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Fort Worth Mayor's Race Pits A Steady Hand Against A Promise Of New Blood

Fort Worth mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples and incumbent Betsy Price
Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Fort Worth mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples, left, and incumbent Betsy Price

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is facing her toughest election fight since she won the office in 2011.

Price is running as a steady hand to steer the fast-growing city into the future. Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples says she’s the change agent that residents far from the city’s halls of power need to make Fort Worth work for them.

» RELATEDMeet Your Candidates For Fort Worth Mayor

This is Price’s fourth re-election bid since she became mayor, and she says she’s focused on addressing the city’s most pressing issues as it sprints toward a million residents.

“Transportation, infrastructure, and education. It’s really those three big items,” Price says. “The growth that we’re having is phenomenal, and the ability to manage that growth while still keeping the quality of life and affordability here is what this council and my office have done very well.”

Running on her record

We can’t pour enough concrete to satisfy the region’s transportation needs, Price likes to say, and she wants to build on public transit successes like the new TexRail train from Fort Worth to DFW Airport.

With new residents sharply outpacing job growth in the city, Fort Worth launched a campaign to court big companies to move here, while nurturing local entrepreneurs. A former tax assessor-collector, Price touts recent cuts to the city’s tax rate, an effort to mitigate growing property tax bills that she says makes Fort Worth more competitive.

"We now have a changing, diverse population that's not going to accept this old patriarchal view of 'I'm going to make decisions because I know what's best for you,'" challenger Deborah Peoples says. "No, we have a bright, intelligent, growing community and they want a leadership that is responsive to them and that's going to listen to them."

Perhaps her marquee program is focused on getting every third grader to read at grade level.

“We started Read Fort Worth two and a half years ago in conjunction with the school district and the business community,” Price says. “We’ve already moved the needle quite a bit on that and I want to see that continue.”

Price has also been the focus of frustration from some quarters. Many Fort Worth residents are still angry with her response to the controversial 2016 arrest of Jackie Craig, a black woman who was forcefully arrested by a white officer after calling the police for help. The arrest was widely seen as racist. And Price outraged immigrant rights advocates by arguing that Fort Worth should not join other major Texas cities in a lawsuit challenging a 2017 state law that forces local officials to work with federal immigration authorities.

"We felt like our dollars that would go into that lawsuit would be better served going out in the community, meeting with the Hispanic community, working with the schools, working on our police officers’ understanding,” Price says. “I’m not blameless – I’ll never say that – but often situations of tumult cause [me] to take a look at how can I better serve my constituents.”

Price pointed to a race and culture task force by the Fort Worth City Council convened to analyze the city’s racial inequities and recommend actions to fix it. Price says the city is moving forward on implementing its 22 recommendations.

A pitch for more equity and urgency

But Deborah Peoples says many felt like the race and culture task force did too little and came too late. Peoples says she hears from a lot of residents who feel like City Hall just doesn’t listen to them, at least not the way it listens to moneyed interests.

“We now have a changing, diverse population that’s not going to accept this old patriarchal view of ‘I’m going to make decisions because I know what’s best for you,’” Peoples says. “No, we have a bright, intelligent, growing community and they want a leadership that is responsive to them and that’s going to listen to them.”

"Transportation, infrastructure, and education. It's really those three big items," incumbent Betsy Price says. "The growth that we're having is phenomenal, and the ability to manage that growth while still keeping the quality of life and affordability here is what this council and my office have done very well."

As chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, she worked to get more people involved in the party. If elected mayor, Peoples says she would ensure the city’s limited resources are shared equitably among all of its neighborhoods and improve relations between communities of color and the police force.

But the most pressing issue, she says, is the city’s transportation infrastructure. The city has underfunded public transit for so long, she says, that Fort Worth is not as competitive as it should be, and many of the city’s challenges are impacted by it.

“We have issues with delivering goods and services, getting good jobs here, educating our children, getting good housing but it all means nothing if I can’t get them where they need to go,” Peoples says.

Peoples is a former executive for AT&T and she says she knows what it takes to attract the kinds of businesses that will bring good jobs to the city.

“They want a stable affordable housing base so their people can live there, they want an educated and trained workforce, they want all the things that residents want,” Peoples says. “What we’ve done in Fort Worth, though, to try to attract them is say we’ll just give you tax abatements, unfettered tax abatements.”

The place of partisanship

There’s no public polling in this race, and turnout is so low in municipal elections that it’s not easy to tell who is winning, but the mayor has incumbency and a whole lot more campaign cash on her side.

Municipal elections are nonpartisan affairs, and candidates aren’t identified by party on the ballot. Betsy Price, a Republican, says that’s exactly how it should be. City services like police departments, firefighters, pot hole repair – Price says those aren’t partisan issues.

“The very best governance happens right down the middle and people lean a little right and lean a little left, but the decisions we make have to be made for the whole city” Price says.

Peoples says it’s important to work across political divides. But she argues that nonpartisanship is merely a figleaf, and the city council has been dominated by Republicans who vote in a predictable conservative block on controversial issues despite the city’s increasingly Democratic electorate.

“Don’t get it twisted. They want you to believe it’s nonpartisan. It is not, and it never has been,” Peoples says.

In a" target="_blank">video announcing her bid for mayor, Peoples showed pictures of Betsy Price in Washington meeting with President Donald Trump. Price says that she spent as much time in Washington when Barack Obama was president because, “when you’re mayor and you’re invited to go plead your case for your city, you go,” she says, in order to try to bring back federal funding for local projects.

Another candidate, James McBride, is also running, though he hasn’t yet reported any fundraising on which to run his campaign.

» RELATED | Betsy Price's campaign website and Deborah Peoples' campaign website

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.