Republican infighting in county race spurs challenge to candidate’s place on the ballot

Illustration by crowcrumbs.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY –– Democratic activists in Jeff Davis County are challenging the validity of a Republican candidate for county commissioner to run in his primary with accusations that the petition he used to get on the ballot had signatures that did not meet the requirements of state law.     

The intent of the challenge, according to some Democratic and Republican party activists, is to keep candidate Graydon Hicks off the ballot and thus prevent him from gaining a commissioners court seat to challenge the agenda of current Republican County Judge Curtis Evans. Hicks, currently the Fort Davis ISD superintendent who lost his bid in 2022 for county judge, is running for Precinct 3 on the court in the Republican primary against incumbent Republican John Davis. The winner of their primary race will take the seat since no Democrats are running in the November General Election. 

“Yeah, it doesn’t bother me,” Hicks said of the challenge. “I’m not worried about it. They’re just looking for a way to keep me off the ballot because they know if I do get elected it’ll be a flip of the majority on the commissioners court.” By a “flip,” Hicks means commissioners who don’t back Judge Evans. It’s an odd twist from the celebration many Jeff Davis County Republicans had in November 2022 when they unseated two Democrat commissioners and took control of the entire court. But it also reflects much of the infighting going on between Republicans across the state and nation, with some farther to the right pushing a more conservative agenda against their fellow Republicans already in power.

“Curtis Evans says he’s a Republican, but none of his actions reflect what the Republican platform really is,” Hicks said. Evans responded that he’s a longtime conservative that represents the interests of all county constituents.

In lieu of paying a $750 filing fee to apply for the ballot, prospective candidates can instead get signatures from registered voters in their precinct; under state law, the number of signatures required varies according to how many registered voters there are in the precinct. Hicks chose to apply for the ballot with a petition that required 50 signatures, and he gathered 57.

Democrat activists involved in the petition challenge –– content to have more moderate representation, even if Republican, on the court –– also don’t want to see Hicks win a seat, which led them to support the challenge to his ballot petition. Hicks, who also owns a Fort Davis gun store, has unabashedly expressed farther right views in public, such as posting dozens of Facebook posts supporting David Barton, a controversial historian who has clashed with Democrats for his attempts to inject more Christian-based content into the State Board of Education’s public school curriculum standards. Hicks has also stated he doesn’t believe in separation of church and state.

But much of the infighting is also more grounded in traditional county government squabbles –– regardless of party or ideology –– on how the commissioners court spends its money. Hicks accused Evans of running the county like a “kingdom,” shutting down opposing views and questions over the budget process. Evans said the notion that he is running roughshod over other commissioners is false and that he always promotes an open process listening to all sides of an issue. On the other side of the infighting, Republicans on the court are upset that the Fort Davis ISD school board, where Hicks is the superintendent, filed a lawsuit against the county that will cost the county thousands of dollars.

Jeff Davis Democrat J.R. Harrell, who filed the challenge against Hicks’ petition with the secretary of state, said his intent was to make sure the process for petitions is followed. The challenge states: “After reviewing the petition, J.R. Harrell concluded that the signatures of as many as 16 petitioners might not be valid for various reasons, based on the voter registration information available to him. In some cases, the addresses do not match the latest information available from the Secretary of State. Several of the petitioners appear to reside in other precincts. In two cases, the petitioner’s voter registration status was suspended. In four cases, the petitioners do not appear on the latest voter registration list available to J. R. Harrell for Jeff Davis County, in any precinct.” 

If seven signatures are declared invalid, there’s a possibility that Hicks could be removed from the ballot. Hicks said Harrell was doing the bidding of the county judge. “J.R. Harrell is a proxy for Curtis Evans, who knows that my candidacy is a threat to his personal agenda as county judge.” Evans said his “only agenda” is to approach all issues from the perspective of what will be best for Jeff Davis County and for partner Presidio and Brewster counties.

Roy Morey, a Fort Davis Democrat, said he also attempted to verify the signatures. “We have questions with respect to the addresses, we have questions with respect to one signature, and we have questions with respect to where the people actually live,” he said. “I would say there’s at least two cases where the person signing the petition actually does not live in the precinct.”

As of The Big Bend Sentinel deadline, Alicia Pierce, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state, was still trying to verify whether the agency received the challenge to the petition and what the next steps would be in reviewing it and taking any action. One concern, Pierce said, was this would appear to challenge what state law calls the “form and content” of a ballot application, and thus, should have been received by the agency at least 50 days before the election –– a deadline Harrell said he met.

Harrell said he doesn’t believe anything will be done to take action and put Hicks in a position of getting booted from the ballot, but he said he believes there needs to be a better understanding of the ballot petition process and transparency in how petitions are checked –– something he said wasn’t done with Hicks’ petition. “I’m really adamant that all of my voters understand that that’s the way this was done,” he said. “It was kind of done backdoor and in secrecy and nobody was supposed to know, nobody was supposed to check the signatures or the addresses. And we’ve had a really hard time even from our own officials.”

Jeff Davis Republican Party Chair Matt Blackman said he checked each name on the petition three times to make sure they were eligible voters in the precinct. He used Republican Party data for the verification.

Morey said he tried to get the registered voter list from the Jeff Davis County registrar but ended up having to work with data provided by the Democratic Party to verify signatures because the registrar wouldn’t give him the data. He said the registrar told him that to get the list he would need a new, sealed “thumb drive,” a portable drive to store files on. (Counties giving digital data often require this to ensure no computer viruses are injected into their system.) When he brought a new thumb drive, the registrar said it would have to originate from their county office, Morey said. 

In an attempt to verify the signatures, the Sentinel filed an open records request for the data on January 24, but a response to that request is not due until after this issue’s deadline.

Registered voter lists from counties are public record, and political parties routinely get those lists on spreadsheets emailed to them or downloaded from the web, sometimes directly from the county, and other times from the Texas secretary of state. The Jeff Davis registrar told the Sentinel that it was preparing an “affidavit” to get access to the data through TEAMS, a Microsoft Office application, even though these requests are routinely fulfilled with spreadsheets by email.

Hicks said that he would know better than anyone if the signatures were valid because he collected them. “I went around, drove around, and I got every individual signature,” he said. “I got the precinct map, I drove around to the homes in the precinct. I asked each of them if they’re registered voters. They all said ‘Yes.’ And they all lived in that precinct. Yeah, I’m 100% sure.”  

Blackman said the entire matter was a political move to keep Hicks from challenging the county judge, who he also has issues with for what he calls questionable expenditures. Blackman said Hicks’ opponent, incumbent Commissioner Davis, is in Evans’ camp on votes for those expenditures. “And that’s what they’re trying to do is keep any competition away from John Davis,” he said. “John Davis is in Judge Evans’ pocket. So basically, that’s the deal.”

Both Evans and Davis stressed that they weren’t involved in the petition challenge against Hicks. Evans said he doesn’t have or want “anyone in his pocket.” Davis said he has voted against the judge’s position on occasion, and he said he is a longtime champion of conservative principles and how they can help all citizens in the county.

This story has been updated to reflect that it was the Fort Davis Independent School District that sued Jeff Davis County, not Graydon Hicks, who serves as district superintendent.