|Feature: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
District 2 stretches from downtown past the Tarrant County border, making it a challenge to represent.
‘After I drive around up here, I go home and can’t sleep at night.’
Espino talked to Juan Gallegos, who has voted for him before. (Photo by Scott Latham)
‘This is the first time we have a chance to win with someone from our neighborhood.’
Lane: ‘Sal and I are very philosophically alike.’ (Photo by Jerry W. Hoefer)
Stevens, left, takes part in a Shiloh Missionary Baptist prayer breakfast with Deacon Bennie Sherman and Frank Burke. (Photo by Scott Latham)
Espino, like Stevens, carefully chooses the voters whose houses he visits. (Photo by Scott Latham)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Don’t know the issues in the Northside council race? The plan’s working.
By DAN MCGRAW
Salvador Espino is driving through the new housing developments near Alliance Airport, places with names like Village of Woodland Springs, Vista Green, Harvest Ridge — with all new houses, home to mostly new Fort Worth residents, and with construction crews throwing up still more new subdivisions on land that was rural not long ago. There’s big money flying around here these days.
Espino, 37, was born in Mexico and grew up on Fort Worth’s old North Side, the son of immigrants, but he’s come to know this area very well because he’s running for City Council in District 2, which includes not only his old heavily Hispanic stomping grounds but this new land of gated communities, running all the way north past the Denton and Wise county lines. He’s been up this way a bunch of times now, but it still amazes him. Homes are sprouting like wild-flowers on every corner, big brick $150,000-$500,000 houses with pools and big parks and kids who go to upscale Keller schools.
“After I drive around up here, I go home and can’t sleep at night,” Espino says.
It’s not the reaction of some poor homeboy who’s gawked at the homes of the rich. Espino is a successful real estate lawyer, with a home on a very nice street in the North Beverly Hills section on the North Side. In fact, Sal’s brother lives in a new $150,000 house up this way. But Espino is looking at the areas north of Loop 820 through different eyes now. He used to think of this part of town as potentially a good place for him and wife (his high-school sweetheart) to settle down and raise their three kids. Now he sees it as a place that could make or break his longtime dream of winning political office.
We pass a construction crew pouring concrete for yet another new home. “We have really good support in the Hispanic community inside the Loop, and it’s not that we are avoiding this area,” he says. “We will work hard in these new housing areas up here. But you really don’t know what will happen in this race. It really depends on which group gets out to vote.”
Most local political races are usually humdrum, low-turnout popularity contests. This race, however, is a little different. Espino — who has served on city boards and served as president of his neighborhood association — is running against a popular activist from this new housing area, a research scientist named Larry Stevens, a man who has complained often at City Hall that these new Alliance Airport-corridor homeowners have been ignored. Stevens — who also has served on city boards and as president of neighborhood associations — thinks Fort Worth gobbles up the high property taxes from these new rich homes, pockets the money for downtown and other neighborhood development, and then does nothing for the area, like making roads more functional.
Both men have run unsuccessfully in the past against current District 2 council member Jim Lane, who is retiring. So neither is a political neophyte, and both are running fairly sophisticated, well-funded campaigns that go beyond knocking on doors and handing out flyers. What is making this race different is not so much the issues or personalities, but who these guys represent. Espino, Lane’s longtime heir apparent, has huge support on the North Side, where some Hispanic leaders see his candidacy as a great opportunity for their community. Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of the city’s population, but their representation on the council is currently zero, so they see this race as their best chance in a long time for a voice in city politics. Espino is not a radical civil rights political type by any means; in fact, he comes off mostly as a middle-class family man, someone who wants to work within the Fort Worth government.
Stevens, on the other hand, is an evangelical conservative, a Sunday school teacher, and a man who has been lobbying for years to make this section of Fort Worth a separate district. Married for 26 years and with two grown children, Stevens has worked for years in poor neighborhoods with the Butler Housing Ministry, but he also spoke out against the 2000 city law that prohibited gays from being discriminated against. At some rallies, he shows up with the Ten Commandments displayed behind him. He is a bit on the quiet side, bespectacled with slick-backed hair, a research scientist for the eyecare pharmaceutical Alcon Laboratories who says he wants to carefully study city financial numbers and act accordingly
With real estate developers turning old rural areas into new housing developments, Stevens sees these new homeowners as having little voice. “We pay high property taxes, we are driving a lot of this city’s economy, and we can’t get simple things done like new road construction or keeping development growth working under long-term plans,” he said.
Stevens is a bit more serious and contemplative; Espino is very outgoing and seems to enjoy hearing himself talk. Stevens is a Republican; Espino is a Democrat. And if you want to break this race down, you can find just about all the issues Fort Worth is facing right now: Hispanic vs. Anglo, rich vs. poor, neighborhoods vs. downtown interests, old residents vs. new ones, inside the Loop vs. outside the Loop.
It all boils down to which group shows up at the polls on May 7. Neither the Hispanic population nor the new homeowners in the Alliance Airport corridor have a history of showing any muscle in Fort Worth politics. In some ways, they are both sleeping giants, community groups that have been quiet up until now but that have a lot at stake in this city election. And Fort Worth, in turn, has a big stake in this district: Whoever represents District 2 will have something to say about initiatives that could reshape Fort Worth for decades to come, from the Trinity Vision project to possible casinos in the Stockyards, to Alliance, the Texas Motor Speedway, and the fight over tax increment financing for some of the hottest properties in the Metroplex. And the new council member could also be a key to sorting out the fruit-basket-turnover that’s about to happen at city hall, with at least four new members coming in to test the coalition Mayor Mike Moncrief has been trying to forge, and with issues like tax increment financing and an Eastside rebellion threatening to blow up in his face.
When Espino and Stevens crank the numbers, they see that the next council member from this important district probably needs only about 750 votes to win. If either of the major population groups gets riled up, those votes could roll in easily. The key to victory, both men agree, is to rouse one group and get it to the polls, without jabbing the other one awake. So right now, it’s a campaign on tiptoe.
Jim Lane may be bowing out of the council, but the cowboy-hatted lawyer is by no means off the political stage. He’s always had the support of the older white voters, and his endorsement of Espino gives the Hispanic lawyer a leg up, especially with voters in Oakhurst, an older northeast neighborhood in his centipede-like district. “Sal and I are very philosophically alike on many things, about how to balance out the needs of poorer neighborhoods with the business interests of this city,” Lane said. “Plus we’re both lawyers, and us lawyers have to stick together.”
But while Lane has always done well inside the Loop with the older white voters, he has not always been held in high regard with some of the far north, new-home residents. One resident of a neighborhood association in far north Fort Worth, who didn’t want his name used, said Lane “knew he could win without paying much attention to us, so he really never did.”
“Lane was always real good about paying attention to the Alliance Airport business interests, giving them anything they want,” the resident said. “But the new residents needed better roads, controlling traffic and development better, and Lane never seemed interested.”
Lane denies treating the far north neighborhoods poorly. “One of the challenges of this district is that it has some of the richest neighborhoods in the city and also some of the poorest,” Lane said. “But I always tried to treat every resident of this district with respect and try to serve them well. But not everyone agrees with their council member all the time. That’s how serving on city council works.”
After the 2000 U.S. Census results came in, there was a move to expand the Fort Worth City Council to 10 districts from the current eight. Stevens worked hard on the issue, trying to get some of the neighborhoods north of Loop 820 combined into a single new district. That would have left the old District 2 even more heavily Hispanic. The council eventually tweaked some of the district boundaries but kept the general outlines and number of districts the same.
“We argued that [over] the last few years,” Lane explained. “If we created an Hispanic district inside 820, it might not give the councilperson from that district the ability to get a lot of other things done. Right now, whether the District 2 councilman speaks on issues or immigration or massive growth, he’s heard on everything. Splitting the district into two would dilute the effectiveness of the individual. The result is that the councilman can do all those things and still relate to all of the people.”
Councilman Clyde Picht, who is also stepping down, said the council made a mistake by not reshaping districts and expanding the council. “We definitely should expand our council seats,” Picht said. “If you look at a council map, all of the districts have a linear orientation toward the center of town. What happens is that council members are catering to the bigger downtown development interests who provide money to the campaign and ignoring the neighborhoods away from downtown. It is a plan the downtown business interest don’t want to deviate from.”
“The districts are so big you can’t cover it all now,” he continued. “Some areas are ignored, and some are catered to in every district. I would rather see a representative for the Latino people in District 2 that didn’t include Texas Motor Speedway and the suburban outer areas. And if we added additional council districts outside of Loop 820, you’d see a shift of the council differently — more libraries and services for those neighborhoods. More money would be going outside of downtown and the cultural district.
“But the reason that doesn’t happen is that the powers that be in Fort Worth — the big business leaders in this town, the names you know and the ones you don’t — want as many council districts as possible to be aligned with downtown. That’s why they look like a pie chart.”
There are also other factors working against such changes. If the Fort Worth council were realigned into 10 districts, with the two new seats outside the Loop, there’s a possibility that Districts 5 and 8, which are almost 50 percent African-American, might get consolidated into one. In effect, blacks would go from having two probable seats among eight, to one out of 10.
The other issue was Lane’s desire to be mayor, according to sources. Lane had said publicly in 2001 and 2003 that he would not run for re-election — but changed his mind both times. Lane said he stayed on for his most recent term because there were too many important projects in the works for his district and the city. But sources close to Lane say his plan was to run for mayor this year, assuming former Mayor Kenneth Barr would have stayed in office another term and then stepped down. But Barr dropped out at the last minute in 2003, Lane kept his council job, and Mike Moncrief ran when redistricting effectively took away his state senate seat. Lane was left out in the cold.
Lane denies that, saying he never had plans to run. But a city hall source said Lane’s thoughts about the mayor’s job kept District 2 from being split. “He figured that he had the Alliance Airport business in his district; he could claim it as a feather in his hat and get that campaign funding,” the former city hall aide said. “He also figured that having a district with rich and poor, black, white, and Hispanic would give him an edge across the city. So in the end, the council just figured to keep the districts the way they were.”
Lane said that a council with at least four new members may come to a different conclusion about what kinds of changes are needed to Fort Worth government. “The city charter says the council is supposed to show up and set policy and let the city manager put that policy into effect,” Lane said. “But we’ve grown into a major city. Over time, the council has expanded its role and is micro-managing more than the charter says it should. Maybe the council needs to get paid more, and maybe we need more districts. The voters need to be asked the question, [about whether] city council needs to expand its authority. Now that may lead to a stronger-mayor form of government. There are a lot of issues here.”
Lane is endorsing Espino, partly because he has said he believes the North Side deserves a strong Hispanic leader, but also because both are Democrats and Stevens is a conservative Republican. So while municipal elections are non-partisan, the two-party system is coming into play — not in an upfront public way, but behind the scenes. It is the quiet way that Fort Worth uses political muscle in local elections.
If Stevens and Espino seem so different in party, ethnicity, neighborhood, culture, then why do they sound so much the same? Both have built their platforms from the same box of chestnuts: They are for reducing crime, improving roads and parks, controlling taxes and development, and supporting neighborhood activism. On the Trinity River Vision project, both play it safe by saying the city has to be careful not to chase out businesses through eminent domain.
“The river project is nice and pretty, but we will be displacing about 89 businesses,” Stevens said. “We have to study this to determine if the new development will make up for all of the lost businesses. We have to make it more attractive for everyone, including the businesses that will be forced out.”
And Espino: “On paper it looks good, but this is a 30- to 40-year plan, and we have to make sure it helps us keep us with neighborhood services and neighborhood flooding. And we have to make sure those property owners are protected and not pushed out without real and proper compensation. These private property owners have rights. Plus, we have to make sure this plan brings good jobs to District 2.”
Both think tax increment finance (TIF) districts — like the one for Cabela’s mega-sporting good store — need to be studied more. Stevens is opposed to any casino gambling in the Stockyards; Espino says that, if Fort Worth State Rep. Charlie Geren’s bill on casino gambling passes, it’s up to voters to decide.
OK, maybe the big difference is fitness to serve, or political philosophy? Hardly. Responses to those questions sounded like something from a debating club.
Espino “has the experience in many areas of working in the community,” Stevens said. “Lane appointed him to a lot of boards. And he is nice in a lot of ways. But Sal is always about spending more money for programs and services. But what we need to do is practice fiscal conservatism.”
Stevens “has been someone who has worked hard in his community and he is a pretty smart guy,” Espino said. “But he does not understand the needs of many residents south of the Loop. I have the unique sensitivity to address all of the issues in this district. I am trying to bring north of the Loop and south of the Loop together.”
Finally, a tiny speck of mud was launched. Stevens thinks Espino wants to use the council office as a steppingstone to another political level, “to become the next Martin Frost,” he said.
Espino’s response: “Well maybe Larry wants to be the next Tom Delay or Joe Barton.”
Why the limp rhetoric? Well, it’s hard to sound tough when you’re tiptoeing past that snoring mound of the other guy’s voters. It’s the math that’s muzzling these guys.
Between the downtown RadioShack headquarters and the northern reaches of Fort Worth lie the homes of District 2’s 72,000 people — including 27,000 or so registered voters. But experts figure on a turnout of only 1,200 to 1,500 for this election, unless something heats up quickly.
Espino and Stevens have done this before. Both ran against Lane and got beaten badly. They’ve learned from the experience, and they’ve got some sophisticated machinery helping them this time. Neither has the dependable base of supporters that an incumbent could rely on. For both, the strategy is to do targeted appeals rather than mass marketing, to aim for the undecided voters, to make appearances in the other guy’s strongholds, but not to piss anybody off.
So both candidates are paring down the list of folks they need to contact. The starting point is the lists of voters who probably are going to show up this time because they did last time, or in 2001 or 1999. When Espino goes door-to-door in neighborhoods, his paid consulting company — The Eppstein Group (which usually works with Republicans) — identifies only about four or five houses on an entire block worth a door knock.
But those voters are a known quantity. The key to expanding the base is finding the wobblers who might be leaning your way. For example, Espino is looking for those District 2 residents who voted in the 2002 Democratic governor’s primary when Tony Sanchez ran. He’s also been tracking voters with Hispanic names and working them by phone or mail or in person.
Stevens wouldn’t tell how he’s working the voters but does acknowledge he is concentrating on those who have cast ballots in recent municipal elections. “I’m not stupid,” Stevens said, “and I have done this twice before.”
His approach is to go for north-of-820 residents who have voted in some recent election, municipal or otherwise. Since he takes the conservative position on many issues — against gay workplace rights, for tight government fiscal restraints and the use of church ministries to fight crime and gang activity — and since Bush dominated far north Fort Worth in the 2004 election, Stevens can work the list of those who voted in the presidential elections in 2000 and 2004. He’s hoping the growing numbers of residents beyond the Loop, plus his Republican identity and unhappiness with lack of attention to the area from city hall will do the trick.
“There are only so many people you can get to in a short period of time,” Stevens said. “After Jim Lane endorsed my opponent, you have to target where you will be most effective. But I have been all across the district, and show up whenever someone asks me.”
Espino also learned a very important lesson from his loss in 2003. He played up his Hispanic heritage heavily in that race, choosing to speak Spanish in some way at most events. But the Spanish language and a focus on immigrant issues backfired, judging by letters to the editor in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram decrying Espino’s immigrant background. (Lane, to his credit, denounced the letters.)
This time, Espino is picking his shots a little better. He uses his fluent Spanish to his advantage when going door-to-door in Hispanic neighborhoods. But when placing volunteers, he sends the younger Hispanics to the near Northside neighborhoods and white volunteers to more mixed neighborhoods like Oakhurst.
He’s not knocking on that many doors in far north Fort Worth. He will do some meet-and-greets at neighborhood associations and possibly mail drops in some of the new developments. Likewise, Stevens is not doing much door-to-door in the near Northside Hispanic neighborhoods. Don’t want to wake up the opposition.
“There are some facts here that cannot be ignored,” Espino said. “District 2 is 72 percent Hispanic. I’m proud of my Hispanic heritage, just like everyone is proud of their heritage and their family and who they are. But I am running to represent everyone, and that includes whites and African-Americans and Hispanics. It is important to have diversity, though. Fort Worth is the only big city in Texas not to have a Hispanic on council. I think I bring a fresh perspective, not only to the Hispanics, but every person in District 2.”
Stevens is also playing down the Anglo vs. Hispanic angle. “This city should not be fragmented because that never is about good representation,” he said. “North of 820 there are a lot of Hispanics. There are lots of different groups in this district. And the voters need to realize that their neighborhoods are equal in importance to this city, whether they are in poor neighborhoods or live in neighborhoods with $150,000 homes.”
Thus far, Espino has far outstripped Stevens in campaign fundraising — about $20,000 compared to Stevens’ $3,600 — though candidates in other races have raised far more than either.
Espino’s donors thus far include some of Fort Worth’s best-known players: Holt Hickman, James Toal, local police and firefighters’ political action committees, and a Bass family PAC. By contrast, most of Stevens’ money, so far, has come in small donations from political unknowns. He’s running his own campaign, while Espino has hired the Eppstein Group and used some Democratic party advisors.
One local Democrat is being pretty vocal about Stevens. When the far-Northside candidate spoke to a meeting of ministers at a local black church on a recent Sunday, Democratic State Rep. Lon Burnam was there too. “Larry Stevens was smooth as silk. He said things everyone wanted to hear, but he was not very forthcoming about his political agenda,” the Fort Worth legislator said. “He is a neoconservative, and the folks in this district should know this. It’s an issue that needs to be out there. Inner-city minority residents in Fort Worth do not want a Republican neocon representing them at city hall.”
Stevens couldn’t be reached for response.
The local political parties themselves are not getting involved in this race publicly, but they’re watching. “Democrats and Republicans have an eye on this one because both parties see this race as a way to expand their voter bases in future elections,” said a Democratic consultant who didn’t want to be named. “If Sal can get the Hispanic vote out, it could help out Democrats in future state rep or state senate races. The same goes for Stevens. If he can show how to get more conservative Christians out for this race, the Republicans will have an easier time keeping their lock on many political offices.”
Louis Zapata was the first Hispanic city councilman in the history of Fort Worth, when he served from 1977 to 1991. Zapata says he was run out of office by the city’s business interests, especially when he questioned the city’s Alliance Airport funding. He backs Espino and has given the young lawyer lots of advice on how to win this race
On one Saturday morning, Zapata was speaking to Espino’s volunteers, mostly young Hispanics who are about to get out talking to voters in the near north side Hispanic neighborhoods. “If we get our people out to vote, we win,” Zapata said. “This part of the city hasn’t participated in city politics in a very long time, but this is the first time we have a chance to win with someone from our neighborhood. It is very important for all of us to have a Hispanic man serve in city hall. You young people are the future of this city and this country. Show your enthusiasm out there.”
But it is hard to guarantee enthusiasm when such a small number of voters will be deciding such a hot city election — and when both candidates are making so nice and staying away from the citywide stage.
The tenor of the district’s politics might change after the 2010 census, when the city council could redraw districts. Whoever wins this time will likely stay in office at least until then, given the difficulty that challengers have in unseating incumbents in Fort Worth.
That’s why the city races are so important this time around. As the council, over the next several years, makes decisions on issues that will reshape the city in major ways, the District 2 representative could wield some important swing-vote power.
Right now, Moncrief can generally rely upon council members Lane, Becky Haskin, John Stevenson, and Wendy Davis to back him on just about every legislation and policy — and usually to back the interests of the Bass family and other downtown business leaders. Picht, along with Donovan Wheatfall, Chuck Silcox, and Ralph McCloud, often form a strange-bedfellows opposition group. With Lane, Picht, Stevenson, and McCloud leaving, and with Haskins facing an opponent, the balance could change significantly.
Where Stevens and Espino fit into all this is hard to say, but political clichés should be tossed out the window. While Espino is a Democrat and Hispanic, he is very middle-of-the-road and could side with Moncrief if he has future political ambitions, given the mayor’s important ties within the state’s Democratic Party. And while one would guess that a Republican conservative like Stevens would always favor business interests, he’s basing a large part of his campaign on the fact that the downtown power structure doesn’t pay attention to many neighborhoods.
A lot may depend on which group wakes up next week — and which one rolls over and takes a long nap.
Dan McGraw is a Fort Worth freelance journalist and author.
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