Republican mayors are close to extinct in big-city America. And there might be one fewer after Saturday’s mayoral runoff in Fort Worth, Texas.
While Democrats hold City Hall in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin, the fifth-largest city in Texas — Fort Worth — is a holdout. Retiring GOP Mayor Betsy Price has held office through a decade of explosive growth that has seen the city’s population add more than 200,000 new residents, bringing it to nearly 1 million people.
The race to succeed her is officially nonpartisan, but the political backdrop is hard to miss: Fort Worth is not only one of the few remaining big cities with a GOP mayor, it’s part of the last major urban county in Texas — Tarrant County — that remains Republican.
What happens in Tarrant County is closely watched, both inside and outside the state. Once a Republican stronghold, Tarrant has seen its GOP margins decline in recent years — President Joe Biden’s narrow victory there in November marked the first time in over a half-century that a Democratic presidential nominee carried the county. If the county continues to move leftward, it stands to affect the balance of power in statewide elections.
“We've never had a race that was this partisan,” said Kenneth Barr, the former Democratic mayor of Fort Worth who led the city from 1996 to 2003. “In Texas, you're not allowed, for city governments, to hold partisan primaries. And this particular election has moved as far in the partisan direction as any we've ever had.”
The runoff features Republican Mattie Parker, a former chief of staff to Price, and Democrat Deborah Peoples, a retired AT&T executive, both of whom insist they are running nonpartisan campaigns.
To some extent, it’s true: Parker declined any GOP endorsements in her general election campaign and Peoples backed away from joint events with the national Democratic groups backing her campaign. Central to the contest are questions related to how Fort Worth will change as the city continues to grow — it’s currently the 12th largest city in the nation. The population influx has increased the need for more city infrastructure, and brought public safety issues into sharper focus for voters in light of a rise in violent crime in 2020.
Yet the county Republican Party continues to make calls and knock doors on Parker’s behalf. And Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed her on Wednesday, specifically underlining her support for law enforcement — and contrasting it with Peoples’ record.
For her part, Peoples, a former Tarrant County Democratic chair, has been endorsed by a slew of national Democratic groups and prominent state and national Democrats including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison.
The Collective PAC — which helps elect Black candidates to office — poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in an effort to turn out the city’s Black voters in support of Peoples, who would be the city’s first Black mayor.
Republicans worry that Fort Worth’s rapid growth is not only altering the city’s traditional character and politics but moving it in the same direction as the state’s four largest cities — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Those cities typically power Democratic candidates in statewide elections.
“There's a great concern here that if you end up with a Democrat mayor, it will change what people know Fort Worth to be,” said Rick Barnes, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.
I'd say something like "Republican racism aside at Fort Worth having a Black mayor" except that's the entire point of the GOP campaign here to help Parker. Fort Worth and Tarrant County is to Texas what Cincinnati and Hamilton County is to Ohio, the bellwether urban/exurban red/blue dividing line in the state. In Ohio and Texas, that line has favored the GOP for years now.
Unlike Ohio, in Texas that may actually change, and we'll get a good sense of that in today's runoff election.