Some of Fort Worth’s most established business and political leaders are letting their money talk in the city’s upcoming election.
Campaign finance reports filed by April 6 reveal which candidates secured the backing of wealthy donors. Many donors remain supportive of Fort Worth’s incumbent council members, two years after they first secured their place in public office.
Incumbents Mattie Parker and Michael Crain attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars despite lacking any well-funded challenges for their seats. Fort Worth’s political and business establishment also came out in support of newcomer Macy Hill, a well connected philanthropic advisor who is vying to represent District 7.
Among the establishment names giving heavily this cycle is the Good Government Fund, a group headed by Bass family members that split $27,000 among Parker, Hill and District 11 candidate Jeanette Martinez. Mike Berry, the president of Hillwood, split $15,000 between Hill and Parker, and Gary Blake, Creative Solutions in Healthcare CEO, split about $55,000 between Parker and Crain.
The Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association and Fort Worth Firefighters Committee for Responsible Government are also powerful political voices in Fort Worth elections. The organizations give to campaigns across the city.
Perhaps even more telling are the candidates and races that Fort Worth’s elite have chosen not to back. Emily Farris, a political science professor at TCU, said local politics is often seen as more democratic and accessible compared with state and federal politics.
“But when we look at who’s giving money, it tends to be the elites that are giving money,” Farris said. “We don’t necessarily see this kind of grassroots democracy playing out in that way.”
Big money support is harder to come by in east Fort Worth, despite being home to some of the most competitive races in the May 6 election. Districts 4 and 11 have no incumbents, but District 11 race drew five candidates while District 4 drew just two. Despite the competition, the districts raised significantly less funds than other less competitive races, such as District 3.
The biggest earner in this round of campaign finance reporting, which extends from Jan. 1 through March 27, is incumbent Mayor Mattie Parker, who raised about $223,634. Parker also had the highest average donation, at $1,996.
While Parker raised more than any other candidate for Fort Worth City Council, her total is just about a third of the amount she raised this time two years ago, during her first mayoral run.
Both Hill and District 3 incumbent Crain had a strong showing during the reporting period. Hill, who has strong connections to other Tarrant County elected officials, raised $103,135. Crain, who faces no challengers in the May 6 election, raised $125,075
Fundraising is a big part of the success of political campaigns, Farris said.
“It’s not an insurmountable battle, but you need to be able to raise money in order to run for even a local office,” she said. “The easiest way to raise money is out of your own social network. And so, if you look at whose networks are in Fort Worth, then yeah, you can see some patterns.”
Districts 4, 11 have little to no establishment support
District 11, with five candidates running for the newly created council seat, has been long-ignored by Fort Worth’s political center to the west, candidates running for the seat said.
This perception bears out in the numbers, analysis shows. Despite having the most candidates running for the seat, District 11 candidates raised about $50,000 combined, less than half the amount raised by Hill in District 7. The District 11 fundraising total is less than a quarter of what Parker’s raised.
Candidate Jeanette Martinez received the most money in District 11, with $24,000. Martinez also enjoys the support of Fort Worth’s political establishment, including donations from County Commissioner Roy Brooks, prominent businesswoman Rosa Navejar and former council member Sal Espino.
Trailing her in fundraising are District 11 candidates Rick Herring, with $13,008, and Tara Maldonado Wilson Martinez, with $10,633. Despite being third in fundraising totals, Maldonado Wilson has 100 donors, the most of all District 11 candidates.
Because of the new nature of District 11 and a lack of an incumbent, Farris said, it’s not surprising there are five challengers. The lack of money invested in the race could be indicative of a wait-and-see approach by Fort Worth business interests, she said.
“I would be less surprised to see that, you know, maybe they sit out this election, but whoever’s the incumbent next time, the powers that be decide ‘this person fine, they’re good,’ then we might see the money invested,” Farris said. “But they might just not have a candidate right now that they had that lived in that area that they felt that they could run.”
Redistricting forced District 4 incumbent Alan Blaylock to run in District 10, leaving two candidates to run for the council seat in the district that includes north Fort Worth and the Alliance corridor.
The two candidates vying for the seat are Charles Lauersdorf and Teresa Gonzalez. Gonzalez did not submit the 30-day campaign finance report before publication. Lauersdorf raised $18,620, which includes a $5,000 loan from himself.
District 4 has previously drawn the support of influential political groups such as the Fort Worth Firefighters Committee for Responsible Government and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association Committee for Public Safety. Both organizations supported the campaigns of former District 4 council members Cary Moon and Blaylock, but have yet to wade into the race this year.
“Without any real campaign contribution limits, you can get organizations, not just individuals but organizations, like the Police Officers Association that can have a real impact,” Farris said.
Money flows into less competitive west Fort Worth races
Two west Fort Worth races have netted a disproportionate amount of money compared with other races. Despite accounting for about 19% of the city’s population, Districts 3 and 7 brought in about 32% of all funds raised.
Crain, District 3’s incumbent council member, doesn’t have any challengers this year, but that hasn’t stopped the money from pouring in. Crain received $125,075 from 111 individual donors, including a big ticket $25,000 donation from Creative Solutions in Healthcare CEO Gary Blake and a $10,000 donation from Steve Greig, an entrepreneur working in financing.
District 7 also sits on the west side of Fort Worth and after incumbent Leonard Firestone announced he would not seek re-election, three challengers threw their hats in the ring: Caleb Backholm, Jason Ellis and Macy Hill. Collectively, the candidates have received $109,980, but 93% of that went to Hill.
Hill received a median contribution of $1,750. Hill’s biggest contributors gave $5,000 and included investor John Goff, prominent lawyer Dee Kelly and Hillwood President Mike Berry. Despite her status as a first-time candidate, she’s the third-highest fundraiser this cycle behind only Parker and Crain. While politics is a new venture for Hill, her husband, James Hill, has been a Tarrant Regional Water District board member since 2017.
“It makes the races less competitive, potentially, if there’s an imbalance of funds between candidates or if there’s an incumbent and they’re so well funded,” Farris said. “Then nobody runs in response to that.”
That lack of competitiveness can also suppress voter interest in the races, Farris said. She pointed to the relatively high turnout last municipal election cycle, where there were several viable mayoral candidates.
“That’s kind of the roundabout way we get to problems in local politics,” she said.
The money flowing into west Fort Worth dwarfs the funds trickling into the east. Candidates for District 5 in east Fort Worth have raised only $28,946. District 10 candidates have raised only $7,368, and District 4 candidates have raised only $13,670.
That funding disparity in the east versus the west also bears out in median income data.
Residents of the west Fort Worth ZIP code 76008 have a median income of $138,417, the highest of any Fort Worth ZIP codes, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Meanwhile, the two ZIP codes with the lowest median income — 76105 at $40,680 and 76119 at $41,368 — are located in east Fort Worth and fall into districts 8, 11 and 5.
It’s difficult to draw a direct line between deep pocket donors and the decisions candidates make as elected officials, Farris said.
“I think we can say that it makes access to office more difficult. It makes the type of candidates who run look different than what we might otherwise see, and it also makes the races less competitive, potentially.”