In Fort Worth, A New Generation Of Leaders Wants To Unify The City
Fort Worth’s mayor-elect, Mattie Parker, gave her victory speech at a West 7th bar on runoff election night. Speaking to cheering supporters, she repeated a promise she made throughout the campaign.
“In Fort Worth, we’re gonna embrace positive policies and consensus building with ferocity,” she said.
That idea of building consensus was a major theme in this year’s mayoral race. Runner-up Deborah Peoples ran on a promise to create “One Fort Worth.”
During her Election night speech, Parker ticked off some of the thorny issues she is now responsible for handling, along with the rest of the City Council: public transit, council redistricting and affordable housing.
“You don’t take tough issues by taking to your proverbial corner,” Parker said.
A number of folks in Fort Worth are looking for Parker to prove her commitment to unity. Bob Ray Sanders is a veteran journalist who’s worked with KERA and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sanders also co-chaired the Fort Worth’s Race and Culture Task Force.
“Mattie is going to have her hands full in trying to reach out to that minority community that was not there for her in this election,” he said. “I think she can do that, and I think she knows she has to do that.”
Parker already has some of Fort Worth’s most influential white citizens in her corner, Sanders said. During the campaign, she was endorsed by outgoing Mayor Betsy Price, whom she worked for as chief of staff, and former mayor Mike Moncrief. Her most recent campaign finance report lists tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from local billionaire John Goff and the Good Government Fund, a political action committee tied to the Bass family.
Sanders said Parker has to reach out to Black and Latino residents and deliver on her commitments to improve Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“We're one incident away from a major eruption in this city," Sanders said. "It’s not just enough to say 'I believe in diversity, I believe in uniting communities.' You've got to show it."
The city officials trying to unite those communities are almost all brand-new to the job. Only three members are returning to the city council, which will be much younger this time around.
One of the newbies, 31-year-old Jared Williams, ousted the longest-serving council member, 72-year-old Jungus Jordan.
Williams said unity begins with the city acknowledging what it has done wrong, especially its failures to protect Black residents.
“Those situations have caused serious trust issues, right? And issues of trauma that we have to acknowledge as a city in a meaningful way,” Williams said. “We have to address that with our residents in order to really move forward in ensuring that situations like that never happen again.”
Williams has ideas for changes both small and structural, but most of them are focused on one goal: Bringing city government closer to the people.
“I think a start there is having one council meeting a month actually in the neighborhoods,” he said.
Moving those meetings out of City Hall would make local government more accessible for people who don’t have the transportation to make it downtown, Williams said.
He also wants to expand the city council staff. Williams’ office will be a staff of one, his district director. He envisions council member offices with seven to 10 staffers, working on policy questions and connecting with constituents.
“I think that as a growing city, we're going to have to make some bold investments in our governance structure to be able to meet the expectations that the residents of District 6 are calling on the City of Fort Worth to make,” he said.
One big change is already in the works to strengthen people's connection to local government.
The stated goal of expanding the council is to provide more opportunities to elect more diverse representatives.
But those extra members won't be elected until 2023, leaving the new city council with two years to figure out how to work together, and with the rest of the city.
Layla Zaidane is the president and CEO of the Millennial Action Project, a national operation that pushes young politicians to cross party lines.
“Getting along and unity doesn’t mean always agreeing on every single solution,” she said. “I think a healthy disagreement is important, and it’s actually quite fundamental to our democracy... to have different perspectives at the table.”
To Zaidane, unity actually comes from building systems where people can work out their disagreements.
"It doesn't mean that we all have to agree, but we do have to figure out how to listen to one another," she said.
On runoff election night, Deborah Peoples conceded a little after 9:30 p.m. After she left her watch party at a Riverside neighborhood bar, supporters started to trickle outside too, including North Fort Worth resident Letitia Stribling-Smiley.
She was disappointed that Peoples lost, but she said she doesn’t plan to write off Mayor Parker before she begins.
“I’m going to be open and willing to listen to what our projected candidate has to say,” Stribling-Smiley said. “If it’s right and things are positive, I will support. But if things are not, I would like for her to hear that as well.”
There’s a big test of how city leaders will hold the community together coming up: the murder trial of Aaron Dean. He’s the white police officer who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson. Dean’s trial has been tentatively scheduled for August.
KERA’s Bret Jaspers contributed to this story.
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