AUSTIN — The 88th Legislature is spotlighting a significantly retooled Tarrant County delegation in the Republican-controlled Texas Senate, one trying to absorb the loss of longtime Senate powerbroker Jane Nelson.

Five senators, possibly the most ever, are now serving parts of Tarrant County in the upper chamber, dividing representation of the state’s third most populous county between Republicans Kelly Hancock, Phil King, Brian Birdwell and Tan Parker and Democrat Royce West, whose Dallas-based district was extended to include a small portion of eastern Tarrant County.

The delegation is navigating the nearly month-old session with a huge hole in the line-up following the departure of Nelson, who took office on Jan. 7 as Gov. Greg Abbott’s appointee as Texas Secretary of State, the chief election official. Elected in 1992, Nelson served for three decades, ultimately presiding over the state’s purse-strings as chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee. She was one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s most trusted lieutenants and had the reputation as a tough but personable negotiator.

“It’s a deep loss, not easily replaced,” said Bill Miller with the HillCo Partners lobbying firm in Austin. “But if they all work for the greater good, they can restore some of that power that Jane exerted and had over the chamber for a long time.”

In phone interviews with the Fort Worth Report, members of the delegation struck an optimistic note as they outlined individual priorities and looked to the remainder of a session that could be laced with acrimony over how to spend a record $32.7 billion budget surplus

“The good thing is we have money,” quipped West. “The bad thing is we have money.”

Although King and Parker are new to the Senate, they served a collective 34 years as senior members of the House, also Republican controlled, and join multi-term senators Hancock and Birdwell as strong adherents of the lieutenant governor’s Senate agenda. Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, is calling for property tax relief, more aggressive improvements to the electric grid and toughened border controls.

West, a Dallas attorney with 30 years in the Senate, is one of the ranking members of the Democratic minority but has pledged to work with colleagues to address issues confronting Tarrant County as he shoulders his new duties on the western side of the Metroplex.

King, a Weatherford lawyer who represented Parker and Wise counties in the House, seized on an opening to advance to the Senate when Republicans redrew Tarrant County’s Senate District 10 to add rural conservative counties, making it impossible for the Democratic incumbent, Beverly Powell of Burleson, to win re-election. Powell ended her campaign before the election, assuring King of victory as the only major candidate on the ballot.

The redistricting facelift changed the character of a traditionally urban district, prompting Powell and others to charge in a lawsuit that the changes diluted minority representation. But King dismisses suggestions that he is insensitive to the needs of the district, pointing out that he was a Fort Worth police officer for 15 years, grew up in east Fort Worth and raised his family there. 

“We’ve had a long, long history here,” he said. “There’s some difference obviously between the rural parts of the district and the urban areas, but by and large the issues are the same.  People are very concerned about property taxes, they’re very concerned about the increase in crime.”

Of the five districts, only Hancock’s District 9 is enclosed within Tarrant. Parker, who served  Denton County as a House member, replaces Nelson in the Senate and will represent all or part of three other counties besides Tarrant. Birdwell represents 11 counties besides a small part of Tarrant.

Like King, however, all boast Tarrant ties. West was student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington. Parker, calling himself “a Tarrant County boy,” grew up in Tarrant and graduated from Fort Worth’s Nolan Catholic High School. Birdwell, the son of a Fort Worth defense plant worker, was born in Tarrant County and remembers his summer job at Six Flags Over Texas.

Analysts, lobbyists and public officials who have worked with the lawmakers describe the Tarrant contingent as knowledgeable and effective.

“I would be willing to bet we’re probably as experienced in our delegation as we’ve ever been,” said Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare, a Republican who took office in January as the county’s new chief executive.

Birdwell, a retired decorated Army officer who survived life-threatening burns in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, was one of only two senators Patrick picked to chair two standing committees, border security and natural resources and economic development. The border committee appointment puts him at the forefront of the state’s multibillion-dollar offensive to control the flow of drugs and human trafficking across the southern border.

“Gov. Patrick has given me some boulders in my rucksack,” said Birdwell, of Granbury, Tarrant’s senior Republican who is in his 13th year in the Senate. 

For Hancock, the session may offer the North Richland Hills lawmaker a chance to further redeem himself with Patrick after the lieutenant governor removed him as chair of the business and commerce committee in 2021 in a public dispute over legislation stemming from the electric grid repair following a winter storm, according to press reports. 

As a signal that things could be smoothing over with the boss, Hancock was placed on the coveted finance committee and named to chair the veterans affairs committee when Patrick announced his assignments. Along with Parker, chosen as vice-chair, Hancock will be overseeing policies affecting 1.4 million Texas veterans, the most of any state. Fort Worth was chosen last fall for the Tuskegee Airmen Texas State Veterans Home, named to honor the Black pilots who flew combat missions during World War II. Nearly 100,000 veterans live in Tarrant County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to mending relations with the Senate leader, Hancock has also been attentive to his physical health after receiving a kidney transplant from his son-in-law to correct a rare kidney disease.  His health now, he says, is “really good,” as evidenced by a steady regimen of 5-mile runs.

David Montgomery is a  longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the  Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He also served in the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder and McClatchy Newspapers. As head of Media Southwest Freelance, he also reports and writes for freelance clients that include the Fort Worth Report, New York Times, Stateline, Texas Highways and other entities. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri.

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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David Montgomery

David Montgomery is a longtime journalist who has served as an Austin Bureau chief for the Dallas Times Herald, Austin and Washington bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and Moscow bureau...