Metropolis: Wednesday, April 17, 2003
Controversy = Candidates

But would new faces\r\nbring more of the same?


If controversy is the seasoning for political campaigns, Fort Worth has the material to launch a truckload of Tabasco at voters in the next few weeks. The same issues — annexations, a proposed city-funded hotel, new garbage and recycling systems that some folks would like to toss out with the trash, huge corporate tax abatements, and moving poor people to the ’burbs — that drew so much heat to city hall over the past two years have also inspired a slew of candidates.

Add to that the decisions by Mayor Kenneth Barr and District 7 council member Jeff Wentworth not to run again, and it starts to look like voters could do some serious rearranging of city hall on May 3.

Incumbents Jim Lane, Chuck Silcox, Frank Moss, Ralph McCloud, and Wendy Davis have drawn challengers, while Becky Haskin and Clyde Picht are unopposed. Silcox and Picht are fiscal conservatives, while other council members and the mayor have tended to align themselves with pro-business and downtown development factions, leading to numerous 7-2 votes. The election could tip the council’s collective ideology toward a more neighborhood-friendly, fiscally conservative bent if Sal Espino or Arturo Peńa unseats Lane in District 2, Brenda Tillman beats John Stevenson in District 7, and Cathy Hirt bests Mike Moncrief for mayor.

Espino is an independent thinker with community support. Tillman has strong backing in at least part of her district. And Hirt, who forged a political reputation supporting neighborhood issues, has the funding to make a strong run at Moncrief.

In District 3, Silcox is facing former city webmaster and Picht aide Cindy Crain, viewed as a liberal by some. Yet, during a recent forum, Crain and Silcox saw eye-to-eye on most issues. “At city hall she was always considered a liberal Democrat,” Silcox said. “Now that she’s running for city council, she’s a right-wing Republican.”

In the race to replace Wentworth, an interesting conspiracy theory is swirling. The seat represents west and northwest Fort Worth, including the Cultural District, which had its share of drama with the sneaky destruction of the historic 7th Street Theatre by a group of benefactors who didn’t like the old theater uglying up their museum district or providing competition to their own art-film theater.

Four candidates filed to replace Wentworth. Banker Nick Genua dropped out prior to a March 28 deadline, which removes his name from the ballot and reduces the chance of a runoff. Eyebrows arched when candidate Dennis Shingleton waited until one workday after the deadline to announce he was also quitting.

Shingleton is chief of staff for the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, located near the Cultural District. He is also a leader in Lake Country Estates, a neighborhood where residents pitched a fit in 1999 when they were pegged for involuntary annexation. Shingleton was running against another Lake Country Estates activist, Tillman, and pro-business candidate Stevenson, who has ties to some of the city’s most influential downtown developers, including the Bass brothers.

Shingleton said he dropped out because a state budget deficit had added to his job responsibilities. He said he would have done so earlier, but that he only learned two days after the deadline that his job duties would make it difficult to campaign or to serve on the council. “I didn’t select this day [to withdraw] so that my name would still be on the ballot,” he said. “I made a decision as soon as all the facts were presented to me [that] made it clear to me that I could not continue.”

Still, a rumor was born, which goes like this: The city’s downtown power brokers want Stevenson to win. They wanted Shingleton out of the race but still on the ballot to draw votes from Tillman. Shingleton and his medical school rely on public funding, and power players have a way of twisting a representative’s arm here and a senator’s arm there and affecting where the state’s money goes. Theorists wondered if Shingleton had scrapped his shot at public office to protect his job and hospital coffers and to clear a path for Stevenson.

The suggestion raises Shingleton’s hackles. “I think the whole theory is blatant rubbish,” he said. “That’s a boldfaced lie. Nothing was ever proposed to me to that effect.”

Political consultant Chris Turner characterized the timing of Shingleton’s withdrawal as happenstance. “I had dinner with him on Sunday night and it was full speed ahead,” Turner said. “That was the night before he went in there and got the word that the time commitment requirement was greatly increased.”

Shingleton said he had been aware of the Friday deadline but hadn’t given it any thought because he had no intention of withdrawing at that time. This is where the story gets sticky.

“I heard he had been talking about getting out of the race and had inquired with the city secretary the week before the deadline,” said a caller who asked for anonymity.

City Secretary Gloria Pearson, however, said she did not speak to Shingleton until the Monday after the deadline, when he called to have his name removed from the ballot. “He filed a certificate of withdrawal, but because it was not filed prior to the deadline, it was not effective,” she said.

Turner put the theory in perspective. “I don’t think Fort Worth politics is above such a deal, but I didn’t hear of such a plan going on,” he said. “I’m sure part of that [pro-business] faction wanted Dennis out of the race, but that is not what I saw.”

A discussion with Tillman further muddied the water. She described Shingleton as a man of character who told her that he was unable to continue the race because of job duties. When did he tell her that? “I think it was before the deadline,” she said. “I think he told me maybe Friday, and Friday was the deadline.”

What a difference a day makes — specifically, a Friday or a Monday.

Politics, like the guy in Kris Kristofferson’s old song, can be “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” Which brings us to Rumor No. 2: City councilman Jim Lane is battling an addiction — to the bright lights of city hall.

District 2 voters elected Lane in 1993, and he became a popular representative, accessible, witty, and focused on his district, particularly the Stockyards area that has become one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions (although critics say he is overly devoted to big-money buddies in the Stockyards at the expense of poorer Northside neighborhoods). Lane talked about retiring from the city council in 1999, but decided to seek another term.

In 2001, Lane told many people, including reporters at Fort Worth Weekly and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, that he was definitely serving his final term as city councilman and wanted to groom a strong Mexican-American leader to replace him in guiding the heavily Hispanic district. “Ten years is enough,” he said.

Flash to the present, and Lane has two Hispanic challengers, educator and former school board member Arturo Peńa and attorney Sal Espino, a young, muy energetic (Sal, try some decaf) Northside resident whom Lane had previously recommended for a city commission.

Lane, though, isn’t stepping aside. The turnabout confuses Espino, who said he admires the councilman but feels misled. Lane tapped Espino for the Building Standards Commission in 1998, which led to Espino’s appointment to the City Planning Commission in 2000. “He told me he would like to see Hispanic representation, and he said I would be a good choice,” Espino said.

In 2001, Espino announced he would run for Lane’s seat in 2003. However, he soon began hearing that Lane wouldn’t step aside. “I started worrying that Jim was reconsidering his decision,” Espino said. “He wouldn’t call me back. I sent him a letter saying I was ready to run, no response. I e-mailed him, no response. I asked [former city councilman] Louis Zapata to set up a meeting with Jim. That didn’t happen.”

Lane denied that he is addicted to city hall. He is seeking another term because the city is at a crucial point in its history, facing a tight budget amid a struggling national economy and with large projects pending, such as the redevelopment of downtown’s north end. “A lot of people in the community thought, if I could get elected, I should do it one more time,” he said. “I’m interested in finishing some of the economic development programs we’ve started out here.”

He is downplaying the issue of Hispanic representation this time around. “The district is not as interested in what your last name is as much as what you can accomplish for them,” he said.

The final rumor, started by bemused reporters at a recent political forum, is that District 8 challenger Maurice Spruell is Dan Quayle in disguise. After a moderator asked Spruell what programs or services he would cut to balance the city’s tight budget, the befuddled candidate said he would cut property taxes. The moderator, appearing slightly embarrassed, repeated the question. This time, Spruell said he would further cut back the police’s already-reduced gang unit, hardly a response expected from a guy who minutes before had listed public safety as a primary concern.

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