This story is part of a series examining the power of the Latino voice in Tarrant County. Read part one here.

A single adult in Fort Worth must make at least $35,000 a year to have a living wage.

City Council members are paid $25,000 a year.

Although 36% of Fort Worth’s population is Hispanic, they are not represented in similar numbers in elected city government — and some experts, like Chicano studies historian, writer and activist Richard Gonzales, believe issues like the pay of elected officials play a role in that lack of diversity.

“Normally, people who run for office have the money,” he said. “Latinos certainly don’t have the money. Unfortunately, financially, it’s become sort of a burden and hurdle for Latinos and Black people.”

Other local leaders say those factors don’t have as much of an impact and the focus should be on how and whether Latinos vote. 

City Council has only one Hispanic, District 2 council member Carlos Flores.

The math is straightforward: There should be three Hispanic members of council to proportionally represent Hispanic residents in Fort Worth. Local politics, however, is much more complicated. Fort Worth’s Hispanic population is diverse and decades of decisions — about the shape of districts and the pay of council members — has impacted how and why Hispanic voters run for office and go to the polls.

Better pay, better candidates?

Between 1993 and 2005, there were no Latinos on the City Council. Tarrant County College history professor Peter Martínez believes council pay had a role in that.

Carlos Puente served on council but decided not to run for re-election in 1993 because his wife lost her job, Martínez said. At the time, City Council members made $90 a week. 

“If they were paid a livable wage, then perhaps Puente is still a councilman for maybe at least another term, if not longer than that, as opposed to Latinos having absolutely no representation within the city for 12 years,” he said.

In any field, better pay brings in more qualified candidates for a job. It would be the same for City Council, according to Texas Wesleyan University economics professor Gokcen Ogruk-Maz.

How do you calculate Fort Worth’s living wage?

Calculating a living wage can be subjective, Texas Wesleyan University economics professor Gokcen Ogruk-Maz said, but she pointed to a living wage calculator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that many in the field turn to.

The calculation includes food, child care, health care — both insurance and care costs — and transportation. For food, she said, a living wage typically is calculated using the lowest-cost estimate from the Department of Agriculture. 

There are different types of living wages. The living wage of a single adult is different from a married couple with children, or a single parent. 

Single adults working with no children need to make at least $17.03 an hour to live in Fort Worth without any assistance from the government, Ogruk-Maz said. For a 40-hour, per-week job, that adds up to $35,442. That wage does not cover savings, or costs like car repairs, vacations or eating out.

If a child gets added, that living wage increases to $32.85. The living wage is much higher than the minimum wage — which is $7.25 an hour in Texas — or the poverty level, Ogruk-Maz said.

All these costs mean it’s hard for people to serve on City Council because they also have to work full time or have some other form of income.

North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Treviño doesn’t see a problem. His pay is significantly less than in Fort Worth, and the city he represents has only a 22% Latino population. 

As in Fort Worth, the North Richland Hills City Council is designed to be a part-time job supervising a full-time city manager, who runs the day-to-day operations of the city. The city has a Latino mayor and City Council member, despite having a smaller Latino population than Fort Worth. 

“To me, that says that just because you’re Hispanic doesn’t mean that only Hispanics will vote for you,” he said.

Treviño makes $50 a meeting and gets a vehicle allowance and reimbursement on his phone. He thinks it’s dangerous to compare city service to other jobs and ask to pay council more. 

“At that point, you’re going to be having people apply for a job rather than do it as benevolent service to the citizens that they represent,” he said. “For instance, a state (representative) doesn’t get paid a whole heck of a lot to be a state (representative). So, I question why a council member that represents 100,000 people ought to be getting paid.”

Fort Worth’s city’s charter review task force advocated for raising the pay of council members in the May election, arguing serving on council is a full-time job and increasing pay would attract more diverse candidates.

Despite the hurdles, getting Latino representation in city government can still be done, Gonzales said.

City Council member Carlos Flores said he doesn’t think the council pay ballot measure failing hurt representation, but he does think it put it on pause.

Flores served on the charter review task force before he was elected. In 2015, the task force also recommended a ballot measure to increase council pay that failed. He does not believe the city sufficiently communicated to voters about the ballot measure then, he said.

He believes this rang true again in May: The city did not do a good enough job explaining what the council proposed.

Everyone approaches the demands of the job differently, Flores said. He’s an engineer, but it is next to impossible to find part-time work in the field. Flores considers himself lucky because his wife supports him in giving all of his work week to the council.

“Those of us that embark on these jobs do it at a cost to us. Now, that cost isn’t always captured in compensation, but it does help,” Flores said. “…You’ve got to give it your all.”

How do other cities compare?

To read more on how cities across the country similar to Fort Worth have raised pay and increased diversity on city council, read our previous reporting here.

Arlington City Councilmember Raul H. Gonzalez and his fellow council members get $200 a month and he does believe increasing pay helps expand who can run for city council, he said.

However, he can see how raising pay too much, say to $50,000 a year, could lead people to run to make money versus to serve citizens.

“Paying somebody to run, it’s not going to solve the problem,” Raul Gonzalez said. “I don’t believe that.”

Representation in redistricting

Earlier this year, council members were tasked with redistricting the city using new 2020 U.S. Census counts. With the rise of the Latino population in Fort Worth, activists with United Fort Worth and Hemphill No Se Vende fought for a map with more Hispanic opportunity districts.

The efforts resulted in a map with a Hispanic opportunity district, but not the one many residents hoped for. The map council decided on has a district with a Hispanic voting age population of 59%. The district with the highest Hispanic voting age population is District 2, the Northside, with 62%. These districts are high compared to others, where the population ranges from 19% in District 3 to 41% in District 8.

The selected map creates a partial southside Latino majority and combines the neighborhoods of Rosemont and Worth Heights with other Latino neighborhoods to the east. 

But Treviño, of North Richland Hills, doesn’t think opportunity districts or a Hispanic running for a seat immediately equals representation. Latinos won’t vote for someone just because they’re Hispanic, he said.

District 2 Councilmember Carlos Flores listens to an eye care center official at the center’s grand opening on Nov. 8. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Creating districts that give Latinos more voting power is complex because they are spread throughout the city and not just concentrated in certain areas, Flores said. The highest concentration of Latinos live in District 2, which Flores represents. Flores said the next highest concentration would be in District 9, or south-central areas of Fort Worth.

It was not an easy task to approach how to create maps that had more opportunities for Latinos to gain more political power while also keeping the neighborhoods that already exist in mind, he said.

Martínez, the history professor at Tarrant County College, also said the Latino community in Fort Worth is more spread out now. There is an effort to gain more political power for Latinos in neighborhoods like Worth Heights and in the south side of the city.

“Redistricting really contributes to representation of communities and communities are built upon history and history is built upon people moving to segregated cities 100, 150 years ago,” Martínez said.

Flores knows that no electoral result can be guaranteed; an opportunity district just considers the population and examines what is best under the Voting Rights Act for the community.

The Latino population had a massive population gain — a trend across the country — so Flores said it makes sense, based on demographics, for there to be three Latinos on City Council.

“I wish that the numbers reflected more commensurately with the population,” Flores said. “And I say that I wish that because you can’t force an electoral result. Ultimately, it comes to the voters choosing their best representative, whoever that is, right, regardless of ethnicity.”

Raul Gonzalez, of Arlington, said the first issue is getting Latinos to vote. Then, councils can worry about creating maps that make sense.

Some redistricting creates maps that don’t make sense, Raul Gonzalez argued. It’s important to have diversity in city government, but maps should still make sense and not be drawn in ways that separate neighborhoods in efforts to get more Latinos on council.

Martínez, of TCC, said another benefit of the new map could be its loss of focus on the center of the city. Previously, people making maps would try to connect each district to downtown in some way. 

Martínez thinks moving away from that means downtown money will change city leadership.

“All of these districts no longer have that — well, I guess 7 does to an extent — but you tend not to see as much influence from the historical Seventh Street Gang,” Martínez said. “So what do I think that means for the community? I think it will help communities find their own leaders, as opposed to relying on the city to provide leaders for them.” 

What’s the solution?

Getting that representation through voting can be difficult because, writer and activist Richard Gonzales said, voting trends do not match the Latino community.

“Older people tend to vote, more educated people tend to vote and people who have money tend to vote. Latinos are younger, poorer and not as educated, so there’s a correlation there,” Richard Gonzales said. “At the same time, you could do things that would make it more attractive.”

When people who look like you run for office, you are more open to participating in civic life, he said. But in his view, the issue resembles the old adage about the “chicken or the egg.’’ 

“What comes first? Do we get people to vote for us, or do we get people elected that will look like us first?”

Richard Gonzales said one answer might be a combination of both scenarios. He proposes that Latinos run for office, despite the sure loss, and steadily ease the population into voting before any big change can happen.

Martínez thinks early education can help. But, he also believes it shouldn’t all fall on Latinos. Many cities that have Black mayors don’t have predominantly Black populations, such as Dallas, which has a 24% Black population. 

“Anglos rarely support Latino politicians, whether it be city, councilman, mayors, legislators — Anglos historically have been more willing to support African American candidates than Mexican American or Latino candidates,” Martínez said. “That is an issue that needs to be raised as well, as it shouldn’t just be upon the Latino community to elect their leaders that represent them.”

Raul Gonzalez also said Latinos don’t necessarily vote by party, but by issue. Latinos care about family values, religion and hard work, he said. Second-generation Latinos don’t want handouts, he said, they want to work. These issues don’t always fall along party lines.

When Raul Gonzalez was door knocking and campaigning in Arlington, he said, one of the most common responses he got from Latinos was “I’m not going to vote for you just because you’re Hispanic.” To which he would reply, “I’m not asking you to.”

In Richard Gonzales’ opinion, once Latino candidates are elected to council, the question will be whether there is real advocacy or accommodation.

Current Latinos in power “are not impactful for the rest of the community,” he said. “Why is all that power not spreading? Why are we not getting better education, better jobs, better police? Why are we not getting better jobs?”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. 


Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Kristen BartonEducation Reporter

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...

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Cristian ArguetaSotoCommunity Engagement Journalist

Cristian is a May 2021 graduate of Texas Christian University. At TCU, ArguetaSoto served as staff photographer at TCU360 and later as its visual editor, overseeing other photojournalists. A Fort Worth...