By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
TEMPLE – Like two sparring children, Texas House District 55 candidates Martha Tyroch and Ralph Sheffield won't talk to each other.
But with the April 8 runoff date looming and early voting starting Monday, both Tyroch and Sheffield candidly expressed their feelings about the other, in separate interviews, and answered the accusations posed in their rival's campaign materials.
Each has spent more than 30 years establishing a reputation in the city of Temple, one as a member of the local government during some of the city's most noted years of growth, the other as a small businessman and restaurateur with one of the city's most recognizable spots to grab a bite.
So much for that. Each candidate has condemned the other's use of attack ads and negative campaigning, each insisting that they just want to talk about the issues. But the issues facing Central Texas have not made this the most-talked-about race in the state. As noted in Austin's Capitol Insider, it's the viciousness and sheer malice the candidates express about the other that has garnered the eyes of all.
The April 8 runoff election and the early voting throughout this week will be open to those who voted in the March 4 Republican primary, as well as to those who did not cast a vote. Those who voted in the Democratic primary cannot vote in the runoff.
On March 4, Tyroch and Sheffield emerged from the pack of four GOP candidates vying for the party's nomination for District 55. It's been 18 years since the seat was open, and the four candidates rushed to gobble up the spot when longtime incumbent Dianne White Delisi announced her retirement last year.
And they wanted it badly. Tyroch, the recognized front-runner since the beginning of the race, finished as the top vote-getter with 36.1 percent to Sheffield's 31.1. The next day, Harker Heights' Pearce, who picked up 20.4 percent, openly endorsed Sheffield, citing a similarity in goals for the district while blasting Tyroch's record at a press conference later that week.
After nearly a dozen candidate forums involving the four candidates, Sheffield and Tyroch have yet to face off since the election. Sheffield says Tyroch is afraid to meet him face-to-face to discuss the issues, noting her failure to attend pre-arranged meetings. Tyroch says she simply had prior engagements.
"He hasn't called here (campaign headquarters) once," Tyroch said Friday. "He knows where to find me."
Pearce said Tyroch failed to be consistent in her values, did not represent traditional Republican ideals and inferred that her stance on issues, particularly the Trans-Texas Corridor, were based on what would help her win, rather than what would be best for Bell County.
One week later, fourth-place candidate John Alaniz joined Pearce, asking the 12.37 percent who voted for him to do the same for Sheffield. Like Pearce, Alaniz said Tyroch did not represent his values.
Tyroch said Friday that she doesn't feel those two endorsements will have a significant impact on the runoff. She said that many Alaniz and Pearce supporters have come to her camp since March 4, saying they have no intention of voting for Sheffield. She said several of them have donated money to her campaign as well.
But as much as anything, Alaniz and Pearce cited Tyroch's adversarial nature, and in a debate, they said her normal mode was confrontational rather than open-minded.
Negativity and the TTC
Pearce and Alaniz got their first look at this side of Tyroch when Sheffield attacked her stance on the Trans-Texas Corridor with an 8-by-10 mailer. The two-sided laminated mailer, the front of which has appeared in Sheffield's most recent television spot, shows a road sign that says, "This mile of the Trans-Texas Corridor is brought to you by Martha Tyroch."
That was the first stone cast in the campaign, Tyroch said, holding up a black and white copy she keeps in her office. Tyroch points to that as validation for her own negative campaign material.
"This was the first negative campaign material," Tyroch said. "It was a group of 22 people who came together on a fact-finding committee. There were no decisions made in there. It was, 'Let's get the facts out, and what would best fit (the needs of the community).' It was very obvious from the very beginning that this, the Trans-Texas Corridor, was not good for Bell County. He is misleading voters when it comes to the TTC."
But Sheffield said the mailing wasn't any kind of spin.
"I don't see that as negative campaigning," Sheffield said Saturday. "It just gives you the facts."
While Tyroch was appointed to that committee by the Temple City Council, Sheffield alleges she asked for the appointment, inferring that membership on the committee equates to supporting it. Sheffield has said the committee was formed to promote the TTC throughout Texas, citing the transportation entity's Web site as proof. Tyroch said that assumption is wholly inaccurate.
It's often pointed out by Sheffield and critics that if Tyroch was against the TTC at the time she joined it, why didn't she speak up?
"There was no avenue to do so," Tyroch said. "We were there to haul out the facts ? When you look at the massive amount of money and the massive land grab (the TTC would require), we need to address I-35 and get that paid for."
Tyroch points to her time on the Temple City Council as proof that she never supported the TTC.
"In October of 2005, there was a (TTC) recommendation signed, and it was only signed by the mayor, not the entire City Council," Tyroch said. "He was the only one who signed it, and he only spoke up on his behalf. It was to support the TTC. Only his signature is on there, and he only spoke for himself. That proves in 2005, I was against the Trans-Texas Corridor."
And while she didn't speak up to support or condemn the mayor's proclamation, she said she did not have the option to sign it.
"I was not going to sign it," she said. "I have opposed the Trans-Texas Corridor. It works because it's the record."
And that record, Tyroch said, is something she is proud of, inferring that Sheffield doesn't have an established record of credibility to fall back on.
"I have a record of experience – seven years on the Temple City Council, four as mayor pro tem – and look at Mr. Sheffield's record," Tyroch said, holding her palms out.
The public record
Tyroch referred to a packet of tax documents which have recently surfaced spanning the entirety of Sheffield's legal history. That information was the subject of her recent television advertisement that began running at the beginning of last week, a few days after the content of the packet was made public. There has been much speculation about Tyroch's possible involvement in the collection of that information.
Tyroch laughed at that accusation, saying, "absolutely not."
"I found out about that information on the 22nd day of March at 7:30 in the morning when I went to get my newspaper out of the driveway," Tyroch said, chuckling. "That's how I found out. Have you ever read something you couldn't believe you were reading? I was taken aback."
One of Tyroch's supporters, who requested that he remain anonymous, said he collected that packet of information several months ago. He said no self-respecting businessman would want the kind of lengthy legal history which Sheffield possesses, arguing that the government liens referenced, most recently in 2003, are indicative of a trend of more than 25 years of keeping sloppy finances.
Sheffield held a press conference Wednesday in which he provided documents which demonstrated his compliance with his taxes.
Tyroch said Friday that Sheffield is reckless with his money, and cannot be trusted to handle taxpayers' dollars in Austin. She said that since that information is collected from public record, she has no qualms about using it in her commercial.
"It's in the public record," Tyroch said. "My husband is a certified public accountant. He (owns and operates several accounting branches throughout Central Texas) and knows how to handle his finances ? Just four years ago, the state of Texas had to place a lien on Sheffield's business for not paying sales tax he collected from his Bell County customers ? He has a prolonged history of not being a law-abiding steward of his taxes. We have enough problems in Austin without having someone with his background with a vote in the Texas House."
Sheffield said Saturday that his accountant accepted responsibility for making the mistake, which led to the lien placed on his business in 2003. Sheffield said his accountant paid for the fines, and did so after the error was made known to them by the government. He said mistakes like that happen to small businesses. Sheffield added that Tyroch dramatically misinterprets the data, as evident by her statements on his bankruptcy.
"Back 25 years ago, she claimed three bankruptcies," Sheffield said Saturday. "I had two corporations in my professional name at that time. Those were all looped into one (bankruptcy). That's the way they do those things. It's all the same. I call it a reorganization of my business – that's what they were. Even though it was bankruptcy court, Chapter 11, which is set up for individuals such as myself so we can reevaluate and reorganize your assets ? I was able to regroup, while keep paying my employees, getting paychecks to them, and pay my bills.
"I told my banker I was only willing to do this if I got 100 percent paid off ? It was about a three- or four-year process. That's how long they take. The bottom line is all my creditors got paid, all my taxes are paid."
Tyroch's television commercial states that Sheffield failed to pay his taxes, and he has been bankrupt three separate times. The collector of the information said Saturday that they show proof of 17 separate lawsuits and three bankruptcies, and Sheffield, or his company, is the plaintiff in 11 of those suits.
"We're trying to elect someone to go down to Austin to be our legislator who can manage the taxpayer's money," she said. "He can't manage the payment of his taxes out of his business."
Sheffield said it's easy for somebody to make broad generalities and form accusatory opinions if they've never experienced it for themselves.
"It shows that I have the wherewithal to juggle things when I have to, that I can handle downturns in the economy," Sheffield said. "I'd much rather have someone down in Austin who has been through those cases and persevered."
Contact Justin Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7568