Change is coming to Tarrant County Precinct 4’s commissioner seat. For the first time since 1987, the county’s fastest-growing precinct, home to the largest Hispanic population in Tarrant County, will pick a new face to represent it.
The impacts of growth, particularly jammed roads and highways, remain among the residents’ top concerns in the northwest portion of the county, which boasts a population of over 531,000. Roads and traffic, economic development, and public safety are vital issues Republican Manny Ramirez and Democrat Cedric Kanyinda have attempted to address while campaigning.
Ramirez won his primary with just over 50% of the votes, defeating Jody Johnson, son of longtime precinct 4 commissioner J.D. Johnson, who announced in June 2021 that he would not seek another term. He is backed by the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, where he serves as the president, and endorsed by several prominent state and local officials, including Mayor Mattie Parker and council members Michael Crain and Leonard Firestone.
If elected, Ramirez would be the first Hispanic commissioner to sit on the Tarrant County Commissioners Court.
“We were almost majority Hispanic, and I guarantee, in 25 years, we probably will be so it’s very unique,” the 34-year-old Ramirez said.
Kanyinda, 36, was the only Democrat to run in the primaries. The precinct has been a Republican stronghold since Johnson won the seat in 1987.
“It bothered me that people like to hang on to a seat, not allowing every citizen the opportunity to serve,” he said, referring to Johnson’s long tenure on the commissioners court.
A business approach to infrastructure
Nestled in the back of a shopping strip off Boat Club Road in Lake Worth is Edge Coffeehouse, a small coffee shop. Inside, manager Rochelle Bekkelund, 39, is working while two customers — Jimmy Wille, 53, and Alex McCraw, 52, — are chatting and enjoying a cup of coffee.
All three people in the coffee shop that slow Tuesday afternoon said they haven’t kept up with much of the local politics, especially at the county level. In fact, all three said they didn’t know much about the county commissioners race and what they do.
What does the Tarrant County Commissioners Court do?
The Tarrant County judge acts as the chief executive officer for the county government and leads the five-member Commissioners Court. The county judge and the four commissioners set an annual budget and property tax rate. The commissioners court is also responsible for constructing and maintaining county roads.
The annual salary for the county judge is $198,475.94; for county commissioners, the annual salary is $188,475.82.
But regardless of how well they know the candidates, one issue keeps coming up.
Infrastructure has not kept up with the rapid growth of the area.
Wille and McCraw, Saginaw residents, both named several roads they see as lacking: US 287, Saginaw Boulevard, FM 156, Saginaw Main and Bonds Ranch Road.
“They’ll put a new neighborhood in, 5,000 homes, and then they’ll build a quarter mile worth of a four-lane road. That’s two lanes on either end and then they’ll wait for development before they pay for the other four lanes,” McCraw said.
“Where’s the infrastructure support? They don’t have it,” Wille interjected.
For Ramirez, infrastructure improvements are not a government-only task but rather a collective effort between business owners and local officials. Thus, he said, a key solution is bringing in businesses through economic incentives to Northwest Tarrant County that can commit dollars to roads and amenities.
“It truly is where the rubber meets the road – literally. You build out the infrastructure that folks use every single day to travel to and from work, to and from school,” Ramirez said. “Because in my opinion, it’s not government entities specifically that build great societies. It’s smart, business-minded folks that have the mind to put their skin in the game.”
Precinct 4 includes parts of 15 cities and 10 school districts, spanning over 265 square miles. Some of the cities like Lake Worth, Saginaw and White Settlement have seen massive development over the years, straining the underdeveloped infrastructure there.
The area also houses Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards, the Lockheed Martin facility and the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, as well as the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Will Rogers Memorial Center.
Tarrant County is trailing behind Dallas County and other major urban metros and called for more investment, Democrat Kanyinda said. But he disagrees that the infrastructure burden should fall on either the businesses or the taxpayers.
“Business-wise, it doesn’t make sense because many businesses that will want to come to our area would prefer other counties or cities that do not have as heavy a burden,” Kanyinda said.
Voters approved a bond in November 2021 that included eight transportation projects in Precinct 4 for a total of $40.2 million
“They didn’t go in before this growth and widen the roads and schools. Now we’re backtracking,” said Bekkelund, the coffee shop manager who lives in Azle.
Latinos vs. 287(g)
While the Texas southern border may seem far away, the effects of state immigration policies have reached the northwest part of Tarrant County. The indefinite renewal of the 287(g) bill in July 2021 means that sheriff’s deputies are allowed to identify undocumented inmates in the Tarrant County Jail and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They do not need to be convicted, just charged with a crime.
For the large Hispanic population in Precinct 4, the bill’s implementation has long been divided among party lines. Kanyinda said it’s not the responsibility of the county sheriff’s office to enforce federal immigration laws.
“We are not federal enforcers of immigration laws,” he said. “The federal government, especially ICE, pays (the sheriff’s office) special checks for our services.”
Tarrant Sheriff Bill Waybourn told the court in 2020 that the county pays the salary of deputies trained as ICE agents and that the federal government pays for travel, boarding, meals and other expenses associated with ICE training.
Ramirez, who served in the Department of Homeland Security’s national gang unit for five years, looks at it as a commitment to public safety and focusing resources on “the most violent and dangerous criminals that are in our society that just so happened to be illegal.” It was never intended to deport everyone who is in the country without proper documentation, he said.
“Any time that you can leverage federal resources to make the community safer, I’m for it,” Ramirez said. “But speaking as someone who is Hispanic, I never saw it as derogatory or discriminatory. And I never saw it administered that way.”
Some supporters of the partnership have acknowledged that some data showing the effectiveness of the bill is lacking. A study on whether this policy has helped ease some pressure on the jail population is needed, Ramirez said.
“I’m not emotionally or morally attached to any position here. If it’s shown to be inefficient, and if it’s not the right thing for Tarrant County, I’m not an ego-driven type of guy, so, if there are more efficient ways to operate, I’m all ears,” he said.
New faces, new ideas
The November election for Tarrant County Commissioner Precinct 4 will bring in a new face to the court regardless of the winner. Kanyinda said it’s nice to see younger people run for office and become involved in local government.
“I decided to run so that the kid like me one day can say, ‘Hey, I can do it. I don’t have to come from money or any other privileged circumstance. Anyone can stand up,’” he said.
Kanyinda previously ran for Fort Worth mayor in 2021, gathering less than 1% of the total votes.
“I didn’t run to win, but I wanted people to know that Tarrant County has a lot of issues,” he said. “It’s not always about winning, it’s about spreading the message and knowing what’s going on.”
Ramirez, who is running for his first elected position, would be the first Latino on the commissioners court if he wins. While he is proud of his heritage, he just wants to focus on doing the job right, he said.
“It is a sense of pride. But at the same time, it doesn’t really affect how I lead and it doesn’t skew anything for me,” he said. “I don’t feel a sense of added pressure to make decisions because I’m Latino — different decisions. I feel pressure to make the right decisions.”