Candidates Face Off in Election Forum

By Greg Ritchie

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – Dozens of chairs, a spill-over room and even the hallway had to be organized quickly, as local residents packed the Crockett Civic Center to hear from several candidates in local races. The candidate forum, sponsored by The Messenger and Crockett Area Chamber of Commerce, included candidates from the races for Houston County Commissioner Precinct One and Houston County Sheriff. 

The candidates greeted attendees as they entered, happy to see old friends and new ones. The Messenger would like to thank both the chamber and Rebeca Huffman from the City of Crockett for doing a magnificent job of getting the room ready and quickly accommodating the ever-growing crowd. 

First Christian Church Pastor and President of the Texas Council of Child Welfare Boards Tim Allen led the group in a prayer, asking for guidance, both to the candidates and the people present to make a wise decision with their votes. 

Grapeland High School Senior and current Peanut Queen Wendy Perez led the pledge of allegiance, before Joni Clonts from the Houston County Republican Party addressed the crown about a typo on the voting ballots. Please see related story in today’s edition. 

The event then got underway with the three gentlemen running for Houston County Commissioner Precinct One, “Butch” Patton, Gary Lovell and Will Yates. All three men took a moment to introduce themselves and tell about their background, family and history in Houston County. 

While their temperaments were markedly different, they agreed on some issues and admitted they had all known each other and been friends for many years. The three were thanked for stepping up to run for this position and help the county and it was noted such friendliness and kindness to political opponents is something unique to Houston County, drawing approval and applause from the audience. 

The three men gave their reasons for people to trust them with their vote. 

Gary Lovell

“The seven years I’ve been here, I have tried to manage our money well,” Gary Lovell said. “All my life, I’ve done something with nothing and I’m still having to that for the county. I try to get the most for every dollar spent and be a good steward for the county. I have tried to keep tax rates down. When the appraisal district was mandated to equalize the value of housing and land, we lowered our tax rate to try and help the people. I try to take care of my county and make wise decisions.”

Will Yates

“I’ve been driving these roads all my life and I just feel I want to do something new. I want to be a preventative maintenance guy,” said Will Yates. “If rain is coming and the roads are ready for the rain, with ditches on the side of the road, you don’t have as much damage and it doesn’t take as much money. You don’t have to go around and try to kill yourself getting things passed because you weren’t ready for the rain. Also, trees that are standing on the side of the road that can fall down and inconvenience people. I feel led to run. And that’s what I’m running on.”

Butch Patton

“Preparing for this, you think about your history and what you’ve accomplished in your lifetime. I haven’t missed one hour of paid time since I got out of high school,” said “Butch” Patton. “It was important for me. What really upsets me about what’s going on in our precinct is about the voters. I think around 1,800 people voted in the last election, out of over 3,000 registered voters. We need to get them out to research the candidates and vote for people, especially with what’s happening on our border. It’s coming to us and we need to wake up and get ready for it.”

With that, the two candidates for Houston County Sheriff were introduced, Randy Hargrove and Zak Benge, who came to the podium to begin with their biographies and both thanking their families for their support. 

The Messenger would like to make a short note about the questions and topics which came up in the discussion. The decision was made to not have a traditional debate format, with timed answers and strict questions. A more conversational tone was adopted, allowing the evening to flow more like a conversation, sometimes dictated by the questions, sometimes dictated by the two gentlemen and their comments. 

We received many ideas for questions, usually from people campaigning for one or the other, often with very obvious biases, or topics which are of primary concern of a small portion of voters. The Messenger wanted to address a topic of interest, according to some readers, about stray dogs in the county. While this is something which must be addressed, with the conversation centering on cartels, drugs and criminals potentially invading our county, the time restraints of the evening did not allow it. 

We opted to create an evening to get to know these men and not point out individual points of view from selected groups of citizens, offering attendees the opportunity to visit with the candidates before and after the debate on individual issues. Asking the candidates questions about individual arrests or cases would have been counter to this approach, been of interest to very few in the room and caused the planned one hour event to last much longer. 

Hargrove and Benge, as was mentioned at the event, both seem to be men of values and valor and the idea was to bring their differences in approach, ideas, strategy and temperament to the fore. This was accomplished, as the two tackled questions about training, budgets, personnel, communication with the public and how they would work with other entities, exposing several differences between their candidacies. 

Zak Benge

“I’m the only candidate up here tonight who has spent any time at the southern border,” Benge said. “I had 15 different deployments on the southern border and what you see on the news is only a very small snippet of what’s really going on. You’ve got children scared of us, because of what the cartels tell them and they fish bodies out of the river – shot by the cartels. So what comes across that border is making its way here unfortunately, and right now, our deputies are not prepared emotionally, physically or tactically to face the threat. We’ve got to train our officers. We’ve got to be proactive in our approach to human trafficking, to narcotics and to prostitution.”

Randy Hargrove

“I spoke to a border sheriff last year. This stuff is not in the news, folks. He said he had 14 bodies in body bags in the back of his truck – they come across so many bodies, all of his deputies carry body bags,” Hargrove said. They have caught more than 13,000 Chinese Nationals – 8,000 of them were single-men of fighting age. That’s more than the population of Crockett. We need to be on our toes and need to stand behind Gov. Abbott. We have an epidemic and we have a problem. Thank God we have a governor standing up and exercising his constitutional authority because we’re being invaded.”

Each man summed up themselves and their campaigns and their reasons for running for sheriff.

Sheriff’s candidate Randy Hargrove shares a laugh with the audience

“In May, I’ll have 27 years of experience, with over 3,000 hours of law enforcement training. I’ve got a lot of forensic training and I’m an expert in blood stain analysis and crime scene reconstruction,” Hargrove said. “I’ve actually used that here in Houston County to get some convictions. So I’ve got a lot of training that I can impart and have been imparting to my deputies and we work with our deputies on those major cases to bring people to justice – to find out what happened and who did it. The other thing is, I love what I do. I love my people. And I look forward to serving you another term. When I became Sheriff, I took an oath of office and that was to protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of Texas. That constitution does not give you any rights. God gives you rights. The constitution protects those. The only way I can protect the constitution is to protect you. And I want you to know as Sheriff, I’m going to protect you.”

Sheriff’s candidate Zak Benge makes his case to the voters.

“Randy and I have known each other 20 years, but we definitely differ in our leadership styles, the direction we want to take that office and how we get from point A to point B,” Benge said. “When you look at me, I want you to know I’m going to be accessible. We’re going to be visible. Our deputies are going to work on visibility because that’s our biggest deterrent. We’re going to focus on building relationships with other agencies, both non-governmental and volunteers. And most importantly, we want to get back to building relationships in the community. That was my biggest job as a game warden – relationship building. My door will be open. I will be out in public and I will be approachable. I want you to come talk to me. Tell me what I’m doing right, tell me what I’m doing wrong. Tell me what I can improve on. If I don’t know about it, I can’t fix it. I’ve got thick enough skin – if you have a better idea, bring it to me. I’m not smartest man in the room, but I’m not scared to ask for help. I’m not scared to ask questions.”

Finally, in a series of questions to throw the candidates a curve ball, Benge revealed his favorite movie was “Saving Private Ryan,” and Hargrove prefers hamburgers to hot dogs, unless it’s a chili dog. 

The entire debate can be viewed on The Messenger’s social media pages. We want to thank all of the good people who came to support this event, including the participants and the candidates and their families.  It is always easy to criticize and complain from an easy chair or behind a keyboard. Our county – and our country’s future – rests in the hands of those ready to participate, show up, run for office and play in part in shaping the world around us. 

For information on early voting and primary day voting times and locations, see related article in today’s newspaper. 

Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]

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