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A year after redistricting reshaped the city by creating two new districts, candidates vying to lead a new-look Fort Worth pitched residents on their vision of the city moving forward.

Candidates for mayor and council districts 4, 7 and 11 gathered March 29 at the Texas A&M Law School downtown to discuss their priorities and answer questions posed by the community. The forum was cosponsored by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Fort Worth Report, KERA and civic engagement group Steer FW

The May 6 election will result in an expanded City Council, adding two additional representatives to the dais. District 10 was formed in far north Fort Worth to account for rapid population growth, while District 11 in southeast Fort Worth creates a new Hispanic-opportunity district.

Who’s running for a council seat in Fort Worth?

The Fort Worth Report gathered a list of all council candidates in the May Election. Click here to see who’s running for your vote. 

When voters head to the polls, they’ll also be casting votes to fill other key positions across Tarrant County, including school boards, community college districts, and other special governing bodies. 

The Fort Worth Report will have another forum March 30 for Fort Worth ISD Board of Trustees, Tarrant County College Board of Trustees and Tarrant Regional Water District board candidates.

Mayoral forum

Candidates for mayor described their motivation for running. All of the challengers mentioned a desire for change at City Hall while Mayor Mattie Parker said she feels her job, which she began about a year and half ago, is not done.

Debates over whether to allow short-term rentals in neighborhoods dominated City Council meetings throughout 2022. Neighborhood groups both for and against short-term rentals spoke at length on the issue, which ultimately led to the city voting to keep the rentals illegal in residential neighborhoods. 

Mayoral candidate Jennifer Castillo, who works in real estate, said the debate over short-term rentals comes down to protecting property rights. 

“My take is that we should allow people to do as they please with their properties,” Castillo said. “If they choose to rent it out, if they choose to generate revenue from their property, we should allow them to do so.” 

Mayoral candidate Adrian Smith said he believes the issue of short-term rental regulation should be put on the ballot for voters to decide, rather than council members.

Mayor Parker said while she supports personal property rights, residents have spoken up with clear concerns about short-term rentals, particularly those owned by outside investors. The debate is not over, she said.

“Candidly there was a time in the beginning where we thought we had an opportunity to delineate between owner occupied and investor owned STRS,” Parker said. “… But unfortunately, there was a Fifth Circuit opinion out of New Orleans that prevented us from doing that.” 

Have you registered to vote?

The Fort Worth Report put together a guide on how to make sure you can vote in the May election. The deadline to register to vote is April 6. 

Plans to bring a streetcar system to Fort Worth in the early 2000s were stopped by council members, who cited cost concerns as the primary reason for abandoning the transportation proposal. Now, residents frequently lament the lack of public transportation in Fort Worth outside of the bus system. 

Mayoral candidates agreed that increasing the city’s transportation capacity is essential as Fort Worth continues to grow and expand. But they differed on how to move forward with transportation infrastructure and funding. 

Mayoral candidate Kenneth Bowens Jr. said he’s in favor of funding public transportation in Fort Worth because it’s an important aspect of development.

Castillo voiced concerns that current transportation systems aren’t financially viable and can’t support themselves. Parker said, ultimately, there will need to be more funding from the state to improve transportation infrastructure in Fort Worth. 

Smith said plans for a streetcar will be at the bottom of his priorities. Instead, the city should focus on strengthening existing transportation infrastructure and making sure people underserved by those systems receive better service. 

The mayor of Fort Worth will also have to contend with a growing council body. For the first time in Fort Worth’s history, there will be 11 elected representatives on the City Council. Mayor Parker has emphasized the need for compromise and agreement among council members during her time as mayor. 

“I don’t always agree with my fellow council members, but the important thing is consensus and cooperation wherever there are times when the mayor has to make an incredibly difficult decision,” Parker said.

Mayoral candidates discuss their vision for Fort Worth at the March 29 candidate forum. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Castillo isn’t convinced expanding the council was the right decision. She said she’s heard concerns from residents about the growing dais, which she said would be a waste of money when resources could be allocated in more urgent places, like public safety and infrastructure.

“So my concern would be allocating your resources to the proper places instead of putting more people on council,” Castillo said. 

Smith said it’s most important to involve residents in council decision-making, regardless of whether every council member is in agreement. Council members are elected to be the voice of the people, he said, and he’d work to make sure they’re heard. 

“My approach to business is listening and being transparent,” Smith said. 

District 4 forum

Both candidates in District 4 described themselves as focused on faith and family. Candidate Charles Lauersdorf, a combat veteran, said he is focused on public safety while Teresa Ramirez Gonzalez is focused on mental health concerns. 

As Fort Worth continues to grow, so do its traffic woes. This is especially true in north Fort Worth, where commute times on Interstate 35W can take up to 90 minutes to get from the core of the city to the Alliance job center. 

District 4 candidates offered several solutions around improving mobility in the area. 

Lauersdorf said he believes in positive growth that is done responsibly.

“I think whenever it comes to traffic on the highways, I think our city leaders need to be engaged with TxDOT staff and leadership there to make sure that we’re getting the resources we need,” he said.

Gonzalez said infrastructure is a long-term concern, and it won’t be solved overnight. 

“There’s other issues that are slightly more important,” Gonzalez said. “We have juvenile detention centers above capacity.”

District 4 candidates Charles Lauersdorf and Teresa Ramirez Gonzalez speak at the March 29 candidate forum (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

District 4, which sits mostly east of I-35W, also hosts multiple school districts, including Eagle Mountain and Keller ISDs. The District 4 candidates said the city plays an important role in helping those schools — and their students — succeed.

“It’s a partnership, right?” Lauersdorf asked. “It’s not just the City Council or school districts or water boards. It’s everyone who has a stake in our community, everyone in this room as well.”

Gonzalez said she’s able to work with anyone, including public education leaders.

“I raised my children with education first,” she said. “And I’m a Christian. I’m a conservative, I am a Republican. I’m going to be able to work with everyone… but the most important part of this is suicide. (Child) suicide is up 300%.”

The most recent class of City Council members has been criticized for restricting opportunities to speak at council meetings. Both Gonzalez and Lauersdorf agreed it’s important to listen to residents – but differed on how far that listening should go. 

“If you have the same voice that keeps coming back time and time again, and all they have is just simply attacks … then I think we need to prioritize those who actually have something to say,” Lauersdorf said. “Because otherwise we spend all that time saying the same things over and over.”

Gonzalez disagreed. 

“I will make sure that I hear everyone … And I do not get my feelings hurt,” she said. “I don’t think we should exclude anyone or talk down to anyone. If someone’s irate, just listen to them.”

District 7 forum

District 7 continues to be one of the city’s fastest-growing, mostly because of residential growth in the far north reaches of the district, which stretches from Interstate 30 in far west Fort Worth to the I-35W and U.S. 287 split near Saginaw. The District 7 candidates emphasized preserving quality of life in Fort Worth. 

The reputation for “Cowboys and Culture” Fort Worth has cultivated is embodied by District 7. It’s home to the Cultural District, with big ticket venues like Dickies Arena and longtime attractions like the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. 

To support those institutions, District 7 candidate Caleb Backholm said he’d simply tell people about Fort Worth’s culture, and encourage them to keep it that way.

“Fort Worth has a unique culture that is different from most of the big cities in the country,” Backholm said.” Different than Dallas just 30 miles to the east. And I think it’s important to keep that. A lot of people come here and stay here because of it, the culture of it.” 

Candidate Jason Ellis also said he believes in Fort Worth’s culture, but he doesn’t want to spend any money on it. Instead, he wants to lower property taxes.

“Let’s talk about responsible budgets,” he said. “You want to talk about culture. Let’s talk about responsible budgets and spending the money in the right places. I believe in our culture. It’s here. That’s great. I’m definitely all about that. But I want to save money. I don’t want to spend any money on the arts or cultural system.”

Candidate Macy Hill said supporting Fort Worth’s culture and the arts community pays dividends through tourism revenue. 

“It’s our job to help maintain the streets, the infrastructure, to drive tourism and address economic development,” she said. 

District 7 candidates speak at the March 29 candidate forum (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

District 7 also hosts historic Lake Worth, which is a popular recreational destination for residents and visitors to Fort Worth. In recent years, the city has emphasized the importance of preserving open, undeveloped land around the lake. 

Hill said Lake Worth is a great asset to the city, and its preservation is essential. 

“I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we protect that area,” she said. “I’ve spoken with several residents in the area, and they’re concerned about the work over there.”

Backholm said preserving park areas is a quality-of-life issue.  

“They don’t want to lose what they moved here for or maybe they grew up in it, either way. They don’t want to lose what they’re here for,” he said. 

Ellis said he’s an avid fan of the outdoors, and protecting those spaces helps ensure that District 7 remains a good place for families to live. 

“As long as we can create a place that is a clean, safe city, people want to move here,” he said. We’ve done a great job. We’re one of the largest cities and we got to keep it that way but part of keeping it a clean and safe city.”

District 11 forum

The most competitive City Council race heading into May is in District 11, where five candidates are vying for the seat. Candidates spoke about their deep roots in the community and emphasized the importance of charting a path for the new district, which straddles I-30 in east Fort Worth and stretches northeast past Texas 360, south of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. 

District 11 was created as a Hispanic-opportunity district through the redistricting process in 2022. With a large Hispanic population, residents have expressed concerns about the ability of the newly elected council member to communicate with Spanish-speaking constituents.

Candidate Ricardo Avitia spoke in both Spanish and English to those gathered at the forum, explaining his background as a first-generation American and his understanding of the needs of the Hispanic community in the district.

“I understand the person firsthand, the experiences of working class Americans in this community,” Avitia said.

Candidate Tara Maldonado Wilson also addressed the crowd in both Spanish and English, and said she wants to make sure everyone in the community is heard.

“There are louder areas of District 11 that will have no problem getting representation, it is those who have been shut out without a voice that really need someone speaking on their behalf,” she said.

District 11 candidates Jeannette Martinez and Tara Maldonado Wilson speak at the March 29 candidate forum. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Candidate Jeanette Martinez said she speaks both Spanish and English.

“Frankly, if you do elect me for this position, I can reach all corners of this district,” she said. “I will provide materials and any type of communication in both languages.” 

Candidate Rick Herring said that, despite not being fluent in Spanish, he’ll serve all constituents equally by hiring a bilingual district director and ensuring city resources are translated into both English and Spanish.

“In addition to that, I would point out that we have representatives on the council now that represent highly concentrated areas where language may be a barrier,” Herring said, and he hasn’t seen that barrier keep council members from representing their constituents.

At the same time, residents have concerns about predatory investors buying homes in residential neighborhoods. 

Avitia said it’s important to recognize that residents are also property owners, and should be respected when speaking out against development and investment in their neighborhoods.

“We do know that in Tarrant County 50% of properties purchased in 2022 were purchased by investors and developers,” Avitia said. “There is definitely an issue with that, as we have a growing population.” 

District 11 candidates Ricardo Avitia and Rick Herring speak at the March 29 candidate forum. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Herring said predatory investment can take different forms, including short-term rentals run by outside entities. 

“(District 11) is a district made up of working class and middle class neighborhoods,” he said. “And I believe the best way to protect those neighborhoods from predatory investors and other activity is to strengthen those neighborhoods, protect them, help them to grow, help them develop the way they want to and create strong neighborhoods.”

Martinez said protecting the integrity of neighborhoods is a top priority for her. 

“I believe that communication is bringing in all the stakeholders, those individuals that are leaders in the community, that may not be part of it,” she said. “Just working with them to be vigilant of any type of undesirable developments … working with people, communicating and being there for them every day. “

Maldonado Wilson said she’d work to help younger residents become first-time homebuyers, so predatory home flippers can’t hurt the neighborhood by snapping up available housing. 

“So I think that it’s important that we’re educating people and letting them know about community and other resources,” Maldonado Wilson said. “So that they can stay in their homes so that they’re not becoming a target of these predatory homebuyer corporate entities that are trying to come in and get these homes at bottom dollar.”

Editors note: This story was updated March 30 to reflect which school districts fall inside of District 4.

Missed the candidate forum? Here’s where to watch the recording

The forums were open to the public and livestreamed on the Fort Worth Report’s Facebook page and the Fort Worth Report’s YouTube channel. 

To watch the forum, click here

Looking for more candidate forums? Click here for a list of other area forums for council candidates and other municipal races. 

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Emily WolfGovernment Accountability Reporter

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, she spent several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in investigative...

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Rachel BehrndtGovernment Accountability Reporter

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...