Commentary: The Mayor parks her bike – for now

Mayor Betsy Price and others ramp up for their 15K bike ride as part of Fort Worth Now at Austin's SXSW.

It really wasn’t all that long ago – really, it wasn’t, the year 1997 – that Betsy Price’s chief concern was overcrowding at the city’s oldest high school.

She was the Paschal PTA president. Suffice to say, getting one’s hands dirty in the politics of schools and all that dynamite – that is, parents and their expectations, teachers and their expectations and students and whatever it is they expect on any given day – has got to be good training if one has an eye on a career in public service.

It’s doubtful that at that point, Price had any visions of what would be, but through that experience in the schools, a public servant was born.

She was a rare kind of bird we were witnessing evolve, but Price turned out to be indeed a rightful heir to the legacy of Tarrant County Republican Party pioneers Betty Andujar and Anna Mowery.

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Her mayoral critics say a little too much.

However, on Tuesday, 24 years or thereabouts after her days with the PTA, Price announced that she would not seek a sixth term as mayor of Fort Worth.

It was her moment, this midmorning news conference at City Hall attended by her husband Tom Price and their children, but it appeared in no way a political burial. Political insiders believe the last has not been heard from Price, 71, who grew up on the West Side, attending South Hi Mount, Stripling Junior High and Arlington Heights High School, where, legend has it, she took on her first job in politics as president of the Future Homemakers of America.

As the city’s highest elected official, Price, the third woman to serve as mayor, including Rep. Kay Granger and Jewell Woods (interim), left a sizable footprint in an unprecedented 10 years in office, perhaps as big as any in Fort Worth’s history. Let that debate begin, but there is no denying her tenure was impactful.

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During her first campaign for the office, which this writer covered for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she vowed she would be a full-time mayor. In truth, she was an overtime mayor, seemingly everywhere by demonstrating the energy of a 3-year-old let loose in the Pangburn Candy Co. warehouse.

Only a COVID diagnosis in 2020 could slow her down, but only for a number of days.

Price made her rolling townhalls on bicycles nationally famous after the New York Times took an interest. Her bicycle also made an easy target for critics and cynics. She picked that up more than 30 years ago after the birth of her last child. It was also a way to spend quality time with husband Tom, who called it “cheap marriage counseling,” Price once joked.

Price said she wanted a healthier and happier Fort Worth. That goal was reached. Who would have thought that a city famous (notorious?) for its red-light district of another day and time would be judged among the healthiest metropolitan cities in the country? According to the Blue Zones Project criteria in 2018, the city was in the top 20 percent of the country’s big cities, up from 185 out of 190 just five years prior.

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The cycling avocation turned out to be one good way to meet face to face with citizens, including a ride down the new Chisholm Trail Parkway in 2014.

That same year, she used her political capital to get Fort Worth taxpayers to pass a $225 million bond election to cover its costs for the 14,000 seat Dickies Arena. It was the final phase of a public-private partnership that only 10 years prior voters would have likely rejected.

Long in need of a new City Hall, Fort Worth will be in one, the high rise built by Marvin Girouard’s Pier 1, which the city is purchasing. The city plans to be in the new place early in 2022.

Price on Tuesday also boasted about City Council action that relieved some of the tax burden from homeowners.

Her tenure wasn’t all fun and games and good news, of course.

Difficult decisions were made in the city’s ongoing pension shortfalls, which weren’t unique to this city or Price and her City Council colleagues over the last 10 years. It was a problem that dated to the 1980s when city management was forced to deal with a debt crisis over the city’s investment in Alliance Airport by diverting employee pension contributions.

Not everybody, whether a general employee, police or fire, was happy about how those issues were resolved, but the city did so without state Legislative intervention, something Dallas and Houston could not say.

“She dealt with it,” said one political insider. “She didn’t hide from it. Betsy didn’t step away from an issue. She stepped up.”

In her initial race in 2011, she told traditionally underserved neighborhoods that she would not disappear if she won, and she didn’t. The city made strides in addressing concerns with infrastructure and opportunity in those communities. That was a continuation of work begun by former Mayor Mike Moncrief, Council member Kathleen Hicks and former City Manager Dale Fisseler. However, there were other issues, including concerns in those communities about police conduct.

She tried to assuage concerns of the Black community in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in 2019, but it wasn’t her finest moment. Public statements she made could become material in the trial of former Officer Aaron Dean.

In 2018, Price and Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald met with neighbors of a southwest Fort Worth community in the wake of the Jacqueline Craig saga, out of which emerged a national conversation on police conduct.

From both incidents, reforms were instituted, including police review panels and an oversight monitor. Nobody believes it’s enough yet.

Price also confronted criticism late in her tenure for bringing party loyalties into her non-partisan office.

More than one political insider believed she was angling for job in a second Trump Administration.

Whatever the case, Price, who as a political neophyte won a Republican primary runoff and a general election to become Tarrant County’s Tax Assessor-Collector in 2000, doesn’t appear to have closed her political career.

In her first race for mayor, some postulated that Price planned to use the office as a steppingstone for higher ambition, say, the U.S. Congress. It was mostly used by opponents seeking to diminish her campaign and motives.

A race for state office is a possibility, one political insider said, perhaps for state comptroller, if Glen Hegar decided not to run for reelection. Price could also perhaps be up for an appointment to state office by Gov. Greg Abbott. For example, secretary of state.

Her sweet spot is Tarrant County. She remains the most popular among Republican public figures. She declined to say whether she would run for County Judge in 2022, the job currently held by Glen Whitley. It’s an office she took a peek at in 2006 when Tom Vandergriff announced his retirement. She backed away in deference to Whitley and, in all likelihood, would again if her good friend decided to seek another term.

In her last campaign finance statement, she had more than $292,000 on hand.

She has a little time to reflect on it all.

For now, she said it’s time to make up for lost time with her family. And her bicycle, of course.