Candidates for Denton County judge made sure to make their answers, promises and verbal digs at each other count during a heated discussion Wednesday at the Denton County Republican Women’s Club forum.
In one of the last forums before the March 4 primary election, incumbent County Judge Mary Horn and opponents Corinth Mayor Paul Ruggiere and Highland Village lawyer Sherman Swartz addressed the crowd at El Guapo’s restaurant in Denton.
“Friends, I have been a member of this club probably longer than anyone in this room and a member in Denton County politics since before Paul got out of high school,” Horn said in her opening remarks. “I find it interesting Mr. Swartz will have a relatively new experience in the primary. It’s only the second time since 1996 he has voted in a Republican primary.
“I want to give him credit for running a clean campaign, which I can’t say for Paul.”
Horn encouraged people to visit her website or ask her to address her accomplishments while sitting as county judge and any of what she called slanderous remarks and twisted truths said during the campaigns.
When it was his time to address the packed room, Swartz answered Horn’s comments quickly.
“I was widowed in 2007. I had a 4-year-old and 2-year-old at that time,” Swartz said, regarding any lack of party participation. “If that’s an issue for you, you’re probably in the wrong party.”
Swartz then addressed his qualifications as the candidate to lead a growing county that will eventually have a million people in it.
“We need new leadership, dynamic leadership [who] can talk the talk and get quality Denton business in here,” he said. “Those things are necessary to get jobs and diversify our tax base.”
Ruggiere touted his track record of being someone who can bring people together and find solutions to problems that plague fast-growing communities.
“I’ve always had people pushing me to run for offices,” he said. “I have always answered the call to serve my community. This rapidly growing county is ready for new leadership, new ideas. And everything I say, everything I put on my website is documented. I am an academic person and I want to back up everything I say.”
Candidates were asked two questions from the crowd, with the first related to plans to address law enforcement concerns in the newly developing areas of the county.
Ruggiere said there was no quick fix.
“These problems have developed over time,” he said. “A number of communities [are] growing in rural areas and counties are being depended on to provide city-like services.” He cited Lantana as an example.
Ruggiere said one way to get funding is to avoid giving new businesses in Denton as much tax relief, such as abatements.
Swartz said there is a need to sharpen the pencil and look at the budget, and make sure there are not any hidden assets hanging out there.
“It’s going to take time and a cooperative effort by everyone, I believe, and I hope we’re all looking at that,” he said.
Horn called Ruggiere’s response “another twisted truth.”
She said the county is working with the people who manage Lantana and other special districts to enter agreements in which the districts will pay for additional personnel.
“That’s the way to address the issue without affecting the taxpayers that live in the rest of Denton County,” she said.
The second question was to address the commercial tax base in Denton County versus residential.
Swartz said that while a lot of people stay in Denton County for work, many are on Interstate 35E every day.
“The county needs to look at quality [business], what the county is doing for it and will they be adding to the bottom line,” he said, “and then encourage that growth and talk to them to get them in here.”
Horn said she took a look at Denton’s commercial tax base, which was $4.5 billion when she started and today is more than $14 billion.
“During the same time, residential increased by 48 percent,” she said. “It takes the burden off John Q. Citizen.”
Ruggiere, who called himself pro-development, said commercial development is the key.
For closing remarks, the three candidates reiterated the reasons people should vote for them on election day or during early voting, which continues through Feb. 28.
Following the county judge candidates were the candidates for County Criminal Court No 5 — Vic Rivera And Coby Wadill who seek to replace the retiring Judge Richard Podgorski — and candidates for County Criminal Court No. 3 — incumbent Judge David Garcia and challenger George Mitcham.
The meeting closed with remarks from U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville. He said the forum took him back to the days when he first ran for office.
“It’s impressive to see so many people willing to give their time and family’s time to public service,” he said.
Burgess is facing two challengers in the March 4 Republican primary, Joel A. Krause and Divenchy Watrous.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.