Speaking before Republican leaders from Williamson County in Texas, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, highlighted his conservative credentials while honoring Bill Fairbrother, the outgoing chairman of the county GOP organization.
"I was the first elected Republican in Williamson County history," Carter said to those gathered for the Williamson County Reagan Dinner on Feb. 18. "That was 1983. And think what we’ve done since Bill Fairbrother has been here. We have become the dominant power in Central Texas for the Republican Party."
But was Carter really the first Republican to be elected in this conservative stronghold north of Austin?
County lore says Carter was first Republican
Emily Taylor, a spokeswoman for Carter, said the congressman, should have said that he was "the first county-wide elected Republican in Williamson County in modern history."
Carter, an attorney, became a district judge in Williamson County in 1981, when he was appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Clements after a new judicial district was created.
He was elected to the post by voters in the county the following year, when he ran unopposed.
Several current and former county and GOP officials interviewed for this fact check agreed that Carter was the first Republican to be elected countywide in modern history.
"It is commonly believed within Republican circles that he was the first Republican elected this century," said Fairbrother, who served as chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party for 20 years.
Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, the presiding judge of the Third Administrative Judicial Region who got his start in Williamson County, said there is no doubt in his mind that Carter was the first Republican elected to office.
"Through the entire history of Texas and the entire South post-reconstruction, everybody was a Democrat," Stubblefield said. "I remember asking my mother when I was a little boy, 'what's the difference between Republicans and Democrats?' and she said that we were all Democrats and the Republicans live up north."
"That's not the whole story, but it was largely true," he added.
We conducted a thorough search of newspaper archives and election returns to verify this claim ourselves.
Historic lection returns from the Texas secretary of state are available through the Texas State Library, but many local races from several years were not listed.
Newspaper archives helped fill in some gaps and offer insights into state political trends, but publication of county-by-county election results was inconsistent at best.
Texas supported Democratic candidates
Like much of the South after the Civil War, Texas was dominated by the Democratic Party. The Republican Party was not established in Texas until 1867, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
After the Civil War, several Democratic incumbents in Texas were removed from office and replaced with Republican leaders by federal military officers occupying the state.
One of these Republicans was A.J. Hamilton, who was appointed to be the state’s provisional governor 1862. Williamson County supported his election in 1869, according to results published in the Texas Almanac.
"The county did vote for a Republican in the 1860s," said Walter Buenger, chief historian for the Texas State Historical Association. "But in reality, (Hamilton) and many who supported him, including a majority of voters in Williamson County, were in the midst of a transition back to the Democratic Party."
While he can’t say for certain (and local election records from this time period are scarce), Buenger said it is also possible that the county supported Republicans in some local elections, especially as the black population in the area started to grow.
"(Black voters) remained Republicans pretty consistently, with some exceptions and variations within particular elections," he said. "The basic divider, as is often the case in Texas politics, is race, as far as I’m concerned."
Even if complete election records were available, Ann Evans, Curator of The Williamson Museum, said it would have been unusual for candidates seeking local office at the time to list a party affiliation at all.
In more recent memory, voters in Williamson County supported Republican candidates at the top of the ticket while continuing to elect Democrats to serve in local office.
In 1972, voters in the county supported President Richard Nixon’s re-election bid and also voted for U.S. Sen. John Tower, the first Republican Senator to be elected from Texas since reconstruction.
In 1980, the county went for President Ronald Reagan.
Locally, Republicans first started running in 1976, according to an American-Statesman story at the time.
When Carter was elected as district judge in 1982, after being appointed a year earlier, he was one of two Republicans elected that cycle.
Rose "Dusty" Gilliam, a Republican, defeated Democrat Margaret Wood and was elected to serve as Justice of the Peace for the 1st Precinct in Williamson County that same year.
Carter said he was "the first elected Republican in Williamson County history."
It’s hard for Carter to say definitively that he was the first Republican ever elected to serve locally because of inconsistencies on early ballots, incomplete records and newspaper reports.
The same year he was elected, another Republican was elected to serve as a Justice of the Peace for the 1st precinct.
We rate this claim Half True.
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context
Phone interview with Chris Davis, Williamson County Elections Administrator, Feb. 26, 2019.
Email interview with Emily Taylor, communications director for U.S. Rep. John Carter, Feb. 27, 2019
Email interview with Deborah Hunt, former Williamson County Tax Assessor-Collector, Feb. 27, 2019
Austin American-Statesman archives, Austin Public Library, accessed March 2019
Austin American-Statesman, "Williamson County race making history," Jan. 29, 1976
Austin American-Statesman, "Candidates plentiful in Williamson County," Feb. 20, 1976
Text Message exchange with Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State, March 4, 2019
Austin American-Statesman, Could winds of political change be stirring in Williamson County?, Nov. 10, 2018
Phone interview with former Williamson County Republican chairman Bill Fairbrother, March 1, 2019
Phone interview with former Williamson County Republican chairman Randy Grimes, March 1, 2019
Phone interview with Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, March 4, 2019
Texas Handbook, Democratic Party, accessed March 4, 2019
Texas Handbook, Republican Party, accessed March 4, 2019
Email interview with Williamson County communication specialist Lauren Gammon, March 4, 2019
Texas Secretary of State, Election Returns, access facilitated via Texas State Library and Archives Commission on March 11 and 15, 2019
Austin American-Statesman, Carter prepares for court position, May 7, 1981
Texas Handbook, Andrew Jackson Hamilton, accessed March 18, 2019
The Texas Almanac for 1870, Election Returns, accessed March 18, 2019
Phone interview with Historian Walter Buenger, March 18, 2019
Email interview with The Williamson Museum Curator Ann Evans, March 19, 2019
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