When he was first asked to run for county commissioner in 1997, longtime Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley recalls he didn’t know the position existed.
“The first question I asked was, ‘Well, what is a county commissioner?’ ” he said.
Before COVID-19 raised the profile of the position, county government mostly flew under the radar of everyday voters. For the past 50 years, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court has been characterized by long-serving officials, little public recognition of their duties and very little controversy during weekly meetings.
Come March, though, a possible shakeup is on the ballot.
Meet the candidates
With Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley leaving office after more than a decade, two Democrats are seeking to lead the Commissioners Court into a new era. Five Republican candidates…
Following the announcement that Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley would not seek another term, five Republican candidates are vying for their party’s nod in the March 1 primary election.
Of the three front-runners to take Whitley’s seat, two offer perspectives that could “shake up the pattern” of avoiding public controversy on the Commissioners Court, said University of Texas at Arlington political science professor Thomas Marshall.
Regardless of who takes the top job of county judge, the Commissioners Court will see a massive change as nearly 64 years of experience leave and three new faces join.
Former Precinct 2 Commissioner Marti VanRavenswaay joined the Commissioners Court in 1991. She was part of similar changes to the Commissioners Court when she was elected alongside a new county judge and newly elected commissioner Dionne Bagsby, who joined just two years earlier.
“With a lot of experience leaving at one time, it could be a slow start before anyone’s individual input is recognized, rather than just being considered the new kids on the block,” VanRavenswaay said.
During her transition, VanRavenswaay said she leaned heavily on staff to help her make informed decisions on county business. Texas Christian University political science professor Matthew Montgomery said that’s typical for new government leadership.
“It’s usually the career civil servants in times of transition that are pretty critical for keeping institutional knowledge intact,” he said.
Price is betting experience will deliver her to the role of county judge. Price’s reputation as a nonpartisan yet conservative, managerial leader would mark the continuation of a long line of county leaders of the same flavor.
“I just see her as the continuation of Tom Vandergriff and Glen Whitley,” Marshall said.
Price also promises stability. She points to her institutional knowledge and leadership skills as an asset to successfully take on the role of county judge. Price hopes to continue the culture of congeniality among county elected officials.
“I think it will ease the transition, and I think it gives people, the average citizen, great peace of mind,” Price said.
She also points to areas where she differs from Whitley, also a Republican. At 72, she promises to be more visible throughout the community and serve as a boots-on-the-ground leader.
Price sees an opportunity to improve education by taking a more regional approach to supporting school boards and the business community, she said.
O’Hare, her main Republican primary opponent, has taken a more partisan approach to the position. While pointing to both his political experience as an elected official in Farmers Branch and his business experience running a successful law firm, he said his time in office would be a departure from the status quo.
“There could not be a bigger night-and-day difference between the way I would do it and the way my opponent would do it,” O’Hare said.
Despite O’Hare’s strong views on hot-button conservative causes, he said, voters shouldn’t be concerned about his ability to encourage respectful dissent and open communication.
“I know how to lead, I know how to listen, and we have a very respectful, open, honest workplace environment,” he said.
Most recently, O’Hare has gained attention through his role with Southlake Families PAC, which opposed changes to Southlake school’s diversity curriculum. He said his experience as a political activist empowers him to speak candidly about his beliefs.
“What we need in county government is to stand up to woke, far left-liberalism and cancel culture,” O’Hare said.
O’Hare’s policies focus squarely on reducing property taxes for Tarrant County residents and eliminating what he sees as wasteful spending, including eliminating county staff and projects to improve mass transportation in the county, he said.
On the Democratic side, Peoples also would be a more partisan departure from the norm. Peoples’ platform focuses on improving jobs and housing in the region alongside big Democratic priorities like affordable healthcare.
“I believe that the county is changing in terms of the ideology of people who are moving here, and I believe this is a winnable race,” she explained.
At the same time, Peoples said, as Whitley often has, she would be a county judge for everyone, not just people who share her ideology.
“It’s not about ideology. It’s about making sure that we take care of all of us, the least of us, and those that have the most,” she said.
Price and O’Hare are joined in the Republican primary by Byron Bradford, who said he would focus on lowering taxes and spurring economic growth. Robert Buker is also running in the Republican primary on a platform of transparency and election integrity.
Peoples faces former Arlington City Council member Marvin Sutton. The former city councilman focused his policies around fiscal responsibility and better coordination in the county’s pandemic response.
Regardless of who prevails come March, former commissioner VanRavenswaay’s advice to the new leaders remains the same.
“Don’t come in with preconceived notions of how things are gonna go, what you’re going to do. You have to listen and take in the input before you have the opportunity to do anything,” she said.
Editor’s note: this story was changed on Jan. 19 to reflect that Robert Buker is a Republican candidate for Tarrant County Judge. The original version of this story incorrectly reported his name in a photo caption.
Reporters Sandra Sadek and Haley Samsel contributed reporting to this article.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.