Quiet race turns into fierce fight
Immigrant comment, allegations fuel GOP commissioner race
What started as a quiet race for the Republican nomination for Dallas County commissioner has turned into a pitched battle over criminal allegations and illegal immigration.
The May 22 runoff election in northern Dallas County’s District 2 pits former State District Judge Vickers “Vic” Cunningham against lawyer J.J. Koch. The Republican nominee will face a Democrat, Wini Cannon, and a Libertarian, Alberto Perez, in the November general election.
Koch, 38, who has represented police officers and worked in technology, has not shied from controversy. Last year, he filed a lawsuit seeking to oust Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins Poole.
Cunningham, 55, decided to get into the race because of that suit, saying he was concerned that Koch would be ineffective in the sole Republican seat on the five-member Commissioners Court because he had already alienated many county officials. The lawsuit was later dismissed.
“He’s very combative, very inyour-face, New Jersey smashmouth politics,” Cunningham said, adding that the Democrats would “make him sit in the corner. He would effectively remove himself from any representation on the court.”
But Koch said he knows from his legal career how to maintain good relationships with people on the opposite side. Besides, he said, he’s just speaking the truth.
In a recent email to supporters, Koch blamed Dallas County’s shrinking middle class on “illegal immigrants.”
“We have to speak truthfully about the problems we face,” he said last week. “Not to be hateful toward a group of people, but the fact that there are a lot of illegal immigrants here factors into different problems that relate to poverty.”
Koch’s comments drew condemnation from Commissioner Elba Garcia, a Mexican immigrant, who called them “fear-mongering” and “partisan grandstanding.”
Garcia declined to endorse a candidate but said it’s important for the winner to care less about national politics than about “getting things done for the betterment of all your constituents and Dallas County.”
Commissioner Mike Cantrell, a Republican who is bowing out after representing District 2 since 1995, endorsed Cunningham as a “perfect fit” for the seat because of his experience as a criminal court judge who handled court budgets, as well as his solid relationships with the Commissioners Court.
“The challenge is how do you work with individuals that have a different philosophy and a different idea of how to get to places than what I have, and how to still be a participant in the outcome,” Cantrell said.
Koch has said he would be a better pick because of his experience in the technology sector and as director of legal solutions at Thomson Reuters.
The issues of county governance were largely overshadowed in the race by the illegal immigration controversy and an allegation that Koch had tried to bribe Stephen Stanley, a former Garland City Council member, to drop out of the race before the primary election.
Koch acknowledged that he offered to pay Stanley’s campaign debts if he left the race but said he was doing so to be a good guy, because he’d heard that Stanley had financial troubles and planned to drop out anyway.
Stanley submitted a complaint — along with an audio tape of his call with Koch — to the Texas secretary of state. In January, that office referred the matter to the attorney general’s office to investigate whether a crime had occurred.
It’s unclear whether the matter remains under investigation. The attorney general’s office declined to comment. Neither Stanley nor Koch has been contacted.
The silence, to Koch, means there is no investigation. His attorney, Pete Schulte, said he had heard through his “sources” at the attorney general’s office that “the matter is closed.”
Koch said the real criminal violations in the race were committed by Cunningham. He pointed to a Texas Ethics Commission complaint over Cunningham campaign signs calling Cunningham a “Judge” without clearly stating that he was retired. Cunningham agreed to add the prefix “(Ret.)” to his signs.
“He should stand on his own two feet on his merits, rather than pump himself up to be something that he’s currently not,” Koch said.
Last month, Koch posted a video to Facebook with the caption: “My opponent can’t follow the law! TWO CLASS A MISDEMEANORS!!!” In the selfie-style video, Koch shows one of the signs without the “(Ret.)” prefix on the lawn of a home in Cunningham’s neighborhood.
“He said he would fix all the signs that are out there and he hasn’t,” Koch says. “This is less than half a mile from his house. I dont think it’s any type of malice or anything like that; it’s that he’s lazy.”
Cunningham dismissed the sign flap as insignificant, saying he was considered a senior district judge by the state for life. He said he had agreed not to contest the allegation so he could move on. He said he committed no crime.
“It’s just so juvenile,” Cunningham said.
Having entered the race more than a year earlier than Cunningham, Koch has raised and spent far more. According to the most recent public reports, Koch had collected $70,000 and spent $102,600. Cunningham had taken in $52,100 and spent $64,000.
Cannon lagged, having raised $2,400 and spent $2,310. Even so, the Democrat and former Dallas municipal judge said she believes she has a strong chance at winning the district that leans Republican.
“People who are Republicans, independents and Democrats will vote for me because I’m known in the community, I’m liked and I’m trusted,” she said.