JP candidates seek chance to make local difference
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
In the Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace race, Republican Judge Edna Staudt is pitting her 23 years as judge against Democrat challenger Audrey Amos-McGehee. Staudt is campaigning on that experience, while Amos-McGehee is running on the belief that it is time for a change.
Both believe the position is one where they make a big difference in the communities they serve.
A late-comer to the election on the Democratic side, Amos-McGehee was recruited to fill the spot left vacant by a candidate that moved out of the precinct.
In June, when Democrat candidate Jonasu Wagstaff became ineligible due to a move out of Pct. 2, the party lobbied Amos-McGehee..
“I’ve been asked through the years to run for office and I’ve always said no,” she said. “I’m not a politician. When I learned what the Justice of the Peace does, and what the job entails, it falls in line with my passion for the things I have done as a volunteer.”
Her passion is making a difference in the community.
“I’m a community activist,” she said. “A community activist is boots on the ground and being involved, doing something that has an almost immediate impact on someone’s life.”
Among her volunteer efforts over the years, Amos-McGehee has worked with the Center for Battered Women, the Seedling Foundation, and Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
She enjoys being able to see the immediate results of those efforts, and always walks away feeling like she gained the most.
“I went in with the motive to help somebody, but I think I came out with a lot more, because I benefitted from the chance to bring value and really help someone,” she said. “I felt better.”
She admits that much of what is involved in campaigning is not what she is all about.
“I’m definitely a fish out of water when it comes to campaigning,” she said. “I have only had about three months. Asking for money is not who I am or how I was raised.”
While she sees other candidates campaigning at 100 miles per hour, she feels like she is moving at 35 miles per hour, but the support she has received has made all the difference.
The goal in a shortened race is to get out, share her message, and reach as many people as possible.
“People that care about me have sat me down and said, ‘You can only do what you can do, you can’t worry about what others are doing,’” she said. “I have to be myself and do what I can, relying on faith and working as hard as we can. There are a lot of people out there who trust me and believe in me and that is sustaining me.”
Improving the diversity in the county leadership is a primary goal for Amos-McGehee.
“I have nothing negative to say about Judge Staudt, other than that there might need to be term limits and 23 years is a long time,” she said. “Like the face of America, the faces of the people that are in these areas have changed. Therefore, there needs to be more representation that appeals to and looks like everybody, not just a certain core group. I think that I bring diversity.”
She also applauds Staudt on her successful Teen Court Program, but wants to see it go even farther.
“I think that was an excellent idea,” she said. “However, I believe it is all well and good to have the kids who are doing well in school participate, but I think – and I know it’s voluntary – as judge, I want to go and reach out to the children on the end who are being adjudicated and try to get them involved and get them to look at the other side of this. Everything can be improved upon, and I think I would bring that to the table.”
Being a Democrat, Amos-McGehee knows some may question her resolve on crime.
“I am a Democrat, and I’m not soft on crime, but we don’t believe in bringing the hammer down and ruining someone’s life over the first little thing they do,” she said.
Issues before the court must be answered for and addressed, but Amos-McGehee wants to see it done with more of a focus on those often in difficult situations.
“One program that I would implement is that at least one day a week the court would start hearing cases later in the day, maybe beginning at noon and running until 9 p.m.,” she said. “And one Saturday of the month we will hear cases that day, because working people can’t always get off their jobs.”
More focus on community service, instead of fines and potential jail time, will help people move past their troubles and bring them more into civic engagement, she said.
“I want to lighten the burden on those who have less of an ability to pay, which means that community service comes into play. I want to look at other ways to do community service,” she said, outlining one new program she hopes to establish.
“I know it would take a lot of work to set the program up,” she said, “but I would require them to go to the Williamson County Elections Department and go through the voter registration training. That would be their community service, then they’d have to register at least 100 people. I want to come up with programs where we can give them an opportunity to give back to the community in a way that also makes them feel better.”
Regular town hall meetings to hear what area residents need and want in the community would be a big part of what Amos-McGehee would do, and she intends to use the position to leverage access and her voice for other reforms within the criminal justice system.
“As Justice of the Peace, there are doors that are going to open for me, with people I can talk to and ways I can probably make a change.”
In more than two decades, Staudt has learned that what people want most is to be heard. She said valuing all people is the cornerstone of her court.
“I tell people I love this community, I love the people and I am privileged to serve,” Staudt said. “I tell them I am accessible and that I listen and I use responsible enforcement when I enforce the law.”
Her experience is a plus as Justice of the Peace.
“I have been there and I am experienced and I believe that counts for a lot,” Staudt said.
The balancing act between accountability and assistance for those who need it is the key to running a good court for the community.
“The goal in law enforcement is to get people to be accountable for what they’ve done, and also encourage them in some way to make better decisions so they don’t make the same choices again,” she said. “It is a balance between what it’s going to take to get the person to change the way they make their decisions, and sometimes it is through a hard punishment and sometimes it is through grace.
“We have a standard in our laws of what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “We also have human beings that make choices sometimes that are based on extenuating circumstances, and I think those need to be taken into consideration. At the same time, they still need to be held accountable.”
When Staudt is out campaigning, she said she hears concerns from both ends of the political landscape.
“People are concerned about their continued freedom to express themselves, to be able to work within the governmental system intelligently and to be heard,” she said. “People are concerned that justice would be too hard or that it wouldn’t be hard enough. They fall on both sides. People want to be able to have access to government officials. They want to be able to talk with me, or someone who is in that position.”
The response Staudt gets from people who appear in her court is what tells her she is going about it the right way.
“What I hear from people is ‘I was in your court and you heard everything and you took everything into consideration, and even though I didn’t get everything I wanted I knew you made a good decision based on what you were able to hear,’” she said. “I spend a lot of time listening to people just vent their frustrations. They want to be heard.”
Among the successes Staudt is most proud of are her mentoring and teen court programs.
“When I first saw kids coming through this courtroom years ago, they stood before the bench very depressed, feeling hopeless,” she said of the origins of her mentoring program. “They were in a situation that was making them unhappy. It could have been a divorce, could have been a death, or any number of things. They were acting out in a manner that put them in the courtroom, but I saw more. I wanted to help them get confidence to make it through their life and succeed. They needed someone to listen to them, somebody to let them know they were valuable.”
With nothing in place, she developed her own program, complete with a training manual and DVD and she works hard continually to recruit new mentors.
“I started recruiting at the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club, the churches and everywhere else and said I needed good sound people who are willing to mentor these kids,” she said.
Years later, she is still seeing success after hundreds of kids have gone through the program.
“Invariably, 90 percent of these kids make a turn,” she said. “They realize that number one, they have a life, they have value and life is worth living, and they have someone who is going to walk them through some of the hardest times in their life.”
The teen court program not only helps students who face court, but also creates a place for other kids to get involved in and learn about the judicial process.
“It is a leadership program and I have kids that come every month, twice a month, and I teach them the roles of the judiciary with the help of the YMCA and some attorneys in the area, law enforcement and judges,” she said of the program that is now more than two decades old. “If (student defendants) want to have their case dismissed, they can be a defendant in the teen court. They go and let the teen court set their sentence, they do whatever sentence the teen court assesses on them then they can get their case dismissed.”
In addition to the Teen Court, Staudt has established a program to address the issue of bullying in school and another that touches on suicide.
“It touches on the value and beauty of living, not actually on suicide,” she said. “It touches on encouraging life and a future. That kind of ties into the bullying realm because sometimes those two fit together. It talks about the value of your life, how to treat other people and how to respond when other people treat you how you don’t want to be treated.”