Fort Worth

Can United Fort Worth be a major player? This election may test its strength

United Fort Worth has been been a fixture at city council meetings and rallies where vocal members have criticized what they see as longstanding bias and poor representation for the city’s minority groups.

Now the group’s founders say they’re ready to take on the city’s politicians in this year’s council race, United Fort Worth’s first solid foray into local elections. Official candidate filing begins Wednesday.

United Fort Worth plans to endorse candidates, some who may already be active members of their group, said Daniel Garcia Rodriguez, a United Fort Worth co-founder, with a focus on Fort Worth city council, though the Tarrant Regional Water District board and school board races are not out of the question.

A longtime politician says the group won’t need much cash to swing an election in Fort Worth, where voter turnout historically is low. Instead a clear message and focus on one issue can win, and that could have a big impact in historically conservative Tarrant County, a political scientist said.

“There’s only so much we can do to change an elected official’s mind,” said Daniel Garcia Rodriguez, a United Fort Worth co-founder. “We think it’ll be easier to get people involved and elect someone who will listen to community.”

The activist group was born in 2017 as outrage grew that city leaders had little appetite for joining a lawsuit against Texas Senate Bill 4, a law that effectively bans sanctuary cities. That vote, a 5-4 decision, wasn’t in line with the city’s burgeoning immigrant community, Rodriguez said.

Since then, the group has challenged moves they believe hurt low-income or minority residents. They fought a city plan to charge admission at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the last free city-owned space. The group criticized a Race and Culture Task Force report that they said didn’t have enough teeth to tackle racial and economic disparities.

“We want to be a megaphone for voices that haven’t been heard,” Rodriguez said, cautioning that the group wasn’t picking a party line. “When you have conservative intentions or liberal intentions or whatever it may be, you’re already forgetting others’ voices.”

Local elections, though nonpartisan, are likely to be a vehicle for Republicans and Democrats, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who specializes in Texas politics. It’s also a chance for an activist group to be taken seriously as a political influencer, he said.

A progressive group like United Fort Worth could see success by riding on the spring of Democratic voters who turned out for the 2018 mid-term elections, he said. Democrat Beto O’Rourke took reliably red Tarrant County by nearly 4,000 votes.

But any candidate will have to work to convince Fort Worth voters to show up at the polls.

In 2017, about 8 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot for the mayor. That’s up from the previous election when Fort Worth tied with Dallas for the worst voter turnout in the country at 6 percent, according to a study from Portland State University.

With such low turnout, a group like United Fort Worth may not need to spend a lot of money on campaigns. Instead, traditional boots on the ground campaigning may be enough. If just a few thousand more people could be convinced to vote, a district can flip, Rottinghaus said.

“For organizations like United Fort Worth, their bread and butter is people,” he said. “They can harness the kind of passion you can’t buy.”

Tarrant County is the last urban county in Texas to not vote consistently Democratic, but that may change as demographics shift, Rottinghaus said, pointing to the midterm election. If United Fort Worth influenced a seat on the historically conservative city council, their reputation would move from vocal activities to serious political contenders, he said.

“A group like this can have tremendous sway quickly,” he said.

Jim Lane, a former city councilman who now serves on the Tarrant Regional Water District board, agreed. With low voter turnout, any activist group tuned into community issues can have “a big impact,” Lane said. Politics have evolved to favor grassroots groups.

“Politics is a funny ballgame, and it’s not like it used to be. We shouldn’t expect people to vote the same way anymore,” he said. “If I was on the council or if they choose to participate in the water district, I would be very attentive to what they have to say.”

A political group looking to make an impact in a local election will have to start small, Rottinghaus said, with a clear focus on a topic or candidate that will spur new voters to head the polls.

Without going into detail about financial plans, Rodriguez said the group would raise money for ads and other campaign needs, but focus largely on grassroots and door-to-door campaigning to encourage stronger voter turnout.

United Fort Worth may have found its target in District 6. On Facebook, the group called specifically for people of color to run for the seat held by Jungus Jordan since 2005.

On its Facebook page, United Fort Worth criticized Jordan’s vote against joining the SB4 lawsuit, his opposition to changing Jefferson Davis Park to Parque Unidad/Unity Park and his vote in favor of the Race and Culture Task Force report, among other things. Rodriguez said Jordan had failed to be a voice for young, diverse southwest district.

“We believe the district hasn’t been presented fairly,” he said.

Jordan, who plans to run again, said he regrets the group feels they haven’t been heard.

“Only we control what’s in our heart and what’s in my heart is to make sure every citizen is treated equally,” he said.

When Rodriguez spoke to the Star-Telegram, he said the group hadn’t identified specific candidates and wouldn’t support anyone just because they ran against an incumbent. While District 6 is the focus of the group’s attention, Rodriguez said it would support candidates in other races.

United Fort Worth will back candidates that embody the group’s major concerns: advocating for minority groups and affordable housing and fighting income inequality, he said.

Rottinghaus cautioned that activists looking to make their first splash in an election shouldn’t stretch themselves too thin.

“It’s not something that happens overnight,” he said. “It’s a long process and can take multiple election cycles, but the work will pay off.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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