No matter the outcome of the run-off election next month, Fort Worth mayoral candidates Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples committed themselves to help the community navigate through the high-profile trial of a former police officer charged with murdering a Black resident.
In a mayoral debate hosted by Fort Worth Report and KERA on Tuesday, the trial of Aaron Dean for the killing of Atatiana Jefferson became a contentious issue as the two candidates diverged on the role of policing in Fort Worth. The trial is expected to take place later this summer.
“These will be tough moments for Fort Worth, but we have to learn through,” Parker said. “The death of Atatiana Jefferson may never happen again – an incredible scar on the city of Fort Worth. We have a moral responsibility to take that seriously.”
Both candidates offered to work with the police department, faith leaders, local organizations, neighborhood associations and city leaders to learn and educate people on what they can expect from the trial process. However, they differed in their approach and also drew different inferences on the matter.
Peoples would proactively reach out to the community to appeal for justice while asking residents to remain calm, she said. Parker said the emotionally charged event does have residents concerned, but she noted the decision is in the hands of the prosecutor’s office, the district attorney’s office and the judge.
The death of Atatiana Jefferson was an inflection point for many in the city to hold conversations on racial inequalities and minority group’s relationship with the police. The Race and Culture Task Force, created by the City Council, also had recommended establishing a civilian-led police oversight board, which is yet to be acted upon. There have also been calls to reallocate funds in the police department budget to non-police forms of public safety, like counseling, after-school programs and education services.
“I want us to do more of those things that are multidisciplinary and they really allow officers to be better at their jobs to keep people safe but also implore social work and public health workforce, alongside them in some of our most tough situations,” said Parker, who has the endorsement of Fort Worth Police Officers Association. “But, no, I’m not in favor of defunding the police.”
Peoples refuted the assertion, adding that the movement was never about weakening the capacity of the police department in safeguarding the public. She said using the phrase “defund the police” is “fear-mongering” and “race-baiting.”
“I’m not going to go out and use catchphrases to try to incite or rile up the community,” Peoples said. “Instead, I’m going to focus on healing, on unity and community. And you don’t get unity in the community when you come up with phrases like defund the police.”
Alongside policing, the topics discussed during Tuesday’s debate included neighborhood development and public education. Both candidates appeared to hold similar views on the other two areas.
As the COVID-19 pandemic created ripples during the past school year, education leaders fear students face a significant learning loss, setting them back for life. Under such circumstances, the candidates were asked if the city or the mayor has any authority over the school district to make specific changes.
Peoples said investing and supporting public education is vital for the future of the city. The former AT&T executive suggested engagement from the mayor and the city is necessary for crafting a plan in partnership with the school districts.
“We have to partner with the people who have that expertise and that knowledge to make sure that we’re creating an environment so we build successful citizens,” Peoples said.
More than 19,000 students in Fort Worth ISD don’t read at grade level, Parker said. She said the mayor has a “moral imperative” to help students in Fort Worth.
Parker said she is “pro-kid” and has the most experience in public education. She currently serves as a board member for Read Fort Worth and is the CEO of Tarrant To & Through Partnership, a nonprofit initiative that specializes in creating career pipelines for Tarrant County students by connecting them with postsecondary opportunities.
The city and Fort Worth ISD need to devise a solution without pointing fingers at school administrators, the school board or the teachers, Parker said. Parker also presented herself as a proponent of charter schools and giving parents the ability to choose what’s best for their children.
Peoples agreed that parents should have the option to enroll their children at charter schools but said public schools need to remain adequately funded.
“You don’t want to get into this whole issue of the haves and have-nots,” Peoples said. “And, unfortunately, that has been the case in many cases.”
Affordable housing is becoming a major issue in Fort Worth. Both candidates said newer expensive housing units and developments were pushing out people in existing neighborhoods, a process often referred to as gentrification.
A decrease in the tax burden residents face would minimize gentrification in the city, Peoples said. Fort Worth needs to grow its tax base through tourism, business sales and other areas, she said.
Parker proposed drafting a new affordable housing and housing strategic plan, led by the mayor and City Council.
“It works in cooperation with Tarrant County as well, especially in a time we understand we’re going to get historic dollars from the federal government. A one-time funding – what does it look like to invest that into a Housing Trust Fund, working alongside philanthropy that can match those dollars across Fort Worth,” Parker said. “And then working with the community and every neighborhood to understand what housing products they need most.”
As the city grows, Parker said, Fort Worth will look toward building more higher-density buildings, especially inside Loop 820. She added Fort Worth is a young city full of recent college graduates who are not searching for houses with big square footages.
Parker, 37, gave her own example as she shared the difficulties she faced while living in apartments and paying to go to college.
“I was responsible for paying for that hard work,” she said. “I think really what I’ll bring to City Hall (is) understanding what it looks like to move Fort Worth forward in a variety of ways. This is a fantastic city that is positioned for greatness.”
Peoples acknowledged and commended Parker’s story of being a “scrappy, underprivileged kid who went to school on scholarships.” But she said many in Fort Worth face similar challenges today.
“Many people of color, many women, many low-income people struggled to make our story as successful as Mattie’s (Parker) story,” Peoples said. “But we came up against things, we came up against barriers that made us have to work twice as hard to be successful. And that is what I am trying to not have happen in Fort Worth. I want to have thousands of Matties with Mattie’s story.”