The Republican primary for Precinct 1, Place 1 Justice of the Peace features two candidates who have faced scrutiny in past efforts to gain elected positions.
Incumbent Dianne Hensley, 66, of Waco, and challenger Denny Lessman, 45, of Hewitt, will face off in the March 6 primary. The winner will take on Libertarian David Reichert, 42, of Waco, in November.
Early voting starts Tuesday.
“I have enjoyed doing the job, and I feel like we’ve really gotten in the office where we’re in a flow and we’ve got good systems implemented,” Hensley said about why she is running again. “Another term just seems like the right thing to do. … We get a lot of good feedback from people who come in here, so that’s encouraging.”
Hensley, who took office in 2014, faced scrutiny for the way the Republican Party of McLennan County appointed her behind closed doors as the Republican candidate. The county redrew and consolidated justice of the peace precincts from seven precincts to five, forcing parties to appoint candidates. The GOP chose Hensley, a newcomer, over two incumbent justices of the peace who had been elected multiple times.
Hensley also fell under the public microscope last year when she said she had been performing marriages but had refused to perform marriages for same-sex couples. After the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples have the right to marry, some other justices of the peace who did not wish to officiate same-sex weddings avoided the requirement by deciding to quit officiating weddings entirely.
Possible legal challenges
Though performing marriages is an optional duty for a justice of the peace, being selective has the possibility of opening up the office to legal challenges, Hensley acknowledged last year.
“It’s wrong and completely irresponsible as a servant,” Lessman said. “That trust should be to serve the citizens of the county, not bring unnecessary liability to the county and her citizens. … It just irks me. When you’re trained as a lawyer and you come in and serve, it’s a public service and a public trust, not to go forward with your own personal agendas.”
Lessman said he does not plan on performing any marriages. He plans to focus on increasing efficiency by updating operations with 21st century technology and connecting criminal offenders with local service providers and nonprofits, like Prosper Waco, that can intervene in an effort to prevent repeat offences, he said.
“I really care about the people I have represented as an attorney and the people who have come before me as a judge,” he said. “There is such a big effort in the Waco community to help those who are going through hard times to try and avoid the criminal system.”
‘Dual residency’ questions
Lessman, a Waco attorney who ran for Falls County district attorney in 2012 and now serves as a Marlin municipal court judge, came under fire for allegations of having a “dual residency,” with property in Falls County and in Hewitt.
Lessman said he has owned his home in Hewitt for 16 years, and his property in Falls County has been in his family for decades.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a family farm in my family for 81 years. My parents lived on that farm and I own property in Falls County that’s family land. I own that now and the house I grew up in,” he said. “It is what it is. If I had won the election, it was well understood I would have moved and built a house out there, and that’s not what happened. My home is in Hewitt, and Hewitt is home.”
Lessman, an attorney, has been handling civil cases for at least 15 years and claimed he has been part of more cases than Hensley has in her career.
Hensley said she has presided over 1,500 civil cases in her three years as justice of the peace. She has been appealed 11 times and has never had a ruling reversed, she said.
“My No. 1 focus would be to keep doing a good job, and I also would like to look at expanding truancy youth support in other ways,” she said.
She said her court has reduced the recidivism rate for truancy violations by 80 percent and has saved the county thousands of dollars per year by working on a rotating weekend basis as a magistrate judge with other judges. She has also helped find a new forensic lab to perform autopsies, saving $300 to $400 per autopsy, she said.