Few Up For Public Office in Kennard

By Jess Huff

Texas Tribune

KENNARD – The following story was published by The Texas Tribune, regarding local elections in small, rural communities. The Messenger was contacted to provide localized information to the reporter. To see the complete story, visit www.texastribune.org. 

Donald Lamb was fighting a losing battle against his ever-growing East Texas lawn when his neighbor, City Council member James Westbrook, approached him.

Westbrook was ready to retire and he had a favor to ask. Would Lamb take over his position on Kennard’s City Council?

“You think about it,” Lamb recalled Wesbrook saying. “And if you want to do it, come up to the meeting here this Monday.”

That conversation was 18 years ago. The council quickly confirmed Lamb to fill Westbrook’s seat. Since then, Lamb, 67, hasn’t faced a competitor. He was up for reelection again this year — in fact, a majority of the City Council was — but no one challenged the incumbents. So the city canceled its election. And Kennard residents will continue on with the status quo.

This is not unusual, as thousands of small U.S. towns cancel local elections each year after the filing period to run for office closes and no one challenges the incumbents.

In 2022, nearly 70% of races went uncontested in the U.S., according to Ballot Ready, a company that aggregates data on elections. In Texas, nearly 76% of local races went uncontested that year.

A dearth of competitive elections can point to a struggling democracy, said University of Texas at Austin political scientist Sean Theriault. However, that’s not the only way to look at what is happening in Kennard.

Uncontested elections also can signify that “you have really experienced people that know how to balance the books and make a city run and function,” Theriault said.

Although Lamb has heard grumblings from some community members, and there may be an occasional disgruntled social media post, nobody has taken enough issue with the city to challenge a sitting council member.

An outsider may see this tiny community in eastern Houston County as a speck on the map, a lowered speed limit on the way out of Lufkin.

The city’s main thoroughfare is Highway 7. Heading west toward Interstate 45, the state highway is sandwiched between open farmland. In the spring, baby cows frolic and nap in the grassy pastures. A Family Dollar sits to the right and Kennard ISD to the left. As the speed limit slows, small homes and empty buildings appear.

The modest City Hall sits near the center of town, where Broadway intersects with Highway 7. The brick structure could pass for any other house with a double-car garage if it weren’t for the sign reading “CITY HALL” above the front door.

It’s hard not to know everyone when your whole town has about 400 residents and fits inside one square mile. Problems are resolved without government intervention. There’s little room for corruption, Lamb said. The city employs one person and contracts work out to three other people and has an annual budget of $57,000. There is no police department, instead residents rely on state troopers and Houston County sheriff deputies. And there is a small volunteer fire department.

The City Council’s role is primarily to establish the annual tax rate, pay bills, authorize grant applications and to put whatever money it can toward road repairs — which isn’t much, Lamb said.

“Not every judgment call you make is going to be exactly right,” Lamb said. “But you need to think about it before you decide. And that’s what makes the difference.”

As quiet as Kennard is, it does have its struggles.

Kennard was founded in the early 1900’s around a lumber mill and a railroad. It was officially incorporated as a city in 1969. Downtown was bustling with small businesses and it was easy to find employment in town. Curry’s Grocery used to sit in the heart of the city and boasted a drive-in theater.

The roads Kennard was founded on have withered and shrunk as the forest reclaims the land.

Today, there are few local businesses, making gainful employment difficult to find inside city limits. Residents not involved in agriculture or lumber must seek work in the surrounding communities. They find it in Crockett, which is about 15 minutes to the west, or in Lufkin, about half an hour east. The lumber mill burned down in August.

It is the role of the city to encourage growth, but there also has to be interest in opening businesses in Kennard, Lamb said. He loves his role on City Council but worries he won’t see his community return to its glory before it’s his time to go.

Americans care deeply about good governance, Theriault said. But Americans are usually more focused on the elections on the state and national stage because it’s what they see most often covered in the news.

Registered voters in and around Kennard, for example, turned out in force at the March primary elections, election data from the Texas Secretary of State’s office shows. But Kennard’s quiet style of city governance stands in contrast against the dramatic backdrop of state and national politics. City Council decisions rarely make the news.

The Messenger-News, a semi-weekly publication that alone covers the entirety of Houston County, covers Kennard as often as its staff can. Likewise, Wright, the city administrator, posts all notices for city operations in the newspaper in accordance with state law.

But residents are slow to trust the news media and can be shy with outsiders. Fire Chief Don Parrish said other media has portrayed Kennard poorly, pointing specifically at a mini-documentary on the town made 11 years ago. He said the filmmakers chose people who poorly represented the community — making it seem as though the entire town was backwoods and uneducated, which is far from the truth. Numerous Kennard residents spoke to The Texas Tribune, but few consented to be recorded or named, fearing a repeat of the film.

They have their own ways of spreading the news, though.

Dozens of Kennard teens and adults stop by the relocated Curry’s Grocery every morning as part of their daily commute. The store is owned by City Council member Mike Curry and his wife, Judy. Mike was first appointed to the council at 18 and served one term. Decades later, he is now serving his second stint after he was appointed in 2022 to replace G.M. McClinton, who died while in office.

It has been years since the store served as a local grocery. Instead, shoppers fill their gas tanks and find an array of gas station snacks, tools, and mechanical parts for their tractors and other farm equipment.

Beyond providing some basic necessities, Curry’s is a quasi-townsquare where shoppers chat with each other and whoever is manning the cash register about whatever unfolded the night before. Escaped cattle, bad wrecks and arrests are top of mind. Some also seek information on ill neighbors or spread a little gossip.

What the City Council is up to is rarely discussed. Without attending the meetings, Lamb is not entirely sure how residents know what’s happening in their city or if there’s any decision important enough to warrant community debate.

Residents often decide to run for office because they disagree with decisions made by their local leaders. So, one reason why residents might not be interested in running for council, Theriault said, is that they don’t know what city leaders are doing.

“It could be that a lot of the actions that [local governments are] taking are totally fine,” Theriault said. “But we don’t know that.”

On the second Monday evening of each month, the City Council meets face-to-face around a few folding tables in the town’s tiny City Hall. They prefer this to the typical dias with side-by-side seating arrangements used by councils of larger towns.

At their April meeting, council members chatted amicably with Wright about the Houston County Fair and other goings on before delving into the agenda. Council members Michelle Rowe and Truman Lamb Jr. — Lamb’s cousin — were out for personal reasons, a relatively rare occurrence, Lamb said.

The council established a quorum, approved the payment of a few bills, the sale of some decommissioned trucks and discussed the possibility of expanding a water line to a new customer. The meeting was quiet, thoughtful and friendly. It was over in a matter of minutes.

There was no audience.

“Everybody tries to sit down and get a pretty good understanding, and we work together,” Lamb said. “That’s basically it. Nothing gets out of hand. We don’t ever leave the meeting all upset, disturbed, over nothing. We talk about it as people. We can do that and fix the problem.”

If nothing changes, the next time a seat has to be filled — when a council member retires or dies — the council will have to recruit a replacement.

Kennard’s residents are not apathetic. In fact, the town has proven it can come together in a time of need. A recent fundraiser for a community member with cancer yielded more than $20,000.

That doesn’t mean the council can just pick a person off the street, Lamb said.

“You want to make sure you can get someone you can work with,” Lamb said. “It’s one square mile, so everybody just about knows everybody. And you don’t want to enlist a troublemaker.”

Lamb used to worry about who he could approach to take his seat when the time comes. That sunny day 18 years ago occasionally flashes in his mind when he thinks about Westbrook. But the more he thinks about who will come after him, the less he wants to know.

“Don’t answer that for me, Lord,” Lamb said. “Because I know I might be gone tomorrow.”

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