Businesswoman Debi Hays will become the next Ector County judge, after winning more than 60 percent of the vote in the Republican primary race against former prosecutor Chris Fostel.
It was the first time in 16 years that the county’s top administrator had been decided by a contested election, with 7,805 votes cast in the race. And it fell as the county faces critical challenges including the prospect of an ongoing budget crisis and finding a way to replace a courthouse in disrepair.
“I have never done anything by myself — it takes everyone together to win,” Hays said in a brief speech at an election party hosted by County Attorney Dusty Gallivan. “No matter what goal we’ve set, it takes all of us to be able to do that.”
Hays will be the first county judge in decades who is not an attorney, a fact she and her supporters touted during the campaign.
“I think that voters are really going to look to make sure that I’ve kept my word of making sure that their vote counts, and that there is transparency, that I have an open-door policy, and that the county is a good steward of their money,” Hays said.
The race was decided Tuesday because no challenger had filed for the November election. Incumbent County Judge Ron Eckert’s term expires at the end of this year. But Eckert, who announced he would not seek re-election after voters shot down a proposal last year to create a sales tax for unincorporated parts of Ector County, has left open the possibility of resigning before the end of his term.
That leaves the length of Hays’ transition unclear.
“If he steps down and the commissioners want me to step in, I will do that,” Hays said.
She said she planned to meet with county departments as she prepared for the role.
Ector County voters will again decide on the county sales tax proposal during an election in May, and Hays said she would campaign for its passage free of the restrictions that prevent current office holders from doing so.
Hays, like Fostel, had never been elected to office or served in a top governmental role before entering the race for county judge.
A majority of the county judge’s duties are chiefly administrative: proposing a budget, presiding over the commissioners court, working with departments and serving on boards with important functions like transportation planning.
Hays touted her more than three decade history in Odessa beginning as a clerk without a college degree and rising to an executive position at a savings and loan company, a business consultant, and an entrepreneur who ran a successful tanning salon and later, La Mirage Spa and Beauty Salon, which remains in business.
She had also served in leadership roles of influential conservative groups including the Ector County Republican Women and the Ector County Republican Party.
But Hays’ victory also meant a break with the tradition of electing attorneys to the post.
Fostel had repeatedly argued that failing to elect an attorney would create a backlog at the two County Courts at Law because the county judge could no longer help with the criminal misdemeanor case load. But Hays and supporters including Gallivan disputed that her election would strain the courts.
“Ector County is going to be very fortunate to have Ms. Hays as our new county judge,” Gallivan said, adding that the biggest issues facing the next county judge are financial. “She will bring a new perspective to the office that we haven’t had.”