First millennial mayor or first Black mayor? Fort Worth voters have a historic choice

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Fort Worth voters will chose either the city’s first millennial mayor or the first mayor of color, making the runoff between Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples a historic race.

Regardless, a woman will continue to lead one of America’s largest and fastest-growing cities.

For voters, the pair offer differing perspectives that both campaigns will need to flesh out before the June 5 election.

Though the local race is nonpartisan, Fort Worth remains the largest city in Texas without a clearly Democratic-leaning mayor. As partisanship increasingly wriggles into local elections, voters will again choose between a moderate Republican and a Democratic stalwart.

In many ways Parker, 37, represents a continuation of outgoing Mayor Betsy Price’s policies. Parker spent five years as the mayor and council’s chief of staff and earned an endorsement from Price, a longtime Republican. She also received support from many prominent Fort Worth residents and both the police and fire unions.

Both Price and Parker are Republicans. Throughout her time in office Price as built herself as a moderate and Parker clearly hopes to achieve a middle of the road image.

Meanwhile, Peoples, the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, appealed to progressives despite doubling down on her executive experience as an AT&T vice president over her party position. The 68-year-old built broad support in a campaign that focused on unity in a diverse city.

Unlike other Texas cities, Fort Worth has notably avoided partisan politics.

That’s largely because in past elections candidates have shied away from clearly ideological policies, sticking mostly to local issues, James Riddlesperger, a TCU political science professor who specializes in Tarrant County politics, told the Star-Telegram recently.

Historically, he said, the mayor’s seat has gone back and forth from people who align either Republican or Democrat, even though voters weren’t checking the box for a party candidate.

But Fort Worth has moved slowly to the left in recent years. Last year city voters chose President Joe Biden over Donald Trump. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a conservative Republican darling, lost to Beto O’Rourke here in 2019.

Fort Worth has developed partisan politics in the last few years, Riddlesperger said, inline with national issues.

“I think that both the polarization in the country as a whole, and the nationalized politics in the 21st century, have transformed things,” he said, adding that some major topics now used to be non-partisan, such as education, policing, and air and water quality. “We are seeing partisan politics creep its way into local politics. Fort Worth has avoided up until the last few years.

Neither campaign devoted much attention to the other during the general election, which saw 10 candidates vying for the mayor’s office. Instead, council member Brian Byrd’s bid offered the most back-and-forth as he sought to separate himself from Parker. Byrd was unable to get more than 15% of the Tarrant County vote, according to unofficial results.

The race saw 65,650 voters between Tarrant, Denton and Parker counties, a significant improvement over turnout in 2019, when just 38,743 people cast ballots.

Of the three, Parker lacked serious name recognition but was able to overcome the hurdle with strong support from Fort Worth’s establishment, said Emily Farris, a TCU political science associate professor who focuses on local politics. Endorsements included members of the billionaire Bass Family, Dee Kelly Jr., a prominent attorney who toyed with running for mayor himself, and Mike Berry, president of Hillwood, the developer behind AllianceTexas.

Though Parker would be among the youngest mayors of a major city if elected, Farris said it appeared she likely wouldn’t bring a substantially fresh perspective to the office. A founding chief executive officer of education nonprofits Fort Worth Cradle to Career and the Tarrant To & Through Partnership, Parker has mimicked Price’s focus on education and early childhood development.

“I don’t think she’s particularly advocating any policies that make her distinct from Mayor Price,” Farris said.

Historically low voter turnout, typically below 10%, has benefited establishment candidates in Fort Worth. If turnout drops for the runoff, it could boost Parker’s position, Farris said.

While acknowledging her connection to Price, Parker has rejected that she would mirror the outgoing mayor across the board.

“We’re a different generation,” Parker said during her watch party Saturday night. “I have a big voice and want to use and think about a different policy and strategy for the city.”

Parker said her time as chief of staff was not only as top aid for Price. She also wrangled council members, she said, adding that she thought she had been a “consensus builder” for members with diverging viewpoints.

If elected Peoples would be Fort Worth’s first Black mayor.

She built solid name recognition in her 2019 bid for mayor. That year was the most contested race Price faced since she was first elected in 2011.

The Peoples camp seemed to have learned from the experience, Farris said, noting that Peoples went beyond a grassroots doorknocker campaign this year.

While other campaigns held in-person events or attended forums, Peoples stayed largely remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She appeared frequently on virtual forums and on weekly Facebook lives, where Farris said she appeared more confident than other candidates.

Though Parker may have appealed to established voters, Peoples harnessed new voters who may be motivated by a particular issue, such as the pandemic. Despite being the county Democratic Party chairwoman, Peoples avoided partisanship and touted her time at AT&T.

“I wonder if she doesn’t feel the need to signal to voters, given that voters already somewhat know of her as the party leader, and her involvement in the community after the murder of Atatiana Jefferson and other things,” Farris said. “She is trying to build a platform that’s a bit larger and more inclusive.”

A Fort Worth officer killed Jefferson in her home in October 2018.

Peoples had stayed away from “defund the police” style rhetoric, saying she supports law enforcement and wants to improve on community engagement.

As election results came in Saturday night, Peoples said she thought voters were looking for a break from the status quo. They saw her not only as the best option for a new perspective but also as someone with significant leadership experience.

In a nod to her 2019 campaign, Peoples pushed a “One Fort Worth” slogan, saying she wanted to unite city while promoting its diversity.

“I’m willing to have a conversation and listen to everybody because I think that’s how we get better,” Peoples said. “That’s why I keep talking about one Fort Worth. We cannot have a leader that is only listening to one group of citizens.”

Shortly after announcing her decision not to run again, Price told the Star-Telegram she believed the next mayor should be ready to tackle Fort Worth’s massive growth and continue to improve on equity.

When Price took office in 2011 Fort Worth barely had 750,000 residents. Now, Cowtown is larger than San Francisco and will likely reach near or above 900,000. Today’s Fort Worth is a balance of two worlds: a diverse city inside Loop 820, with a large number of Hispanic and Black voters, and an increasingly sprawling white suburban city to the north and west.

Price, back in January, said the next mayor needed to be a true unifier.

“I hope that whoever comes in will be open to talking. I think the key is you’ve got to be open and honest about it,” Price said, referring to inequality and racism. “For far too long, not just in Fort Worth but everywhere, people just didn’t want to deal with it — it’s a tough issue. And most of us, probably including me, have been guilty of that.”

City Council races

The race for mayor is not the only runoff in Fort Worth.

In council District 7, where Dennis Singleton is retiring, self-employed Zeb Pent will face whiskey magnate Leonard Firestone. Pent bested Firestone by 5% points in the general, but with 10 in the race, neither achieved enough votes to avoid a run off.

The sprawling district includes historic neighborhoods inside Loop 820 as wells as Fort Worth’s sprawling northern suburbs.

Similarly, a crowded field in District 9, a seat left open with council member Ann Zadeh’s bid for mayor, preventing any candidate from getting the needed 50% plus one to avoid a runoff. There, Elizabeth Beck, an attorney, will face Fernando Peralta, president of the Rosemont neighborhood. Beck took nearly 43% of the vote Saturday.

The district includes downtown, the Near Southside and several Hispanic neighborhoods.

In the east side District 8 race, Chris Nettles led incumbent council member Kelly Allen Gray with 45.87% of the vote late Saturday. The pair will also head to runoff.

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