Deborah Peoples
Mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples giving answers to questions on city issues on stage at the Fort Worth mayoral open forum on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Cristian ArguetaSoto)

After her runoff victory in the 2011 election, Betsy Price went on to become the longest-serving mayor in Fort Worth. The closest anyone came to toppling Price was her 2019 opponent Deborah Peoples, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman favored by former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Peoples attracted almost 42% of the voters in 2019, a result that surprised some in the traditionally Republican-dominated county.

Peoples is on the ballot for the mayor’s office again this year. But this time, she and the other mayoral candidates won’t be up against an incumbent with high name value at the polls.

“The time for career politicians is long past,” Peoples said. “It drives me crazy when we have people who get an office, and they stay there year after year. And they’re not bringing new, fresh, exciting ideas.”

Peoples, 68, is considered a front-runner in the crowded field of 10 candidates. If elected, she would be the first Black mayor and only the third elected female mayor in over 170 years of Fort Worth history. 

Deborah Peoples

Age: 68

Occupation: Retired AT&T executive; chairperson of Tarrant County Democratic Party 

Education: Bachelor’s in speech communication and rhetoric, Texas Woman’s University; master’s in business administration, Texas Woman’s University

Relevant experience: Former vice president at AT&T

Family: Divorced; two daughters, Channing Godfrey and Whitney Peoples

Hobbies: Beekeeping, collecting art

Focused on diversity

She’s running a similar campaign as last time on a platform of equity and inclusion that is being driven by grassroots activism and community participation. 

“I’m not running a high-tech, high-dollar campaign,” Peoples said. “So if you expect slick things for me, you’re not going to get it.”

The Democratic Party machine also is backing Peoples’ campaign. She has received endorsements from several influential voices from within the minority community, including Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks; former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, and Texas State Board of Education member Aicha Davis.

Peoples also has support from organizations like the Tarrant County Central Labor Council, Texas Working Families Party and The Collective, a political action committee representing Black political candidates nationwide.

The mayor’s race follows a series of incidents in recent years that have roiled minority groups in Fort Worth. 

Within the first week of his tenure in February, the new Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes had to fire a police officer who posted racist messages on social media. The death last year of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, caused major uproar and protests that led to curfews and blockades in parts of Fort Worth. In 2019, city police entered 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson’s home, shooting and killing her.

A 2018 report prepared by the Fort Worth Race and Culture Task Force found community members frequently felt systemic and institutional racism and thought the city did not do enough to improve race relations. 

“When one group of people dominate, then you can’t get everybody else’s input. I think there’s a place at the table for everybody,” Peoples said. “It doesn’t matter what race, what religion, what sexual orientation. I just think we have got to be cognizant of that.”

The city desperately needs an uniter who can appeal to all the marginalized groups and represent them, Peoples said. A minority-majority city, Fort Worth currently has slightly less than 40% white population.

“Our leadership needs to reflect that diversity,” Peoples said.

“We need the Basses. They bring services, they bring money, they invest in arts,” she continued. “But we also need great people like the Bakers – they’re people of color. We need the Kelleys. But we also need the Sadiqis, and we need the Ramirezes.”  

Deborah Peoples
Mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples conversing with open forum attendees in Fort Worth on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Cristian ArguetaSoto)

Nonpartisan race?

During the past two years, Peoples remained politically active as the county Democratic Party leader while steadily building more name recognition, extending her reach and trying to broaden her base. 

Peoples, Tarrant’s Democratic Party chair since 2013, organized and attended various community events, including a candlelight vigil for Atatiana Jefferson. When Beto O’ Rourke visited North Texas as part of his senatorial campaign, Peoples rallied for his support. Federal campaign donation records show Peoples has made several donations to Democrats Barack Obama, Joaquin Castro and Kathleen Hicks.

Some in the local political arena say they find Peoples’ party affiliation concerning. The other front-runners in the race are Republicans Brian Byrd and Mattie Parker.

Tarrant County GOP Chairman Rick Barnes said any candidate aligning themselves with the Democratic Party should not be the mayor of Fort Worth.

“This remains an extremely conservative area,” Barnes said. “Fort Worth is a great place to live. And there’s a reason that happens. It’s because of the people we put in office and ask to lead the city and the county. And if that were to change, it changes what everybody knows to be a great place.”

Municipal elections in Texas operate as nonpartisan races. That means the ballots do not include any party tags next to the candidates’ name.

“I would hope that candidates for the mayor of a city the size of Fort Worth wouldn’t categorize (citizens) based on demographics,” Barnes said. “That again, at the end of the tie, they’ve got to serve the whole of the city.”

Business background

Peoples, however, said she plans to represent all of Fort Worth and has the background to work with the business community. She has the experience of being an executive at AT&T for decades. 

She started at AT&T in 1977 in a junior occupational sales position. She quickly was promoted to management roles and retired as a company vice president in 2011.

“People used to think because you got hired, if you are black or brown, you only get hired because of affirmative action,” Peoples said. “They’ve never thought that you might be smart enough.” 

Coming from a working-class family background, Peoples climbed the corporate ladder.

In her executive position at AT&T, Peoples worked to grow revenue for the telecom giant. While still contributing most of her time at the company, she also managed to graduate with a master’s degree in business administration at the Texas Woman’s University.

“I know the need to bring business here and to get things done,” Peoples said. “But I also am Black and live on the east side. I live in the heart of a community that’s a food desert. I bring that knowledge of the business, and the passion and the understanding of what’s going on inside of our communities.”

Deborah Peoples
Mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples answers questions on stage at the Fort Worth mayoral open forum on Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Cristian ArguetaSoto)

Lessons from the past

Learning about the struggles of her community and who overcame them has been a lifelong theme for Peoples.

Her great-grandparents lived in a small town about 70 miles east of Dallas. They had to leave their family land because of fear of persecution by white people, Peoples said. Their 12 children are now scattered across the country – some went to California, some Arizona and elsewhere. Peoples’ grandfather ended up in Odessa, where he opened a barbershop and where Peoples grew up.

Her parents repeated the story to her and her eight siblings many times over the years. They all know the history. Former Dallas Mayor Ronald Kirk said Peoples will inspire Fort Worth residents with her story.

“People of color still have to navigate what opportunities, whether it’s in corporate life, or public life that our white colleagues often don’t even have to think about,” Kirk said. “But, the sad thing is, it’s such second nature for so many of us.”

Kirk became the first Black mayor of a major Texas city when he was appointed the mayor of Dallas in 1995. Kirk has since gone on to serve as a trade adviser to the U.S. government.

It has been 20 years since Kirk left his mayor’s seat in Dallas.

“Fort Worth has broken the mold around what Blacks in public service can do. You can have the debate, who’s the best person for that job?” Kirk said. “And if that person happens to be someone of color and African-American, then they can stand on their merits without any preconceived notions that someone of color can’t manage and lead in a city like Fort Worth.”

Because she’s not facing an incumbent this time, Peoples said she has found organizations and individuals more willing to give endorsements. It should mean more voters will know about her and her stance, she said.

People said she senses Fort Worth is ready for some positive change.

“In Fort Worth, there are some real differences, and people are ready to heal and move this city forward,” Peoples said. “And I believe that I’m able to do that.”

Neetish is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at neetish.basnet@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Neetish Basnet

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He has previously worked as a business reporter at Fort Worth Business Press and Dallas Business Journal. He graduated from University...