Texas mayoral races, Austin homeless measure among key issues on Saturday ballots. Here's what you need to know.
Local elections are happening across Texas on Saturday, some of which have drawn statewide — and even national — attention.
Editor's note: You can updates on the results of some of these key races here.
Local elections are happening across Texas on Saturday, some of which have drawn statewide — and even national — attention. Here are the four that we are watching most closely, plus a few other contests to keep in mind.
An open mayoral race in changing Fort Worth
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price announced in January that she would not run for a sixth term leading Texas’ fifth-most-populous city. While the office is nonpartisan, Price is a longtime Republican, and she is one of the few remaining GOP mayors of a large American city.
Accordingly, the race marks a political inflection point for Fort Worth. It is the seat of a county — Tarrant — that was once the state’s biggest red county, but that status has fallen into question after it went blue at the top of the ticket in the two most recent statewide elections. The county went for Beto O’Rourke in 2018 and Joe Biden in 2020.
“We’re in a transition period in Fort Worth,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “Fort Worth has been, up until recently, a city that was Republican-leaning. It was the largest Republican-leaning city in the country. And now twice in the past two elections, it’s flipped twice in significant elections.”
Ten candidates are competing to succeed Price, and a runoff is expected. The most serious contenders include Mattie Parker, Price’s former chief of staff; Brian Byrd, a member of the City Council; Deborah Peoples, chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party; and Ann Zadeh, another council member.
Price has endorsed Parker to succeed her, while Fort Worth’s other top Republican elected official — U.S. Rep. Kay Granger — has backed Byrd.
The 37-year-old Parker is running as a fresh-faced unifier who is focused on otherwise familiar bread-and-butter issues like ensuring the city has good jobs and schools. Byrd, a fiscal conservative, is campaigning more as a reformer, pushing for lower property taxes and promising to take on “corruption” and “special interests” at City Hall.
Peoples is running again after giving Price her first real challenge in 2019 and still losing by 14 points. Peoples is also talking unity but not shying away from her political base, pitching herself as a “progressive change-maker” and touting the support of top Democratic elected officials in North Texas such as Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.
There has been mild conflict in the contest, with Byrd targeting Parker in at least one mailer that paints her as having the wrong experience for the job, saying she is “all hat and no cattle.” His mail has also caught attention for its dire warnings about public safety in Fort Worth, which express his opposition to the movement to “defund the police.”
Parker has sought to stay above the fray of Byrd’s attacks but has also found use in contrast, warning in one of her TV ads that some unnamed opponents are “promising partisanship.”
San Antonio’s mayor vies for reelection with pandemic focus
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is up for a third term at the helm of Texas’ second-biggest city, and his main opponent is Greg Brockhouse, the former City Council member who forced Nirenberg into a nail-biter of a runoff in 2019. Nirenberg won the runoff by just 2 percentage points.
The office is nonpartisan, though Nirenberg has drawn his support from Democrats, and Republicans coalesced around Brockhouse two years ago, particularly amid backlash to the council’s decision to nix an airport contract for Chick-fil-A over its owners’ support for anti-LGBT causes.
While Brockhouse gave Nirenberg a real scare in 2019, this time around is different. Nirenberg has refused to debate Brockhouse, depriving him of an important spotlight, and the police and fire unions, which strongly backed Brockhouse in 2019, have remained on the sidelines.
A late March poll found Nirenberg leading with 56% support — enough to avoid a runoff — and Brockhouse down by 35 points.
There is also the coronavirus pandemic, which has elevated Nirenberg’s profile as he spent the past year delivering updates almost every weekday evening alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Citing their work together fighting the pandemic, Wolff has endorsed Nirenberg for reelection — something the county judge declined to do in 2019.
Gilberto Ocañas, Nirenberg’s campaign chair, said San Antonians got to know a “different Ron Nirenberg” in the COVID-19 briefings.
“He got to be more comfortable as mayor,” Ocañas said. “People got to see him for who he really was.”
In a sign of the mayor’s continued pandemic focus, his final TV ad in the race is all about how the city responded to COVID-19, and although the spot shows his campaign logo, it is otherwise largely devoid of political messaging.
While Nirenberg’s campaign believes his pandemic experience is an asset, Brockhouse is using it against the incumbent. Brockhouse said during a TV forum earlier this month that he would have “never shut down the city” and would have “never promoted mandatory masks.”
“I would’ve kept us open and work[ed] hard to keep people working,” Brockhouse said. “I would’ve been mindful of the science and then consistent in the leadership moment.”
A homeless camping ordinance in the crosshairs in Austin
Proposition B in Austin would reinstate the city’s ban on homeless camping in most public places, which the City Council repealed in 2019. This election has received arguably the widest attention of any local election on the ballot Saturday in Texas, with some of the state’s best-known Democrats and Republicans lining up on either side.
Proponents of Proposition B argue that bringing back the camping ban is necessary to restore public health and safety, pointing to large homeless encampments that have popped up in areas around the city. Opponents say that restoring the ban would only criminalize homelessness again and force people experiencing homelessness back into the shadows of society, not doing anything to fix the underlying problems.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler opposes the proposition and has argued the city is on the precipice of major progress in fighting homelessness thanks to the plan that came out of a weekslong summit on the issue that started last month. But even while pitching that plan, which calls for housing 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in three years, Adler has suggested Proposition B offers an imperfect choice.
“My sense is 75% of people in this city would rather there be a choice other than voting yes on Proposition B or the status quo,” Adler said during a recent podcast interview.
The Austin American-Statesman editorial board declined to take a position on the proposition, saying it could not support the proposition but also could not “defend the status quo and Austin’s failed efforts to address homelessness since lifting the camping ban.”
State Republican leaders have thrown their support behind the proposition, and Gov. Greg Abbott has even tapped his campaign coffers to fund digital ads backing the proposition. The list of Democrats who have come out in opposition to the proposition includes Julián Castro — the former presidential candidate, U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor — as well as Beto O’Rourke, the former White House hopeful, El Paso congressman and 2018 nominee for U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, proposals have been moving forward at the Texas Legislature to enact a statewide homeless camping ban. One such proposal, House Bill 1925, reached that chamber’s floor Monday but was returned to committee after a Democratic representative raised a point of order — a procedural objection — against it.
Police collective bargaining at stake in San Antonio
Proposition B in San Antonio would strip the city’s police union of collective bargaining power — and it has splintered two groups typically arrayed together in the Democratic coalition: organized labor and police reformers.
Supporters of the proposition argue it would lead to more accountability because contracts negotiated through collective bargaining often shield police officers who step out of line. The spotlight on police conduct is intenser than ever after the death last year of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. Last week, a jury found the officer, Derek Chauvin, guilty of murder in connection with Floyd’s death.
Some opponents of Proposition B claim it is a form of “defunding the police,” predicting that the absence of collective bargaining would lead to reduced paid benefits.
The proposition is opposed by the San Antonio AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, whose president, Tom Cummins, said that the ballot item “for many people is an emotional outlet on what’s happening in the rest of the country.”
“I’m upset by what’s going on and other people are, but that shouldn’t be confused with the proposition, which would [end] collective bargaining,” Cummins said. “We support collective bargaining. We’re a union.”
Cummins said the best path to holding officers accountable is by keeping them at the bargaining table. In February, the labor council’s delegates passed a resolution affirming their support for the right of city cops to collectively bargain — but also made clear they support reforms like outlawing chokeholds and widening the use of body cameras.
In another sign of the tricky politics behind the proposition, Ron Nirenberg, the San Antonio mayor who is also on the ballot Saturday, has told the police union he backs its right to collectively bargain but has avoided specifically weighing in on the proposition. Nirenberg’s chief opponent, Greg Brockhouse, opposes Proposition B.
Like with Proposition B in Austin, the debate over Proposition B in San Antonio has drawn big names. Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro, who led the city from 2009-14, have endorsed the proposition. It has sparked opposition from Gov. Greg Abbott, who sent out a tweet earlier this month telling San Antonians, “Don’t defund your police.”
Other notable issues across the state
- The entire Dallas City Council is on the ballot Saturday, and the city’s mayor, Eric Johnson, has made the unusual move of backing two challengers. Johnson has endorsed Donald Parish, a pastor who is running against incumbent Adam Bazaldua, and Yolanda Faye Williams, a former member of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board who is challenging incumbent Jaime Resendez. Bazaldua and Resendez were in the majority of council members who voted last year to cut $7 million from the police overtime budget, which Johnson opposed.
- Lubbock voters will decide Saturday whether to ban abortion in their city and make it the next “sanctuary city for the unborn.” A handful of other Texas cities have already opted to do so, but none has been as big as Lubbock, the state’s 11th-most-populous city. It is also the first city being targeted by the movement that is home to an abortion provider — Planned Parenthood — which opened a clinic there last year and started providing abortions this month.
- U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — the former two-time presidential candidate — has made endorsements in two San Antonio races Saturday. Last week, he backed Teri Castillo, an educator running for an open seat on the City Council, and Luke Amphlett, another teacher who is challenging the vice president of the San Antonio school board, Arthur Valdez.
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood; Texas Christian University; and Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chair, have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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