Suzette Watkins had plenty of reasons for attending the Nov. 8 town-hall meeting held in her part of East Fort Worth: She’s a resident and business owner there, an Eastside activist – and, though the election is six months away, she’s a candidate for the District 8 city council seat, currently held by Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Hicks. Watkins, 46, wasn’t really planning to do much campaigning, but she was interested in the scheduled workshops on economic development, crime control, and other hot topics in the district.
“As a citizen of this area, I went to the meeting to learn as much as I could about all the issues facing this community,” said Watkins, a kennel owner. “But I didn’t get a chance to do that, and I find that very strange.”
The reason Watkins didn’t get a chance to go to most of the workshops: She was thrown out by the Fort Worth police. Watkins was given a criminal trespass warning, after others at the meeting complained that she was campaigning at the event. Four officers escorted her out of the public session, which was held at Carter Metropolitan CME Church.
The name of the chief complainer won’t surprise folks who are familiar with Eastside politics: the Rev. Wendell “Buck” Cass, a close advisor to Hicks and to the council member’s mother, former State District Judge Maryellen Hicks. And the “campaigning” that Cass found so offensive? Watkins said she handed out a few business cards with campaign contact information and parked her car in the church parking lot, with a campaign sign in the back window. And, she said, she stopped handing out cards when asked.
Cass doesn’t work for the city and doesn’t appear to be associated with the church, although neither church leaders nor Cass would talk about that with Fort Worth Weekly. So Watkins wants to know why he had standing to ask that she be removed – and why it was the Fort Worth Police Department’s job to stop someone from campaigning for public office at a public meeting.
According to police, Cass was acting on behalf of the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jerome Price, and Kathleen Hicks. In an e-mail, Fort Worth Police Capt. Bryan Sudan wrote, “The church was loaned to Wendell Cass and Ms. Hicks to do their town hall meeting, thereby giving them care, custody and control of the building for that purpose. [Watkins] was only criminally trespassed from the town hall meeting. However, I did speak with the pastor Rev. Jerome Price, who did want her to leave because her campaigning on the property could affect their tax-exempt status as a church.”
Neither Price nor Cass could be reached for comment. Hicks did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but in an e-mail, the councilwoman said she bore no responsibility for Watkins’ removal.
“I never said anything to Ms. Watkins,” Hicks wrote. “All are welcome – in fact, she is a member of the District 8 advisory board and should get every mailing sent out. We hold a number of public meetings, and again, all are welcomed. The town-hall meeting is open to all citizens, and indeed, many attended from other districts. Unfortunately, you appear to be honing in on one person, when in fact this 4th annual event attracted a large crowd who were focused on all the good things going on in the area and how to make the community even better.”
(Watkins said she was unaware that she is on the District 8 advisory board: “If I am on that board, it is news to me.”)
Watkins said she arrived at the event at 8:55 a.m. and handed out a total of three of her campaign business cards before and after Kathleen Hicks’ opening remarks. She said Cass was sitting next to her while Hicks was speaking and told her afterward, “I’ll throw you out” if she passed out any more cards. Watkins said she told Cass she would not hand out any more of them – and didn’t.
After a half-hour workshop on housing and economic development, Watkins said, an ugly scene developed. In an e-mail sent out to news media, Watkins wrote that “Maryellen Hicks came up to me and yelled, ‘Little girl, you cannot campaign inside the house of God.’ ” Watkins said she refused to get in an argument with the retired judge and turned and walked away.
But the elder Hicks followed her, Watkins said. “I turned my back to her while she was yelling, and proceeded to walk off,” Watkins wrote. “Maryellen stayed about six inches behind me. I stopped suddenly and she bumped into my back. I turned around and looked her in the eye for about five seconds, then turned back around and proceeded to walk down the hall.”
Watkins said she did hand out several business cards for her dog kennel after the brush with Cass and Maryellen Hicks – standard procedure at such events. But she also said she didn’t see why simple political campaigning would be banned. No signs were posted saying that political activities were not allowed.
“I’m very confused on how this was handled,” Watkins said. “How can you bring city hall to District 8 and say there is no politics involved? Kathleen Hicks could spend a day telling voters how great she was. I couldn’t even hand out a business card.”
The legal issues are murky. Regarding trespass, the Texas penal code says a warning notice can be given by police after “oral or written communication by the owner or someone with apparent authority to act as the owner.” As for the tax-exempt status for the church, IRS rules say the status is endangered only if the church itself campaigns for one candidate over another.
Within the Eastside community, Watkins is sometimes controversial in her own right. On her blog, she routinely takes potshots at Hicks and other neighborhood leaders such as Don Boren; his wife, Wanda Conlin; and former mayoral and council candidate Louis McBee. Watkins once referred to all three as “puppets for Kathleen Hicks and the ones who do all of the important backroom deal-making.”
Conlin said Watkins “is sometimes hard to deal with. She is an in-your-face kind of person.” Conlin attended the town hall meeting, and said, “I barely saw [Watkins] at the meeting, and I didn’t see her doing any campaigning or causing any disturbance.”
Norm Bermes, another Eastside activist, said Watkins’ blog “often [takes] a very irrational approach to some of the issues over here. But I have worked with her on some things – especially the vagrancy problem, and [Watkins] does a credible job to get the area straightened out and improved.
“The way this was handled was very wrong,” Bermes said. “Kathleen Hicks, in a way, was campaigning at this city-sponsored event. Suzette Watkins should have had the same opportunity, as long as she was not creating a disturbance.”
McBee said Watkins’ treatment is par for the course for Fort Worth. When he was running against councilman Danny Scarth, McBee set up a campaign tent at the East Handley Recreation Center during early voting. The tent was well past the setback requirements beyond which campaigning is prohibited.
“The Fort Worth police told me I had to leave, and no one could quote me a law I was violating,” McBee said. “The political leadership in this town has the power, and they get the police department to do the dirty work on their behalf.
“This was a public meeting, and to throw someone out [seemingly] because she is running against the council member, is just way off base,” McBee said. “It is a violation of her civil rights. Kathleen Hicks needs to tell Uncle Buck to go home and stay away, because he is going to cause her great problems down the road.”