Metropolis: Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Martin: ‘There’s no dirt out there on me.’
Swearingen: ‘I can hit the floor running.’
Bench: Warming

An Eastside JP race is creating more heat than any other local contest.

By BETTY BRINK and Jeff Prince

Becky Haskin’s campaign signs promise that, if elected as Precinct 1 justice of the peace, she’ll dispense “Swift Republican Justice” (whatever that means) to offenders in her court. But so far the only thing her enemies seem really worried about is the possibility of her swift return to her Fort Worth City Council seat.

The six-term councilwoman decided last September to seek the Republican nomination for the JP job in Precinct 1, which covers roughly the east-central part of Tarrant County, including Meadowbrook, part of downtown Fort Worth, and North Richland Hills. Among her detractors — she prefers to call them “CAVE people, citizens against virtually everything” — the announcement produced mixed emotions. Joy that she might at long last leave the council and fear that if she loses in the March 7 primary, she might simply shift gears and file to run in the special election for her old council seat. Frank Moss did just that when he quit the council last year to run for Tarrant County commissioner.

They need not worry, apparently. Haskin will miss such a golden opportunity by two hours.

Because of recent changes in the election laws, City Secretary Marty Hendrix said, the filing deadline for the election to replace Haskin is now 5 p.m. on March 7 — two hours before polls close in the primary. Haskin won’t know the results in the JP race in time to file. If she loses, to either businesswoman Cindy Martin of North Richland Hills or Fort Worth Police Lt. (and attorney) Ralph Swearingin, it will be the first time in 12 often-stormy years that Haskin is out of the public eye. Of course, that is a big if — and one that could change if she decides to try a long shot as a write-in candidate. Filing deadline for that is March 13, Hendrix said.

Haskin, who did not return phone calls or e-mail requests for interviews for this story, has powerful allies who have given generously to her campaign, including billionaire developer Ed Bass, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, and former councilman Jeff Wentworth. So far, she’s raised about $16,000, more than double what either of her primary opponents have gathered. With three in the race for the Republican nomination, she’s not likely to win outright, but even her detractors believe she’ll make the run-off.

And even though retiring Precinct 1 Justice Barbara Ferrell told Fort Worth Weekly that she had not endorsed anyone — “It’s illegal for me to do that,” she said — her husband Ray is Haskin’s campaign treasurer, and Barbara is listed as a contributor. And while she can’t endorse Haskin, she said, she loves her. “I raised her [politically], you know,” Ferrell said, noting that she, Haskin, and Granger have been close friends since Granger’s first campaign for the city council in 1989. A few years after Granger vacated the District 4 council seat, Haskin ran for it and has been there ever since.

Ferrell said all three Republican candidates are qualified. But Haskin’s years of dealing with the public on the council, Ferrell said, make her better suited to serve in what is commonly known as the “people’s court,” which typically handles evictions, civil and small claims cases up to $5,000, truancy, and Class C misdemeanor cases and issues search warrants. The job doesn’t require a law degree, and it pays well, about $75,000 a year. Sweetening the pot are the fees that JPs are allowed to charge to perform weddings, which some say can double a judge’s income.

In spite of the support from Ferrell and others, the 45-year-old Haskin has a plethora of critics working to defeat her, from the CAVE people, a small but vocal group of neighborhood activists on the East Side with whom she’s battled publicly over the years, to a few Woodhaven apartment owners who believe she’s out to gentrify their mostly minority, low-income tenants right out of the neighborhood. Then there’s Mayor pro-tem Chuck Silcox, with whom she’s butted heads almost from day one of her first term. Silcox, who has been on the receiving end of her infamous blue tirades (one of which ended with her mouthing “fuck you” and giving him the finger publicly at a council meeting) said at a recent forum, “Can you imagine her in a courtroom with that attitude?” (The Weekly also reported on her “go take a flying fuck” reply to a city firefighter’s wife who called to urge Haskin to vote to pay full benefits to the families of two firemen who lost their lives battling fire as volunteers in another city. Haskin denied the charge; the fireman’s wife stuck to her story.)

Silcox also disparaged Haskin’s campaign slogan. “Justice is justice,” he said. “She’s trying to convince people she’s a real Republican, but she’s about as Republican as Hillary Clinton.”

Rita Vinson, an Eastside neighborhood activist and long-time Democrat who’s been with and against Haskin on different issues, is supporting attorney Raymond Daniel, who is running against John De Lorme in the Democratic primary for the JP nomination. Regardless, she still considers Haskin a friend. Vinson said Haskin “has gone against big business often” by pushing for such things as billboard restrictions and a controversial landscape ordinance. But the other side of the coin for Vinson has been Haskin’s abrasiveness and her arrogance toward the poor, as shown by her efforts to push the city to condemn several Woodhaven apartment complexes that cater to low-income tenants. Though most of the tenants affected are black, Vinson said, “it’s not a race issue with Haskin, it’s a class issue,” which makes Vinson “not real comfortable” with just how Haskin would administer that “swift Republican justice.”

The campaign to date has had only a few bad moments — Haskin’s signs have been placed to cover up Martin’s in several places — but Martin is expecting worse things to come. According to campaign finance reports, Haskin has paid long-time political operative Bryan Eppstein $20,000 to run her campaign, and he’s well known for dishing dirt at the last minute.

“There’s no dirt out there on me,” Martin said, laughing. “I told my husband that if I’d known I was going to run for political office, I’d have lived a more colorful life.”

In separate interviews, Martin, 55, and Swearingin, 52, both said that they have been told by “many, many” people whom they have asked for support or endorsement that they are afraid to give either because of the fear of retaliation by Haskin. “It’s because she’s still sitting on the council,” Martin said, “and their greatest fear, I’m told, is that if they cut me a check and she loses, then gets her seat back on the council, she will be in a position to hurt them.”

Haskin’s Republican opponents in the JP race, as well as the folks who’ve filed to run for her spot on the council, are crying foul over the city attorney’s ruling that has allowed her to remain on the council after becoming a declared candidate for another office. This, they say, is a clear violation of the city charter and gives her an unfair advantage. Louis McBee, an Eastside businessman who lost to Haskin in the last council election cycle and recently filed to run for the District 4 seat in the special election, lodged a formal protest with the city attorney, citing a city charter provision that says that a council member who decides to run for another office “shall immediately forfeit” his or her seat and that the council must appoint someone from the district to fill the post until a special election can be held. The city attorney ruled against McBee.

“‘Immediately forfeit’ seems to mean something different to this council and city attorney than it does to the rest of us,” McBee said.

At a recent meeting with the Woodhaven apartment managers that Haskin skipped, Martin said she “was hoping for a fair and respectful race.”

McBee laughed. “Respectful? Becky?”

“I know,” Martin replied. “Becky can’t even spell the word.”

So far the contest has consisted mostly of bloodless disagreements over who is best qualified for the job: veteran officeholder Haskin with a degree in criminal justice; the attorney/cop Swearingin; or Martin, a businesswoman who once owned a car wash and a wedding chapel and is now a volunteer mediator for Tarrant County family courts.

Swearingin points to his knowledge of two sides of the law, as an attorney (who hasn’t practiced, however) and a police officer. “The [JP] job today is complex, legally,” he said, and a background in law is essential. “I can hit the floor running, without having to wait to get up to speed” by taking the law courses that are required for the job, he said. His familiarity with the enforcement side of the law, he said, gives him a perspective that neither Martin nor Haskin has. Swearingin’s campaign has raised $5,900, mostly from colleagues on the police force, where he’s served for 25 years. The Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association kicked in $1,000, as did the Chiles Family Trust, a political name of some significance in Republican circles here. But primarily he’s spending shoe leather, he said, walking door to door.

Martin’s campaign is struggling along on less than $4,000, mostly from $500 donations from business owners and one notable politician, former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis.

Still, she’s found a strong supporter in Eastside political activist Wanda Conlin, publisher of the Meadowbrook News, and once a close colleague of Haskin. The councilwoman appointed Conlin to the city’s planning commission and then to the zoning board — only to fire her after Conlin opposed the city’s $273.5 million bond package because there was little in it for the East Side, a problem that Conlin and others publicly blamed on Haskin.

“Cindy is dignified and fair, all that Becky isn’t anymore,” Conlin said. The publisher has been fighting the city’s fast-track efforts to get rid of some Woodhaven apartments. “This is ethnic cleansing at its most blatant,” she said. “And if Becky is JP for this area, the apartment owners sense a danger in the power she will have over them.” As an example, she said, apartment owners trying to evict non-paying tenants could have those actions delayed in her court, which could hurt the already-marginal profitability of the apartments.

Over in the Democratic camp, the rift caused by Doreen Geiger’s challenge to veteran Democratic Party chair Art Brender is defining the debate. When De Lorme signed Geiger’s petition to get her name on the ballot, he said, he landed on Brender’s hit list: “As party chair, Art can’t endorse in this race, but his wife is Daniel’s campaign treasurer, and he’s working against me through her.”

Linda Brender is his treasurer but she’s also an old friend, Daniel said, and most of his support is from the Democratic old guard who are solidly behind Art. “But that’s not the issue,” said Daniel, 45, who has practiced law for 15 years. Given the often-complex legal issues that come before justices of the peace today, he said, “this position needs a lawyer who understands the rules of procedures and rules of evidence, someone who has actually appeared in a JP court on behalf of clients, which I have done many times.”

De Lorme, who has been a Democratic precinct chair and a party activist for 15 years and is a union member as an employee of Verizon, said the post needs someone with “common sense, who can identify with the people who come before it.” His supporters are largely from the Geiger camp. “The outcome of these two races,” he said, “could mean a new day for Democrats here.”

In what looks like a yawner of a local election cycle, the Precinct 1 race may turn out to be the best show in town.

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