Forum shot

Candidates for Rusk County Sheriff, County Constable and Pct. 1 Commissioner took turns answering moderator and audience questions in a forum at Forest Home Baptist Church here on June 18. The runoff election is tomorrow, three local races in Rusk County and a pair of statewide races. (File photo by LUCAS STROUGH)

Don’t forget that there is a runoff election on Tuesday.

In early March, Gregg County and Rusk County voters made decisions in local elections, and while there were some decisive races, there were a few in Rusk County that will have runoffs. The original election date has long passed – the runoff election was postponed, like most everything else lately, by the COVID-19 virus.

The Rusk County sheriff’s office is up for grabs. Sheriff Jeff Price, the incumbent, is facing Johnwayne Valdez in the runoff. Price had three opponents in the original election. The other two candidates in that race were Jesse Stewart and Nathan Parker. Tomorrow’s runoff is just between Price and Valdez.

The two candidates addressed local crime in a forum for the public to answer questions to all of the runoff participants at Forest Home Baptist Church on June 18.

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.

In the race for Rusk County Commissioner Precinct One, Shannon Thompson will face Randy Gaut in the runoff.

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.”

Kilgore Police Department officer Richard Stanley, the longtime resource officer at Kilgore ISD, will be in a runoff for Rusk County Constable Precinct One against Michael D. Smith. Those two made the runoff from the original election, which included Bob Mitchell. This one actually has no incumbent: Sammy Nichols did not seek another term.

Both Stanley and Smith were asked at the forum 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.

Gregg County has no local offices in runoffs for this election. Elections Administrator Kathryn Nealy told MRoberts Media last week that her office expected a low turnout for the election. Nealy said that although there are no local races on the ballot in Gregg County, the election is still an important one.

“Even though we don’t have local races in this runoff, we have a very important office — it’s the United States Senator for the Democratic Party,” she said.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is facing Air Force veteran MJ Hegar in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat. The winner will face Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in November.

Also on the ballot is a Democratic primary runoff between Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo and Chrysta Castaneda for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission. The winner will face Republican Jim Wright, who upset incumbent Ryan Sitton in the March primary.

Nealy said polls in the county have been outfitted with safety measures to guard against the spread of the coronavirus including gloves and masks for voters and elections workers, distance markers, protective screens and disinfectant wipes.

Election day voting will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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