A former county commissioner, a former congressman and a former state representative

Recent Tarrant County judges have come from different backgrounds but share one similarity: They held a generally elected office before ascending to become county judge. 

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The county judge’s job is primarily to lead the commissioners court, wrangling the county’s budget and making policies based on the work of elected officials and department heads. 

Both Democrat Deborah Peoples and Republican Tim O’Hare would bring a more partisan background to the county’s top position — each served as chairs of their parties. However Deborah Peoples would defy other norms. She would be the first Black woman to hold the office and the first Democrat in decades. 

She also doesn’t have the electoral experience of past county judges; Peoples has not been elected to a countywide office outside her own party. 

What is a county judge? What does the position do?

Elected countywide, the county judge is the presiding officer and a voting member of the commissioners court. The role of the county judge in Tarrant and other populous counties of Texas is almost exclusively administrative.

Peoples’ platform includes economic development, attracting businesses to the county and working with city and county officials to fund early childhood education and transit. 

Peoples spent 34 years, the majority of her career with AT&T. Peoples worked as vice president, focused on sales and marketing. She was later elected chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party and held the office for eight years before running for Fort Worth Mayor

“I worked for a corporation for 34 years,” Peoples said. “I know what jobs do …  Jobs and education lift people out of poverty. We have to continue to create a vibrant business economy where we bring people in and create well paying jobs.”

During her time as party chair, Tarrant County Democrats eked out slim majorities of votes in the 2018 Senate race and again in the 2020 presidential race. However, the party was not able to secure a single countywide office, despite the county trending purple

Peoples’ business experience, coupled with a lack of record in public office, could be an asset in the race for county judge, said James Riddlesperger, political science professor at Texas Christian University. 

“Americans are, relatively speaking, dissatisfied with the government in general,” Riddlesperger said. “One of the things that candidates without experience constantly do is say ‘Look, I don’t have any experience making the bad decisions that people who’ve been in public office make.’”

Outgoing County Judge Glen Whitley, who hasn’t offered an endorsement in the race, said he will reach out to the winning candidate to assist in the transition to the next county judge. 

“I’m going to be willing to talk with anybody coming into county government because I just believe that much in county government. I want to make it successful,” Whitley said. 

Peoples reflects on public statements

More relevant than Peoples’ business experience could be her lack of experience in governance. In the absence of a lengthy record of policies to draw from, O’Hare has focused on Peoples’ past statements on social media, Riddlesperger said. 

“That’s what candidates do,” Riddlesperger said. “They promote their own strengths, and they try to expose their opponent’s weaknesses.”

Peoples made several statements regarding race and policing on social media during her time as Democratic Party chair. The tweets and Facebook posts include statements against Fort Worth’s Proposition A, which extended the half-cent sales tax that funds about a quarter of Fort Worth’s police department budget through the next decade. 

“I opposed it because I feel like we need to be good stewards of taxpayers’ money,” Peoples said. “To give somebody a blank check for 10 years without having checks and balances was bad administratively.” 

Peoples is not in favor of defunding the police, she said. Republican candidates often accuse their Democratic opponents of wanting to defund the police when they do not, Peoples added. 

“I come from a family of law enforcement. I come from a family of lawyers, law enforcement, and military,” she said. “So I know what good policing looks like.” 

One of her Facebook posts, published in 2020, reads: “Every time I drive by a house with a Trump sign I am saddened because I know the people that live there hate me just because of the color of my skin.” O’Hare has shared screenshots of the statement on his own social media accounts. 

Peoples stands by the statement. 

“​​That’s not being racist,” Peoples said. “That was me feeling sad. We’re at a point in this country, where we have absolutely got to come together and all this divisiveness hurts … I don’t think that anybody who knows me or who has ever worked with me, will tell you that I’m a racist.”

The accusations are a distraction, Peoples said. The race should be focused on the record of the candidates running, she added. 

“I want people to vote for me because they know I’m absolutely the best candidate,” Peoples said. 

Peoples as party chair

Peoples was elected party chair in 2013. Much of her time as chair was focused on extending the party’s reach beyond Fort Worth city limits, Peoples said. She established committees in surrounding suburbs to create a foothold for outreach work, Peoples said. 

During that time, voters continued the trend of not electing any Democrats to a countywide office.

When Peoples became party chair, the Republican Party was dominant across the county, Peoples said. She approached the job by trying to grow the party in strategic areas outside of Loop 820. 

“I feel like we have been able to move the numbers. We’ve included more people in the party and the planning process,” Peoples said. “I think we’re in a perfect position to win countywide races.”

The number of voters in Democratic primaries nearly doubled year over year during Peoples term as chair. In her time as country chair, Peoples was able to widen the Democrats’ tent, said Allison Campolo, the current Democratic Party chair. 

“She really helped us make sure we’re reaching the Black churches, the Black vote, the minority communities here in Tarrant County and be a much more inclusive party under her leadership,” Campolo said.  

Tarrant County’s reluctance to elect Democratic candidates to countywide office is a self-fulfilling prophecy, Campolo said. 

“Folks keep saying it’s a red county and, if you keep saying it’s a red county, then Democrats don’t feel like there’s any point to voting,” Campolo said. “There won’t be any investment either,  so you won’t have money coming in.”

Steve Riddell, president of the Northeast Tarrant County Democrats, agrees with Campolo. Peoples has been highly engaged with his group, he said. The Democratic Party chair is key to boosting engagement in northeast Tarrant County, where Republicans have historically had a stronghold in Tarrant County, Riddell said. 

“There had been traditionally a focus on Fort Worth and some of the communities within Fort Worth,” Riddell said. “She’s always been out looking for new ways to get more people involved, instead of just focusing on the same old stuff.”

The success of local parties is multifaceted, Riddlesperger said. Often, the electoral history of an area does have an impact on the success of the minority party. When a party has historically been out of power, it can be hard to find strong candidates to run for countywide office, he said. 

“(Have) Democrats been relatively unsuccessful in Tarrant County? The answer is yes,” Riddlesperger said. “But I don’t think it’s because they don’t have the capability of being a good organization.”

Serving as party chair gave both candidates leadership experience, but it could be a liability to some of the duties of county judge — coordinating with mayors and city leaders, Riddlesperger added. 

“As a matter of fact, it may be detrimental because again, parties are about winning elections, and therefore they’re about appealing to 51% of the voters,” Riddlesperger said. “But when you’re trying to govern, you’re supposed to have the interest of all the voters in mind, including the ones that didn’t vote for you.”

Peoples said she prepared to build bridges as county judge. 

“Democrats are all across the spectrum,” Peoples said. “When I became chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, you know, people were trying to say ‘There’s a litmus test for what a great Democrat looks like.’ I said, ‘No there’s not. Do you vote in the Democratic primaries? That’s the only litmus test we have in Texas.’” 

Dick Abrams, a former rival for the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, said Peoples has not always united the party. She ran a divisive campaign against him in 2013, he said. 

“I think that with Beto in the Senate race, that turned Tarrant County slightly purple, and that can help (unite the party) more than anything,” Abrams said.  

Peoples said spending eight years as party chair taught her how to bring people with different ideologies together. 

“How do we come up with plans that both ends of the spectrum can feel like they can contribute to and live with?” Peoples said. “We’re not all going to get you everything you want, but how do we come up with a plan? And that’s how we built the party.”

Corporate experience 

At AT&T, the former executive managed 5,000 people across 22 states, she said. Her experience running a large organization will inform her approach to the county judge position. 

“In a large corporation like AT&T, you have got to learn to work with other people and collaborate,” she said. “Everybody, whether you’re an employee or you’re a boss or your supplier or anybody, you have your own agenda, and so you have to have someone who can work with all those different agendas and try to create a common vision and bring people together.” 

Corporate performance is not a matter of public record, so it can be difficult to gauge candidates’ performance in a corporate role, Riddlesperger said. However, corporate experience can be helpful in communicating with business leaders in the county. 

“It’s harder to evaluate, but it’s certainly not irrelevant,” Riddlesperger said. 

Peoples’ experience working for AT&T helped her build a management style that she maintains to this day. Leaders cannot work in a vertical silo, so leadership should work for everyone, she said. 

Perhaps equally important to her corporate experience is her choice in community, Peoples said. She lives in the eastside of Fort Worth, an area that has historically received little investment from Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

“It is my knowledge and love of the community that makes me know that we got to bring businesses in here and create good paying jobs,” Peoples said. 

Growing the economy will require bringing companies to the areas who employ large numbers of people with varying levels of education, People said. Tarrant County remains a blue-collar community, Peoples said. 

“Tarrant County, 2.1 million people,” Peoples said. “Extremely, extremely diverse. A working class community, about 30% of the residents of Tarrant County have college degrees … Tarrant County has to provide opportunities for all the residents, not just some of the residents.”

Economic development is a key part of Peoples’ platform, Peoples said. Attracting businesses to the region requires collaboration with city leaders. Often, candidates who lack experience as elected officials may lean on their record as a corporate leader, Riddlesperger said. 

Corporate leadership is a different type of experience compared with O’Hare’s time as mayor and council member, Riddlesperger said. 

“Being CEO of a city is, in some ways, a good experience for becoming the CEO of a county,” Riddlesperger said. “On the other hand, (Peoples) now can say, ‘Well, wait, I’ve had to experience the private sector. That’s going to allow me to bring some of the innovativeness that the private sector has to my experience with Tarrant County.’”

Peoples’ primary political experience being her role as party chair will be key in getting Democratic voters to the polls, but could have little relevance on the job of county judge, Riddlesperger said. 

“Party activists are usually interested in elections,” Riddlesperger said. “They’re not usually interested in trying to figure out how to govern.”

Collaboration, rather than policy, is key to the position of county judge, Riddlesperger said. 

“Whoever’s elected is going to have to get along with (Sherriff) Bill Waybourn,” Riddlesperger said. “Whoever is elected is going to have to get along with (Fort Worth Mayor) Mattie Parker. Whoever is elected is going to have to get along with the school districts in the county. I mean, that’s just the very nature of being a county judge.”

In his experience, the job of county judge doesn’t have room for overt partisanship, Whitley said. 

“I think if you approach (the job) as, ‘How it’s going to impact the citizens of Tarrant County,’ you’re not going to find much reason for partisanship,” Whitley said. 

Peoples, despite her partisan background, said she is ready to govern the whole county. 

“The commissioners, it doesn’t matter whether they’re Republican or Democratic, they ran because they want what is best for Tarrant County,” Peoples said. “They want Tarrant County to thrive.  And once you talk to those commissioners, and you come up with that shared vision … then it’s easy to work with people.”

Emily Wolf contributed to this report.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@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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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org