GONZALES — By the time of this publication, Gonzales County will have peacefully and quietly handed over power at the top of its government. That's the way voters have liked it here for decades, with county judges being allowed to stick around to do their job and then move on at their choosing.
The funny thing is that local voters have sided with Texas' most unpopular political party at that spot for quite some time.
It's the rare bird that gets to be elected as a Democratic leader amongst a solidly Republican county, but that's exactly what has happened the past 20 years here. Even though the late 1990s were kinder to Democrats on the ballot than they are now, you could already see trends developing. Republican Lt. Gov. Rick Perry lost the 1998 vote in Gonzales County by four percentage points while George W. Bush sailed to reelection as governor by a hefty 52 points. Call it name recognition or incumbency advantage, but you surely didn't see that spread last November when top Republicans like Sen. Rafael “Ted” Cruz were netting 74 percent of the local vote against the newest toy in the Democrats' box. Heck, no other Republican dipped below 73 percent of the vote.
In 2014, countywide numbers were similar. Most Republicans sailed along with at least 71 percent of the vote or more. But there was that lone Gonzales County Democrat who bested them all, claiming 100 percent of the ballots in his reelection bid. The incumbent county judge ran unopposed, as he did in 2002 and 2006.
And in the two other elections where he had Republican opposition in the general election, it wasn't even close. The only time the judge lost a contest was in the 1998 primary to another Democrat. But, he ended up flipping the script and besting his opponent in the runoff a month later. Such is Texas politics.
Gonzales County Judge David Bird was all smiles last week down at the courthouse, but that's usual for him. It wasn't because it was his last week on the job. No, most folks would probably agree that it is just how the judge is.
“Happy New Year, happy retirement. You're gonna miss me,” chimed County Auditor Becky Weston, who stuck her head in Bird's office just after lunch. The judge accepted her pleasantries and went on for a minute with laughs and smiles. If one were visiting, they wouldn't know that not only was the office of county judge changing hands between men, but political parties as well. Everything looked as normal as it could in an office that does daily business across a large area. It appeared that Bird was ready to stay on the job as long as the law would allow.
A county judge in Texas is referred to as a “constitutional judge,” Bird said. That means he has duties that most people figure a “judge” needs to do: preside over misdemeanor and probate courts; hearing cases on Mondays from the county jail on issues relating to DWIs, marijuana possession, assault, and invalid drivers licenses.
The other part of his job is presiding as the county's chief administrator. It's a full-time duty where Bird runs the commissioner's court on the second and fourth Mondays of the month. He also travels across the county helping with economic development issues of some of the smaller towns and promoting the county when he can. Then there's the business of creating a budget for the county and making sure that all parts of the government are talking to each other.
One of the more impressive acts is that the judge answers the phone personally in his office when needed. That's old-school in a new world. And, he is the holder of a folder full of “master keys” that are used for many county buildings. The only other set is at the fire department. That sounds like a pretty important responsibility.
What has kept Bird aloft during his tenure is likely his ability to listen to the voter. The former Gonzales city councilman and probation officer said that he has rarely received grief for being a Democrat in a solidly red county, which means that voters have been able to look past party identity and focus on the person tasked with the job at hand.
Bird first became interested in running for county judge while councilman. He had interactions with County Judge Henry Vollentine, who himself had served 26 years as judge before retiring in 1998. Bird decided to run that year and took office in 1999.
Bird has presided over a county that was mostly analog and changed to its current digital self in the 2000s. The county got its first personal computer after 9/11 when it was inventorying its emergency readiness equipment in competition for a Department of Homeland Security grant.
“It was really an experience,” Bird recalled. “It was horribly, horribly slow,” referring to the computer.
The judge credits that grant with revamping the county's emergency radio system across departments, which was badly needed. During his tenure, he has overseen the construction of a new jail, purchase and renovation of the Randle-Rather Building for county offices, the start of a new justice of the peace office in Waelder that looks to open next year, and small renovations to the existing courtrooms downtown.
It is the jail project that Bird counts as one of his major accomplishments — as well as one of his shortcomings.
“Right off the bat we had to build a jail,” he said. “That probably was the largest one item that had to be done.”
Like his predecessor, Bird had a jail problem to start off his career in government. The jail that he inherited had been built in 1974 at the start of Vollentine's tenure. It had just 12 “beds” and inmates were being housed outside of the county at a cost to taxpayers. State regulators frowned upon this and ordered Gonzales County to come up with an idea or face sanctions, Bird said.
“I wish we hadn't been under the gun to build a jail like we did and could have built a true, modern complex that included courts and jail complex,” Bird explained. “But that wasn't the case.”
He predicts that the county will need to build a new jail in 10-15 years with a larger price than what they spent on the current jail. Had they the time to think about a full-fledged facility in the 90s, they would be set for quite a while more. Meanwhile, the courtrooms in the court house work but are lacking in certain areas of security and accessibility that some sort of law enforcement center — which is en vogue these days — could offer.
“The old courthouse is a good place to try cases. It's really more of a matter of security and being in a more technologically friendly [building],” Bird said. “Because we are spread out all over town, and it would be nice to have it all in one place.”
When talk of work turned to politics, Bird wasn't shy about chatting up his Democratic leanings. Other politicians have switched parties the past decade to save their political hide, but Bird didn't flinch. It was easier to be a Democrat in Texas in the 1990s, for those creatures still roamed the prairie. But as Texas voters began to tilt conservative, the judge held fast.
“It's just who I am. I tell people it's a family thing,” he said. “And I'm just too kind.”
If you look back on history, Democrats were really the party of conservatism up through the 1960s before presidential candidate Richard Nixon's “Southern Strategy.” Bird understands this, and maybe the reason his appeal to voters all this time. He calls himself a moderate Democrat, which is likely the sauce that county voters have preferred.
“I think the appeal of the Republican mantra of being the conservative party probably has got the population to go Republican. Because when you look at the older Democrats since Republicans left after Reconstruction, I think everyone was extremely conservative in the Democratic Party,” Bird explained. “And I think that Republicans preaching that all of the time appealed to the population that perhaps did not have families that were really wedded to the Democratic Party. I think that's where the switch has been made so easily.”
Bird sees a path for Democrats to win in Gonzales County, and he looks forward to helping out on the party primary level after departing office. He believes that candidates need to be more outspoken in Democratic beliefs and cater to the smaller communities that have seen a larger swing of Democrats voting in gubernatorial election years, like this past one where Rep. Beto O'Rourke nearly pulled off an upset. That grassroots zeal coupled with younger candidates are what he feels will start winning back seats in Texas for the blue team.
“I see these young people that got lots of wild ideas that can't come to fruition because they don't understand how everything works,” Bird said. “But I think some new ideas would be great. And just like Beto — he said some wild things, but he's been in Washington just a few years — he's not really polished yet. But as far as a Democrat contender, he's one of the best money earners the Democrats have seen in recent years. I think he has possibilities. We shall see.”
And that is part of the reason Bird decided to not seek another term as county judge.
“I felt it was time,” he said. “I'm 65, have my Medicare card, felt like it was time for me to step down and let somebody younger [lead]. Very similar to why I think Beto would be all right. I think a younger person will do well here.”
That “younger person” for now is Pat Davis, the Republican who was unopposed in November's election. The longtime Gonzales Department of Public Safety trooper and sergeant took his oath of office at 2 p.m. Tuesday, ushering in a new era of leadership in the courthouse. If history holds, he will be keeping the seat warm until at lease 2039. Regardless, Bird says that the county is in good hands.
Before this chat was concluded, another face popped into the judge's office. It was Leslie, his wife. She was going about her daily duties, and was making sure her husband came home on-time after work. She said she was sad to see him leave office.
“He's such a public servant. He always thinks of the county first,” she said.
The judge recalled many times that she would answer the phone in the middle of the night when he was needed, and she spoke of the times he had to turn around for county business when they were headed out to dinner.
“Now you have no excuses,” she said.
Bird said that the first order of business he was going to tend to the day after leaving the judgeship was to make his wife breakfast then probably head out to his mother's farm. As he put it, he's made quite a mess out there the past 40 years and he should really clean it up a bit. And then, there's the forever work on the house that every man loves to put off.
Two questions remained: Did he have any final words for the paper while still seated as judge?
“[I want to] thank everyone that voted for me to have such a wonderful career as their county judge,” he said.
The last question: Is Bird officially retired from politics?
“I think so. I think I am,” he said, smiling as broadly as ever.
And that there is about as solid an answer you'll ever get from an elected official on the matter.