In their campaigns for the Tarrant County Precinct 2 commissioner seat, Republican Andy Nguyen and Democrat Alisa Simmons share a similar set of priorities: reducing the tax burden on residents, improving infrastructure and addressing inefficiencies in county government.
But that’s where the resemblance ends. With just over a month to go until Election Day, the candidates are highlighting their differences as they battle to replace Democrat Devan Allen and control the political balance of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, which is set to welcome three new commissioners next year.
The winner will represent the county’s most populous and second most diverse precinct. More than 532,000 people live in this slice of southeast Tarrant County, which includes cities like Arlington, Mansfield and Grand Prairie. About 36.17% of residents identify as non-Hispanic white, according to 2020 census data.
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As tensions over the crucial seat run high, the campaign trail has turned sour as candidates trade insults over accusations that Simmons sent expletive-filled messages to voters — messages that Simmons says were fake and part of a harassment campaign. Meanwhile, Simmons has criticized Nguyen for a previous food stamp fraud conviction and his record as county commissioner.
Candidates often turn toward highlighting the negative aspects of their opponents because it’s an effective method of reaching voters, said James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University.
“Negative campaigning is as American as apple pie — it’s been around since the beginning of American civilization,” he said. “You’re trying to give voters decision points to vote for one candidate over another, and so you’re going to try to label your opponent as unreasonable. That is a pretty easy thing to grasp onto.”
The Precinct 2 race stands out because of its competitiveness, Riddlesperger added. The high-profile governor’s race will likely lead to higher voter turnout, but he is not sure how that will translate to local races.
“It’s going to be a turnout issue, as it is in most of these races,” Riddlesperger said. “That’s one of the things that polarization has given us, is more people showing up to vote. But I don’t know if that means a higher percentage of people are going to vote in that commissioners election than may usually vote. I’m not sure that means they’re going to be terribly well informed.”
Nguyen, 56, wants a second chance at representing Precinct 2 after serving on the Commissioners Court for two terms, beginning in 2011. In 2018, Allen defeated Nguyen by just over 4,300 votes in what was viewed as a major loss for Republicans in the area. She announced her decision not to seek a second term last year.
In the years after the loss, Nguyen served as district director and then deputy chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, a Republican, until his death in 2021. Nguyen, who came to the United States from Vietnam as a child and later became a telecommunications entrepreneur, said he would use his return to county government to build a culture of collaboration and stability following the retirement of Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley this fall.
“I know Tarrant County very well because I have spent eight years intimately involved with every aspect of it,” he said. “I will be able to work with the existing county administrators and the directors of various departments to provide a steady hand during the early days of that transition. I will be able to have the trust of the Tarrant County employees to navigate that change.”
Simmons, 59, says her combination of advocacy, public safety and business knowledge would add value to the Commissioners Court, which she said could do a better job of communicating with residents about rental assistance or resources available through JPS Health Network.
After an 18-year career as marketing and communications manager for the Tarrant County 911 District, Simmons opened a promotional products and printing business in Arlington. She previously ran for Texas House District 94, losing to incumbent Republican Tony Tinderholt in 2020.
What does the Tarrant County Commissioners Court do?
The Tarrant County judge acts as the chief executive officer for the county government and leads the five-member Commissioners Court. The county judge and the four commissioners set an annual budget and property tax rate. The commissioners court is also responsible for constructing and maintaining county roads.
The annual salary for the county judge is $198,475.94; for county commissioners, the annual salary is $188,475.82.
She has served as president of Arlington’s NAACP chapter for the past decade, pointing to victories like increasing the number of minority and women-owned businesses that received contracts to build the Texas Live! entertainment complex in Arlington.
“I’m going to listen with a different ear,” Simmons said. “Because I know where people are coming from, I know some of the hopelessness. I know that when you’re an advocate, you don’t win them all, but you got to keep fighting. I’m that person, and I think I’ll be a good addition to the commissioners court.”
Campaign turns negative over social media posts Simmons says are fake
Both candidates say that the duties of a county commissioner, including oversight of the county’s jail and health systems as well as several transportation projects, should not be partisan.
But the tone of the Precinct 2 race has shifted in recent weeks. In September, Nguyen sent a press release to news media outlets criticizing Simmons for sending “crude” Facebook messages to a constituent about a controversial Child Protective Services case in 2020, while she was campaigning against Tinderholt.
Simmons said the messages were fake and that she was the victim of a spoofing attack reported to Arlington Police and Facebook. After the NAACP declined to get involved with the case, Simmons said she began receiving anonymous threats that were also reported to authorities. Other local advocates associated with the case told the Dallas Observer in August that they, too, were victims of bizarre impersonations and threats over the past three years.
“He tried to make something out of nothing,” Simmons told the Report. “I’m focused on my own campaign and not on my opponent … I have a clear set of issues that I want to communicate to the voters of Precinct 2, and so that is my priority.”
Nguyen clarified to the Report that he wants to give Simmons the benefit of the doubt that she did not send the messages. But, he added, the language in the messages was similar to other incidents in which Simmons displayed a “concerning” pattern of behavior with people she disagrees with.
He pointed to an audio file Tinderholt shared of Simmons speaking with a voter about the CPS case and a July 2020 interview where Simmons discussed the cases of several people shot and killed by Arlington police officers.
“You cannot afford to elect a county commissioner that is divisive, that is overly aggressive and cannot control her verbiage,” Nguyen said. “The No. 1 qualifying factor of a county commissioner is being able to collaborate and lead in a way that will bring people together rather than dividing them. When a candidate for public office has a pattern of negative behavior, that should be a concern.”
In response, Simmons pointed to her experience in public safety, both as a 911 operator and as an administrator for the 911 district, as proof that she supports law enforcement. In an interview with the Report, Simmons said she wouldn’t have accomplished her goals as NAACP president if she didn’t know how to come to a consensus with people she disagreed with.
Nguyen owes her and voters an apology for “resorting to these low-ball tactics” instead of running on the issues, Simmons said.
“Next thing you know, Andy will try to trick voters into believing I want to defund police and take away everyone’s guns,” Simmons wrote by email. “Both of which are patently untrue. I am a gun owner and enjoy going to the range.”
She also cited Nguyen’s guilty plea to felony food stamp fraud in 1994 as an example of Nguyen committing “economic crimes against taxpayers.”
Nguyen told the Report that he made a mistake while working as a convenience store clerk and was held accountable. The case was removed from his record after he completed five years of probation and paid a fine, Nguyen said.
While he’s learned from the incident, Simmons has not changed her pattern, Nguyen said.
“You can either let that mistake define who you are, or you can learn from the lessons of that mistake and take corrective action and move on to do the best with the life that God has given you,” Nguyen said.
Simmons was also critical of Nguyen’s time on the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, stating he had a reputation of not returning constituent phone calls or being a team player with other commissioners.
“We need a Precinct 2 commissioner who is not dishonest, one without a criminal background and one who is not easily distracted by partisanship,” Simmons wrote. “I am laser focused on managing the county’s fiscal and human resources to ensure we’re providing the best possible services to our neighbors.”
Nguyen said he has the support of several elected officials, including Arlington Mayor Jim Ross, and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association because they appreciated his service during his two terms.
“The best predictor of the future is past performance,” Nguyen said. “They have seen the level of service and the level of energy and time and commitment that I invested in serving the people. Those are the reasons why I think the people of Precinct 2 should give me another chance at this, and I can almost guarantee that they will be pleased.”
Nguyen outraises Simmons, but outcome unclear
How the negative rhetoric will affect the campaign is unclear. Nguyen has out-fundraised and outspent Simmons’ campaign so far, according to campaign finance records. Nguyen has built a war chest of more than $266,000 in campaign contributions since 2020, while Simmons has raised just over $82,500 since filing to run in January.
Simmons said she remains focused on pushing policy forward and would work with any county judge elected to office, whether it’s Democrat Deborah Peoples or Republican Tim O’Hare.
Her top priorities include addressing the rising property tax burden, ensuring the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices focus on reducing violent crime and expanding access to public health services through JPS, especially mental health care.
“I spent two decades developing and managing budgets for our county 911 district,” Simmons said. “My experience will ensure the county budget remains fiscally sound while keeping citizens’ priorities in mind. I’m very fiscally conservative.”
For Nguyen, his top priorities include allocating more resources to fight the county’s rise in violent crime and fentanyl poisoning killing young adults. The issue has become a state priority, with Gov. Greg Abbott directing state police to focus on combating Mexican drug cartels transporting opioids into Texas.
Nguyen said he and O’Hare share the same vision and priorities for eliminating wasteful spending from the county budget. He imagines it would be “very challenging” to accomplish those same goals under Peoples, but he’s not losing sleep over the partisan politics of the Commissioners Court.
Election season is like a boxing match, he said: When you put two boxers in the ring, they’re supposed to punch each other out.
“When it comes time to really govern, we will focus on the meat-and-potatoes issues that are important to the taxpayers and the county residents,” Nguyen said. “Those usually have to do with public safety, economic development, health care, mental health care, the tax burden, those kinds of very practical and pragmatic issues. That’s what county government is about.”
Note: This article has been updated to clarify Nguyen’s beliefs on Simmons’ alleged messages to voters.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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