For more than 30 years, most of west and northwest Tarrant County — including White Settlement, the reserve base, and Lake Worth — have known one commissioner, J.D. Johnson. The former Saginaw mayor built his reputation as a strong fiscal conservative who supported law enforcement and donated generously to local charities like the United Way.
The 82-year-old Johnson recently announced that he will not seek reelection, and three Republicans, including JD’s son, Constable Jody Johnson, are vying for the open seat. Manny Ramirez, former Fort Worth police sergeant and current president of the Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association (FWPOA), has the backing of Mayor Mattie Parker, who benefited heavily from the endorsement of the FWPOA leading up to her election earlier this year. Larry Dale Carpenter Jr., a political newcomer, announced his candidacy in July.
Precinct 4’s Republican primary is poised to be every bit as contentious as the fight for Tarrant County’s soon-to-be-vacant county judge position (also a seat on the commissioner’s court) which will likely pit former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price against an as-of-yet-unannounced Democratic candidate.
If there was ever a political battle royale to be had in Tarrant County, the looming contest between Fort Worth’s well-monied police union and Tarrant County’s good-ol’-boy club is that match. As of July 15, Ramirez’ campaign has $115,000 on hand, according to his campaign’s press release. On July 21, Johnson donated $250,000 of $252,873 from his remaining war chest to son Jody. Former elected officials and political consultants who asked not to be named told us that a third entity, i.e., the Tarrant County Republican Party, should have been given J.D.’s remaining campaign funds to disburse as seen fit by the party that J.D. long represented.
J.D., Jody said, “transferred funds that he doesn’t think that he will use. I’ve added to [that contribution] through my own fundraisers. If I don’t get elected, I would make a decision from there [as to how to spend the funds]. I don’t plan on losing. I’ll probably use most of that money. I plan on spending whatever it takes.”
Jody said lowering taxes, supporting police officers, and keeping down property taxes are his top priorities. Despite a state law that requires certain elected officials to fully resign while seeking a new office, Jody has chosen to stay on as constable through a “holdover status” that the county has stated is perfectly acceptable.
But the state constitution says otherwise. When constables and several other named elected positions announce their candidacy for a different public office, that announcement “shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held,” according to the Texas Constitution.
Jody, a county spokesperson told us, “resigned when he announced his intention to run for county commissioner. He is in holdover status as constable. Historically, the Commissioners Court has kept elected officials in a holdover status until the election occurs. An example would be when the late Ron Wright resigned as tax assessor-collector to run for the 6th Congressional seat.”
Longtime trial and appellate lawyer Jason Smith, who has won numerous state and federal court battles, said the Texas Constitution is clear on the matter even if Tarrant County isn’t.
“The Texas Supreme Court has consistently held that if you announce for another office, you resign your current position,” Smith said. “The reason behind this is to afford the people a full-time public servant doing the job. Certainly what [Jody] Johnson is trying to do is contrary to the intention of the Texas Constitution.”
Jody said he called Tarrant County’s longtime administrator, G.K. Maenius, for advice on how to proceed with the campaign.
“I said, ‘G.K., what do I need to do? Do I need to bring my badge down?’ I was under the impression I had to leave” my job as constable, Jody said.
Jody said he was told that he had a duty to uphold his constable position until the commissioners court either removed him or formally allowed him to stay.
We asked the county if Jody’s holdover status was ever discussed at a commissioners-court meeting but did not hear back by press time, and Ramirez did not reply to our request for comment. Jody said he called the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, and the county prosecutors told him that staying on as constable was “the way it works.”
Jody mentioned a past attorney general opinion on holdover statuses. Written by then-AG Greg Abbott, the 2007 opinion, which we read in full, describes a situation in which a constable’s precinct was abolished. When advising on whether the precintless constable should resign, Abbott quoted a past state court case: “Under the constitution, an officer cannot arbitrarily divest himself of the obligation and authority to perform the duties of his [constable] office until his successor qualifies.”
Jody said the AG opinion came as welcome news. He loves serving the citizens of Precinct 4 as constable, he said.
“If they tell me tomorrow they want to replace me,” I’m fine with that, he said.
Smith said AG opinions don’t hold as much weight as Jody and some county officials may like.
“AG opinions are not binding authority on litigants or courts,” Smith said. “It is not unheard of that AG opinions are referred to, although they are afforded some weak value by some courts. Jody is just another Republican railing against the government while trying desperately to hold on to a government job.”
Jody said that he will not campaign while in uniform, and he will not use county resources or regular business hours to get the word out on what he is running for.
“We need to get behind our police officers, so we have lower crime rates,” he said. “I want to address some of the traffic issues. Cutting property taxes would be a big deal. We have to support law enforcement and the district attorney’s office. I know we have jail issues, but, all in all, I don’t feel like we need to rebuild Tarrant County. I like Tarrant County the way it is. I think it is one of the most successful counties in the nation. I want Tarrant County to keep that small county image. I want to make it the type of place businesses and families want to move to.”
Tarrant County’s Republican primary is scheduled for Tuesday, March 1, the county’s elections office told us. In the event that no Republican candidate earns more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election will held Tuesday, May 24.