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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Funeral will be Friday for former leader Pete Runnels


Last updated 2/14/2023 at 7:18pm

County Judge Carl Thibodeaux presented Pete Runnels with an "Elect Pete Runnels for County Judge" ball cap he distributed when he ran against Thibodeaux for the county judge seat.

Pete Runnels, one of the most colorful local politicians in modern Orange County history, died Saturday at the age of 79. Offices he served in were Orange County judge and Pinehurst mayor.

He was known for his easy-going personality and his quick smile. Besides serving in public office, he worked with local civic groups through the years and he started the annual Pinehurst Labor Day Picnic for senior citizens.

"He was a good guy in everything he did," Orange County Commissioner Kirk Roccaforte said during Tuesday's Commissioners Court meeting. County Judge John Gothia added, "He did a lot of great work for Orange County."

Claybar Funeral Home of Orange is handling his arrangements. Visitation will be Thursday, February 16, froom 6 to 9 p.m. at the funeral home. Services will be 10 a.m. Friday at the funeral home with burial to follow at Orange Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Runnels' political background came from his father, Joseph Runnels Jr., who was Orange County Clerk in 1947-1950. He then was elected as city of Orange mayor in the early 1950s during the days of the "strong" mayor before the city manager system was adopted.

Pete Runnels served as Orange County Democratic Party chairman before running successfully for county judge. He lost re-election in 1982 against James Stringer in the most heated county election during the past half century.

Runnels would run again for county commissioner and as county judge 20 years later against Carl Thibodeaux, losing both bids. Stringer later would endorse Runnels in those races.

Runnels was successful at winning in the city of Pinehurst, where he served several terms as mayor. One stint was in the late 1990s, and then he beat the incumbent mayor in 2012. He held the office until he resigned in 2019 because of health reasons. Altogether, he served as mayor 12 years.

Besides being a politician, Runnels owned several businesses during his career. While county judge, he owned a janitorial service along with the Quarter Deck in the former K-Mart Shopping Center. The Quarter Deck was a video arcade popular with area teenagers in the early 1980s before the advent of home video games. In addition, he once was a franchise owner for Sears, and also sold insurance.

He signed his official name as "Joseph L. 'Pete' Runnels," but everyone knew him as "Pete." He once said his childhood nickname came from a donkey named "Pete."

Pete grew up in Orange and graduated from the old Stark High School before going to Sam Houston State University, earning a degree in business before returning home.

Roy Dunn, owner of The Record newspapers, remembered Runnels as being one of the founders in 1968 of the old weekly newspaper, Opportunity Valley News. Dunn ended up owning the paper outright and later sold it.

Runnels' first try at running for office was for Orange County Democratic chair in the days when only Democrats ran for local offices. Runnels unseated the incumbent chair, lawyer Jim Morris, who was a former district attorney.

Runnels got a job with Orange County Judge Grover Halliburton as an administrator, which included overseeing grants. When Halliburton left office, Runnels became judge and was successfully elected.

One of his projects was the creation and initial development of Claiborne West Park off Interstate 10 between Orange and Vidor.

James Stringer, a former justice of the peace, challenged Runnels in 1982 for the Democratic primary for county judge in a headline-grabbing race that drew accusations being thrown from both sides. Observers in the media called it the "car wars" election.

At the time, Orange County Commissioners Court bought cars, including those for the sheriff's office, from local dealers. Now, most public entities use regional "buy boards" with competitive bidding overseen by regional operators.

When Runnels was judge, the Commissioners Court's car purchases drew stiff competition from local dealers vying against each other. Dunn said Runnels drew the ire of Ford dealer Charlie Wickersham. Wickersham supported Stringer in the election and the four county commissioners supported Runnels.

Pete Runnels

Runnels at one point held a news conference saying he had a tape recording of Wickersham threatening. However, the recording ended before any actual threats were heard. The story goes that when a TV news crew went to Wickersham to get a comment from him, Stringer was hiding in the bathroom of Wickersham's teak-paneled office.

The election was held in May 1982 in the days when each county voting precinct counted paper ballots by hand before delivering them in locked boxes to the county clerk's office. It was nearly 3 a.m. before the boxes were finished, with Stringer coming out the winner. The county then began the search for scanners to count the paper ballots.

Runnels was a lifelong resident of Orange and Pinehurst. He moved in 2019 to live near relatives because of health problems and he died at a relative's residence. Survivors include his longtime, wife, Charmaine.


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