It’s difficult to separate Mary Horn from the work she has done in Denton County.
Before she became the county judge, Horn was the county’s tax assessor-collector beginning in 1993. As she tells stories about her time in that office, she sometimes refers to county undertakings from a first-person perspective. As in, “Basically, I was doing for all these jurisdictions everything the appraisal district was, but they were getting charged two dollars there, and I — I say ‘I’ — the county was charging 55 cents.”
Her last 16 years were spent as Denton County judge. Horn’s closest colleagues now playfully call her the queen of Denton County. (There is a replica of the famous Queen Mary ship in her office; there is also a bookshelf sign that reads, “It’s Good to Be Queen.”)
She is no doubt a trailblazer in forming the highly competitive Denton County Republican Party. By most accounts, she is the matriarch of the party here. When she and her husband, Jim Horn, the longtime Texas House representative for Denton County, first dove into politics in the 1970s, virtually no Republicans held any offices here.
“No constable, no nothing,” Horn said.
Jim Horn won his first election, in 1980, back when Denton County was represented by only one House legislator. Today, there are four Texas House districts in the county. Denton County began to turn red after Horn was elected, boosted by new incoming voters in the Carrollton area.
Roughly 10 years after Jim was elected, Mary hit the campaign trail again, reaping the network of volunteers and friendly faces she and Jim had sowed during his campaigns to get her elected as tax assessor-collector. She went on to be appointed in 2002 as the Denton County judge after winning the Republican primary and the Democrat incumbent stepped down to run for another office.
And as Denton County Democrats now seem to be turning the tide, fighting back in these past midterm elections to win Texas House District 65 and a justice of the peace seat in the Carrollton area, Horn is stepping down as the county’s top official.
During her time in office, Horn said she leveraged her marriage to a state legislator to get things done in Denton County. Horn said since she’s been in office the county has not hired a lobbyist to represent Denton County stakeholders among Texas House representatives and state senators. She said she made it a priority to drive down to Austin to herself bend the ears of Denton County-based lawmakers and to testify in committee hearings.
“I’ve been the mouthpiece,” she said. “I like to think I’ve been pretty effective at it.”
Last year, when state lawmakers were battling over the “bathroom bill,” legislation aimed at banning transgender people from using public bathrooms matching their chosen gender identity, Horn was invited by the Texas Association of Business to appear in a radio advertisement lambasting the effort to pass the bill.
“I jumped on it immediately,” Horn said. “I just thought it was a terrible idea.”
She said politicians like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is widely credited with leading the bathroom-bill effort, and Ron Simmons, the District 65 representative who co-signed the bill and who lost in the midterms, have steered the Republican Party too far as they target transgender people.
“A bad idea is a bad idea,” Horn said. “I told Dan Patrick that to his face.”
Horn has never been one to make decisions because someone is upset with her or her opinions.
One of the first things Horn did as county judge was get sued by the Denton County sheriff, then Weldon Lucas. Just before she took office, the Commissioners Court had voted to create a Homeland Security officer position in Denton County in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Just after Horn took office, the Commissioners Court decided to not fund the position, prompting Lucas to sue. Horn said she directed the county to seek a Texas attorney general’s opinion on whether the county, having already signaled it would create the position, therefore agreed to also fund the position.
“Any time there is a request for an AG opinion, I don’t care how simple the question is, it’s going to take six months before you get an answer,” Horn said.
With this in mind, Horn said the commissioners delayed having to do anything about funding the Homeland Security position for months. And when a ruling finally came, Horn said the county was already in its budgeting cycle for the next year. That allowed the commissioners to simply cut the newly created position from the budget altogether.
“We eliminated the position,” Horn said. “Too bad, so sad, the position no longer exists.”
The Confederate soldier monument debate is a textbook case in Mary Horn 101.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Horn said this week during an interview in her office, one of her last before she leaves it on Dec. 31, “but it’s a bigger issue to Willie [Hudspeth] than it is to anybody else.” She uses “Willie,” without referencing his last name, because she has a very publicized, contentious relationship with Hudspeth, who has asked commissioners routinely for many years to remove the statue or do something to acknowledge in an official capacity that it has served as an intimidating reminder of the Confederacy’s divisive history in America’s struggle with racism. “Willie enjoyed the limelight.”
Under Horn’s leadership, the Commissioners Court has made strides in dealing with the lingering Confederate statue question. Commissioners established an official committee to focus solely on what to do about the monument. County officials have been directed to find historic county records about the monument. There have been hours of debate in Commissioners Court, and ensuing news coverage, and dozens of people protesting the statue in open court and on the courthouse lawn. But Horn will leave office this month without the county having physically done anything to the statue’s structure to either remove it or add historical markers with more context of the influence the Confederacy had with slavery and in American culture.
“There’s nothing on that monument that glorifies slavery,” Horn said.
Debate over the Confederate statue will continue. Horn said the county soon will need to pass another bond election to fund new construction projects. New issues will come up. As she leaves office, she hands over the keys to the county to Andy Eads, the current Precinct 4 commissioner who won the county judge seat in the midterms.
Horn’s advice to him and others running the county after her: “Stick to your guns.”