District 9 on the Fort Worth City Council is one of the most influential districts in town — and one of the most diverse.
Its territory runs through the center of the city, taking in most of downtown with its million-dollar condos and billion-dollar corporations, the rapidly developing West Seventh Street corridor, the revitalized Near South Side, and the burgeoning, mostly blue-collar, Latino neighborhoods that fan out along the Hemphill Street corridor from Vickery Boulevard south to I-20. Hispanics now make up 65 percent of its population. And deep beneath this slice of Fort Worth heartland lies what may be the most productive part of the vast Barnett Shale gas field, with its dangers and also its potential for huge wealth for the city, some residents, and the companies that bring that gas to the surface. As a result, neighborhood opposition to the gas drilling boom is fiercer and more organized here than anywhere else in town.
Because of that, the stakes in the special election on Nov. 6, called to fill the seat being vacated by Wendy Davis, are higher than just one vote on the council. Most of those running are calling for significant changes in the way the city approaches gas drilling, though their stands range from vague to sharply defined. Five candidates with widely varied backgrounds are pounding the pavement hoping for a voter turnout that will put one of them over the top without a runoff. (Also on the ballot are an election to fill retiring State Rep. Anna Mowery’s District 97 seat, a Fort Worth school board bond election, and a package of proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.) Jim Beckman, 71, a conservative and retired construction company owner, jumpstarted his campaign with a $100,000 loan. Joel Burns, 38, is a realtor, the preppie newcomer-to-the-neighborhood, and a Democrat. Juan Rangel, 59, also a Democrat and the only Hispanic in the race, is a management consultant and a seven-year Fort Worth schools trustee. Bernie Scheffler, 28, is an active environmentalist who owns a popular bike shop. Chris Turner, 35, a Republican with a sense of humor, is a political consultant and one-time aide to former council member Clyde Picht, who earned his reputation as a maverick who never saw a tax-abatement he could support.
Burns has been running as the odds-on favorite in this campaign since he first announced. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram gave him a glowing endorsement, and he has been groomed by Davis as her successor for some time. She recently appointed him to the zoning commission, and he served on the city’s influential Historic and Cultural Commission for six years. While some might consider his age and party affiliation as signs that he might buck the downtown business interests, he is much more of an insider due to his connections to Davis. Recently, however, Burns has found himself at the center of two controversies that are threatening to give some heat to an otherwise tepid campaign, changing the subject from gas to ethics — a topic the current council tries hard to avoid. Fernando Florez is a Rangel supporter who has been fighting to save the Hemphill Street corridor for almost two decades. He’s chairman of the Hemphill Corridor Task Force, a group that works with the city to clean up neighborhoods and encourage redevelopment of blighted areas. Its most recent victory was the closing of the dilapidated, rat-infested Victorian Inn Motel, a hang-out for drug addicts and prostitutes.
“We have been trying to get the place closed for 15 years,” he said, and they finally did it through code enforcement and a lawsuit against the owner, brought under the city’s nuisance abatement ordinance. So when Florez saw a recent Burns mailer that showed the candidate standing in front of the boarded-up motel, “promoting his service on the zoning commission and implying that somehow he had something to do with getting that blighted place shut down,” Florez said he went ballistic. “I have never once seen Burns at a task force meeting,” Florez said, “and as chairman I know who’s there. He was never involved in this fight, never came into the neighborhood, the zoning commission was never involved, and for him to use it to get votes now is, well, he’s got a serious ethics problem.” Burns said he never claimed to have closed the motel down. His campaign “used it as an example of the type of crime-ridden places we shouldn’t have in our … district,” he said.
An earlier controversy involved Burns and Scheffler, owner of Panther City Bicycles on West Magnolia Avenue. In January 2007, Burns registered as owner of the web site www.berniescheffler.com. Once the campaign started, anyone clicking on that site was redirected to the Burns campaign site. When Scheffler found out about the ploy, he said, he called Burns, and the site was changed to redirect hits to Scheffler’s official site. Burns declined to talk about his decisions about the web site name. “I’ve already talked about this and don’t care to comment any further,” he said. Scheffler called the dust-up an example of his opponent’s negative campaigning. “I think he lost some respect with voters when this all came out,” Scheffler said. “I can say he … apologized, but to plan the web site out like he did — six months before Davis announced she wasn’t going to run — shows he knew she wasn’t running back then and saw me as a threat.”
Ethics hasn’t come up as an issue at voter forums, but it’s likely to be on the city council agenda if Rangel is elected. He said he would work to bring back to life the city’s ethics ordinance, now in deep limbo at city hall. When asked about the ethics of Mayor Mike Moncrief’s votes to give gas leasing rights to companies in which he has a financial interest, Rangel said, “Everybody should play by the same rules.” (The ethics ordinance requires officials to abstain from voting in situations where their financial interests are involved. However, the city attorney ruled that Moncrief, who according to records received at least $450,000 last year from gas companies doing business with the city, could vote because that income didn’t represent an “ownership position” with any of the companies.)
Ethnicity also hasn’t been a factor in the campaign — other than as the 800-pound gorilla in the living room that no one’s talking about. Rangel said that, with the district’s majority Hispanic population, the support he’s had over the years from Anglos who helped elect him to the school board, plus endorsements from the Fort Worth Firefighters Association and North Side councilman Sal Espino, he believes he can win the council seat without a runoff. But local political activist Hector Carrillo disagreed. The District 9 race only has the “appearance of legitimacy,” he said, “through the myriad candidates running for election.” Carrillo said that with so many Anglo candidates in the race, “the chances of the Hispanic winning in the first round are practically reduced to zero.” And if Rangel is in a runoff, the downtown power structure will pour money behind his opponent, whoever he might be, he predicted. “The powers that be don’t want another Hispanic on the council.”
Gas drilling, hands down, is the most frequently discussed issue at all of the candidate forums, and one the candidates can’t avoid, though some have taken only vague positions on the controversies involved. Rangel and Scheffler are opposed to the current ordinance and its 600-foot minimum distance requirement separating wells from houses and schools, with a provision for waivers reducing that to 200 feet in special circumstances. Both said they wanted the city to require more distance between wells and residential areas. Burns is also against waivers and variances but has not made clear what he believes a safe distance is. Beckman said he would “let the neighborhoods decide” by voting on a revised gas ordinance.
Turner would push to “move the sites away from neighborhoods” and into industrial areas. “We [neighborhood residents] are not going to realize much from the money, but we’re going to get all of the problems,” he said.
All favor reconstituting the gas drilling task force and rewriting the current ordinance. Rangel goes further. He wants a six-month moratorium on urban drilling in order to give the council time to hire an independent group of experts to take a hard look at the pros and cons and long-term environmental effects of urban drilling. It is the only way for the council to write a new ordinance from the position of knowledge, Rangel said. “We are in unknown territory. We must do it right.” He also wants setbacks of 1,000 feet along the Trinity River and wants neighborhood residents named to the task force. He said he would require the gas companies to pay upfront fees — just as the utility companies do for city rights-of-way — for the use of city streets and to repair the damage done to them by the increased traffic of their heavy trucks.
Scheffler, who got about 400 votes when he ran against Davis earlier this year, is basing his current campaign almost entirely on restricting Barnett Shale drilling within the city. He said the 600-foot setback from homes “is not nearly far enough away. We’ve seen explosions in rural areas that have damaged buildings 1,200 feet away. … We need to re-do the ordinance with further setbacks and absolutely ban any waivers.” He has worked hard with protesters who wanted the city to deny drilling permits sought by Chesapeake Energy along the Trinity River near Colonial Country Club, for wells that will destroy several acres of old-growth trees and negatively affect a popular hiking and biking trail. “The city should have never granted the waiver,” he said. Burns supports reconvening the committee that came up with the standards for drilling, “because at the time … they were mainly looking at suburban and exurban areas, and not the urban drilling we are seeing now. I would especially like to see no more waivers to the existing rules.”
There are other issues on the table. Rangel said that the resurgence of gangs is killing too many young black and brown residents and that the council must give the police more tools (read: money) to reduce the gang dominance of certain neighborhoods. And, to the chagrin of Picht, Turner veers away from his mentor’s firm opposition to tax help for developers, by enthusiastically endorsing the Trinity River Vision. The $455 million river development project, Turner said, will be an “economic boon” to the city, bringing in substantial numbers of jobs and more tax dollars over time than the city will contribute during its initial development. One of the key factors in this election will be turnout. Fort Worth council elections are usually held on Saturdays in the spring, without any statewide or Congressional races on the ballot and with traditionally low voter participation. During the last council election in May, only about 1,750 of the 23,500 voters in District 9 went to the polls. This time around, the school bond issue and Texas House District 97 race should increase those numbers.
The question of who benefits from a larger turnout is anyone’s guess. Hispanics are expected to show up to help pass the school bonds, but Republicans are likely to turn out in equally large numbers to vote in the House race. Almost everyone — except Rangel — believes there will be a runoff. “He is just flat-out wrong,” Carrillo said.
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