Analysis: And now the hard part – candidates in Fort Worth mayoral runoff must define themselves, voters must choose a leader

Deborah Peoples, left, Mattie Parker, right. courtesy photos

As expected, there will be a June 5 runoff in the election for Fort Worth mayor. As some expected, though definitely not all, the runoff will pit the 2019 mayoral runner-up, Tarrant County Democratic chairwoman Deborah Peoples, against Mattie Parker, former chief of staff to retiring five-term Mayor Betsy Price and the city council.

Missing from the equation – and by “missing” we mean totally out of the picture – is District 3 City Councilman Brian Byrd, who some political observers believed was the front-runner in the 10-candidate race and most presumed was a strong contender to reach the runoff. Byrd’s campaign, it turned out, was mostly sound and fury – i.e., ubiquitous TV spots and direct mail attack ads – that failed to connect with voters.

You might say Byrd’s campaign was, to use a phrase he aimed at one of his opponents, all hat and no cattle. He finished a distant third with 14.7% of the vote behind first-place finisher Peoples (33.6%) and runner-up Parker (30.8%).

So the quest to replace Fort Worth’s longest-serving mayor comes down to Peoples and Parker, a contest the candidates themselves will have to define because the easy ways to frame it may not suffice: Black vs. white. Democrat vs. Republican. Baby boomer vs. millennial. Outsider vs. insider.

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The racial element is the most clear-cut with Peoples seeking to become Fort Worth’s first African-American mayor, but Fort Worth voters have rarely seemed inclined to vote strictly along racial lines. Race could be a factor in this election, of course, with racial tensions surging all across America. As Fort Worth looks toward the expected August trial of a white ex-cop charged with murder in the 2019 shooting death of a 28-year-old Black woman, the city will have to confront its racial divisions whether it wants to or not.

In her low-key campaign leading up to the May 1 election Peoples avoided fanning racial flames, calling for unity and staying away from hot-button issues such as “defunding” police. It remains to be seen if she can – or wants to – continue walking that tightrope through the runoff. It might depend on what her opponent does.

Democrat vs. Republican? Municipal elections are officially nonpartisan and Fort Worth has elected well-known members of each party as mayor over the years. Experts say the rabid partisanship that has infected state and national politics is creeping into city elections, but neither Peoples nor Parker made an issue of party affiliation (Parker, like Price, is a Republican) during the preliminary campaign. Democrats, including many outside of Fort Worth, are said to be eager to see a Democratic mayor overseeing the nation’s 13th largest city and that could benefit Peoples’ runoff fundraising but our best guess is that when it comes to choosing a mayor most Fort Worth voters will vote for the person, not the party.

When it comes to the baby boomer, 68-year-old Peoples, vs. the millennial, 37-year-old Parker, the difference might be irrelevant. Parker would be Fort Worth’s youngest-ever mayor but her ties to the city’s “old guard” are immense. Whatever she brings to the campaign in the way of youthful exuberance and millennial outlook may be neutralized by her ties to the political and business interests that have ruled Fort Worth for decades.

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Outsider vs. insider? This might be a bright line in the sand for some but again it is not definitive. Parker’s support from the longtime city “establishment” and her service at City Hall as a protégé of Price clearly identify her as the insider in this showdown. On the other hand, Peoples is a Democratic Party “insider” after serving eight years as the county’s party chair and her long career as an executive at AT&T is not quite the hallmark of an “outsider” where the business community is concerned.

Clear away the cliches, the tried-and-true battle lines, the bumper-sticker bullet points and we’re left with an interesting, competitive runoff between two smart, talented and capable women, each vying to convince Fort Worth voters she is the best choice to lead the city into a post-Price era that is sure to be challenging in all the ways municipal leadership has always been as well as in new ways we can see and some we haven’t even thought about.

The voters’ first job is to put the candidates’ feet to the fire, make them answer hard questions, make them prove their mettle and their commitment to putting the best interests of the city and its residents ahead of any political or personal agenda.

After that, the voters’ job is to vote. Total turnout in Tarrant County was up this year compared to past municipal election cycles but with fewer candidates in the mix and considerable political energy already expended by candidates and voters alike, turnout sometimes plunges in runoffs.

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There’s no reason for voters to lose interest in this one. The last time Fort Worth elected a new mayor, don’t forget, she stayed in office for a decade. Every election is important. This one is especially important.

The runoff is less than a month away so there’s a lot to do and not much time to do it – for the candidates and for the voters. The hard work starts now.