Tarrant County Democrats started Election Night with high hopes as their party kicked off inside east Fort Worth’s Turkey Den restaurant. Candidates imagined the possibility of forging change in the historically Republican county.
By the end of the night, only one Democratic candidate had reason to cheer.
Alisa Simmons is on track to become the fourth woman ever elected to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court. Her victory over Republican Andy Nguyen will keep Precinct 2 in the hands of a Democrat following Devan Allen’s decision to vacate the seat. Simmons is also the second Black person, behind Allen, to represent southeast Tarrant County as commissioner.
With all 316 vote centers reporting Wednesday, Simmons won with 51.45% of the vote. Nguyen trailed by just 4,067 votes.
“The support has been amazing,” Simmons said after arriving at the Turkey Den. “I didn’t have a huge campaign – me and two other people, no big time consultants, none of that. I appreciate the people who saw me struggling with the NAACP, my business and the campaign, and said: ‘What do you need?’ and took care of it.”
The county’s most populous and second most diverse precinct became a political battleground this fall as Democrats sought to halt a Republican supermajority on the commissioners court. With Tim O’Hare’s election to county judge and Manny Ramirez’s victory in Precinct 4, Republicans will hold a slim 3-2 majority. Simmons had the endorsement of Democrat Roy C. Brooks, who represents Precinct 1.
Her win was among the sole victories for Democrats in Tarrant County this year. Democrat Deborah Peoples conceded the race for county judge Tuesday night, and did not appear at her party’s election night gathering. A number of Black female Democrats running for judicial seats were also soundly defeated by Republican candidates.
Simmons, a 59-year-old small business owner, won the race despite facing a massive fundraising disadvantage and lower name recognition than Nguyen, who represented Precinct 2 for two terms before suffering a narrow defeat to Allen in 2018.
Since 2021, Nguyen, 56, amassed a campaign war chest of about $393,000 – nearly four times the amount raised by his opponent. Nguyen also outspent Simmons in the final month of the campaign. For every $1 Simmons spent, Nguyen spent $11.
Democrats in local races rarely outraise Republicans, Simmons said, and she navigated that disadvantage throughout the campaign.
“We go into it with our hearts, our passion to help people. We all know it takes money,” she said. “You run your race and stay focused on the task at hand with outreach, getting your name and your issues out there, and … do the best you can with what little you have.”
Nguyen, a 56-year-old entrepreneur and former aide to the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, campaigned on his record of service as a commissioner, offering a vision of stability following the exits of Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, Allen in Precinct 2 and J.D. Johnson in Precinct 4.
Since his 2018 loss, Precinct 2 has only grown bluer and bluer, Nguyen said. He always knew that his campaign would be an uphill battle, and acknowledged late Tuesday that initial results made it nearly impossible for him to win.
“I always knew that it was going to be tough to win this election as a conservative Republican, but there are so many needs in the county and in the precinct that I feel strongly that I’m not only qualified but also passionate about,” Nguyen said. “I had to put myself out there to see if there’s an opportunity for me to get back to serving the people of Precinct 2. I love this community too much not to try, and I did.”
This year’s voter turnout in Texas was lower than the two previous election cycles. James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said this reality made results, especially in lower-profile commissioners court races, even more difficult to predict.
Riddlesperger pointed to the difference between this election and the 2018 midterms, when Texans turned out in record numbers to vote in the U.S. Senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz.
“The election four years ago was very close, which motivated people to vote,” Riddlesperger said. “(With) voting turnout significantly lower this year than it was four years ago, predicting who’s going to win is also dealing with a very different voter base than it would have been four years ago.”
Simmons’ election will maintain the 3-2 partisan split of the Commissioners Court. Much of the tasks associated with county governance – like maintaining roads, managing the county jail, collecting taxes and overseeing voter registration – are not terribly partisan, Riddlesperger said.
But the rhetoric of the Commissioners Court is poised to shift under more partisan voices like O’Hare, the former Tarrant County GOP chair, Riddlesperger said.
“The reality is what’s going to drive the agenda of county governance is not questions of transgender education, or Black Lives Matter, or sanctuary cities,” Riddlesperger said. “It’s hard to predict how someone is going to behave in office when the issues they deal with on a day-to-day basis may be quite a variance from the issues that they emphasized during their campaigns.”
How will the commissioners attempt to overcome those partisan divides? Riddlesperger said his guess is as good as anyone’s, but the answer could come down to who will become the social leader of the Commissioners Court. The dynamics will shift significantly without Whitley’s leadership, he added.
“Who is going to be the person who, when you put them in a group of five people, that listens rather than blabbers and after an hour of conversation says, ‘Well, what about if we do this?’ and comes up with an innovative solution that may bring people together rather than put them apart?” Riddlesperger said. “Those are the characteristics that we never know until you actually see someone in action.”
During her 10-year tenure as Arlington NAACP president, Simmons said she worked alongside conservative Arlington mayors and superintendents to find common ground. That experience will guide her as she develops solutions with her fellow commissioners, Simmons said.
“When people understand where each other are coming from, they’re open to listening and progress will be made,” she said. “I’ll be open, and hopefully my fellow commissioners will be, too. Hopefully they’re running to serve. I believe that they are.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Nov. 9, 2022, to show results after 100% of voting sites reported their numbers.
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