Campaign for this Texas House seat turns nasty and costly, drawing more than $500,000

The fight for House District 99 is on.

Once again, the contest for this seat has become a marquee battle — pitting two men whose families have been longtime friends — that tips the scales at more than a half million dollars.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has represented this district since 2001 and is seeking another term in office; Bo French, who unsuccessfully ran against Geren two years ago, is back on the ballot.

So far, the fiery fight for this district involves hundreds of thousands of dollars, a lawsuit and peace officer concerns about a fake Facebook page created two years ago.

“The Geren name is an institution in Fort Worth,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an Austin-based online political newsletter. “But this is a pretty anti-institutional period in the Republican Party.”

Geren notes that he bested French by 16 percentage points two years ago.

“I expect to probably win by that margin again,” said Geren, a lieutenant of outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus. “Empower Texas and some others will beat me up as not being conservative enough.

“They tried it before,” the 68-year-old said. “But I think the people in District 99 know me. I think I’ve done a good job.”

French, 48, disagrees.

“One of the main issues is that Charlie tells everyone he is a conservative and is fighting for our conservative values,” French said in a written statement. “Yet, on many important issues this session, Charlie teamed up with all the Democrats to either block or water down major reforms.”

He provided no proof of Geren joining with Democrats.

But he added that he first “ran for this seat because, after years of voting for Charlie Geren, I looked at his record and realized I had been duped. The liberal establishment is in my cross-hairs and I plan on fighting them with a conservative agenda.”

The two men and their prominent families have long run in the same circles; Geren’s parents lived across the street from French’s grandparents.

Some say this battle offers voters now, as it did two years ago, a chance to choose between an experienced lawmaker who knows how to negotiate and a political newcomer promising a more conservative approach.

Geren recently won the 2018 Tarrant County Candidate Fair Straw Poll for this race.

The two now face off in the March 6 Republican primary to determine who will represent the district that stretches from Fort Worth to Pelican Bay and from River Crest to Azle. The winner faces Democrat Michael Stackhouse in the November general election.

At stake is a two-year term that pays $7,200 a year.

Early voting runs from Feb. 20- March 2.

The lawsuit

This race was thrust into the spotlight last year, after French and his wife, Sheridan, filed a lawsuit in December — one week before the filing period for the 2018 election ended — alleging that false accusations of child abuse were made against him during the 2016 primary election campaign.

This lawsuit seeks less than $100,000 from David T. Sorensen, who the suit claims is a “professional political operative” who worked on behalf of Geren last year.

The lawsuit alleges that Sorenson anonymously triggered a Child Protective Services investigation by making false allegations that “Bo French was abusing and neglecting his young children,” which hurt the family, their reputation and likely the political campaign, according to the lawsuit.

Geren said he didn’t know anything about the CPS complaint until he read preliminary court filings about it.

Earlier this month, French sent out an email to supporters, letting them know a judge ruled that Sorenson must testify about the issue by Feb. 23.

“Sorenson’s testimony on the matter will potentially reveal who was involved in this attack on my family, and his lawyers have been working feverishly to delay his testimony until after the March 6th GOP primary election,” French wrote in his email. “My family has been seeking justice through the courts on this matter since June of 2017 and we are very encouraged by (the) ruling.

“At last, this paid political operative for my opponent will have to testify as to what he knows about the malicious and fraudulent attack on my family.”

Less than two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, three North Texas law enforcement groups took French to task for an anonymous Facebook page created during the 2016 GOP primary runoff for Tarrant County sheriff.

At issue was the “Thiefbillwaybourn” Facebook page that made allegations of improprieties during the 2016 runoff between former Dalworthington Gardens Police Chief Bill Waybourn and then-Sheriff Dee Anderson. Waybourn won.

The three groups say evidence shows that the page, which no longer exists, was linked to French.

“Texas law prohibits the impersonation of a peace officer, and Mr. French owes every officer who wears the uniform an explanation for his intemperate actions,” according to the statement by the presidents of the Dallas and Arlington police associations and the Tarrant County Law Enforcement Association.

French has said this issue is a political “ploy” by the Geren campaign.

The incumbent

Geren, owner of the Railhead Smokehouse and president of the LGS Godley Ranch, has represented the district since 2001.

“I have the experience to get things done in Austin,” said Geren, who heads the influential House Administration Committee.

Geren, who has long supported a business-friendly Legislature, often works behind the scenes to move issues forward, most recently last year to gain new funding for colleges and help craft the so-called “sanctuary cities” measure. He’s long touted the need for transparency in government, which is spilling over now to property tax reform.

“I want to be around to see the public school finance system fixed,” Geren said. “And appraisal reform is critical so that we are not taxing people out of their homes. We’ve got to fix that. We need to see that through.”

Some have maintained through the years that Geren — one of the “Gang of Eleven” Republicans who worked with Democrats in 2009 to oust then-House Speaker Tom Craddick from office and replace him with Straus — is not conservative enough.

“I think the people know me,” said Geren, whose campaign website states “never surrender or retreat.”

If re-elected, Geren will be the last of the “Anybody But Craddick” Republicans still in the Texas House.

Geren said he’s been asked by some constituents about the CPS case with the French family. And he said he tells them the truth, that he knew nothing about the issue until documents were filed in court last year.

“If I’d known something about it, I would have fired the guy on the spot,” he said, adding that his campaign is not bringing up the issue this year. “It would not be an issue in this campaign had they not made it an issue in this campaign.

“I’ve never talked to CPS and I’m not going to,” Geren said. “He’s the one who is using it for political reasons. Not (me). And I’m not going to.”

Geren has $314,670 in cash on hand and no outstanding loans, according to campaign finance records filed this year with the Texas Ethics Commission..

His campaign bankroll includes $25,000 from the Hillco PAC; $15,000 from the TREPAC/Texas Association of Realtors; $10,000 from the AT&T Texas PAC; $6,500 from the QPAC, a committee of Fort Worth investment banker Geoffrey Raynor; and $10,000 each from the Good Government Fund and the PSEL-PAC, political action committees run by Fort Worth’s wealthy Bass family.

The challenger

French, a 48-year-old rancher/private equity investor, challenged and lost to Geren two years ago.

At the time, French, who had served as a chief officer of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s tactical training company Craft International, drew attention for ending up in court in 2014 arguing with Kyle’s widow, Taya Kyle, about the future of the company. A lawsuit filed against French and his partner was ultimately dropped.

He said he’s the real conservative in the race and his campaign has knocked on nearly 9,000 doors trying to spread the word.

“Fort Worth is a small town and many of us run in the same circles,” French said. “My hope was that both of us would stick to policy differences so I was saddened at the nasty turn he took with the dishonest attack ads. Then there was the false CPS allegation.

“That is the kind of thing no one should tolerate, even from a family member. So, I am confident when the truth is known, even family members will distance themselves from that kind of grotesque behavior. For me this is not personal. I believe this district wants actual conservative representation, not liberal-lobbyist, special-interest influenced Democrat-lite representation like we have now.”

When asked about his top priorities if elected to this office, French said it would be to “restore conservative representation to HD99.”

French has $220,707 on hand and owes more than $56,000 in outstanding loans, campaign finance records show.

His campaign coffers include $210,000 from Empower Texans PAC, an influential conservative group that has worked for years trying to move the Legislature to the right; $25,000 from S Javaid Anwar, president and CEO of Midland Energy Inc.; $25,000 from the Austin-based New Leadership PAC which is working to oust Straus and his top lieutenants; $1,000 from the NE Tarrant Tea Party PAC; and $5,000 from Kyle L. Stallings, a Midland energy executive.

His political expenses lists several bills totaling nearly $90,000 to the Dykema Gossett PLLC law firm for “legal fees associated to false CPS report by Geren campaign.”

“I spent this money personally and not out of campaign funds,” French said. “This was a political attack and would not have happened had I not been running against Charlie Geren. Should I win, I will be able to reimburse myself for these costs.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

House District 99

Two Republicans — incumbent state Rep. Charlie Geren and Bo French — are facing off for the GOP nomination. The winner faces Democrat Michael Stackhouse in the November general election.

The best way to contact the two candidates:

French — Email: bo@bofrench.com.

Geren — Contact charliegeren.com

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