In a campaign mailer, Dr. Brian Byrd claims City Hall is being run by a shadowy network of powerful individuals who take advantage of “corruption.” He refers to them as “downtown insiders” making “backroom deals.”
The negative campaign strategy is turning heads in the race for Fort Worth mayor, a nonpartisan office usually devoid of attacks more commonly seen in state and national races.
“I mean, he’s in the middle of City Hall. So if he hasn’t been able to fix that as a member of the council, he’s kind of pointing the finger at himself,” said Jacqueline Lambiase, department head of strategic communication at TCU.
“It’s blatantly false,” Parker said about the accusations. Parker, who previously served as the chief of staff for Mayor Betsy Price, added Byrd is bringing “Washington D.C.-style politics” to Fort Worth.
“I’m not about attacking other candidates. I’m about casting my own vision,” Parker said. “I think it’s a waste of people’s time. If Dr. Byrd wants to do that, that’s his prerogative.”
Citing unequal treatment by the local news media, Byrd and his political adviser at Axiom Strategies Inc. declined to speak to the Fort Worth Report for this story or provide any evidence for the assertions.
Thanh Ha, a board member of Team Tarrant PAC, said he supported Byrd because of his long service to Fort Worth.
“Through his record and through our discussion, he is one of the most conservative and grassroots type of candidate,” Ha said. “That’s why we support him.”
Byrd’s campaign targeted Parker by name in another recent mailer. It shows a black cowboy hat with a line of text reading, “Mattie Parker is all hat and no cattle.” Parker grew up in a small town in Central Texas surrounded by farms and county roads.
“When I was learning to drive on a dirt road, my grandfather used to tell me, ‘focus on the road and stay out of the bar ditch.’ That is my motto for this campaign,” Parker said. “All the other noise around me, I’m not a part of that.”
Byrd has spent $212,008 on his campaign – the most among the six candidates who filed campaign finance reports April 1.
Of Byrd’s total expenditure, 96% went into consulting, advertising, marketing and mail.
“Negative ads add a dramatic effect that may help some candidates gain name recognition,” Lambiase said. “That might be one reason why someone’s doing it – simply to get recognition for their name. But I don’t know that if it does a whole lot more on being substantive or worthy.”
As Fort Worth grows as a city, negative ad campaigns like Byrd’s likely will be more prevalent, Lambiase said.
Campaign representatives for Parker and the other leading candidate in the race, Deborah Peoples, said they were not planning to launch a negative ad campaign that creates divisiveness among voters.
Promoting political ideology
Byrd went on air in mid-March with the first TV ad of this year’s Fort Worth mayoral race. In the 30-second video, featuring an upbeat audio track and picturesque view of downtown Fort Worth, Byrd described his professional background and pointed out strengths that he believed makes him a viable candidate.
A month later, his messaging style changed when he sent out mailers that juxtaposed him with Peoples, who’s running on a platform of racial equity. The mailer cautioned voters of an onslaught of deadly crimes if Byrd does not win the election. Bryd is “against the ‘defund the police movement,'” the campaign mailer said.
The campaign messages got bleaker in April. A flier paid for by Byrd’s campaign displayed a vehicle engulfed in fire that seemed to imply Fort Worth risks losing safety after the election if Byrd’s political boogeyman comes to power.
“Dishonesty has reached new levels,” Peoples campaign spokesperson Neil Goodman said. “(Byrd’s) campaign is fear-mongering with photos that are hinting to be close to home, and really, they are stock photos from Paris, France, not even Paris, Texas. Voters deserve honesty from their political candidates.”
Byrd has so far paid $120,531 to Axiom Strategies Inc., a Republican political consulting firm based in Kansas City, Mo. He also gave $22,500 to Remington Research Group, a top GOP pollster in Kansas City, Mo.
Jeff Roe, the former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, founded Axiom Strategies in 2005. Roe is known for being ruthless while often formulating aggressive political strategies. Axiom developed Cruz’s brand-building campaign during his 2016 presidential run. The campaign amplified and brought Cruz’s strict immigration and tax-cut plans to the forefront.
According to its website, Axiom undertakes all campaigning efforts for its clients – from buying media space, designing direct mails to producing targeted ad campaigns.
Candidate Steve Penate, backed by several evangelical church congregations in Fort Worth, also is taking an advertising approach more commonly seen in state and national races rather than a local, nonpartisan contest. In a video ad, Penate used clips of last year’s George Floyd protests to illustrate liberal-leaning cities “bending the knee to the pressures of cancel culture and weak leadership.”
“After the kind of presidential elections that we just held, there are lingering effects from that,” TCU professor Lambiase said. “These interest groups that have formed around national and statewide politics inevitably will leach into local politics.”
Candidates positioning themselves on either side of a controversial issue might give them prominence and buzz within a targeted voter bloc, she said.
“The signals that candidates send may appeal to some voters. And may be off-putting to others,” the TCU professor said. “That’s the thing about advertising. You don’t have a lot of space or words that you can use. And so everybody’s looking for a shorthand way to signal to potential voters.”
Highest spender usually wins, not always
After a relatively quiet campaign earlier on, Penate pumped up his campaigning efforts in the last month. Penate posters and signages have popped up in large numbers roadside and on city blocks.
Many political onlookers were surprised to find Penate head-to-head with the top candidates in fundraising and spending. Penate outspent Peoples and equaled Ann Zadeh, a former city planner and District 9 council member.
Parker raised the most money out of the pack during the first three months of 2021. However, Byrd spent almost double the amount that Parker did. Byrd’s war chest is still bountiful, thanks to a $300,100 loan the physician gave to his own campaign.
However, the Parker campaign said it is not concerned about being outspent.
“It depends on how (Byrd’s) spending it,” said Brian Mayes, president of Mayes Media Group and Parker campaign’s consultant. “His direct mail, it has come under some criticism. So I don’t know if that was money well spent.”
Byrd’s campaign mailers featuring the burning car and public safety awareness provoked the ire of the same group Byrd announced he’ll protect.
“We are very concerned that Councilman Brian Byrd would use his position and influence to pressure a police officer or any employee into being put into a compromising position by implying that he is supportive of his campaign,” the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, which has endorsed Parker, said in a press release addressing Byrd’s campaign mailer.
Parker’s campaign has paid $97,000 to Mayes Media Group, which has previously worked as a consultant to Mayor Price and Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams. Peoples’ campaign has spent $3,500 for political consulting services from Next Wave Strategies and $250 for Solomon NI.
The next round of campaign finance reports is due Friday.
The May 1 election is likely headed for a run-off between the top two finishers, in which case, a final campaign finance report will be filed July 15.
“You can spend a lot of money on advertising. But if people don’t like your message or there’s something else that’s amiss, a whole bunch of advertising about that is not going to help you much,” Lambiase said. “So everything has to be aligned well — your key messages, your credibility and your ethics.”