The eyes of Texas are trained on the House District 99 race that pits a veteran GOP incumbent against an ultra-conservative challenger in a contentious rematch with the intrigue of a primetime TV soap drama.
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is seeking to continue his 17-year tenure as one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers.
Geren, who has staved off a number of conservative challengers over the years, is locked in a heated rematch with Bo French, a businessman, rancher and investor, who he defeated by 16 percentage points two years ago.
French was a business partner of slain Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, known as the American Sniper, and has become an adversary of Kyle’s widow, Taya, who sued French and a third partner over management and ownership of the company.
The high-stakes race has become one of the season’s most expensive as out-of-town money and high-profile individuals have jumped in to spread their influence.
Among them is Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who has been advocating for Geren while making the rounds to share his State of the County presentation with local government and community groups.
“We had a speaker [of the Texas House], Joe Straus, who stood up for local government,” Whitley told a group attending a Leadership Fort Worth training program. “Joe is retiring. Charlie Geren is one of his lieutenants and he was very helpful with us.
Whitley told the group that people from outside Tarrant County “are trying to buy the Legislature, not only within Tarrant County but really throughout the state.”
Whitley’s comments speak to French’s campaign contributors, including the conservative Empower Texans PAC, which donated $200,000 to his campaign, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Other wealthy conservatives outside of Tarrant County also contributed large sums.
Beyond the tug-of-war between business-friendly establishment candidates and right-wing conservatives trying to control the GOP are allegations of underhanded and mean-spiritedness in a race between two men who were once friends.
French, 48, and his wife, Sheridan, filed a lawsuit in December alleging that a Geren campaign staffer made false reports of child abuse and neglect against French, which led to an investigation by Child Protective Services during the 2016 primary campaign.
The complaint contributed to French’s loss to Geren in that race, according to the suit.
“Finally, the judge, recognizing the significant public interest at stake, has agreed to compel testimony … before the election,” French said in an email. “We want to get to the bottom of who all was involved because no one should ever weaponize a government agency against a political opponent.”
Geren denied any knowledge of the situation when it occurred.
“All I know is what I read in the court filings,” Geren said.
Meanwhile, French was taken to task by local law enforcement agencies for creating a Facebook page called “ThiefBillWaybourn.” The page was launched shortly after French’s loss to Geren in 2016 and accuses former Dalworthington Gardens Police Chief Will Waybourn of malfeasance.
Waybourn was elected Tarrant County Sheriff in 2016. Taya Kyle was his campaign manager for that race and she was embroiled in a separate, public dispute with French over his use of images resembling her late husband in a campaign flier.
French said the Facebook page was meant as a joke and was quickly removed.
“The ridiculous attack on satirical posts I made criticizing issues with a law enforcement official are hyperbole,” French said by email.
Three area law enforcement groups, including the Tarrant County Law Enforcement Association, didn’t think it was funny and said “It was potentially a crime” of impersonating an officer, the Texas Tribune reported. The matter was turned over to the Texas Rangers for investigation.
Waybourn also was not amused.
“Any reasonable objective review of the evidence against Bo French results in proof of a lack of character on his part,” Waybourn said in a statement.
French has suggested to the Texas Tribune that Geren was behind the re-emergence of the Facebook matter nearly two years after it occurred. Geren said he doesn’t know why the matter has resurfaced during this year’s campaign.
The battle continues to escalate as the primary grows closer.
French said he entered the race two years ago because he wanted to be a more conservative voice for the district.
Geren “claimed to be conservative but he voted to give taxpayer subsidies to illegal aliens and voted to massively increase spending,” French said.
“On many occasions, he voted with every Democrat to block or water down Gov. (Greg) Abbott’s priorities, like various property tax reforms, capping state spending, the sanctuary city ban and banning third trimester abortions,” French said.
Geren, 68, said he is running again to find solutions to unfinished business such as public-school financing. He considers himself a conservative with priorities focused on what’s best for the state.
“It’s very important that the state steps up and assumes a higher share of public school funding,” Geren said. “How do we do this? It could be a higher sales tax or dipping into the Rainy Day fund.”
In his most recent campaign finance report, Geren, the owner of Railhead Smokehouse, listed contributions of $84,750, expenditures of $285,923.77 and cash on hand of $314,670.63.
His largest contributor was Hillco PAC, which donated $25,000. His business-friendly platform has earned him the endorsement of the National Federation of Independent Business/Texas, the state’s leading small business association.
French latest campaign finance report lists contributions of $280,654, expenses of $78,929.31 and cash on hand of $220,707.81. Besides Empower Texans, contributions include $25,000 from Anwar S. Javaid, president and CEO of Midland Energy in Midland, and $25,000 from the New Leadership PAC in Austin, which is dedicated to electing conservative House leaders.
French also reported spending $19,648.24 with the Detroit legal firm of Dykema Gossett for “legal fees associated with false CPS report by Geren Campaign.”
Early voting runs from Feb. 20 to March 2.
Both the Democratic and Republican primaries are March 6.