlesperger said.
Turnout could be a significant factor in the county judge race but that is hard to predict because of the lack of independent polling, which tends to be more reliable than internal polling by the campaigns, according to Riddlesperger.
Also, there is also the possibility of significant crossover voting by Democrats in the Republican primary due to the high number of competitive Republican races compared with Democratic races. Since Texas doesn’t require voters to choose a party affiliation, anyone can choose to vote in either primary.
In the most recent campaign finance reports, O’Hare reported raising $130,805 and spending $105,357 and Price reported raising $108,950 and spending $319,133.7.
O’Hare is endorsed by a number of high-profile conservatives, including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, U.S. Rep. Beth van Duyne, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn, District Attorney Sharen Wilson and Matt Rinaldi, chair of the Texas Republican Party.
Price’s endorsements include former Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, State Reps. Craig Goldman and Charlie Geren, former Southlake Mayors Laura Hill and John Terrell and former Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams.
“Having worked with Betsy Price as Fort Worth mayor, I say without any hesitation she has the ethics, integrity, smarts and commitment to protecting taxpayers that we need as our next county judge,” Parker said.
Whitley said Price is “smart, hard-working and conservative – the perfect fit for Tarrant County.”
In a testimonial, Cruz said “Tim O’Hare is the real conservative in the race.” He said O’Hare is “tough on crime and even tougher on woke ideology like Critical Race Theory.”
Other Republicans in the race are Byron Bradford, an army veteran and small business owner; Robert Buker, a corrections officer; and Jamie “Kristen” Collins, who provided no information beyond campaign filing documents.
Bradford reported raising $5,000 and spending $3,000 in his latest campaign filing report. Buker reported raising $1,325 and spending $1,200.
In the Democratic primary, Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples is running against Marvin Sutton, a U.S. Air Force veteran, retired air traffic controller and former Arlington City Council member.
Sutton ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Arlington last year. Peoples, a retired AT&T vice president twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Fort Worth, once against Price and the second time against Parker.
Peoples reported raising $13,943 and spending $13,250 in the latest campaign reporting period. Sutton reported raising $325 and spending $157.