However they might feel about state or national politics, the focus of many local Election Day voters was squarely on the McLennan County district attorney’s race, at least judging from interviews at voting centers. And given the convoluted Twin Peaks saga — case dismissals here and there, recusal hearings to and fro, all amid incendiary, back-and-forth campaign volleys — some voters were understandably overwhelmed by it all.
Example: Some voters arriving at polls Tuesday morning were still digesting a Page One story in the Trib about a visiting judge admonishing District Attorney Abel Reyna for using a Twin Peaks biker defendant’s picture and pending case in his re-election campaign materials. “The way you have handled this case is absolutely shameful and misleading to the citizens of this county,” Judge Doug Shaver angrily told the embattled DA Monday.
Even for a longtime voter such as 73-year-old Franklin Potts, associate professor of finance, insurance and real estate at Baylor University, the spectacle was jarring: “It’s pretty rare when a judge dresses down a district attorney like that in court.”
Still, Potts’ wife, Cindy, acknowledged widespread reservations about Reyna’s tenacious Republican challenger, plaintiff’s attorney Barry Johnson, because of his lack of criminal law experience.
Add it all up and you have the most contentious 2018 primary election battle facing local voters — and not just Republicans. Even some Democrats with concerns about this critical and powerful post reportedly crossed party lines to vote in the GOP primary. And much of the tempest boiled down to the long-simmering Twin Peaks cases.
“Twin Peaks has a lot to do with it,” 51-year-old Central Freight Lines administrator Leslie Carroll said, referring to the deadly May 17, 2015, shootout between rival motorcycle groups that saw DA Reyna ultimately engineer the jailing of 177 bikers on million-dollar bonds and organized crime charges. “I ride [a Harley-Davidson] and I had friends who were out there. Abel Reyna has totally mishandled all this. What is it now, going on three years? I mean, blanket indictments against everyone? I’m no lawyer, but just how do you charge 177 bikers with the same thing? How do you get away with something like that?”
Jackie Mann, a 62-year-old homemaker, acknowledged that serious issues in the DA’s race — including a sworn affidavit alleging that Reyna snuffed prosecution cases to benefit campaign donors and friends — eclipsed much else on the ballot: “It affects us more in Waco [than statewide races] and I think the district attorney should reflect your views on crime, including the rule of law and making sure everyone gets treated the same and no favoritism. And there should be no politics.”
Others voiced confidence in Reyna’s background as a criminal defense lawyer, now bolstered by eight years as district attorney. When I asked 39-year-old Nick Keepers, who runs a business providing granite and marble countertops, what he would advise Reyna in his handling of Twin Peaks cases going forward, he replied: “Put the people of McLennan County first above all other interests.”
Meanwhile, 89-year-old Earl Murphy cited Reyna’s electoral challenges by leveling an accusing finger at me: “I think there’s been a lot of bad press published by you!”
Still others declined to state how they felt about the race beyond noting they had grown weary of all the mudslinging by the two Republican candidates.
Interestingly, very few voters mentioned the Precinct 1, Place 1 justice of the peace race between incumbent Dianne Hensley and her challenger, Marlin municipal judge Denny Lessman, competitive but without all the nastiness. And, yes, I also encountered some of the usual confusion over how primary elections operate in Texas, including a couple who told me that they had wanted to vote for Patricia Chisolm-Miller for Precinct 2 county commissioner in the Democratic primary election but were told they live in the wrong precinct. They said they now regretted they hadn’t voted early.
When I asked why, one of them replied: “Because when you vote early, you can vote for anyone you want.”
A few people mentioned the need for the state to improve public education in terms of funding and teacher benefits, which figure into discussions about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and especially Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both seen, fairly or not, as enemies of public education. A 51-year-old man who identified himself as a finance director at a local school district but declined to give his name acknowledged that more educators seem to be paying attention to the state’s role in public education these days. But when I asked why public school teachers didn’t vote as a bloc in their own self-interest, given their potential electoral muscle statewide, he explained: “They want to teach. That’s all they want to do. And they’re optimistic that the state will take care of them.”
That’s not optimism, that’s blind faith.
Yet all this paled alongside the DA race. Warehouse supervisor Taro Johnson, 59, said he didn’t know much about it but knew enough to be concerned.
“I knew someone on the jury [of the first and only Twin Peaks trial]. That was a hung jury. And now I know they’re dismissing Twin Peaks cases, which makes me wonder why they didn’t do that in the first place. That sure was a bunch of arrests.”