Conservative donors and high-dollar political action committees have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to several Fort Worth City Council candidates who are challenging incumbents.
Some of the groups and individuals contributing to challenger campaigns do so with cash donations, while others – on both sides of the political spectrum – make their presence known by sending out mailers attacking opposing candidates.
Partisan groups wading into nonpartisan municipal elections is part of a growing trend stemming from the nationalization of local politics, Brian Adams, an expert in campaign finance at San Diego State University, said. The rising influence of partisan groups could make local elections themselves more partisan, he added.
Attack mailers and visible PAC support are a continuation of a trend firmly established during the 2021 election season when partisan mailers arrived on the doors of Fort Worth residents across the city and in targeted suburbs in northeast Tarrant County.
Voters will not see an “R” or “D” next to candidate’s names as they head to the polls on May 6, but both the Republican and Democrat parties in Tarrant County regularly make endorsements in the races, and some candidates identify themselves along party lines in campaign materials.
Despite partisan campaigning in local races, partisanship takes a backseat to pragmatism on Fort Worth’s City Council, Republican Mayor Mattie Parker said.
“I believe so strongly in democracy and what it looks like to build consensus and compromise,” Parker said. “I do think that’s really important especially in local government and to be a good mayor, because I have a responsibility to work alongside my other colleagues on council and try to understand their positions and where they’re coming from.”
Even so, a contentious 5-4 vote against establishing a community police advisory board appeared to fall along ideological lines. Council members Gyna Bivens, Jared Williams, Chris Nettles and Elizabeth Beck voted yes on the board proposal. Now, both Williams and Beck are facing a conservative challenger, both funded by PACs vocally critical of the incumbent councilmembers.
PACs fund ads against incumbent in District 9
One such PAC is stirring up controversy in several races. Multiple people are funding the Fort Worth Excellence PAC, but Don Woodard Jr. of Fort Worth is the primary bankroller. As the president of The Western Companies, he contributed a total of $240,000 throughout the past two reporting periods.
The PAC contributed $95,484 to District 6 candidate Italia De La Cruz and $112,730 to District 9 candidate Boggess from March 28 to April 26.
The PAC is focused on the three issues — lowering taxes, supporting the police and improving infrastructure – said Woodard, who started the PAC. Woodard doesn’t see the committee as partisan; instead he described supporting candidates who will focus on “bread and butter issues.”
“I don’t think there’s anything in what motivates me that would be ideological,” Woodard said. “I think that there are a certain number of people who have brought ideology into the city council.”
The PAC has primarily focused efforts on races in Districts 6 and 9, supporting challengers running against Williams and Beck. Woodard said he is supporting candidates challenging incumbents because typically, large donors exclusively donate to candidates they believe will win.
Woodard believes Williams, Beck and Nettles have brought a personal agenda to City Hall, to the detriment of issues like infrastructure, he said. All three identify as Democrats.
The PAC has been aggressively advertising against Beck in District 9, which includes downtown and parts of southcentral Fort Worth. The PAC supports Pamela Boggess, a former Republican candidate for district judge.
One mailer paid for by Fort Worth Excellence PAC describes Beck as having a “radical personal agenda.” Another said Beck “continues to embolden criminals.”
The mailers have alienated some voters. Several residents of the District 9 neighborhood Ryan Place brought up concerns about the Fort Worth Excellence PAC’s ads against Beck in a mid-April candidate forum.
Boggess told the residents that she wasn’t aware of the mailers until they landed in her own mailbox. But running a campaign is expensive, she said, and candidates need to take help where they can get it.
“Regardless of who sends mailers on my behalf, or who contributes to my campaign, you can know and you should know that I’m a straight shooter,” Bogess said at the forum.
Beck said the best indication of the type of leader someone will be at City Hall is behavior, and attack ads aren’t indicative of positive leadership.
”Outside folks are trying to buy District 9, and District 9 isn’t for sale,” Beck said.
Woodard said that the mailers are not partisan attacks. Instead, he said they reflect key issues he believes city leadership should be focused on.
“At a molecular level, a granular level there’s just a big gap and how people view a lot of different subjects,” Woodard said. “I think that they’re bringing those differences to City Hall, where we really need to be focusing on these other matters, and leaving that to a more of a legislative body.”
One left-leaning PAC is now hitting back at the attack ads against Beck by funding attack ads of their own against Boggess. The Lone Star Project PAC is sending out texts that describe Boggess as being “bankrolled by MAGA donors who want to tear Fort Worth apart.”
Woodard Jr. said he doesn’t know if the money he’s investing will affect the outcome of the election in favor of Boggess and De La Cruz.
“What I do want is competitive elections and they have to be financed,” Woodard Jr. said. “If I’m not doing it, who is?”
Ads attack political newcomers in Districts 7, 11
A conservative PAC, CORE PAC, got the attention of voters through a mailer attacking District 7 candidate Macy Hill. The mailer asks voters to support candidate Jason Ellis. The mailer calls out Hill’s marriage to James Hill, who sits on the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors. The front of the mailer reads “Don’t waterboard our Fort Worth City Council,” and includes a photo of a man who appears as being waterboarded.
District 7 became a wide-open race after incumbent Leonard Firestone announced he would not seek reelection. Caleb Backholm, Ellis and Hill are each running to replace Firestone on council.
Partisan interest groups are wading into local elections because of ideological differences with current council members and how they affect policy, Bradford said.
“Technically, the City Council is nonpartisan. Absolutely,” Jeremy Bradford, the PAC’s founder, said. Bradford is a consultant for Starboard Strategy Group, a Republican campaign consulting firm, and is consulting on Ellis’ campaign separately from his work on the CORE PAC.
“I think a lot of that went out the window when the then-Democratic Party county chair Deborah Peoples ran for mayor against Mattie two years ago. That made it a very partisan race.”
Parker defeated Peoples in a runoff with 53% of the vote in 2021.
Hill, who is a Republican, said it is unfortunate that her opponents are attacking her.
“I’m campaigning to keep my race positive so that I can focus on the issues that really matter to everyone in our district,” Hill said. “That’s lowering the property tax rate, supporting our police and fire, and being a strong voice who will put the interests of existing neighborhoods first in City Hall.”
Like Boggess, Ellis first became aware of the mailers when they arrived in mailboxes, he said. Residents concerned about corruption on the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors have reached out to him in support of his campaign after the mailers were sent out, Ellis said.
“The water board has a horrible reputation with corruption,” Ellis said. “If that PAC didn’t pick it up, I’m sure somebody else would have.”
He is primarily focused on knocking on doors and speaking with voters, Ellis said.
Another conservative-leaning committee, Right for Tarrant PAC, is also spending tens of thousands of dollars supporting several candidates, including Parker, Hill, Lauersdorf, Blaylock, Crain and Boggess. The PAC is primarily funded by a variety of business executives including Arnold Gachman, Cheever Farley and Al Micallef.
A left-leaning group backed by State Rep. Ramon Romero recently sent out mailers in District 11, which includes parts of southeast Fort Worth, associating candidate Rick Herring with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
The mailer points to Herring’s history of voting in Republican primaries and an endorsement by the conservative group The True Texas Project. Herring has recently voted in Republican primaries but has a history of supporting liberal candidates for Fort Worth city council, he said. He was not aware of the endorsement by the True Texas Project until the Fort Worth Star-Telegram article published an article referencing the endorsement.
“I’ve not received any kind of endorsement letter or a notification that they were endorsing me,” Herring said. “I’ve received absolutely zero, all caps zero, money from them.”
Partisanship does not have a place in municipal elections, Herring said.
Herring is running against Jeanette Martinez, Tara Maldando-Wilson, Ricardo Avitia and Christopher Johnson.
Money flows from businessmen, politicians
Several recognizable names in conservative campaigning have been actively supporting candidates for Fort Worth City Council, chiefly Woodard. Outside of his PAC, Fort Worth Excellence, Woodard also contributed money to multiple candidates as an individual.
Woodard has given money in previous partisan elections in Tarrant County. In 2022, he contributed over $200,000 to Tim O’Hare’s campaign for county judge.
“Tim O’Hare is one of the most talented human beings I’ve ever come across,” Woodard said “That was the reason for my support of him.”
Woodard spent the most money in the District 9 race, where he gave Boggess $26,000. Beck has the endorsement of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. Her predecessors, including Anne Zadeh, Joel Burns and Wendy Davis, are all Democrats.
Woodard also gave $1,000 to Lauersdorf in District 4 and Hill in District 7.
Republican State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, donated $1,000 to Boggess and Hill. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, donated $1,000 to Parker’s campaign.
Gary Blake is CEO and cofounder of Creative Solutions in Healthcare. Blake has given consistently to state Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth.
This year, Blake donated approximately $32,000 to Parker’s mayoral campaign, and $25,000 to Crain’s District 3 reelection bid.
Democratic leaders also contributed to City Council candidates.
Tarrant County State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, donated $2,500 to Beck.
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, contributed to several campaigns, including $1,000 to Nettles, who is running unopposed, and $2,000 to Williams.
Former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Peoples, who has previously run for Fort Worth mayor and Tarrant County judge, also contributed $100 to Nettles and $50 to Maldando-Wilson, running in District 11.
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Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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Partisan endorsements are another way political parties and partisan groups can influence elections. In the past, the endorsements of police, firefighters and business groups held the most weight in local elections. That is beginning to shift, Adams, the campaign finance expert, said., and partisan endorsements are being taken more seriously.
This year, multiple partisan organizations endorsed candidates for Fort Worth City Council.
The Tarrant County Democratic Party endorsed District 5 candidate William McKinley Jackson, District 6 candidate Jared Williams, District 8 candidate Chris Nettles, District 9 candidate Beck and District 11 candidates Maldonado-Wilson and Jeanette Martinez.
Beck also received an endorsement from Annie’s list, a left-leaning organization that supports progressive women.
The Tarrant County Republican Party has not released an official endorsement list, but posted a spreadsheet on its website with a list of candidates’ past partisan voting history.
Fort Worth Republican Women endorsed both Pamela Boggess in District 9 and Italia De La Cruz in District 6.
The True Texas Project, a conservative organization based in Tarrant County, also endorsed City Council candidates. Including Lauersdorf in District 4, De La Cruz in District 6, Ellis in District 7, Alan Blaylock in District 10 and Rick Herring in District 11.