The Dallas Morning News
Trans mayor seeks election
Appointed mayor seeks to be state’s first transgender elected official
Appointed New Hope Mayor Jess Herbst wants to become the first openly transgender official elected to public office in Texas.
Jess Herbst lives on the family farm. These 50 acres in New Hope provide her with a kind of serenity found only in the country.
The accent Herbst got growing up in Greenville thickens a little as she talks about her cattle, her land, her love for this place. Her voice has a breathless quality, as if her lungs can’t quite keep up with the rapid fire of her speech.
“I’m a country girl,” she says simply, as if her whole existence can be wrapped up in this phrase.
But most country girls don’t end up in Harper’s Bazaar or Cosmopolitan. Most don’t see their faces on TV or their names in headlines. That’s because Herbst isn’t just any girl from small-town Texas.
She’s trans. She’s also the mayor. Now, she wants to become the first openly transgender official elected to public office in the Lone Star State — and she wants to do it in a county that brags it’s the reddest in deep-red Texas.
Herbst, 59, calls the day she was appointed mayor her big “oh [expletive] moment.”
It was May 2016 and leaders in the tiny town of New Hope, about 40 miles north of Dallas, expected another quiet election season. Longterm Mayor Johnny Hamm, 64, was favored to nab the top job yet again. Then, shortly before voters went to the polls, Hamm fell into a coma.
“The mayor had a heart attack, went to the hospital,” Herbst says, launching into the tale for what sounds like the umpteenth time. “Three days before the election, he died.
“He won by 30 points.” The only option was for the City Council to pick a new mayor. They opted for Herbst, then mayor pro tem, to run the North Texas town with a population that tops 700 on a good day. Only thing was, the council didn’t know about Herbst’s gender identity.
“I had planned on taking my seat and then resigning,” Herbst explains, laughing.
She wanted to continue her transition — from the alderman and road commissioner the town had known for decades as “Jeff” to the woman she says she knew was always inside her — quietly, with her wife Debbie and children beside her. She could have demurred, turned down the job. Instead, she leaned in. Herbst, a self-employed computer technician who has worked as a contractor for the city of Plano for two decades, came out in a note that still lives on the town’s official website. There, she explained her gender identity and her new name, and welcomed any questions.
In the past two years as Mayor Jess, she’s become an activist, attending political training for LGBT leaders and fighting state lawmakers’ efforts to legislate which bathrooms she and other trans Texans can use.
Back home in New Hope, she’s re-established the town’s long-shuttered permits and zoning board and hired a code enforcement officer. She hopes the changes will keep her in office, winning her not only the job but also the accolade of being Texas’ first openly trans elected official.
“I’ve tried to fix all these things that needed fixing,” Herbst says, accusing the former mayor of running the town “like a monarchy.”
“When I last ran, I hadn’t transitioned. So I wanted an actual win running as Jess.”
Herbst isn’t the only one in New Hope with eyes on the job. At least three other locals have decided to challenge her election, including the widow of the former mayor.
Angel Hamm, 42, was Herbst’s first challenger. With the former mayor’s name recognition, she might have the best chance of beating Herbst. But she doesn’t want to talk about her political ambitions with the press.
“I’m not interested,” she said, hanging up quickly when reached by phone earlier this month. Her LinkedIn profile, which identified her as the office manager at Bewley Electric in McKinney, was deleted soon after the call.
Herbst’s other challengers are eager to talk about their political ambitions.
“Even though we’re small, we have a lot of major issues coming our way,” said Melissa Brown, a 42-year-old account manager working in the semiconductor industry. “I’d really like to see more awareness” among the townspeople.
Brown said the town needs to “prepare for” a number of high-profile county projects, like the ONE McKinney 2040 Comprehensive Plan, the McKinney Airport expansion and the extension of U.S. Highway 380.
“That presents environmental impacts, sound impact, additional traffic for New Hope,” said Brown, who has a background in environmental water quality. “I’d really like to see my fellow residents and myself to understand the impact.”
People in New Hope are worried McKinney will try to annex the unincorporated areas outside town, growing around them until they’re “swallowed” up, Brown said. The town’s leadership has been doing a good job, she added, “for where New Hope has been.” She wonders if they’re ready for where it’s going.
Michael Rivera, 46, also said he’s worried about McKinney’s growth. A firefighter and EMS worker for the city of Garland, Rivera said he wants to keep New Hope small while bringing in big-city amenities, like better internet access, which he called “ridiculously terrible.”
“We can fly a drone across the world and put a hellfire missile in a window,” the U.S. Army veteran said, “but we have all these companies saying we can’t put internet out there.”
Rivera also bemoaned the abandoned houses that dot the town. One sits on the culde-sac where he lives, and he hates telling passers-by interested in moving to town that the place has been abandoned for years. Those houses, some of which sit on acre lots, should be for sale, he said.
“There’s all sorts of varmints that go in and out of there,” Rivera complained, but no people. “We have this awesome place, and it’s — nice house, nice house, beat up [and] abandoned house.”
Herbst also rolls her eyes at McKinney’s expansion, saying the city is trying to gobble up the surrounding countryside when it should be annexed into New Hope, which has a lower tax rate.
“Basically it’s like a dog going around and marking a territory,” she said. “I’m going to do everything I can to get New Hope back the [extraterritorial jurisdiction] that McKinney stole from us.”
None of Herbst’s opponents had anything negative to say about her job performance or the attention her transition has brought to town. Rivera repeatedly used the pronoun “he” to refer to Herbst but said it was just out of habit.
“Honestly, I haven’t really given it too much thought,” he said when asked about Herbst’s gender identity. “Eventually I’m going to have to address the issue.”
Herbst has said she knew it would take time for people to adjust to using her new name and gender, but joked Rivera might want to come to terms with “the issue” before they go head-to-head Feb. 28: “That’s going to be fun at the debate!”
Herbst said she expects code enforcement to be a hot topic when they do. The shuttering of a dog grooming business whose owner wants to open up in a residential neighborhood has been the top topic at the water cooler, many New Hope residents confirmed, and Brown thought the town’s leadership could have handled the disagreement better.
“We don’t want to scare off anybody who would want to move to New Hope,” Brown said. But Herbst insisted this won’t be an issue for long: “Even before filing closes, I’ll have the business closed.”
Reached by phone, a couple of members of the town leadership applauded Herbst’s efforts to turn around New Hope. Mayor Pro Tem Bob Parmelee, 82, said Herbst has done “an excellent job.”
“I will support the current mayor,” Parmelee said when asked who would get his vote. “She’s gotten everything wellorganized.”
Who comes out on top when New Hope goes to the polls next month could be a bellwether for the direction of North Texas politics. Collin County went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 16 points in 2016, and Rep. Sam Johnson, a Republican who is retiring this year, won the county over his Democratic challenger by 27 points that year.
But the mayor — who doesn’t really identify with either party — says she doesn’t want any special treatment because she’s the incumbent.
“We’re a conservative town,” Herbst said. But “we’re also not a town that looks up to people who have affairs with porn stars.”
Since Herbst was appointed and not elected, she says she won’t use “re-elect” on signs or campaign literature. The ballot won’t say “mayor” or “incumbent” next to her name, and the ballot order will be determined by drawing straws.
If she wins, Herbst doesn’t even plan to serve more than one term. Praising the importance of term limits, Herbst said she’d step down after two years and set her sights higher.
“If I’m elected this year, I will serve out that term,” Herbst said. “And in 2020, I will look to something statewide, maybe U.S.