Fort Worth, the last major Texas city to not have a Democrat leading it, finds itself at a political crossroads as it decides which woman will lead it for the next two years.
Will it go with Deborah Peoples, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, and embrace a more liberal ideology? Or will it go with Mattie Parker, Mayor Betsy Price’s former chief of staff, and keep a right-leaning moderate in charge?
Peoples and Parker were the top two vote-getters Saturday. They came out on top of a field of 10 candidates that included two current City Council members, Brian Byrd and Ann Zadeh. This will be the first time two women face off in a runoff to be mayor of Fort Worth.
“Even though this is a nonpartisan election, Deborah Peoples is running the Tarrant County Democrats, and Mattie Parker has a long history as a Republican, and she’s worked for Republicans. In many ways — even though there’s not a party label on the ballot — a lot of informed voters are going to understand who the party players are,” said Rebecca Deen, the political science department chair at the University of Texas at Arlington. “And then there’s also the establishment-not establishment dichotomy.”
It’s now a much clearer race, with distinct lines drawn for the future of Fort Worth. It will likely become a much more negative race as Peoples and Parker drum up their bases to get back out to vote again next month, said Deen and Thomas Marshall, also a UT-Arlington political science professor.
The Peoples-Parker matchup is “probably going to be a little higher profile,” Marshall said. “It would be the first time that an activist Democrat, equity, minority campaign came close to City Hall.”
Both political scientists, as well as leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties, agreed the mayoral runoff will be a proxy race for the future of politics in Tarrant County — an increasingly purple area that has seen recent election results almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Last year, Democrat Joe Biden won Tarrant County and, in 2018, Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried it.
‘When we wake up May 2’
Both political parties see the race as a fight over whether Fort Worth stays red or flips blue like other large Texas cities.
“I think that’s what makes Fort Worth different. Our county leadership is a vast majority Republican. Our city leadership has typically been majority Republican,” Tarrant County GOP chairman Rick Barnes said. “I think what makes Fort Worth such a great place to live and work and do the things that we do is because we put the right people in office.”
Those right people, he said, align with Republican values — and Parker fits that mold, especially when compared with Peoples.
However, Marco Rosas, the executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said the GOP’s grip on local politics is weakening,
“The eyes of Texas are on Fort Worth right now,” Rosas said. “As the last bastion of Republican stronghold, I think people are just waiting to see who they’re going to be able to get.”
The GOP will almost certainly play a role in the runoff because of Peoples, the GOP chairman said. Barnes described Peoples as an inherently partisan figure because she leads the local Democratic Party.
How involved the Republican Party will get in the runoff to ensure Peoples does not take over for Price will depend on Parker, the GOP chairman said.
“We’ll actually work with the candidate themselves at that point and see how they want us involved,” Barnes said. “These are intentionally — or, at least, supposed to be — nonpartisan races, but I don’t think there’s anything as such anymore. We’ve gone well beyond that.”
Rosas agreed with the GOP chairman: Municipal elections are nonpartisan in name only, Rosas said. The Democrats plan to get involved in the runoff now that there is a single Democrat on the ballot, Rosas said.
“When we wake up May 2 and Deborah, or any Democrat, is at the top of the ticket, that’s when the local party steps in and the battle lines get drawn,” Rosas said. “We know who our candidate is. We know where we have to go and get the votes out, and we treat it as any other election.”
Partisanship divides Peoples, Parker
Parker, who has voted in recent Republican primaries and worked for GOP legislators, previously told the Report she is intentionally running a nonpartisan campaign — mirroring her former boss’s strategy.
“It’s not just the morally right thing to do in my opinion, but it also is practical. When you get to City Hall and you have to have five votes on every issue, if you’ve taken your proverbial corner, good luck getting anything done — you just won’t be able to,” Parker said in a March interview with the Fort Worth Report.
Despite her history with Republicans, Parker said she will work across the aisle as mayor.
“It’s about preparation, leadership and experience, and I think I have demonstrated that I have those in spades,” Parker told the Report on Friday.
Price pinned the growing partisan nature of the mayoral contest, in part, on Peoples, whom she beat by almost 14 percentage points in 2019.
“She’s a great gal, but she clearly wanted to make the race very political, and you’re seeing that again this race,” Price told Fort Worth Magazine. “I don’t know who or what’s driving it, but it does worry me because this isn’t a political office.”
Despite the experts’ view of the partisan nature of the runoff, Peoples said Saturday that she also leaves party politics at the door when she talks to people.
“If you notice my campaign has not tried to pander to the right or to the left. We’ve tried to talk about issues. We talked about what I want to do with mass transportation, what I want to do with good jobs and good affordable housing and how I want to partner with the schools and those types of things,” Peoples said in between campaigning on Election Day.
Peoples said conversations she has had with residents often turned to potential problems she might face in a partisan election, she said, as those voices would tell her she’s going to have a tough time running as the Democratic chair.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not, because I’m going to talk issues,’ ” she said.
“Most of the things that impact people’s daily lives are local issues. And so when I talk to voters, they’re not talking Republican or Democrat, they’re talking infrastructure, they’re talking good jobs, they’re talking education. And so I think if you are issue focused, that’s what works,” she said.
Regardless of whether it’s Parker or Peoples, Fort Worth will remain the only major city in the Lone Star state led by a woman.
“For those of us who are interested in having more women, no matter their partisan affiliation, in elected office then that’s a good day,” Deen said.
‘Next friendly voters’
Despite Byrd’s unusually early negative campaign tactics, Deen and Marshall agreed it will likely not affect many voters. Byrd’s voters are closer politically to Parker than they are to Peoples, they said. These voters, Marshall said, likely had Parker as their second or third choice.
“You’re sort of in the position of trying to get the next most friendly voters and bring out the negatives on whatever remaining opponent there is,” he said. “That’s generally the game plan. I expect this race to get much more negative in a runoff — which has not been a strong pattern in Fort Worth.”
Parker is already planning to woo some of her former rival’s voters. In the runoff, she plans to do more targeted ads and thinks she has the qualities needed to court those who voted for other candidates, even those of Zadeh, the District 9 Council member who is a Democrat.
Some voters will likely be out of reach for both Peoples and Parkers. For example, those of Steve Penate, the Real Estate Broker and founder of Mercy Culture Church who ran a deeply conservative campaign for mayor. Deen said his voters were likely Chrisitan evangelicals or people who liked his anti-LGBTQ message.
“He doesn’t win, they don’t vote in a runoff,” Deens said. “I think that’s good news for Parker, so it isn’t necessarily the case that she’s got to get their vote. I don’t know that she gets his votes, but I think she probably would get Byrd’s.”
Still, it will be a steep hill to climb for Parker and Peoples to claim the mayorship. Runoffs typically see low turnout, so it comes down to each candidate keeping their bases fired up and motivated, the UT-Arlington political scientists said.
“Democracy is made by the people who show up,” Deen said. “Even though it is a second vote in an off-year election, these runoffs are really important, and because the turnout is so small, single votes can make a difference. They can really matter. So you stay home at your own peril.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist and Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact Jacob at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter and contact Jessica at email@example.com or via Twitter.