With only days until the polls open, Rusk County voters gathered at Forest Home Baptist Church in Kilgore Thursday evening to hear from candidates in three runoff elections.

The original races were in the early portion of March. Coronavirus delayed the runoffs. The runoff election is set for July 14, early voting begins June 29.

Candidates for Rusk County Sheriff, County Constable and Precinct 1 Commissioner took turns answering moderator and audience questions over a two-hour period. Kilgore News Herald publisher Jerry Pye served as moderator and the event was hosted by KNH and Kilgore Chamber of Commerce.

The sheriff’s race has incumbent Jeff Price facing John Wayne Valdez. Price and Valdez were in a four-man race the first time that also included Jesse Stewart and Nathan Parker. Price finished with 3,791 votes, Valdez with 2,643.

After opening statements, Pye asked Price and Valdez to describe what they thought was the biggest crime issue in Rusk County, with both agreeing drugs were the cause of the lion’s share of crime in the county.

“The biggest issue we’re facing right now is drugs. Everything ties back to drugs,” Price said.

With more than 30 years of law enforcement experience and two terms as Rusk Co. Sheriff, Price cited drug users in the county as the primary drivers of crime as they commit robberies and other offenses to fuel their habit. He pointed to community cooperation with local law enforcement as one key to solving the drug problem.

Valdez, who has served in law enforcement roles in Houston, Nacogdoches County and on drug task forces in East Texas. agreed with Price.

“Drugs have always been an issue. I’ve been doing this since 1985. The approach to this is very simple. Your burglaries and your thefts are too high in this county and have been for some time. The approach is going to be proactive law enforcement,” he said, noting regular police patrols in the county and unincorporated areas could help curb the drug problem with traffic stops.

Kilgore Police Department officer Richard Stanley, a resource officer at Kilgore ISD for nearly two decades, is in a runoff for the constable seat against Michael D. Smith. Stanley had 704 votes in the original election. Smith had 439, and Bob Mitchell had 414.

Pye asked both candidates about their stance on working with local agencies if elected constable.

“It’s not going to be just Kilgore Police Department,” Stanley said.

“It’s going to be Overton. It’s going to be New London. It’s going to be the sheriff’s office and DPS. I’ve worked with every one of them in my career to some extent and I have relationships in every one of these agencies so working with them is not going to be an issue.”

Smith is a police officer for over 27 years who worked his way up to criminal investigator and police chief in New London.

“If I have a problem dealing with a situation, I’m going to reach out. That’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to help one another,” he said. He noted he had been serving as an officer when riots broke out over the assault of Rodney King in California in 1992 and took part in the nationwide shift to a community-based model of policing. In light of the recent police reforms being instituted across the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Smith said cooperation between different law enforcement agencies would be critical in meeting new changes.

In the race for Precinct 1 County Commissioner, Randy Gaut is in a runoff with Shannon Thompson. In the original election, Gaut received 852 votes, and Thompson had 700. Will Hale was also in that race, receiving 424 votes.

Pye asked the commissioner candidates to describe the most pressing issues faced in Rusk County’s Pct. 1.

Thompson, a third-generation Rusk County resident who has owned a local construction company for 11 years, said road disrepair was the major issue brought up to him by locals.

“When you talk to people, the first thing people say is ‘roads.’ I remember when I was a kid, you fixed things from front to back. The roads and our safety, our safety should be number one,” he said, noting road damage could create hazards for law enforcement traveling at high speeds when responding to emergencies in the county.

Gaut, a fifth-generation resident of Rusk County who has operated Gaut Contractors for over 23 years, referred to economic development as a serious county issue.

“For me, one of the most critical issues facing Rusk County right now is the fact that we’re losing tax revenue. We’ve got to create ways to get businesses in here,” he said, citing an expansion of the local airport to allow more traffic as critical to local manufacturing job growth and economic development.”

For more information on any of the races, visit www.co.rusk.tx.us/page/rusk.Elections.

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