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Arlington’s Diversity Of People & Priorities Takes Center Stage In Spring Mayoral Election

Large modern school building with gray and red exterior. Letters say Arlington ISD Dan Dipert Career & Technical Center.
Bret Jaspers
Associated Press
The Career and Technical Center in East Arlington represents a shift in priorities to focus on economic development in Arlington. The school helps train students for their first jobs.

“It's finally moving into the political sphere.”

Globe Life Field in Arlington
Tony Gutierrez
Arlington's Globe Life Field is one of the city's attractions that make it a sports and tourist mecca. But local leaders say they want to focus on small businesses, economic disparities and promoting diversity.

Arlington, Texas, is known as a sports and tourist mecca, and yet, its mayoral candidates are talking a lot about small businesses, social services and inequities. It’s a sign the longstanding diversity of the city is moving more fully into the political realm, and may be here to stay.

Arlington is electing a new mayor and has four city council races on the spring election ballot. Early voting ends on April 27, and Election Day is May 1.

A man in blue Hawaiian-style shirt with glasses and white hair in front of neon sign protected by black bars. Sign says J. Gilligan's Bar-n-Grill. There's also a Coors beer sign and neon sign saying "open."
Bret Jaspers / KERA News
Arlington writer O.K. Carter in front of J. Gilligan's Bar & Grill in downtown.

Historically, Arlington mayors have served in the shadow of Tom Vandergriff, mayor from 1951 until 1977, novelist and retired Arlington journalist O.K. Carter said. Vandergriff oversaw big things: General Motors’ arrival, the construction of Lake Arlington and scoring a major league baseball team. It’s a formidable legacy.

“It really kind of set up this sort of informal tradition where the mayors here are expected to accomplish significant events,” Carter said. “Because of Tom.”

But Carter thinks that tradition is “finally” starting to ebb. The rhetoric in city politics, according to him and others, is turning to smaller-scale priorities.

“More focused on quality of life, more focused on housing. More focused on social services, more focused on economic development of smaller businesses,” Carter said, adding it’s a change that’s already in motion.

Look East

An example of the shift in the community’s priorities is the Career and Technical Center, part of the Arlington Independent School District.

The school offers familiar vocational-technical classes in welding, auto repair and cosmetology, but also teaches robotics, health sciences and other disciplines. The school even has its own barbeque smoker, courtesy of its agricultural mechanics students.

About 3,600 students work and learn in the building. Many of them will leave the school with the certifications and training they need to get their first job.

“It’s really economic development in the sense of developing people," said Justin Chapa, an Arlington ISD Board trustee.

Man in dark suit with hands up, explaining something, next to a medical table with glass top, used for doing computer-generated dissections.
Bret Jaspers / KERA News
Justin Chapa, an Arlington ISD Board trustee, said The Career and Technical Center represents the future of the city.

Aside from increased professional training, the school’s location is a reason why Chapa thinks the building represents the future of the city. The Career and Technical Center (CTC) is in East Arlington, a more diverse and historically underrepresented part of town with a population that's half Latino — much higher than the city as a whole.

Standing on the center’s roof, Chapa looked out over the neighborhood and described the rows of houses before him.

“Your typical home here is probably going on 60 or 70 years old. It’s a one story, small framed house, probably in the neighborhood of 800 to 1200 square feet,” he said. “The density’s quite tight.”

Chapa grew up in East Arlington and attended schools in the neighborhood. He knows these houses are going to need maintenance and renovation, and said any new mayor or city council will have to decide what to do — on a neighborhood scale.

“Should we approach it through the lens of … ‘This is a strong community, with good people. What can we do to help them keep it that way?’” he said. “Not go the direction of tearing down and rebuilding, but reinvesting.”

Candidates On The Economy

Carter and Chapa’s sense that the city’s future is less dependent on big, new attractions and more on smaller-scale programs is reflected in the rhetoric of current mayoral candidates.

Nonprofit leader Dewayne Washington explicitly talked about East Arlington when addressing economic development at a recent Arlington Chamber of Commerce virtual forum.

“You help to economically develop the people that are there,” Washington said of neighborhoods like East Arlington. “Help develop them to become entrepreneurs. Those that are already doing them to expand.”

Marvin Sutton, a current city council member who opted against running for re-election in order to join the mayor’s race, said one of the most important issues facing the city was inequality.

“We have some issues with income, or economic disparity, housing disparity, health disparity,” he said, citing a recent report from Arlington’s Unity Council. “We have to address those issues and bring everybody online.”

Jim Ross is a lawyer and restaurant owner who has the backing of most of the former mayors and the city’s police unions. He said while Arlington “has done really, really well at promoting our entertainment district,” he would like to see a shift towards small business development. He also mentioned the racial disparities in the city.

“When we have a 23% African American community and 1% of our businesses are owned by African Americans, there’s a disparity there,” Ross said. “We need to make sure that we try to balance that as best we can,” he said.

Like Ross, fellow candidate Michael Glaspie said the most important issue facing Arlington was business recovery from the pandemic.

“My focus would be assuring that the resources, all the resources we can find, help us,” said Glaspie who is a former city councilman and AISD trustee. “First of all, get rid of the pandemic. Then provide whatever assistance our businesses need in order for them to begin to recover and get back on their feet.”

Business owner Kelly Burke said his priority as mayor would be making sure the city is “fully backing” local, small businesses.

“Making sure that … they’re first, before we look at doing anything else, any major development,” Burke said.

The two other candidates, Doni Anthony and C.J. Ocampo Jr, didn’t participate in the forum.

The Arlington Chamber said they reached out to them about taking part in the event, but didn’t hear back.

Arlington’s Diversity Reaches Into Its Politics

The population is now 400,000, and the majority of Arlington residents are people of color. That diversity, however, hasn’t been fully reflected in local politics, where there’s low turnout and incumbents who don’t want to leave, according to UT-Arlington political scientist Rebecca Deen.

A woman in purple shirt stands in front of rich, green plants growing up a brick building on a college campus.
Bret Jaspers / KERA News
UT-Arlington political scientist Rebecca Deen.

Then came a 2018 vote to impose term limits on the mayor and city council. Deen called that vote “kind of like the Instapot pressure release valve that allowed these changes to move more quickly.”

Now, in the mayor’s race, over two-thirds of the candidates are people of color.

“It’s finally moving into the political sphere, into the power sphere in a way that certainly didn't exist before,” Deen said.

New rules, new faces, new issues. The open question is how many new voters this election will attract.

Deen wondered if the public’s higher level of political awareness over the past year will carry over into local elections, which typically have low turnout.

It wouldn’t take a significant number of new voters to upset the traditional pattern. In 2019, 18,132 people voted in the mayoral election. This past fall, a couple of citywide elections pulled in over 100,000 votes.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.