First in a series of Tarrant County’s top newsmakers in 2016.
During the contentious, six-month battle over the proposed new $1 billion stadium for the Texas Rangers, no one stumped as long and hard as Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams to line up voters for the Nov. 8 election.
Public funding for the retractable-roof stadium won the day in a landslide, promising that major league baseball will stay in town through the 2053 season. For that reason, the Star-Telegram chose Williams as one of the top Tarrant County newsmakers in 2016.
But will the new baseball stadium be his legacy? Williams, a first-term mayor who took office last year, isn’t ready to embrace that.
“Well, I would like to be a newsmaker because of the 5,000 to 6,000 new jobs that were created in the last year and a half,” he said. “And for the dramatic increase in tourism — 40 percent in the last five years — and for getting more streets under construction now ($100 million worth) than at any time in our history.”
There were other accomplishments in his first full year as Arlington’s mayor: more than half a billion dollars in state funding for highway projects in Arlington; expanded efforts to hire more African-American and women contractors for city construction work; even plans to start a “kindness commission” to promote volunteerism and putting “a theme of kindness in anything we do.”
Still, topping a $1 billion stadium as a legacy will be tough, perhaps on the order of Paul McCartney outdoing his contribution to the Beatles.
“He was the captain,” Brian Mayes said of Williams, who chaired the Vote Yes! Keep the Rangers political action committee. Mayes was the PAC’s campaign manager and a political consultant. “He directed the campaign. I’ve never seen someone work that hard for a referendum in my career, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years.”
That includes managing Williams’ successful 2015 bid to unseat longtime Mayor Robert Cluck.
That election marked Williams’ first try for public office, but he was no newbie to the city. He and his wife moved to Arlington in 1984 to start a family, and that year he also started a new job. A civil engineer, Williams joined Graham Associates, an engineering firm he now owns.
The firm has worked on some of Arlington’s biggest projects over the years — AT&T Stadium, Globe Life Park, the Parks at Arlington mall, River Legacy Living Science Center and the Interstate 30 Three Bridges Project.
I’ve had several businesses that we’re recruiting here say that they wouldn’t have been even talking to me if that [stadium proposition] had not passed.
Mayor Jeff Williams on job creation and retention
As mayor, Williams has pledged to stay out of city projects to avoid conflicts of interest.
The Rangers deal came on fast. Williams had barely finished a year in office last May when he and Rangers co-owner Ray Davis sat down at press conference to announce that the city and the ball club would join forces and resources to build a new home for the Rangers. The city would put up half the construction cost, up to $500 million, by extending a half-cent sales tax, hotel-motel tax and rental car tax currently being used to pay for AT&T Stadium.
The City Council approved the deal four days later, and drew immediate criticism from some residents who said the quick action was suspicious. Williams and other city officials said they hurried the negotiations because they had evidence that Dallas wanted to lure the Rangers away.
From there, it was a race to the election, with Williams leading the way, fronting rallies and pitching the stadium at as many luncheons and meetings at civic and service organizations and neighborhood groups as he could schedule.
He was an authority figure and gathered his establishment force. He kept strict discipline.
Warren Norred, opponent of stadium deal, on Williams.
Near the end, Williams’ couldn’t lick a low-grade fear of defeat at the polls and losing the Rangers. “Even though I knew we were leading,” he said, “I was worried still throughout because of what was at stake for our community.”
Voters approved the proposal by a 60-40 margin.
Warren Norred, spokesman for Citizens for a Better Arlington, the lead group that opposed public funding for the stadium — and no fan of the mayor — said Williams exhibited his leadership.
“He was the unifier of the establishment,” Norred said. “He was an authority figure and gathered his establishment force. He kept strict discipline.
“I would say, you’re hired to lead, so he led. I don’t have any problem with that.”