- Claire Osborn American-Statesman Staff
The primary race between two Republican candidates for Williamson County judge heated up before it even officially started.
Prior to Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell announcing Dec. 2 that he was running for the job, Round Rock City Council Member Frank Leffingwell, his opponent, said in a news release that the judge had wasted taxpayers’ money by campaigning for months.
Tension continued to build between the two candidates last week as they responded by email to questions about their campaigns from the American-Statesman.
Gravell, defending himself against Leffingwell’s assertion, said that in the past 10 months, his court has “disposed of 11,185 cases, I have signed 1,602 arrest warrants and handled 86 death investigations. The commitment to my office and to the citizens of Williamson County as a dedicated public servant speaks for itself.”
Gravell said he was a “true conservative leader, and unlike my opponent, not an establishment politician with a record of raising taxes year after year.”
Leffingwell said that since he had been elected into office in 2015, Round Rock’s City Council had approved a 1.5 cent increase to cover the operating costs of two new fire stations, add a new assistant fire chief, 10 new Fire Department positions, a public safety training facility, seven new police officers and to pay for “much-needed repairs to neighborhood streets.”
He said last week he had “numerous” examples of Gravell campaigning before he officially announced, including when Gravell sought an endorsement from the Cedar Park Police Association at a candidate forum several weeks ago.
Leffingwell also fired back at Gravell, calling him a “professional politician and a showman.”
“A person who lives off the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars does not qualify as any kind of conservative in my book, especially one with a habit of taking taxpayer-funded trips to places like Reno, Nevada, and Deer Valley, Utah. He even bills the taxpayers for stays in fancy hotels in South Austin, in spite of the fact it’s against county policy.”
Gravell did not respond specifically to Leffingwell’s allegations about trips and hotels but said: “There he goes again.”
“My opponent would rather launch deceptive attacks in an effort to distract away from his own failed liberal record while raising taxes every single year he has been in office. … That liberal tax-and-spend mindset is truly detrimental to Williamson County and one we cannot afford.”
Gravell, 53, is serving his first term as Justice of the Peace Precinct 3. He was named 2017 Judge of the Year by the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association. Before he became a justice of the peace, he spent 22 years as a youth pastor with the last eight years as pastor of Sonterra Fellowship in Jarrell.
Leffingwell, 51, announced his candidacy in October. He is an attorney with his own Round Rock law firm focusing on business law, tax law and estate planning, and he also serves as the general counsel for the Williamson County Republican Party. He is the son of Lee Leffingwell, the former mayor of Austin.
Frank Leffingwell’s law firm was named the Small Business of the Year in 2013 by the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce.
Leffingwell said last week that Gravell’s “lack of experience in business, tax and finance would pose a real threat to the ongoing economic well-being of Williamson County. … I believe that my background, training and education have prepared me to manage a $330 million budget. … I know how to make the hard decisions on budgets, staffing and other issues because I have made them before.”
But Gravell said he and his office staff have received several statewide and national awards for running a “fiscally conservative” office.
“In my current role as judge over the 22nd busiest court in Texas, I make decisions daily that affect people and understand the weight and pressures this position entails,” he said. “If anyone says I’m not a good leader, they obviously have their head in the sand.”
He said he supports law enforcement and first responders in Williamson County. “We have much work to do here at home that entails actually lowering our taxes to offset rising property appraisals, improving mobility and keeping our country safe for our families,” he said.
Gravell is still serving as justice of the peace while running for county judge. The law doesn’t require him to resign because he made his announcement to run less than 13 months before the end of his current term.
Leffingwell said the biggest challenge facing Williamson County is the rapid growth of the population and the strain it puts on infrastructure. “We need greater resources for our law enforcement and first responders, for new and expanded roadways and for other core services that county government exists to provide.”
“We cannot, however, place the burden of funding these core services on the shoulders of homeowners who are already suffering from skyrocketing property appraisals.”
Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis, who has held the position since 2007, is not seeking re-election. The March primary election is March 6. The filing period for the election ends Monday. No Democrats have yet filed for the county judge race.