A recent mailer from Fort Worth firefighters illustrates the difficulty of tracing political action committees’ influence on local elections.
That mailer supported Mattie Parker for mayor, but it was not included in Parker’s most recent campaign finance report. Instead, it was in the political action committee’s report, as campaign laws require.
For the same reason, the political action committee’s most recent campaign finance report was not on the city secretary’s website. It was on the Texas Ethics Commission’s.
This scattering of information can be problematic as voters try to discern who a candidate might be beholden to.
“These disclosure laws, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, they are intended to shine a light,” said Brent Boyea, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. “If candidates are receiving large sums of money from one or two or three major sources, we can make an assumption that there’s something in their voting behavior as a candidate, mayor or city council and who is giving the money, but beyond that it just informs voters about the potential or possibility of corruption.”
He said the average voter likely wouldn’t look that information up. In fact, most likely assumed the mailer came from Parker even though it contained the required disclosure stating otherwise.
The mailer in question was paid by the Fort Worth Firefighters Committee for Responsible Government. The group’s campaign finance report shows it paid Metro Mailer more than $41,000 for the ads to benefit Parker.
That was in addition to directly donating to $30,000 to her campaign.
In total, the political action committee spent $136,730 in the past 19 days. Other candidates it supports are Carlos Flores for Council District 2; Michael Crain for Council District 3; Cary Moon City for Council District 4; Gyna Bivens for Council District 5; Jungus Jordan for Council District 6; Leonard Firestone for Council District 7; Kelly Allen Gray for Council District 8, and Elizabeth Beck for Council District 9. It paid Metro Mailer for mailers to benefit some of them, too.
In an interview with the Fort Worth Report, Parker said she was proud of the firefighters’ endorsement and thought they were entitled to their opinion about Dr. Brian Byrd. But she said she understood how voters might find it confusing as it is sometimes difficult to sum up nuanced positions succinctly in a mailer.
“It’s important for anybody running for office to understand the law. When I’m not coordinating the message and can’t be, this is what happens. They are able to voice their concerns about something,” she said.
Parker said the PAC’s mailer on her behalf was different than the mailer Byrd sent saying she was “all hat and no cattle.”
“That’s essentially equivalent in Texas of saying you’re an idiot and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Parker said.
Byrd declined to comment for this story. He earlier provided the Fort Worth Star-Telegram a written response to the PAC’s mailer criticizing his record on council. In it, he wrote that he was looking out for the firefighters and not their union bosses.
Parker told the Report she took issue with Byrd describing them as “union bosses.”
“I would just remind our residents and anybody else that in Fort Worth, Texas, the 440 are all current, full-time firefighters, so the language that they are ‘union bosses’ to me is divisive. They are incredibly hardworking,” she said.
Other political action committees have donated to the mayoral candidates directly.
Records show they have donated $238,000 to Parker, Byrd and Peoples since February. Parker received the most, followed by Peoples and Byrd.
The Collective PAC supports Peoples. According to its website, it helped dozens of Black candidates win election, including Cori Bush, the first Black woman in Missouri to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Team Tarrant PAC supports Byrd. Its most recent campaign finance report on the Texas Ethic Commission’s website shows it gave $3,000 to DFW Conservative Voters PAC and $1,000 to Andrew Piel for Arlington City Council.
Boyea, the UTA professor, said PACs offer advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, they can help cash-strapped candidates and provide more information that could incentivize voters to head to the polls. Typically, city-wide elections have low turnout. On the other hand, PACs often run negative ads.
“One thing I’d point out is that PACs are often ideological. If I’m a very conservative person or a more liberal person or if I’m focused or fixated on labor issues, PACs can help accomplish something that maybe a campaign is less willing to go about,” he said.
Texas prohibits corporations and labor organizations from making campaign contributions of any amount, but there are no contribution limits for individuals or political committees, said J.R. Johnson, general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.