Low-key Dallas County judge race could turn on Ebola issue

Many people expected a marquee election matchup when Republican Ron Natinsky decided to challenge Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. But with a week until the election, the race seems barely to have gotten off the ground.

Natinsky, a former Dallas City Council member, has kept a relatively low profile. And Jenkins says he’s been so busy dealing with Ebola that he hasn’t had time for politics.

So instead of turning on taxes, transportation or economic development, the Nov. 4 election will probably come down to what voters think of Jenkins’ management of the local Ebola crisis and other high-profile issues of the past few months.

The race may be low key, but there’s still plenty to debate. Ebola has been a prominent focus of Natinsky’s social media postings and campaign mailings. He has accused Jenkins of “mismanaging the crisis” and of political grandstanding.

Jenkins has largely avoided political talk about the fight against the virus. But he has celebrated the county’s response, and his leadership role in it. Mistakes were made, he says, but he’s quick to note that no one in the public became infected after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visiting family in Dallas, became the first person diagnosed with Ebola on American soil.

Last week, as the number of North Texans being monitored for signs of the disease dwindled, Jenkins said with cautious optimism: “I believe we are winning the fight against Ebola.”

Had the election taken place a year ago, Jenkins may have based his campaign on the county budget. He ran in 2010 promising to modernize the budgeting process. He often brags that on his watch, the county weathered revenue losses from the recession without raising the property tax rate.

Natinsky, meanwhile, appeared ready to emphasize his experience and business bona fides. Before entering politics, he helped create numerous businesses, from a family cassette tape store to manufacturing companies.

He served on the City Council from 2005 to 2011 and was known as a close ally of Tom Leppert, the mayor for most of that time. Natinsky led the council’s Economic Development Committee during a period when major companies were relocating to Dallas. He also chaired the Regional Transportation Council, an influential board that sets local transportation priorities and directs federal funds.

He ran for Dallas mayor in 2011, finishing third among three viable candidates. The others were Mike Rawlings, the eventual winner, and former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle.

Given Dallas County’s recent history of electing Democrats, Natinsky is considered the underdog against Jenkins.

Still, the Republican challenger has done a respectable job of fundraising — testimony, perhaps, to his political experience and business ties.

Natinsky’s most recent campaign finance report, which was filed Oct. 6, showed that he raised more than $80,000 in the previous three months. That’s more than twice as much as Jenkins’ previous opponent, Wade Emmert, raised in the same time period in 2010. Natinsky’s cash on hand was reported to be $84,000, about eight times what Emmert had heading into the last election.

Still, Natinsky’s war chest doesn’t come close to his opponent’s. Jenkins had $346,000 on hand at the last reporting period.

How Jenkins will spend that money — or whether he even needs to — is an open question. One thing campaigns often use their cash for is to put a candidate’s face in front of voters. For Jenkins, news events have done that effectively.

In June — before most Dallas County residents had given a second thought to Ebola — Jenkins was making headlines with his plan to temporarily house 2,000 Central American children in Dallas County. The children, who had entered the country without parents or other guardians, were being detained in cramped quarters near the Mexican border.

Jenkins announced his proposal on a Saturday at the Texas Democratic Party Convention in Dallas. It was news to his fellow members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, with whom he had not consulted. The plan eventually fizzled — the number of children crossing the border declined, and the need for temporary housing faded — but not before the county judge had become a fixture on the nightly news, talking about his concern for “the children.”

Republicans, including County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, said Jenkins’ plan was ill-conceived and politically motivated. Jenkins won praise, however, from many religious leaders, immigrant advocacy groups and the Obama administration.

In July, County Commissioner John Wiley Price — at one time arguably the most powerful figure in county government — was indicted along with three associates on federal corruption charges. While awaiting trial, Price continues to attend meetings of the Commissioners Court and otherwise go about his official duties. But his legal troubles may have shifted influence to his fellow Democrat, the county judge.

Migrant children, Price’s indictment, Ebola: As each dominated the news and cast a spotlight on Jenkins, each also provided fodder for Natinsky.

The indictment against Price accuses him of bid rigging, influence peddling, tax fraud and taking bribes. After it came down, Natinsky made cleaning up county government a key campaign pledge. He questioned why the county, under Jenkins’ leadership, didn’t take steps to tighten controls over purchasing practices until after Price was accused of exploiting them. A consultant had proposed changes years earlier, Natinsky noted.

“I think as county judge I would want to make sure that policies and procedures were in place to minimize public perception that something might not be happening completely above board,” Natinsky said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News’ Editorial Board.

Jenkins countered that the crimes described in the indictment were alleged to have occurred from 2001 through 2011, his first year in office. The consultant’s report that recommended changes in the county’s procurement system predated his time in office. He said he pushed for reforms quickly after Price’s arrest.

“I haven’t had the votes until recently to get that passed,” he said.

The sharpest disagreements between the two candidates, however, have come over Ebola. Natinsky says Jenkins hasn’t been honest about the threat that the virus poses. Jenkins counters that Natinsky is ignoring or distorting science, thus promoting irrational fears in the community.

Both candidates say Jenkins’ actions over the past few months speak for themselves. Those actions, however, say different things to each man.

“It is very disheartening to open the paper and continue to see these issues come up,” Natinsky said.

Jenkins said: “It is really about the body of work and the results, and I don’t think people want you to run from anything. Just lay it out there. It is what it is — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

CANDIDATES: Dallas County judge

Clay Jenkins

Age: 50

Hometown: Highland Park

Birthplace: Dallas

Occupation: County judge, attorney and co-owner of a health services company

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Baylor University; law degree, Baylor University

Political career: Ran for Texas Senate, 1990; elected Dallas County judge, 2010

Career: Lawyer since 1988; county judge since 2011

Website: www.jenkinsfor dallascounty.com


Ron Natinsky

Age: 68

Hometown: Dallas

Birthplace: Detroit

Occupation: Retired entrepreneur

Education: Attended North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas)

Political career: Dallas City Council member, 2005-11; ran for mayor, 2011

Career: Started retail car stereo business, 1967; started electronics wholesale company, 1969; started manufacturing company that produced electronics accessories, 1973; started custom plastic injection molding business, 1975; developed line of automotive products, 1978; acquired promotional products business, 1982; started technology and information services company, 1992

Website: www.ronnatinsky.com