The party-switchers of Bexar County


Carlo Key

A Bexar County judge elected during the “red tide” of 2010 is switching parties.

Standing at the foot of the Bexar County Courthouse steps, County Court-at-Law No. 11 Judge Carlo Key said Monday he is joining the Democratic Party and will seek reelection as a Democrat in November 2014.

“Make no mistake, I did not leave the Republican Party, it left me,” said Key, flanked by high-ranking Democrats. “My principles have led me to the Democratic Party, and my only hope is that more people of principle will follow me.”

While he’s been mulling the decision for several weeks, it was the recent federal government shutdown that caused Key to seriously consider switching parties.


A native of Marshall, Key, 38, was an attorney before he joined the wave of Republican judges who won seats in 2010, when all but one of the new county judges elected that year were Republicans. Key is a 2002 graduate of the Baylor Law School.

He has pitted himself against the law enforcement community by forbidding testimony that a horizontal gaze nystagmus test – in which an officer uses a pen or finger to track involuntary eye movements — indicates intoxication. This summer, Key learned he would face a challenger in the Republican primaries — Julie Wright, a prosecutor married to a police officer.

His announcement came just days after another Bexar County Republican left the party. Last week, Therese Huntzinger, 55, announced she will run for district attorney after recasting herself as a Democrat. Huntzinger, a criminal defense attorney who could face 15-year incumbent DA Susan Reed in the general election, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for a district judge seat in 1998.

Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Manuel Medina said two other judges who attended a recent Democratic Party event could also make the switch in the near future, and U.S. Congressman Joaquín Castro said he expects more to follow Key and Huntzinger.

“The Republican Party is catering to such a narrow ideological base,” he said, “and many Texans are realizing that the Democratic Party is a better choice. The Texas Republican Party is going backward in respect to Latino issues. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

I tend to agree with Texpatriate that this says more about the state of the Bexar County GOP than it does about the state party. We’ve seen this movie before – it happened here in Harris County in the 90s as the GOP was taking over the judiciary, and in Dallas County after the 2006 Democratic wave. There’s already the usual rumblings on the R side about moving away from partisan elections of judges, which will only grow louder if Bexar and especially Harris have blue sweeps. You already now how I feel about that so I’ll spare you a rehash, I’ll just say again that there was no comparable level of angst during the red tide of the 90s, in Harris and elsewhere. I’ll stipulate that partisan judicial elections are not the optimal system, I’ll freely admit that some good judges are at risk of losing, I just don’t plan to feel sorry for anyone.

By the way, Judge Key has said that he didn’t make the switch for political advantage, but because he felt he “had” to do it. I don’t doubt his feelings about this, and frankly I hope there’s a lot more like him who feel that way, but I do think he’ll be better off as a Dem in Bexar County in 2014 and beyond. Consider it a nice alignment of the personal and the political.

Also of interest is the bit about the challenger to longtime Bexar County DA Susan Reed. This earlier story has some background on Therese Huntzinger.

In 1989, as a young prosecutor, she defied an order from then-DA Fred Rodriguez that she give up her pursuit of a witness-tampering indictment against one of Rodriguez’s friends and political sugar daddies. When Rodriguez responded by firing her, she filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against him and won a settlement from Bexar County.

Her dramatic fight against Rodriguez attracted the attention of “60 Minutes” and the Lifetime Network, which flirted with the idea of creating a movie about her life. The issue also helped Rodriguez’s 1990 challenger, Steve Hilbig, knock off the incumbent district attorney.

When Hilbig took office, he instantly made Huntzinger part of his prosecutorial team.


[DA Susan Reed] faced a serious general-election challenge in 2010 from well-funded defense attorney Nico LaHood, but a race against Huntzinger would present the brassy DA with a whole new set of messaging challenges.

For one thing, Reed wouldn’t be able to argue, as she did with LaHood, that Huntzinger lacks prosecutorial experience. Huntzinger has 13 years of work in the district attorney’s office on her résumé, in addition to 15 years as a defense lawyer.

More importantly, Reed will be unable to deflect criticism of her own record by making the election a referendum on her challenger, as she did in 2010, when she verbally pummeled LaHood over his 1994 bust for aggravated delivery of Ecstasy.

Huntzinger said her roots in the Democratic Party extend back to her grandfather, who was a union leader in the stockyards. But her whistle-blowing crusade against Rodriguez, a Democrat, and subsequent work in the office of Hilbig, a Republican, prompted local Republicans to draft her to run for district judge in 1998.

“I stepped out of my Democratic shoes for that race, I lost, and I’m fitting back into them,” Huntzinger said.

Huntzinger suggests that Texas would be better off with nonpartisan judicial and DA races but adds that she has determined in recent years that the Democratic Party is a “better fit” for her. Huntzinger is open about being a lesbian, and the GOP’s negative stance on same-sex relationships has surely been a factor in her break from the party.

Huntzinger contends that even some Republican loyalists are eager to see a change in the district attorney’s office.

“(Reed) believes that you’ve got to bring your toothbrush to the courtroom for every single case and expect to get hit with a hammer,” Huntzinger said. “Well, there’s more to prosecuting than that.”

That ought to be a race worth watching. In the meantime, I submit to you that regardless of what may be going on in Bexar County, this story is related to these two.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said on Monday he will run to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who announced his resignation earlier this month.

In a press release announcing his candidacy, Toth, a Tea Party conservative, emphasized the need for “conservative advocates” like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz who will “go against the tide and stand for what is right no matter the consequences.”

“As Ted Cruz has courageously demonstrated, simply being a conservative vote is no longer enough,” Toth said.

We’re a ways away from seeing switches at anything but the urban county level, but the more tightly the GOP binds itself to Ted Cruz and his blinkered, unbending zealotry, the closer that day comes. A statement from the TDP is beneath the fold, and BOR, EoW, and PDiddie have more.

Today, joined by Congressman Castro, State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer and Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, Judge Carlo Key announced that he will seek reelection as a Democrat.

His announcement video can be viewed here:

“I refuse to be a member of a party that prefers ideological purity over devotion to the rule of law. Pragmatism has given way to pettiness and bigotry in the Republican Party. That is why I am announcing that I will now run for re-election as the Democratic nominee for County Court 11 in the 2014 election,” said Bexar County Judge Carlo Key. “Justice can only be served without prejudice toward race, color, creed, or whom you choose to love. My principles have led me to the Democratic Party and I can only hope that more people of principle will follow me.”

Judge Carlo Key was born into poverty in the small East Texas town of Marshall. Raised on public assistance by his father who has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, Judge Key was forced to mature at a very young age. By the age of 7, the primary household duties fell upon his shoulders. Judge Key began working at the age of 9 going door to door with a lawn mower and a gas can. From this difficulty, Judge Key learned resilience and compassion for those who are victims of circumstance. These life experiences deeply inform his thoughts as a judge.

Overcoming this childhood adversity taught Judge Key resilience. He graduated seventh in his high school class. With the help of scholarships and financial aid, he enrolled at Texas A&M University in College Station. While at A&M, Judge Key earned his degree and he met the love of his life, his wife, Jaime. Judge Key attended Baylor Law School in Waco and his first job as a professional was as a Bexar County Assistant District Attorney. Then, he went into private practice for seven years where he earned valuable experience by running his own small business. When he was elected in 2010, he was the youngest judge elected to either a county or district bench in the State of Texas.

Since becoming the Judge of Bexar County Court #11, Judge Key has never been overturned and has reduced his active docket by 30%. Judge Key is a firm believer in the rule of law. His experiences from childhood to the courtroom will ensure that all who come to his courtroom will be treated equally before the law and treated with the dignity that they deserve.

“We welcome Judge Key to the Democratic Party. He has proven to be a fair and principled judge. His decision to join the Democratic Party reflects the positive, inclusive vision Democrats have for hardworking Texas families. It’s also not surprising since the Texas Republican Party is now controlled by its most radical wing, alienating millions of Texans.” – Congressman Joaquin Castro

“Carlo Key believes in fairness, equality and justice, and that is why he has decided to join the Texas Democratic Party. Judge Key understands Texan values, and he has seen the harm the extremist Tea Party has caused ordinary Texans. Like many Texans, Key has seen the Republican Party of Texas move farther and farther away from the values that built this great state. Today we welcome Judge Key, and all other Texans who want to join us and unite around common values, fairness, and opportunity.” – Gilberto Hinojosa, Chair of the Texas Democratic Party

“Texans are looking for principled leaders to move their state forward. For far too long, the smallest minds have been making the loudest noise in the Republican Party. I welcome anyone to the Democratic tent that stands for justice and fairness,” said State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer. “We all know that actions speak louder than words, today a Hispanic leader joins the Democratic Party, because when the fanfare around Hispanic Republican outreach is reconciled with the reality of the party’s dogma, pettiness, and bigotry, the choice of which party to support is clear.”

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