Branick returning as county judge after a squeaker
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick held his seat as the county’s top executive on Tuesday, staking his claim as the county’s first Republican judge in decades with not quite 51 percent of the vote.
Branick, who changed parties after his last election, led Democratic challenger Nick Lampson in a close race that would likely result in a recount. Supporters of both veteran politicians gathered in Port Neches and in downtown Beaumont on Tuesday night, eagerly watching the results roll in as tight statewide and local races inched to the finish.
“I had no idea what the outcome of this was going to be,” Branick said. “Jefferson County, so far as I know, has never had a Republican-elected county judge. So I’m just thankful whatever the margin is. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve.”
Branick, who was first elected county judge in 2010 as a Democrat, had not faced an opponent before Lampson, a former U.S. congressman, announced his intention to rejoin the political fray.
Branick came under fire by some members of his former party after he switched to the GOP last year.
But the party swap didn’t seem to matter for the slight majority of voters in traditionally Democratic Jefferson County.
“I think Jeff is absolutely the best person for this job. As the mayor of Port Neches, I’ve been here since 2002,” said Glenn Johnson. “I’ve had three county judges and Jeff Branick is by far the best county judge I have ever worked with.”
But with Tropical Storm Harvey recovery on the mind of some voters, it’s possible that slow improvements played a role at the polls. The two candidates were separated by barely a percentage point in complete but unofficial returns.
Around 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Lampson said he believed there was “not enough” information presented to him to make a decision about a recount. He said he’d like to see which precincts his 36,453 votes came from.
He said this campaign has been similar to his previous runs in that he’s received “a huge amount of support from citizens, people that believed in my candidacy, and believed in what we were doing as something good for the community.”
In mid-October, a handful of Democratic candidates from the top of the county’s November ballot campaigned outside the still-gutted home of a Port Arthur resident, saying that Harvey recovery was unacceptable.
Lampson said he worried the lack of funding toward Harvey recovery could have consequences for taxpayers, especially if the county’s population drops below 250,000. Jefferson County has a population of about 256,000, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.
He pledged to use the county’s reserve fund to rebuild and reimburse the county with state and federal money to avoid making residents who wait, an idea that Branick said was not allowed by federal funding rules.
Branick has said that he shares the “frustration” of residents who remain in recovery mode, agreeing that the response of state and federal agencies took too long.
Reform is needed at the state and federal levels to quick recovery at the county level, Branick said. Jefferson County enters into pre-disaster contracts in anticipation of hurricane and natural disaster recovery, he said, unlike their state and federal counterparts that don’t have contingency funds in place.
Branick’s supporters, including the county’s former emergency management coordinator and Gov. Greg Abbott, praised his recovery efforts, saying that Branick “helped secure over a billion dollars” in Harvey aid.
It’s unclear how much national issues and straight-ticket voting played into the tight race.
Jefferson County residents on both sides of the aisle said during the early voting period that they were motivated by national issues, pointing to a need for checks and balances on President Donald Trump’s administration or immigration concerns with the approaching migrant caravan.
However, the county judge’s office is more about roads and bridges and the local justice system than it is about local politics, said Branick.
Democrats, such as Branick, who began crossing party lines in the 1970s and ’80s were typically small government conservatives who “were Democrats because they were called Democrats, not Democrats in the way we look at Democrats today,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus.
Both campaigns focused on local issues, including the deepening of the Sabine Neches channel which the two candidates supported, until the end when a Branick-sponsored ad veered into national matters including immigration and naming Democratic heavyweight Nancy Pelosi.
Democrats were energized this election cycle by people who are “terrified” of Trump and “really excited” about candidates like Lampson, said Cade Bernsen, Jefferson County Democratic Party chairman.
Judy Nichols, Jefferson County Republican Party chairwoman, said Monday that she believed the county was “on the brink of having a viable two-party system in this county for the first time in years.”
Allen Williamson, who attended Branick’s watch party at Edison Plaza on Tuesday night, said he believed Branick’s victory would be a “continuation of the conservative movement in this country.”
Cassie Jenkins and Olivia Malick contributed to this report.