By: Jessica Shorten
SHENANDOAH, TX – January is candidate forum season in Montgomery County; and the first forum of the month at the Shenandoah City Hall set the stage for a lively debate season going forward.
The Montgomery County Eagle Forum hosted their first set of candidate debates on Thursday night with the County Judge, Precinct 2, and Precinct 4 Commissioner races. The forums were structured so each candidate had a 2 minute opening statement, the questions were drawn from the attendees, and each candidate was given two rebuttals to allow them to respond to one of the other candidates on any issue they chose.
Here are the hot takes from each forum.
It’s no secret the main event of the night was the County Judge forum. It was the only panel of the night in which all candidates in the race actually showed up to debate, and there was no shortage of topics to discuss.
Montgomery Mayor Sara Countryman was the first to give her opening statement; and wasted no time in calling out current County Judge Mark Keough on a number of issues during his tenure regarding financial transparency, questionable purchases with federal CARES act funds, and his hiring of a personal deputy to drive and provide security for himself after his September 10, 2020 DWI accident.
Throughout the debate, Countryman quoted documents from Commissioners Court and letters from the likes of Senator Brandon Creighton over the County’s failure to distribute the CARES act funds based on the $55 per capita marker set by the Governor to all of the cities in Montgomery County. Countryman was fast and relentless with her supporting arguments.
Incumbent County Judge Mark Keough spent the night on the defensive. After using his two rebuttals within the first question to try and defend the County’s use of the CARES and ARPA funds by referencing the FAQ pages on the U.S. Treasury website, Keough could only resort to using his time to answer new questions to rehash old topics instead of answering the actual questions asked by attendees. This move earned a number of harsh reactions from the audience.
Keough earned a round of actual booing from the audience after claiming the current makeup of the court was “The best and most honest we’ve ever had.” He repeatedly attempted to admonish the other candidates and even citizens for not simply “calling him” regarding issues such as the lack of backup on Commissioner’s Court agenda items and missing financial transparency reports. Keough’s fluster reached a tipping point at the end of the debate; at which point Keough used his entire 2-minute closing statement to actively rant against fellow candidate Billy Graff by decrying Graff’s position as a Christian and pastor and claiming Graff was only running because he “wanted a job.”
With Countryman on the offensive and Keough on the defensive; Graff was not able to really present any real ideas or solutions to the problems which plague Montgomery County government currently. Keough attacked Graff for “taking a moral high ground” most likely because it’s the only real takeaway Graff left attendees and watchers. A bad thing, only in the sense it leaves voters feeling like there is no substance behind a candidate. It’s easy to tell Graff is a pastor; he spoke with the passion of the pulpit; but the things he said tended to land more on the side of catchphrases than hard-hitting statements.
Armed with a copy of the U.S. and Texas constitutions and a binder filled with every Commissioners Court agenda for 2020, Graff used the idea of them more than their actual content. The only real attack Graff landed was on Keough after he claimed he fought the federal and state government to stop lockdowns; telling Keough, “You don’t get to start a fire and then put it out and call yourself the hero,” in reference to the original coronavirus stay-at-home order and curfew.
Precinct 2 Commissioner
After all the excitement of the County Judge forum; the tone of the room shifted drastically as roughly half of attendees filtered out. With incumbent Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley skipping this forum, challenger Jennifer Eckhart was given a little breathing room as she only had to focus on her response to the questions asked.
Eckhart worked with a limited understanding of the inner workings of the Commissioner’s Office; which meant she could only comment on the status of projects from what she has personally seen on the road ways. Eckhart criticized not just the lack of work being done, but the quality, claiming there were roads which had to be redone because they were quite literally splitting down the middle seam and eroding the foundations underneath.
She promised to be open and available to the residents following complaints the current Precinct 2 Office and Commissioner is unreachable. She also questioned where money for adding trees and roadways for beautification purposes was going, and even wanted to pick up a few tricks from the Precinct 3 Commissioners Office such as having an app to input and track work orders.
In all, Eckhart had an audience all to herself to speak to; and with the evidence of the incumbent not being bothered to attend, she was more than likely to get a foothold into voters’ minds.
Precinct 4 Commissioner
The final debate of the evening was also a one-man show, with incumbent Commissioner James Metts choosing not to attend the forum. However, the decision not to engage with his opponent could very well prove to be a key political misstep in the future.
Challenger Matt Gray sat through the entirety of the County Judge and Precinct 2 forums, and so he was well prepared to flow with format. Gray may not be a polished speaker, but he was a charismatic one. Boasting a long history in the East Montgomery County area, he presented an earnest energy as he spoke to expanding the work week at the Precinct 4 Commissioner’s office to five days a week (Shocking a number of attendees in the process that it wasn’t already a 5-day work week).
Gray expressed his dissatisfaction in the “qualifications” of the people currently employed at the Commissioner’s office for the salaries being paid. He also questioned why there was only one warming center set up at the YMCA facility in Splendora during 2021’s Winter Storm. Expressing that East Montgomery County was far larger than from New Caney to Splendora; and there should have been enough resources available to the Commissioner’s Office to set up warming centers across Precinct 4 to allow ease of access for the elderly.
Gray also did something most candidates often have a hard time doing; explaining how he would accomplish his goals. From discussing how he would schedule crews to work on drainage and road projects to how he would get developers to pay for damage they caused on roadways or properties. Whether or not those methods would actually work is something which can only be tested in the office, but having a plan is always preferential to not.