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Harris County commissioner race could come down to community engagement

October 10, 2018

In the Harris County Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, the best-known candidate may be the challenger, as former county sheriff Adrian Garcia seeks to unseat two-term incumbent commissioner Jack Morman.

Both men have deep ties to the precinct, and are among the most evenly matched candidates on the November ballot.

Precinct 2 covers much of east Harris County, from Kingwood to Clear Lake, as well as a jagged peninsula including the Near Northside and parts of the Heights, north to Aldine. Garcia is the son of Mexican immigrants and a longtime resident of Lindale Park. Morman married into a Mexican-American family and is a lifelong resident of Deer Park.

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If Garcia wins, he would be the first Hispanic commissioner to represent the nearly two-thirds Hispanic Precinct 2 since Morman ousted two-term incumbent Sylvia Garcia in a 2010 upset.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said Garcia’s chances are good if he can drive high Hispanic turnout.

“The Democratic votes are perfectly aligned with where the Latino vote is,” he said. “So, if Garcia can make that happen, I think it’s going to be a victory for him.”

Rottinghaus said Morman, who opened his campaign headquarters just five weeks ago, may need to campaign more aggressively than he had planned. Heading into an election in which Democrats are motivated, he said Morman relying on voters to recall his successes as a commissioner may not be enough.

“You’ve got to able to able to turn out your base,” Rottinghaus said. “Relying on people’s natural goodwill is risky.”

Garcia, 57, faces few of the obstacles challengers typically confront. He is well known to voters from his stints in city- and county-wide offices, and has lived in Precinct 2’s Lindale Park since 1992. The jovial former Houston police officer, city councilman and county sheriff also is an enthusiastic campaigner.

Dressed often in a blazer and jeans, he has held town halls across the precinct throughout the year, where he addresses voters in English and Spanish on topics such as flood control and education. In July, he marched through downpours in the Lindale Park Independence Day parade.

Garcia said that unlike his opponent, he regularly is out in the community talking to constituents. He joked that there are few residents he has yet to give his phone number.

“I’m easy to find,” he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters, a well-worn single-story brick building on North Main. “People don’t know Jack Morman. They haven’t seen him. They haven’t been engaged by him.”

Garcia supported the $2.5 billion flood bond Commissioners Court convinced voters to pass in August, but said the county should have invested more in flood protection before an unprecedented storm like Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 200,000 county homes and apartments.

He criticized Morman for what he said were two squandered opportunities to support Precinct 2 residents.

First, Garcia said Morman should have publicly opposed Senate Bill 4, the law state legislators passed in 2017 to require local police to assist federal immigration officials.

Second, Garcia said he would have criticized Gov. Greg Abbott for suspending environmental regulations for companies in the seven months after Harvey. Precinct 2 includes the Houston Ship Channel, where 460,000 gallons of gasoline spilled during the storm. Garcia said only a brief suspension, given the magnitude of Harvey, was appropriate.

“We’ve got to get back on track as quick as possible, on all fronts, including protecting the environment,” he said.

Garcia said he would bring balance to Commissioners Court as a second Democrat, along with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. He said he would join Ellis in pressuring the county to settle a lawsuit brought by poor defendants against its cash bail system. He said the inability of the two sides to reach an agreement has contributed to Harris County’s jail overcrowding problem, which he also pledged to solve.

Harris County struggled with an overflowing jail while Garcia was sheriff.

Contrasting styles

Morman, 40, said he prefers to focus on serving his constituents and managing the sprawling precinct, the county’s largest by area. In an interview in his ninth-floor office in the downtown county administration building, he cast himself as a leader who sweats the details, ticking off some of the assets he is responsible for: 380 employees, 16 community centers, 50 parks and 1,300 miles of road.

Morman said he is proud to manage a summer and afterschool youth program, as well as a service connecting veterans with benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

County commissioner is the only post he ever sought, he says, adding he is content to never seek another.

Morman speaks the least of any Commissioners Court member during meetings, choosing to ask concise questions instead of engaging in the soliloquies his colleagues sometimes prefer. A civil litigator by trade, Morman often campaigns in a crisp suit. He jokes that he intends no offense if he fails to acknowledge constituents who pass him in the hallway or on the street — he was shot in the face in a 2005 bird hunting accident, which cost him his right eye and nearly his life.

Morman said commissioners should not waste their breath grandstanding on state and federal issues, no matter how divisive. While he has immense power in county government, Morman said he has little influence outside of it.

“I can call Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt all day long,” he said of the Republican lieutenant governor and state senator. “But guess what? They’re still going to do whatever the hell they want to do.”

He paints Garcia as an opportunist on an election losing streak who sees Precinct 2 as a springboard to higher office. He noted that Garcia left Houston city council to run for county sheriff in 2008, quit that job to make a failed 2015 bid for Houston mayor, and then four months later unsuccessfully challenged a longtime incumbent from his own party, Congressman Gene Green.

“He has quit on every elected office he’s ever held,” Morman said. “He’s a serial candidate. After this, he’ll run for something else.”

Though Harris County is more than 40 percent Hispanic, Commissioners Court lacks any Hispanic members. Morman recalled a court meeting shortly after his election when a Latina constituent said she doubted Morman could represent her interests because he is white. He explained how his wife and children are Hispanic, and assured her he would work to understand all of the communities in Precinct 2.

“Just because I may not look like you doesn’t mean I don’t get it, and I don’t care,” Morman said, adding he has nominated more Hispanic residents to county boards and commissions than his predecessor.

Morman raised $675,000 through the beginning of October, more than Garcia’s $586,000 haul. The incumbent’s $2 million cash on hand dwarfs Garcia’s $134,000 in the bank.

During the first half of the year, Mormon’s most generous donors included 16 engineering firms, including seven who gave at least $8,000. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair chipped in $10,000.

Garcia has comparatively few corporate or PAC donors. His largest single donations from January to July were two $10,000 checks from individuals and $10,000 from an LLC called Better Pain Solutions.

zach.despart@chron.comTwitter.com/zachdespart

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