County Judge Clay Jenkins is coordinating with O’Rourke, Valdez, county and state candidates

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
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As polls show Democrat Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in a statistical dead heat in the statewide race for U.S. Senate, Democrats in Dallas County are becoming more confident of unseating Republicans across the county. And Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins is heading a coordinated unity campaign, working with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez and O’Rourke, as well as participating in every county-wide race, appeals court races, state Senate races and all seven state House races that touch Dallas County.

That unity campaign is coordinating block walkers to avoid situations where volunteers visit some streets four times but miss other areas, Jenkins explained. He said information each campaign is sharing information with other campaigns so everyone has an advantage.

When the week started, Jenkins’ race for re-election was somewhat up in the air because former Rowlett Mayor Todd Gottel, who won the Republican Primary last spring, had recently wihdrawn from the race for personal reasons. The Dallas County Republican Party wanted to replace his name on the ballot with that of Justice of the Peace Brian Hutcheson.

Jenkins had filed a lawsuit to prevent the county elections administrator from replacing Gottel’s name with Hutcheson’s, and the judge hearing the case had issued an injunction against changing the ballot. But late Wednesday evening, Aug. 29, an appeals court overturned the injunction, which means, at least for now, Hutcheson’s name will appear on the ballot in November.

Jenkins’ campaign manager, Philip Hiatt Haigh, said this decision allows Jenkins to discuss issues that Hutcheson raises on his website, like his opposition to same-sex marriage.

“It’s a privilege to have this office,” Jenkins said, noting that he knows he isn’t entitled to the office, so he takes nothing for granted and will continue a vigorous campaign regardless of whose name is — or isn’t — on the ballot.

But, Jenkins said, he is also looking beyond his own race to find opportunities for other Democratic wins across the county.

Education funding is the top issue for most Democrats running for legislative office as well as for those, like Jenkins, who set property tax rates locally. Jenkins said when he came into office seven years ago, the state and local split on school funding was 50-50. Now, the Legislature only funds 38 percent of school budgets.

“People with kids in public schools are running against people who don’t have kids in public school,” Jenkins said, adding that he believes candidates like Julie Johnson, who is running against right-wing incumbent state Rep. Matt Rinaldi in District 115, can win on that issue in their districts.

Rinaldi has fought for school vouchers and against public education since joining the Legislature. Johnson, Jenkins said, would vote for increasing state funding for public schools, resulting in local property tax relief.

And while Rinaldi is the extreme in Dallas County politics — he sponsored the bathroom bill that derailed the last session of the Legislature and prompted a special session that also accomplished nothing — Jenkins said local legislators like Linda Koop or Angie Chin Button present themselves as moderates but have virtually the same voting record as Rinaldi.

Jenkins said he is also concerned that unless people like Colin Allred in District 32 and Lorie Burch in District 13 are elected to the U.S. House to stop it, health care laws could be gutted and laws allowing insurance coverage to refuse coverage for “pre-existing” conditions.

He explained his worries by noting that even someone with insurance could be left hanging under certain conditions. For example, Jenkins said, once someone is treated for cancer, insurance companies could claim that just about anything they’re else treated for is the result of a pre-existing condition. You broke your wrist? It’s because chemotherapy made your bones more brittle. You caught the flu? It’s because chemotherapy suppressed your immune system.

And if that happens, Jenkins said, “We would feel it directly at Parkland,” the county-funded hospital that often treats patients who can’t afford to go elsewhere for care.

Jenkins is also a big proponent of the preventive care provisions of the Affordable Care Act. He said his own father had a fatal heart attack when Jenkins was young, but at about the same time, his uncle received preventive care, had a pacemaker implanted and lived another 43 years.

In other words, he said, it’s like fixing something wrong with your house before it gets worse: “If your house needs maintenance, you fix the problem.”

The ACA allows more people to receive that preventive maintenance healthcare; in fact, 109,000 people in Dallas County and 245,000 people in the four-county area have “Obamacare” insurance that would be affected by that sort of change.

While crazy goings on in Washington may have riled up many voters, local issues drive elections. That’s why Jenkins wants people to know diluting benefits of the ACA will send more people to Parkland, which will drive up local taxes.

Jenkins considers those changes to be fiscally irresponsible, and by pointing that out, he’s encouraging people who formerly considered themselves Republicans for fiscal reasons to consider voting for Democrats.

He compared those voters to loyal General Motors buyers: People bought the same brand of GM vehicle for years, until those cars just became unreliable in the 1970s. For many Republicans in Dallas County, he said, the extremist wing has taken the GOP over, and fiscal responsibility isn’t part of their agenda.

Jenkins pointed to the case of state Rep. Jason Villalba, a moderate Republican from Dallas, who was targeted by the party’s extreme right wing in last spring’s primary because Villalba voted against certain bills in the last legislative session. The party’s right wing fielded an extremist candidate to challenge Villalba, and then made sure she had the money she needed to win the primary.

Jenkins said that although he’s tried to work with local representatives and senators from both parties, some Republicans have told him privately that while they agree with him — and not the GOP’s right wing on some issues. But if those issues made it to the floor of the legislature, they would follow the party line rather than risk being targeted for defeat the way Villalba was.

Looking back at his first two terms as county judge, Jenkins said he may be proudest of having worked with President Barack Obama to offer housing in Dallas County to immigrant children crossing the border alone. He said it wasn’t necessarily a popular position, but Dallas was equipped to care for those children, and it was the right thing to do.

Jenkins said the toughest thing he’s faced was the Ebola scare. The worst part was protesters at his house and at his daughter’s school. Because there was a lot of misinformation about Ebola and how it is spread, “They said I was bringing Ebola home because I visited the family” of Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. He said he knew it was safe because Ebola is passed through direct contact with an infected person in the contagious stage of the disease, but Duncan’s family was not contagious when he visited them.

Right now, Jenkins said, he is looking forward to the fall campaign and not focusing on whose name might be on the Republican side of the ballot. He said he intends to continue raising money throughout the fall for the unity campaign. And while he hopes the Democrats come out on top, he encouraged everyone to vote no matter how they vote.

“Whether you agree or disagree with me, democracy works best when everyone votes,” he said.