Why both parties are so fixated on a nonpartisan Texas mayor’s raceJune 5, 2021
Republican mayors are close to extinct in big-city America. And there might be one fewer after Saturday’s mayoral runoff in Fort Worth, Texas.
While Democrats hold City Hall in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin, the fifth-largest city in Texas — Fort Worth — is a holdout. Retiring GOP Mayor Betsy Price has held office through a decade of explosive growth that has seen the city’s population add more than 200,000 new residents, bringing it to nearly 1 million people.
The race to succeed her is officially nonpartisan, but the political backdrop is hard to miss: Fort Worth is not only one of the few remaining big cities with a GOP mayor, it’s part of the last major urban county in Texas — Tarrant County — that remains Republican.
What happens in Tarrant County is closely watched, both inside and outside the state. Once a Republican stronghold, Tarrant has seen its GOP margins decline in recent years — President Joe Biden’s narrow victory there in November marked the first time in over a half-century that a Democratic presidential nominee carried the county. If the county continues to move leftward, it stands to affect the balance of power in statewide elections.
“We’ve never had a race that was this partisan,” said Kenneth Barr, the former Democratic mayor of Fort Worth who led the city from 1996 to 2003. “In Texas, you’re not allowed, for city governments, to hold partisan primaries. And this particular election has moved as far in the partisan direction as any we’ve ever had.”
The runoff features Republican Mattie Parker, a former chief of staff to Price, and Democrat Deborah Peoples, a retired AT&T executive, both of whom insist they are running nonpartisan campaigns.
To some extent, it’s true: Parker declined any GOP endorsements in her general election campaign and Peoples backed away from joint events with the national Democratic groups backing her campaign. Central to the contest are questions related to how Fort Worth will change as the city continues to grow — it’s currently the 12th largest city in the nation. The population influx has increased the need for more city infrastructure, and brought public safety issues into sharper focus for voters in light of a rise in violent crime in 2020.
Yet the county Republican Party continues to make calls and knock doors on Parker’s behalf. And Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed her on Wednesday, specifically underlining her support for law enforcement — and contrasting it with Peoples’ record.
For her part, Peoples, a former Tarrant County Democratic chair, has been endorsed by a slew of national Democratic groups and prominent state and national Democrats including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison.
The Collective PAC — which helps elect Black candidates to office — poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in an effort to turn out the city’s Black voters in support of Peoples, who would be the city’s first Black mayor.
Republicans worry that Fort Worth’s rapid growth is not only altering the city’s traditional character and politics but moving it in the same direction as the state’s four largest cities — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Those cities typically power Democratic candidates in statewide elections.
“There’s a great concern here that if you end up with a Democrat mayor, it will change what people know Fort Worth to be,” said Rick Barnes, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.
The ongoing national debate on race and policing has served to heighten the partisan stakes. Republicans have sought to make the contest in part a referendum on Democratic leadership in other cities across the country. Against the backdrop of ongoing conversations about police funding in Austin and the rest of the country, the topic has become the biggest talking point in the final days.
With a Democratic mayor, Republicans argue, Fort Worth would be more susceptible to the scenes of disorder and violence that occurred in some large U.S. cities last summer.
“We see what Democrats have done more to Austin than Dallas, but those two cities [have] Democrat mayors. And then when you add in Houston and San Antonio, people in Fort Worth are just not accepting of letting their city go in that direction,” said Barnes.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Abbott described Peoples’ reform-oriented stance on policing as “along the lines of taking a position of defunding the police.” He and other state Republicans have sought to paint her as an opponent of law enforcement.
While Peoples’ campaign platform calls for reallocation of funds from law enforcement to community policing initiatives, she has eschewed the term “defund the police.”
But her opposition to a taxpayer-funded police budget referendum in 2020 has given Republican critics some ammunition. While a majority of Fort Worth voters passed the Crime Control and Prevention District, a half-penny tax that helps pay for police equipment as well as officers’ presence at special events and in schools, Peoples opposed it, saying that citizens should have more input in how the money is used.
“You can’t deny the fact that she was out there trying to defeat this, that she was on the wrong side of that issue,” said Cary Moon, a Fort Worth city councilmember. “I think that’s probably the larger issue that people see — and they don’t want to defund police.”
Peoples, who has stressed racial inclusion as part of her platform, has referred to herself as a “progressive change-maker.”
“What [Fort Worth] leadership is espousing now does not include the entire population of the city. We’re a minority-majority city,” Peoples said in an interview. “Our biggest issue is ensuring that all of us across the city benefit from this explosive growth that we’re seeing.”
Peoples criticized Parker for accepting the governor’s endorsement, citing the governor’s support of the voting bill put forth by Republicans in the state legislature that would curb access to the ballot for millions of Black, Latino and low income voters.
“This endorsement makes it clear that Mattie Parker will embrace Abbott’s divisiveness as mayor,” she tweeted.
Parker concedes that the pull of national politics has served to intensify the race.
“Some of it’s just what’s happening across the country that seems to translate here, whether it was a problem here or not,” said Parker, who has endorsements from the city police officers’ and firefighters’ unions. “Because Fort Worth grew so fast and we’re now the 12th largest city, sometimes we haven’t always talked about the hard things that a growing city has to talk about.”
Fort Worth’s pattern of voting — it’s elected both Democratic and Republican mayors in recent decades — makes Saturday’s outcome hard to predict. Peoples was the top vote-getter in the May 1 general election but Parker stands to pick up votes from some of the more conservative candidates who were eliminated.
“Anyone who runs for the mayor’s office that tries to run it based on, ‘I’m doing this for Republican or Democrat control’ is going to lose,” said Brian Mayes, a Texas-based media strategist who cut ads for the Parker campaign. “The voters [in Fort Worth] have always just had an independent streak.”