When District Attorney Sharen Wilson announced she was retiring and not running in the 2022 primary, the floodgates opened, leading to a likely run-off in one, if not both, races in the March 1 Primary election. 

“The impact is pretty obvious — I don’t think any of these candidates probably would have run,” University of Texas at Arlington political science professor Tom Marshall said. “When incumbents don’t run, that’s the window of opportunity for people who would like to improve and at a point in their career where that seems good. Strategically, many of them look for a year that would be good for them in the General Election. So I’m not surprised that there are three strong Republican candidates.”

On the Democratic side, Marshall said, it’s not shaping up to be a good year and it would be a “long shot” for the seat to turn blue. Even outside of Tarrant County, he said, the midterm elections are not shaping up to be a good year for Democrats.

“I think the answer lies in Washington,” he said. “Joe Biden’s numbers are way down. Inflation is up. Omicron is up. The Democrat Party in Washington has few accomplishments.” 

Former Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon said he expects a run-off with no incumbent running and six candidates on the ballot.

The candidates for the Tarrant County district attorney in the March 1 Primary. Top L-R: Democrats Tiffany Burks, Albert John Roberts, Lawrence Meyers. Bottom L-R: Republicans Mollee Westfall, Phil Sorrells, Matt Krause. (Courtesy photos | Fort Worth Report)

Three Republicans are on the ballot: state Rep. Matt Krause, Phil Sorrells and Mollee Westfall. Both Sorrells and Westfall are attorneys; Krause is a banker and has a law degree.

Krause, R-Fort Worth, originally planned to run for attorney general against Ken Paxton. In November, he changed course to run for district attorney instead.

Democrats on the ballot are Tiffany Burks, Lawrence Meyers and Albert John Roberts. Meyers is retired, but both Burks and Roberts are attorneys.

Shannon believes the primary will be about the candidates running on their own merits versus attacking each other, because, if there is a run-off, they could need support of a current opponent.

“They’re not going to be jumping on any of the other candidates,” Shannon said. “Because the smart play would be, don’t make any of your opponents mad.”

The run-off would lead to a more knives-out approach, Shannon said. But, at first, the smart play would be for candidates to discuss why they are the most qualified for the position.

Both Westfall, 52, and Sorrells, 57, have served in Tarrant County. Westfall was an assistant district attorney for over a decade, starting in 1996. In 2007, she became the judge of the 371st criminal district court. From 2011 to now, Westfall has supervised the Supervision with Intensive Enforcement court as the presiding judge.  

Although the Democrats had filed before Wilson announced she was not running, the Republican candidates had not.

Meet the candidates

Mollee Westfall, Republican

Westfall has had a focus on prosecuting felonies as both an attorney and judge, but she said her passion is community safety.

She said she planned to run after Wilson retired, but she did not expect it to be this election cycle. 

“This is not the optimal time but, you know, life doesn’t move on the optimal time schedule,” Westfall said. “So I had to just make a quick decision, which I did.”

Phil Sorrells, Republican

Sorrells also served as an assistant district attorney. Afterward, he became judge of the county Criminal Court No. 10 for 25 years.

Though She loves serving as a judge, Sorrells said, he wants to make a bigger impact in the DA race. He said he is confident no Republicans would have filed against Wilson.

“I was running for the seat that I had held,” he said. “I loved that job. It was a great job. And, had she not made her announcement I would still be running for that seat.” 

Rep. Matt Krause, Republican

Krause, 41, was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2013 and has served on various committees, including chairing the General Investigation committee. He also has made headlines for launching an investigation into school library books.

His decision to enter the DA race “had everything” to do with Wilson’s announcement and a conversation with Tarrant County GOP Chairman Rick Barnes, he said.

When Wilson made her announcement, Krause said, Barnes asked her who she sees replacing him. She told him Krause. Without that conversation, he said, he would not have run.

He also said no one else would have run if she had.

While Krause has a lot of experience in the Legislature, Shannon said, it is interesting to note he’s never done any criminal work or prosecution, which is important in the district attorney office.

But the position has evolved to be one more about policy and not day-to-day prosecution, and he has plenty of experience with policy-making, Krause said.

“I’ve got a long record of being a proven conservative, based on my time in the legislature,” he said. “We’ve been endorsed by Texas Right to Life, Texas Values Action, Texas Homeschool Coalition, Gun Owners of America. The statewide policy groups that kind of are the barometer of how conservative somebody is, they’re all supporting me.”

Ted Cruz also recently endorsed Krause.

Albert John Roberts, Democrat

Democratic candidate Roberts, 40, has experience in both the Dallas and Tarrant County District Attorney offices. In 2010, he worked in the Dallas office assigned to the Felony Family Violence division. He joined the Tarrant County office in 2016. Currently, he runs Albert Roberts Law PLLC, a private law firm he founded.

Roberts first ran for the seat in 2018 and got 47% of the vote. He said his plan was always to run again, and Wilson’s decision did not change his plan, especially as he saw reasons the county needed to improve.

“Part of the reason I’m running is to transform the criminal justice system into something that we’re able to think outside the box or raise the bar,” he said. “Yeah, I was going to run, whether it was Sharen running or not.”

Tiffany Burks, Democrat

Burks, 51, started her law career as an assistant district attorney in Fort Bend County but moved to Tarrant County in 1999 to work in the district attorney’s office. She left the DA’s office in August 2021 and announced her candidacy in September.

Wilson’s decision had no impact on her campaign plans, Burks said. She made her announcement to run while Wilson was still in office.

“The only effect that it had of course, subsequently, was once she decided not to run it kind of opened the floodgates in the Republican Party, at least,” she said.

This race is significant for many reasons, but Burks said one reason it’s so important is because the county will be dictating the direction of criminal justice in the county.

“This is a pivotal time with all that’s been going on in our communities — whether it’s voting rights, whether it’s police misconduct, whether it’s books in school, CRT, whatever it is — we’re really on the precipice of what we as a county want to be, who we want to be,” Burks said. “What I tell people is, ‘If you don’t vote for me, that’s fine, because you think there’s someone else out there who has something better. But vote, like, educate yourself and go vote. Democracy demands it.’ I think people really need to educate themselves, on the candidates, their platforms and, most importantly, why they’re running.”

Chances of turning blue

Although Marshall said he does not see the race going well for Democrats, Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Allison Campolo sees hope for turning seats blue.

Wilson not running and candidates leaving other races to enter the DA race is part of a theme of incumbents not running and opening up chances for several candidates, Campolo said. She thinks not having the name recognition of an incumbent will help Democrats in the race.

“This is what we’re focusing on in this cycle,” she said. “We are really focusing on Tarrant County-wide races this cycle. I think they’re on the precipice of flipping. I think this is an excellent opportunity for Democrats, excellent timing.”

Burks also sees this seat turning blue because of voter registration and messaging. 

“What will turn the seat blue is what could have turned the seat blue four years ago, which is getting voters registered and Democrats coming out to vote,” Burks said. “And the message of any Democratic nominee, whoever wins the nomination, being able to have the right messaging so that not only Democrats, but perhaps some independents who are not quite sure who to vote for, that that message will resonate with them as well. I think ultimately that is what will turn the seat blue, is having good competitive candidates.”

Republican wrangling

Barnes said it was not surprising that no one had filed to run against Wilson in the primary because of how respected she is among both parties. 

“It’s not unusual, frankly, for Republicans not to stand up against another Republican when they’re doing a great job,” Barnes said. “And that was the case with her.”

Those stepping up are all qualified, he said, even if it’s in different ways. 

“I think at the end of the day that voters are going to have to decide what they’re looking for in a candidate for this job,” he said. “But again, I think they’re all more than qualified and then all three brings something a little bit different to the conversation. And I think it’s going to be a tough decision for lots of people to make.”

Key issues in the race 

Doing well in the primary will not just be about qualifications or even money, but which candidates can get their message out, Shannon said.

“It’s who’s got the best message and, in the first race, most people, I’ve found in politics, they don’t really like nasty political races,” Shannon said. “The average citizen out there who’s got a day job and goes and votes on a fairly regular basis, they really are looking for positive stuff. And that’s my advice to all of them, is to stay positive and tell why you would be a better district attorney.”

For the primary, Marshall said, the question for the Republican candidates is what kind of credentials the party voters will want.

Campolo said there are key cases that she thinks will be discussed in the race, such as the Aaron Dean trial and the Crystal Mason case. 

“There has been a lot of talk of, kind of, the insider network nepotism, the maybe inappropriate relationships between the DA’s office and the Tarrant Regional Water District and the commissioner’s court,” Campolo said. “I think the fact that we are getting a chance for a new DA and potentially new fresh relationships and new people into office will give voters potentially a more fair district attorney’s office.”

And then there are basic Democratic platform issues like bail reform or people not sitting in jail for low-level, non-violent offenses, she said.

Barnes said the DA is the leading attorney in the county, so there is a lot of management and working with law enforcement the candidates will have to discuss navigating.

“On one hand, it’s a legal job and an attorney job, and also a huge management job,” Barnes said. “That’s going to be the type of stuff that people have to look at when they’re looking at candidates. Who’s the best attorney, but then also who’s the best manager?”

The job also requires a lot of public relations and serving the public well and representing the county to the media and general public, he said.

“It’s a multi-faceted job, and it’s not an easy job for anybody to take on,” Barnes said. “And we’ll just see who the voters think is the right person to fill that role.” 

Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. 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.

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