As the last numbers crept in late Tuesday night, there were no surprises in the contested races for the seats on the state’s highest civil court. Voters will return to the polls again in April to see who will take over Harriet O’Neill’s spot, and Rose Vela didn’t manage an upset against recent appointee Eva Guzman.
None of the candidates in the six-way GOP contest for Place 3, which O’Neill will vacate at the end of 2010, emerged from the scrum victorious. Rick Green, the only candidate with no judicial experience, barely clawed to the top of the heap with close to 19 percent of the vote. Fourth Court of Appeals Justice Rebecca Simmons, Fifth Court of Appeals Justice Jim Moseley and Fort Worth District Court Judge Debra Lehrmann, who each hovered around 18 percent, will have to count every last vote to see who will vie with Green in the runoff. Simmons said the race was a “nail-biter” and “could come down to 10 votes.”
Jeff Brown, who sits on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, was only a hair behind Simmons, Moseley and Lehrmann, but election law says only two can go on to the runoff — so he won’t get an another chance to woo voters. Rick Strange was the clear loser of the night; he trailed 10 points behind the pack. April’s winner will go up against Jim Sharp in the general election, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Green, who represented the Dripping Springs area in the Texas House from 1999 to 2003, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the night’s returns and “real thrilled” about the prospect of a runoff, and that he thought his campaign had “good ground game and a good Internet presence.” The former lawmaker made headlines in 2006 for a public row with his Democratic successor, state Rep. Patrick Rose, whom he allegedly punched and shoved on Election Day. While in the Legislature, Green attracted criticism for using his Capitol office as the setting for a company's health supplement infomercial and arguing successfully for the parole of a man who had lent $400,000 to his father’s company. He also made Texas Monthly’s list of the 10 worst legislators.
The libertarian-style candidate has earned the endorsements of rightwing celebs Chuck “Walker, Texas Ranger” Norris and the prolific Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of TLC’s 18 Kids & Counting!, as well conservative lawmakers like state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center. Green is also cozy with the Aledo-based organization WallBuilders, a group that advocates for causes that preserve America's “moral, religious and constitutional heritage.”
When Gov. Rick Perry named Guzman in October to replace Scott Brister, Vela, who also threw her hat in the ring for the appointment, had already announced that she would run for the seat no matter what happened. Since then, the contest between the two Hispanic women has been heralded as historic — Guzman became the first Latina on the court only to face a Latina challenger, in a Republican primary, no less — but has also been plagued with rumors of intrigue from the Perry camp. After Guzman’s appointment, news surfaced that GOP party chair-elect Cathie Adams had endorsed Guzman (that position has a tradition of neutrality in contested primary races). Vela’s husband, a Corpus Christi attorney, also told the told The Associated Press that an ally of the governor's urged him to renounce his support of Kay Bailey Hutchison and donate money to the Perry campaign if he wanted his wife on the high court.
In November, Guzman will face Tyler-based trial lawyer Blake Bailey, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Voters who want turnover on the Criminal Court of Appeals have long known they’ll be disappointed this election cycle. None of that court’s incumbents facing re-election, all of whom are Republican, drew primary opponents. And only one of them, Michael Keasler of Place 6, has a Democratic challenger.