Kathryn Brown beat cancer twice, so she never considered the old-boys network at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office much of a challenge.
Brown, a 53-year-old sheriff’s sergeant, won the race for Precinct 4 constable on Election Day. But before that, she got the most votes in the Democratic primary, leaving incumbent Stan Ramos out of a runoff, then easily bested her runoff opponent in July with 69 percent of the vote. She will be the first Black woman to serve as constable in Precinct 4, the county’s eastern portion.
Though unprecedented, her path to elected office felt less daunting than previous battles with cancer. Already an ovarian cancer survivor, she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years after starting work at the sheriff’s office. But Brown told herself, “Cancer’s just a word, it’s not a sentence.” And she decided to take the test to become a corporal in the sheriff’s office, the next step above deputy.
“I ended up making my corporal stripes while combating cancer at the time,” she said.
Overseeing a law enforcement unit of more than 70 full-time and reserve deputy constables was never part of Brown’s plans. She worked as a travel agent until the early 2000s. But after 9/11, she realized the impact it would have on her industry and decided to pursue a more stable career. At a job fair, a Bexar County sheriff deputy encouraged her to apply for the department, especially because they needed women.
Brown applied to become a detention deputy and passed her tests easily but didn’t know what to expect from her new job.
“I just knew I needed a job because my travel agency was going under soon,” she said.
In her 19 years with the sheriff’s office, Brown has served on the honor guard, as an administrative officer, and on mounted patrol, and she currently works in the recruiting division. One of her most notable projects: sharing the viral lip-syncing video that sparked a nationwide trend of law enforcement officers uploading their own lip-syncs. She plans to take that experience connecting with the public to her role as constable.
Constables are peace officers mandated by the Texas Constitution to provide security for justice of the peace courts, perform law enforcement duties, and serve civil papers and warrants. Brown said as constable, she hopes “establish rapport” with her constituents, a skill that she said she has honed over the years at the sheriff’s office.
“I have that equal balance of being tough and also having passion,” Brown said.
Fighting cancer twice also helped bolster her resilience, Brown said. When scheduling her double mastectomy, Brown worried that people would judge her, especially in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. But she put that aside, because “no one validates me but me,” she said.
“Just when you think that you have no strength, or you have no faith, or you have no self-love – just having cancer not once but twice will give you a crash course into learning to love yourself,” she said. “Especially with the breast cancer. … It causes you to be a little self-conscious. For me, anyway.”
Victor Quintanilla, a former lieutenant at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, worked with Brown for 10 years before he retired in 2014; she considers him a mentor. He urged her to run for constable, pointing to the precedent set in 2012 when Susan Pamerleau became the first woman elected Bexar County sheriff.
“It’s always been men that have held that office,” Quintanilla said. “Well, guess what, she broke that mold. I said, ‘Door’s open, avenue’s open.’ I suppose it’s time for all this old-school stuff to take a back seat.”
Quintanilla became Brown’s supervisor when she transferred to the booking operations department in 2004. Brown had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had been reassigned to “light duty” while undergoing chemotherapy. There, he witnessed her strength through her treatment, though he also saw her low points, he said.
“Even though she would get discouraging reports back on her health at the time, she would not let it faze her to point to where she was ever going to give up,” Quintanilla said. “She was going to keep struggling. And and I saw that tenacity in her – that she just kept going and going.”
Brown’s older son, 34-year-old Marcus Brown, described her as “unshakeable.” He said he was taken aback when she told him about her constable campaign, since “politics is a dirty game” that did not seem to fit with her cheery personality. But he also was not surprised by her success.
“It always seems so effortless, anytime my mom’s worked hard on something and she’s thrown herself into an arena that she has no prior experiences,” he said. “She just takes it all in stride. Her positivity and her cheering … you never see stress.”
However, significant struggles have marked Brown’s life. She was in her 20s when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Years later when she learned she had breast cancer, her son Marcus, then 19 and living in Houston, moved back in with her to help while she underwent treatment. But it wasn’t really necessary.
“Even though I was there, it was like she didn’t miss a beat,” he said. “I was expecting to be carrying [her] and having to wheelchair her through chemo appointments and all that. And it was like she was so self-sufficient, even at her weakest moment. That was crazy. That whole era of watching her fight breast cancer standing on her two feet was inspiring, to say the least.”
Brown always made her children her first priority, even through her own health struggles, Quintanilla and Marcus Brown both said. Son Matthew Brown, 27, works as a high school counselor in San Antonio, while Marcus now lives in Dallas and works as a content creator for sports website Bleacher Report. She gave both of them a little bit longer of a “runway” to grow up, Marcus said, and both thrived from that parental support.
“Neither one of us has ever been to jail, never had a criminal record, anything,” he said. “And a lot of that is because she had a presence in our life – to know that if there’s anything that we ever needed, my mom had my back in every possible situation.”
Brown’s support for others stretched to her professional life as well, Bexar County Clerk Lucy Adame-Clark said. Adame-Clark met Brown when they were both at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office; Adame-Clark was a civilian employee handling fingerprints as a latent print examiner.
“I knew she was going places and she knew I was going places because we were always helping not only the community, but we were always helping our law enforcement brothers and sisters with, like, a death of [in] a family,” she said. “She was part of the [Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County], I was part of the civilian association. We worked hand-in-hand trying to build that bridge between the civilian law enforcement and detention officers.”
Brown said as constable, she wants to expand public outreach from her office as well as build a system for deputy constables in her office to move up the career ladder. Right now, they have no incentives to grow in the department, she said.
“As a leader, you have to listen to the community but you darn sure need to listen to your babies at home, meaning the officers,” she said. “… My plans are to incentivize them with different ways to go through your career path and different educational options. And get them more involved with the community, so that we can try to bridge that gap and figure out what [the residents’] needs are.”
As for the historic nature of her election, Brown said until she started running, she was unaware that a successful election would make her the first Black woman to serve as constable in Precinct 4. Matthew “Nite” Marshall was the first Black constable elected in the precinct, serving from 1988 to 2004. Travis County just elected its first Black female constable, Tonya Dixon.
“Here we are in 2020, almost entering into 2021, and … a big deal is truly being made of this,” she said. “But for me, if I have to be the first, I will definitely do the best job that I can. I will carry that oath of office with the utmost integrity and perform my duties to the best of my ability.”
Brown will be sworn in on Dec. 31.