Landgraf: Peaceful, free and fair vote separates us from tyranny

Candidate promotions are seen before a press conference at the Ector County Courthouse Annex on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. (Callie Cummings|Odessa American)
State Representative Brooks Landgraf discusses the importance of a safe atmosphere for politics in Ector County during a press conference at the Ector County Commissioners Courtroom on Friday morning. (Callie Cummings|Odessa American)

Ector County’s top Republicans called a news conference a day after two candidates accused each other of assaulting each other while the pair were campaigning at the Ector County Annex for votes in the GOP primary election.

The Odessa Police Department is investigating allegations that Donna Kelm, who is running for the GOP county chair, and Carmen Wilhite, who is running for Precinct 203, assaulted each other Thursday outside the Ector County Annex Building. Kelm is running against Tisha Crow and Wilhite’s opponent is Ronnie Lewis.

View the Odessa Police Department incident reports here and here.

State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis and County Judge Dustin Fawcett held a news conference at the annex Friday morning and asked all candidates to calm the local mood down and to be deserving of the votes they are asking Odessans for.

Kelm on Friday said she was resting at home per doctor’s orders and Wilhite did not return calls.

Kelm has said her hair was pulled by Wilhite after she touched Wilhite’s shoulder and asked her to stop calling her a Democrat. No charges have been filed against either woman despite local texts being circulated by Crow and her candidates, which includes Wilhite. Wilhite has also been cited with “bribery” for allegedly offering Trump hats for votes.

The local election has pitted Republican against Republican with candidates aligning with either Kelm or Crow.

The allegations come just one night after Facebook stories began circulating alleging Ector County Commissioner Don Stringer became “physically aggressive” with opponent Samantha Russell and Justice of the Peace candidate Steve Brennan during a Republican candidates’ forum.

In an interview Wednesday night, Stringer admitted he lost his temper, but denied getting physically aggressive.

“I am not that person,” he said.

Stringer said shortly before the forum Russell sent out a mass email falsely stating he owes back taxes of $10,000 in order to rile him.

The truth, Stringer said, is that court records show he owes $8,000 on his current taxes and once he files for his homestead exemption he’ll actually owe closer to $6,000.

“She said I owe back taxes. I don’t. I owe current taxes,” he said.

Stringer said he apologized for losing his temper before the end of the forum and he remains remorseful.

Having said that though, he remains sad at the state of affairs now in Ector County politics.

“It is so ugly here and anyone paying attention would understand that even the calmest of people have a breaking point,” Stringer said. “Typically I don’t get excited, but there’s been so much put out there from media that is not true media. I was actually putting my boots on when we got that text message.”

Stringer’s campaign manager and daughter, Kelsey Cavender, said her dad felt like he had to defend himself and was in fight or flight mode.

Russell’s father-in-law, the publisher of Odessa Headlines, Jeff Russell has not been fair in his description of the event, Cavender said. His story was later shared by the Odessa Accountability Project on Facebook.

“I think that they have definitely edited the video to portray what they want the storyline to be and the article also portrays the story that they want,” Cavender said. “They want to paint him as the villain and her as the damsel in distress.”

On Thursday night, the Ector County Republic Party issued a statement on Facebook condemning the “assault of a dedicated campaign worker.”

The statement stated the party is “deeply troubled” and Kelm’s actions were “utterly unacceptable.”

Kelm said Friday she thanked people for phone calls, texts and prayers. “I’m overwhelmed with the support I have received.”

She said the current attacks by Crow and her supporters are par for the course following the attacks on Landgraf, former Mayor David Turner and former Councilman Dewey Bryant.

“I started this campaign with integrity and I will end it with integrity. I plead with all the candidates to stop the bullying and dissemination of untruths…Voters should not be afraid to vote. Men and women in the armed forces have lost their lives to give us the freedom to vote. Please turn those prayers into votes,” she said.

Lewis, through his Ector County Politics Facebook page, reminded people Thursday night that he warned them Wednesday night that Wilhite was “being aggressive and dishonest.”

“Tisha Crow and Jeff Russell held a two-day seminar for her appointed precinct chair on disrupting opponents and subversion,” Lewis wrote. “They’re using their training.”

He wrote he was proud of Kelm for stepping up and running against Crow and asked for prayers for her.

Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis addresses public concerns for safe politics in Ector County during a press conference at the Ector County Commissioners Courtroom on Friday morning. (Callie Cummings|Odessa American)

During Friday’s news conference Landgraf, Griffis and Fawcett also pleaded for an end to this campaign season’s unpleasantness.

Griffis said there has been some discussion of placing deputies at early voting locales but added it should not have to be this way.

He also clarified touching another person, even softly on the shoulder, can be a crime if the person does not wish to be touched. When asked if it is an appropriate response to pull the hair of someone with force after being touched he said OPD is investigating as the incident happened in the city limits.

He also said he is a hugger and again asked local candidates and their supporters to behave.

Fawcett said politics is passion and sometimes folks get carried away but also talked about having expectations of “our community and a vision for our community and how we want to move forward.”

Ector County Judge Dustin Fawcett discusses the importance of a safe atmosphere for politics in Ector County during a press conference at the Ector County Commissioners Courtroom on Friday morning. (Callie Cummings|Odessa American)

He said Odessa is at somewhat of a crossroads, and we need to address the concerns that we have and understand that we need to decide who we are as a community. We need to look ourselves in the mirror, and we need to understand that what we do impacts what our children see, what our voters see, what our citizens see.”

Landgraf asked candidates to look back at the history of the United States.

“George Washington led the fight to break the chains of a tyrannical king sitting on a throne an ocean away, and in so doing charted a course for the American people to cast votes to choose their leaders. In his farewell address, President Washington urged Americans to ‘cultivate peace and harmony with all.’ Yesterday was the 292nd anniversary of George Washington’s Birthday. As West Texans, I think we would be wise to follow George Washington’s advice and cultivate a little more peace and harmony.

“To the candidates: remember that elections are about the voters. Peaceful, free and fair elections are what separates us from tyranny. Violence and intimidation at polling locations is not fighting for freedom. We should all hold ourselves out to be candidates that voters are excited to cast a vote for. Let’s strive to be as good as the people we seek to serve.

“To the voters: this process is yours. This election belongs to you. Again, the foundation of our constitutional republic centers on you and voting, not violence. It is in our DNA as Americans, and as Texans. Don’t let anyone intimidate you or stop you from exercising your right to vote. If you don’t like what you’re seeing, show up and vote.

“The people of this county are good, honest and hardworking people. Candidates and office holders will be a reflection of the people who engage and show up. Every single eligible voter in Ector County deserves an opportunity to cast their ballot in peace and without the fear of being intimidated on their way to the voting booth.”