Bell County Republicans have set their sights on picking up a Killeen-area justice of the peace seat for next year’s election.

Two men — Michael Keefe, a retired Killeen Police officer with two decades of service, and Killeen City Councilman Gregory Johnson — recently filed campaign treasurer appointments, indicating they may be candidates in next year’s elections.

They are seeking to be the Precinct 4, Place 1, justice of the peace — a position that Democrat Daryl Peters current holds. The Bell County Commissioners Court appointed Peters to the seat in March following the removal of his predecessor, Democrat Claudia Brown.

Field forming

Keefe — who owns an Allstate Insurance Agency in Killeen — will run as a Republican. This will be the lifelong Killeen resident’s first time running for elected office.

“I think we’ve kind of seen when you get somebody in there that’s just not really their skill set it creates a pretty difficult learning curve,” Keefe, 59, told the Telegram. “I believe I can offer the citizens of Precinct 4 a very minimal learning curve. I can go in there with the knowledge and experience of 20 years of law enforcement that can serve them well.”

Keefe is a 1978 graduate of Killeen High School and holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Central Texas, now Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen. He has a master peace officer certification from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

“I’m kind of at the point in my life where I’m capable and able to devote more time to community-type service. I’m very involved in the community in different civic groups and organizations,” said Keefe, a member of the Killeen-Heights Rotary Club and Killeen Noon Lions Club. “I never cared about being a politician, never cared about running for any public office, but this particular job really needs a certain skill set, a certain background (and) a certain education.”

Johnson, 37, did not respond to multiple Telegram requests to comment this week.

He is likely to run as a Republican. He served as the secretary of the Bell County Republicans in 2015.

Johnson — who owns and operates several rental properties in Killeen — is in his second term as an at-large councilman in Bell County’s largest city. Prior to his election to the Killeen City Council in 2016, Johnson was on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

Johnson served in the Texas Army National Guard. He was deployed overseas to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Peters, 56, did not respond to a request to comment.

“Well, let’s get through this process first,” Peters said in March, responding to a question about whether he had thought about seeking his first elected term for the seat. “One day at a time. One day at a time.”

As of Friday, Peters had not filed a campaign treasurer appointment — often the first step toward seeking an office.

Local candidates for the 2020 elections will begin filing for a spot on their party’s primary ballot late this year.

A justice of the peace serves as a low-level judge that performs marriages, oversees small claims court, issues eviction notices, Class C misdemeanors, traffic violations and fine-only criminal cases. They also make rulings on causes of death and can order autopsies. Additionally, they set bonds for people accused of crimes.

Parties preparing for race

Both political parties in Bell County are gearing up for the 2020 election.

“The Bell County Democratic Party will launch a vigorous, grassroots campaign to get out the vote for our nominee in the general election,” Democratic Party chairman Chris Rosenberg said. “We anticipate great interest and excitement in the JP Precinct 4, Place 1, race and are determined to keep it a Democratic seat.”

During her time as chairman of the local Democratic Party, Rosenberg guided her party to a pair of victories — this justice of the peace seat and a spot on the Commissioners Court — breaking up the GOP’s one-party control of the county government.

Republican Party chairman Nancy Boston said her party is working to involve more people in the political process.

“We’re having some meetings right now to go on and support our Republican candidates in all their positions,” Boston said. “We just want somebody good in that position, and we’re going to support our Republican candidates.”

Recent history

The Precinct 4, Place 1, justice of the peace seat has had a turbulent past three years.

Brown was elected to the seat in 2016. She defeated 20-year Republican incumbent Garland Potvin with 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent — marking the first time a black woman was elected justice of the peace in Bell County.

Brown would go on to set a national record-breaking $4 billion bond and later set a bond in a case involving her son. These were a few of her actions that led to her ultimate ouster.

In October 2017, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded Brown for setting that record-breaking bond for a Killeen murder suspect. The commission ordered Brown to receive additional education.

A Bell County jury — which included four black women, a black man, and at least two Hispanic women — removed Brown from her position in mid-February. The jury determined that Brown had engaged in official misconduct; was grossly incompetent or negligent; or had developed physical or mental defects since her election.

Brown, 80, is appealing the jury’s decision with the El Paso-based Texas Eighth District Court of Appeals. She wants to regain her position so she can “officially” resign from office.

The Bell County Attorney’s office is arguing that the ousted judge does not have the legal grounds or evidence to appeal the jury’s decision.

After Brown’s removal, the Bell County Commissioners Court appointed Peters to the seat. He was selected from a field of four Democrats. He will serve for the remaining two years on Brown’s term — which ends on Dec. 31, 2020.

The winner of the Nov. 3, 2020, election will begin their term in January 2021.