Tarrant County has 69 elected officials and 41 municipalities and areas. But only one county judge.

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. 

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Regardless of who wins — Republican Tim O’Hare or Democrat Deborah Peoples — the new county judge likely will be a more partisan leader than previous office holders. Both candidates are former Tarrant County chairs of their respective parties. 

Tim O’Hare spent four years as a city councilman in Farmers Branch, four years as mayor of Farmers Branch and two years as Tarrant County Republican Party chair. In 2020, O’Hare founded the Southlake Families Political Action Committee, where he advocated for conservative candidates to fill the city’s school board. 

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.

Throughout his career, O’Hare maintained a law office focused on personal injury litigation. He is running for county judge on a platform of reducing government spending and strengthening law enforcement. 

“More money should be going back into the taxpayers’ pockets and less should be taken out of it,” O’Hare said. 

O’Hare’s record includes hardline illegal immigration policies, a disputed record on property taxes, and a deep affiliation with the Republican Party and conservative elected officials. 

O’Hare’s campaign rhetoric has drawn consistently on nationally focused issues, outgoing Republican County Judge Glen Whitley said. In Whitley’s 16 years of experience as county judge, governing involves more collaboration than grand policy objectives. 

“They’re talking about a lot of issues, and many of those issues they’re not going to have an opportunity to influence as county judge or on commissioners court,” Whitley said. “The one thing I have explained to everybody on both sides is it does take three people to do anything for the commissioners court.”

Looking for more info on Tarrant County elections?

Early voting begins Monday, Oct. 24, and lasts through Friday, Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Find your polling location here.

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O’Hare’s deeply conservative politics started in his hometown of Farmers Branch, a suburb in Dallas County. Much like Tarrant County, Farmers Branch was growing increasingly diverse when O’Hare took office as council member in 2005. The city’s Hispanic population increased from about 37% in 2000 to about 45% in 2010. 

According to the latest census estimates, Tarrant County is 30% Hispanic, and the power of that voting bloc has already become a topic of conversation on the city level in Fort Worth. 

In Farmers Branch, O’Hare introduced a series of ordinances addressing the city’s growing Hispanic population, including passing an ordinance that required renters to prove their citizenship. The ordinance was challenged in court by groups like the ACLU, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Farmers Branch residents.

When put to the voters, 68% of residents in Farmers Branch supported the ordinance. 

It languished in courts for six years, costing the city $6.6 million to defend, until it was ultimately ruled unconstitutional in federal courts. The ordinance was never implemented. 

The legislative push occurred following the murder of a 18-month-old girl by two undocumented men. That shooting was part of a larger trend of degradation in Farmers Branch, O’Hare said.

“Crime was up, the hospital was on the verge of bankruptcy … There were a lot of different issues that played into it,” O’Hare said. 

Alongside the rental ordinance, O’Hare and his colleagues passed a series of other measures, including making English the city’s official language. That measure was later repealed in 2017, and council members heralded the vote as a step to move away from the legacy of ordinances addressing illegal immigration.

“This is burying the hatchet,” Mayor Robert Dye told The Dallas Morning News in 2017. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle that tied us to that ordinance that took us to the Supreme Court.”

The Fort Worth Report reached out to several former council and school board members in Farmers Branch who served in elected office alongside O’Hare but did not receive a response  before publication time. 

Under O’Hare’s leadership, Farmers Branch became the first city in Texas to participate in the federal 287(g) program. Tarrant County also participates in the 287(g) program, and that participation would continue under O’Hare’s leadership, he said. 

What is the 287(g) program? 

The partnership allows sheriff’s deputies to identify undocumented inmates in the Tarrant County Jail and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They do not need to be convicted, just charged with a crime. Read more about the program here

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is, even your political adversaries, many of them are well meaning,” O’Hare said. “Many of them, if you stop and talk to them and explain why you believe what you believe or why you do what you do, you can win some of them over. But even if you don’t win them over, you can still have dialogue with them and have a relationship with them.” 

O’Hare’s history on tax hikes disputed

O’Hare touts the economic growth experienced by Farmers Branch in his three years as mayor, pointing to a new grocery store and encouraging construction in the area. 

“I’m a firm believer in the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ way of looking at things,” O’Hare said. “When there’s higher quality companies with higher paying jobs, everybody wins.”

O’Hare also cited an increase in overall taxable value as proof of economic development. 

“​​We exceeded $4 billion in taxable property value when I was there,” O’Hare said. 

Taxable value did increase during O’Hare’s time as council member and first year as mayor from 2005 to 2009, increasing by about $600 million. 

However, a Fort Worth Report analysis found that the total residential taxable value in Farmers Branch fell during the majority of O’Hare’s time as mayor, from about $4 billion in 2008 to $3.6 billion in 2011 — a $400 million decline. Surrounding cities like Addison and Carrollton also experienced similar drops in taxable value. 

One of O’Hare’s central promises in his bid for county judge is lowering the county tax rate. In 2009 and 2010, the Farmers Branch City Council voted to increase the city’s tax rate, increasing the rate from $0.4945 in 2008 to $0.5195 in 2009 and again to 0.5295 in 2010. 

The tax rate increased because the city was paying off debt for a new fire station, O’Hare said. The mayor of Farmers Branch voted only in the event of a tie, O’Hare said, and if allowed, he would have voted against the tax rate hike.

As council member, when O’Hare did have a vote, the tax rate stayed consistent at $0.4945 per $100 of valuation. 

O’Hare attempted to make a motion to lower the tax rate by two cents in 2009, he said. Minutes published from the meeting that increased the tax rate don’t describe O’Hare making any substitute motions to lower the tax rate. 

About 16 years later, O’Hare is proud of his record in Farmers Branch, he said.

“I sat in on a multitude of meetings with people that we were trying to get to invest in our community,” O’Hare said. “As a result, our economic development went from basically non-existent to one of the top economic development years our city has ever had and so that’ll be one of the focuses that I’ll have as county judge.”

A record of partisanship extends into county office

O’Hare’s time in Farmers Branch attracted attention from national media outlets, who depicted the small suburb as a bellwether of a increasingly contentious debate over illegal immigration.

A 2014 New York Times article profiled the suburb in a feature about backlash against local ordinances related to illegal immigration. The Dallas Morning News chronicled the fallout from the rental ordinance. 

O’Hare’s record as mayor of Farmers Branch and founder of Southlake Families PAC reflects an entanglement with national issues that breaks with political trends in Tarrant County, said James Riddlesperger, political science professor at Texas Christian University. 

“We used to say all politics are local, right?” Riddlesperger said. “But that has given way. Most people don’t pay close attention to those issues anymore … and instead focus on national issues.”

Southlake Families PAC is a group that supported conservative candidates for Southlake’s school board following the planned implementation of a diversity policy in the Tarrant County suburb’s schools. The ensuing controversy earned national headlines, including a series of articles by NBC News. 

The PAC, along with O’Hare, have railed against ‘critical race theory’ in schools. It’s a theme that has carried into his campaign for county judge. 

“What we need in county government, in our school districts, in our cities, what we need people right now to be doing in this country is to stand up to woke, far left liberalism and cancel culture,” O’Hare said. 

O’Hare’s experience with Southlake Families PAC is not particularly relevant to the job of county judge, Riddlesperger said. 

“Many of those positions that deal with national themes just simply aren’t relevant in terms of the day-to-day activities of the county government,” Riddlesperger said. 

Both O’Hare and his Democratic opponent Deborah Peoples served as chair of their parties. O’Hare was elected chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party in 2016. In the 2014 midterms, the Republican Party turned out about 96,000 voters in its primary. By the end of his term, turnout increased to 109,540. 

O’Hare aimed to widen the Republican Party’s tent, encouraging minorities to join the party, O’Hare said. 

“We also saw the rebirth of Frederick Douglass Republicans in Tarrant County, which is now a robust, vibrant growing element of our party,” O’Hare said. 

Chaplain Rich Stoglin, president of Frederick Douglass Republicans, said O’Hare came to him and asked him to re-join the party. After a conversation with the late Reby Cary, who founded  Frederick Douglass Republicans, Stoglin was elected president of the club. 

The Republican Party, since its inception, has included Black people, Stoglin said. 

“We are the most diverse of forward-thinking Republican organizations in Tarrant County, if not the great state of Texas,” Stoglin said. “It is not an all-white, all-rich party. It is a diverse party.”

The Republican Party raised a record amount of money under his leadership, O’Hare said. Rick Barnes, the current Republican Party chair, said he’s turned to O’Hare for advice. 

“I consider him to be a very successful party chair,” Barnes said. 

O’Hare’s leadership as party chair will serve him well if elected county judge, Barnes said. 

“Running for office and actually being in office are two different things,” Riddlesperger said. “So what you’re hearing right now, in terms of campaign rhetoric, does not necessarily let us know how people are going to behave once they’re elected.” 

O’Hare secured the Republican Party’s nomination for county judge after a contentious primary battle with former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. The attack strategy prompted departing judge Whitley, a Republican, to decline endorsing either general election candidate. 

“I know that Tim has raised a ton more money than Deborah has,” Whitley said. “But still, I’m just not real comfortable endorsing anybody in that particular race. I’ve told Tim that I thought his campaign against Betsy was fully uncalled for me to support that at all.” 

Regardless of whether O’Hare or Peoples prevails, Whitley said he’s already directed staff to schedule time to talk with the incoming county judge. He doesn’t anticipate the candidates turning away his institutional knowledge, despite his refusal to offer an endorsement.

“I will call whoever the winner is Wednesday morning and say, ‘OK, it’s up to you, whatever you want to do in the way of transition. I’m more than glad to assist in answering any questions you want to ask me or, you know, helping you to understand exactly what to expect on January the first one you take office,’” Whitley said. 

How significantly O’Hare or Peoples can shape county government will depend on the outcomes of other races, Riddlesperger said. There are 69 elected officials within county government, and each one can operate fairly independently from the county judge and commissioners court. 

“The job of the county judge is not only to preside over the commissioners court, but also to develop working relationships with all of the other elected officials in the county,” Riddlespearger said. 

O’Hare, despite his break from nonpartisan rhetoric, says he will be a unifier. 

“I am 100% comfortable and confident in my ability to lead and work well with others,” O’Hare said. “You just don’t have the kind of success I’ve had if you can’t work with others.”

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