Hold on! Election is going to be a wild ride

Candidate signs are all over Odessa with early voting starting Tuesday. (Laura Dennis|Odessa American)

Early voting for the primary begins Tuesday in Ector County with everything from the chance to vote for a presidential candidate all the way down-ballot to Ector County precinct chairs.

The national political soap opera of what looks to be another Trump vs. Biden presidential race in November is nothing compared to the local drama shaping up in Ector County.

There will be a packed ballot on the Republican side for a number of county offices as well as the contested precinct chair races for the local party. All county offices up for election will be decided in the primary as there are no Democratic challengers.

Here’s a look at some races:


Donna Kelm

Republican Donna Kelm says she wants to get the Ector County GOP back on track. She said that means an end to current Chair Tisha Crow’s time as the head of the Party.

Kelm said she is against some of the current tactics being used including endorsing one Republican over another in local races and the use of fake social media accounts to attack Odessans who question the local GOP. Kelm herself was treated harshly at the Ector County Republican Party (ECRP) Headquarters after she refused to “block walk” for candidates that she did not know. Kelm says she wants to create an environment where candidates feel free to run without being intimidated and will speak out against local party Executive Board members who lash out and bully candidates they oppose.

Kelm worked for more than a month to secure three signatures (10 percent) from current Ector County precinct chairs so she could get a spot on the ballot to challenge longtime leader Crow.

County Chairman of the Ector County Republican Party Tisha Crow speaks to the Odessa City Council during a council meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Odessa City Hall. (OA File Photo)

The signatures were required under Texas legislation originally passed to keep Democrats from grabbing powerful seats by running for local party chair spots. Crow and her supporters have long said it is “the law” and challengers must get 10 percent of the local party chairs to sign to even get on the ballot.

However, the statute allows counties under a certain population to opt out of the required 10 percent. Midland County has done just that, but Crow and her precinct chairs have not. Many of the current precinct chairs were appointed by Crow or have never faced an opponent in a primary.

That changes this March as local businessman Ronnie Lewis gathered a number of Odessans to challenge sitting precinct chairs for control of the party. Crow and her people have sought to paint him as a “Democratic operative,” but Lewis said he is a Republican and just wants civility back and for the bullying of Odessans by top leadership of the local GOP to stop.

He cites how fake Facebook accounts are used to intimidate and bully anyone who doesn’t agree with everything local party leaders are doing. Earlier this year several fake profiles were used to disparage Lewis and his wife.

The fake profiles Finnigan Lane, Josiah Vargas, Mitt Harvey, Joshua Benjamin and others routinely denigrate Lewis and others.

Some local party officials don’t use a fake account.

Current Precinct Chair for 111, Freda Daniels, faces Jason Pond in the primary and was blocked from the Odessa American Facebook page for remarks about Lewis’ wife being a “mail order bride,” which violates OA standards.

Daniels was blocked after she called Lewis’ wife a mail order bride and was told by the page administrator that racist and inappropriate remarks would not be tolerated and she would be blocked if she did it again. She responded to that by posting “what if it is true” and was blocked.

Daniels emailed the OA the next day asking to be unblocked and wrote: “You must realize the act of obtaining a wife in such a way happens all over the world, even the USA. Some are even white. It doesn’t refer to women of color. So no I am not a racist nor was it a racist remark. You don’t even know me.”

Lewis said the attack is typical of those currently in power.

Ronnie Lewis

“I got very angry the first time I saw it. But as Freda Daniels repeatedly used this Asian racial slur over and over towards my angelic wife, it reminded me of exactly why I’m fighting Tisha Crow and her appointed precinct chairs,” Lewis said. “I was inspired to work harder. These types of demeaning attacks are what keeps Odessa citizens from running for office or opposing Tisha Crow. Ironically Freda’s opponent is half Korean; his father met his mother while stationed in Korea serving our country. Hopefully karma finds its way to Precinct 111 and elects Jason Pond.”

Lewis will face Carmen Wilhite in the primary. She was appointed to her precinct chair in December.

Kelm said she sought Wilhite’s signature to run for party chair but did not get it. She said she was shocked by the tone of some of the questions Wilhite asked her prior to refusing to sign for Kelm to run.

“It was a nice conversation at first,” Kelm said. “She (Wilhite) questioned me about how I voted in the November election last year.”

Kelm said she told Wilhite she voted for retired teachers to get a raise and Wilhite said “Why on earth would you do that?”

Kelm said she believed teachers deserved a cost of living increase and that is what she told Wilhite.

But the troubling questions, Kelm said, were when Wilhite demanded to know what Kelm would do if a “a gay guy walks in off the streets and wants to be part of our Republican party.”

Kelm said Wilhite also asked if she would allow a “gay guy” to work at headquarters. Kelm found the line of questioning shocking. She said Wilhite eventually said she liked what Tisha (Crow) was doing and she didn’t need to be replaced by Kelm.

Kelm has also questioned Crow’s use of campaign materials telling voters not to fall for “Trans Republicans.”

Contacted by phone, Wilhite said she would return a call to the Odessa American but did not.

Ned Luscombe is the precinct chair in 207 and faces Jet Brown in the primary.

Kelm said she sought Luscombe’s signature to run but he turned her down and also told her the current precinct chairs would keep her “from taking over” if she were to defeat Crow. “We aren’t going to allow that to happen,” he told her. Kelm said he also said he didn’t like her voting record. She said she has voted Republican since 1976.


Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis

Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis, who doesn’t face a challenger for his third term as sheriff, isn’t endorsing anyone this election cycle.

A recent Facebook post by Odessa Accountability Project stated Griffis and Odessa Fire and Rescue Chief Jason Cotton were endorsing Odessa City Councilwoman Denise Swanner, who hopes to be Precinct 206 chair. She will be up for re-election to Odessa City Council in November.

The Facebook post later cited a “misunderstanding” about the Griffis endorsement. Cotton’s endorsement was later removed with no explanation before the entire post was deleted. Griffis has said he told all candidates who asked for an endorsement he was not endorsing anyone weeks before the false post.

Fake news sites on social media and fake Facebook profiles have played a part in this year’s Republican primary with 16 mostly newcomers challenging a group of mostly appointed precinct chairs along with a contested Ector County party chair seat, two county commissioner seats and a justice of the peace slot.

The two groups essentially line up with those supporting incumbent Crow and those who support Kelm.

The fake Facebook accounts have attacked Kelm and her supporters in recent weeks including Swanner’s opponent longtime Odessan Brenda Worthen, who said the fake Facebook account Josiah Vargas has repeatedly attacked her. Swanner is listed as a friend on the fake account and has posted replies to the Vargas account.

Swanner has previously denied knowing the account was fake but also posted at one point that Vargas had “bought her lunch.” When questioned about it last year she said she “never pays for her own lunch” and doesn’t research to see what profiles are real or fake.

Prior to the recent Griffis phony endorsements, Crow in December said State Sen. Kevin Sparks had endorsed her. Sparks’ office, however, said he was not endorsing in this or any other local race. Sparks himself reiterated his non-endorsement policy to the OA.

He texted: “Both candidates have been very active in Ector County for many years. The community needs to make their election without undue influence.”

Crow is endorsed by Gun Owners of America and supported by Dr. Richard Bartlett.


Carlos Chavez

Longtime lawman Carlos Chavez is seeking a full term as Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace after being named to the post in April 2023 following JP Terry Lange’s retirement.

Chavez, a Republican, is facing challenger Jennifer Woodall, who declined an interview with the Odessa American but filled out a candidate form. Also, Steve Brennan, a former constable for Precinct 1, is in the GOP race.

Chavez, 59, served with the Odessa Police Department for more than 30 years and touts his background in law enforcement and his ability to conduct business in Spanish as critical qualifications to residents in the sprawling precinct.

Jennifer Woodall

Woodall is an office manager at Brown Oilfield Services, and, in her questionnaire, stated she is not fluent in Spanish but will make sure to have clerks who do speak Spanish available if elected. She did not respond to an email seeking to clarify what she meant by “not fluent in Spanish.”

Texas justices of the peace are judges who have broad authority over matters that include setting bonds for criminal defendants, performing marriages, ruling on landlord-tenant disputes, presiding over criminal misdemeanor trials, and issuing and enforcing protective orders.

Former JP Terry Lange is endorsing Chavez. Lange was peace justice in Precinct 1 for more than 24 years before retiring. He is asking those who voted for him in the past to support Chavez.

He said Brennan didn’t really perform his duties when he was a constable and said Woodall has been “grasping at straws” and is trying to use unfounded claims to boost herself.

He said Chavez has picked up where he left off and is serving the public. He said claims that warrants are not being served have nothing to do with the work of a justice of the peace. “It’s a dumb question, showing their ignorance..when warrants are issued by the JP court, or any court, the warrant goes to law enforcement,” he said.

Lange also weighed in on the Precinct 1 commissioner’s race and said he supports incumbent Mike Gardner.

Challengers for the seat include David Shaw, Larry Glenn Robinson and Linda Young Anglley.


Don Stringer

Incumbent Don Stringer faces the daughter-in-law of the man he defeated four years ago for the county commissioners seat in Precinct 3.

Samantha Russell hopes to unseat the incumbent and said she prayed and felt called to seek the seat her father-in-law, Jeff Russell, lost to Stringer four years ago.

She has lived in Odessa almost six years and in Precinct 3 about two years. She is a bookkeeper at Paul Evans Carpet and said key issues include the courthouse, additional jailers, the library and the juvenile detention center.

“I’m running not because I’m a politician, but because I’m a concerned citizen, and I think it’s really important that we have somebody on the commissioners court for Precinct 3 that is going to listen to the voters and fight for the voters and that will get things done and not just … make empty promises,” she said. “I’m a doer. I’m a worker, and that’s who I am.”

Samantha Russell

Stringer said he is a hard worker as well.

Stringer says the commissioners court’s two most important achievements during his first term were starting a planning department to regulate mobile home and RV parks and selling an Oklahoma City company a lease to drill three wells at Schleymeyer Field. He said that decision will make the county-owned airport profitable for the first time in its history.

Precinct 3 primarily lies within the city limits of the City of Odessa, including Schleymeyer Field on the north side of town off the east side of Andrews Highway.

Stringer, the court’s liaison to the airport board, said the county “got a very healthy deposit” 18 months ago from the Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources.

“Our airport has come a long way,” he said. “This project will make it self-sufficient and it will make a profit for the first time.”

Stringer met with a surveyor and appraiser Dec. 13 to identify the pad sites for the drilling rigs.

“Continental is in the final stage of developing that field right now,” he said. “The Federal Aviation Administration required us to have an appraisal done.”

Stringer is a 56-year-old native Odessan who graduated from Odessa High School in 1985 and worked as a well surveyor for Arc Pressure Data before qualifying as a Realtor through Texas A&M University Commerce and joining Trower & Associates 16 years ago. He also attended Odessa College and the University of Texas Permian Basin.

Russell is part of the Aztec High School Class of 2001 in New Mexico, attended San Juan College from 2001-2002, Casper College in 2002 and studied criminology and psychology at American Intercontinental University online from 2011-2012.

Russell put that pursuit on hold when she had her eldest daughter.

“I actually ended up getting my real estate license, and I decided that I was going to go after that,” she said, adding she later went to work at Paul Evans.

What you need to know:

  • Early voting begins Tuesday and ends March 1. Election Day is March 5.
  • Visit the Ector County election page for a listing of times and places to vote: tinyurl.com/4eyvsdex