Voters in a southeast Texas county elected a black, Democratic woman as sheriff while choosing Republican Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, an unusual result in a year of partisan acrimony.
Some voters in Jefferson County ended up crossing party lines to cast their ballots for who they thought was the best candidate in each of the races—defying the practice of party line voting in an election that showed a deep red-blue political divide.
When Zena Stephens takes office Jan. 1, she will join Vanessa Crawford in Petersburg, Virginia, as the only black women sheriffs in the U.S., according to the National Sheriff’s Association.
Stephens credited her win in the sheriff’s race to her long history in the community and to relationships she’s built across political party lines. She said it’s likely that there were Democratic voters who cast a ballot for her but who also voted for Trump.
“There are people in our community who had positive past experiences with me who certainly were Republican. Certainly I got some of those votes,” said Stephens, who defeated retired Beaumont police Lt. Ray Beck.
One of those GOP voters was D’Ann Riggs, a 53-year-old emergency room nurse from Beaumont, who voted for Stephens and for Trump.
“I voted for Zena not because she was black or a woman. I voted for her because I felt she was the best person” for the job, said Riggs.
Erin Landry, 32, an epidemiologist from Beaumont who considers herself a Republican, said she also voted for Stephens as well as for Trump.
Landry said the selection of both Stephens and Trump shows that local voters were able to see past the presidential race and “pick the best representatives for the job, regardless of which party they represent.”
Jefferson County, which is east of Houston near the Texas-Louisiana border, has been a Democratic stronghold for many years. But Jefferson County Republican Chairman Garrett Peel said the GOP has been making inroads in recent years and currently has 20 locally elected officials.
Of the county’s more than 254,000 residents, 34% are black and nearly 20% are Hispanic.
Trump barely edged out Clinton with about 49% of the vote, while Stevens got 51%.
Support for Clinton wasn’t strong as residents—many who are blue-collar workers in the petrochemical industry—were concerned whether her environmental and energy proposals would ultimately have a negative impact on their jobs, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“The appeal of Donald Trump was significant enough that taking a risk to vote for him for some economic change was reasonable,” he said.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, said many of the Democrats who voted for Stephens—and who probably also voted for President Barack Obama in the prior two presidential elections—likely decided not to vote for Clinton.
“Those are people who are saying, ‘I voted straight-ticket Democratic but I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton. I voted for Donald Trump. But I’m supporting the rest of the party,'” Jones said.
The large local African-American voting bloc used its political muscle to rally behind Stephens but wasn’t as enthused about supporting Clinton as it was when Obama was on the ballot, Rottinghaus said.
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Stephens, who is 51 and said she voted for Clinton, began her law enforcement career with the Beaumont Police Department in 1989.
She spent 7½ years with the agency before taking a year off from law enforcement. Stephens then spent about 17 years with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Since 2013, she has been chief of the police department at Prairie View A&M University, located about 50 miles northwest of Houston.
Stephens said she wasn’t thinking about making history when she was elected Texas’ first black woman sheriff.
“Growing up I never saw an African-American sheriff or police chiefs,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a possibility as a kid because I never considered myself to be a police officer or a police chief or a sheriff because I never saw anybody who looked like me in those positions.”