In May 2017, Texas Monthly reported that the partisans, both Republican and Democrat, were coming for city and school elections, which have been traditionally nonpartisan in Texas and which political reporter R.G. Ratcliffe deemed “the final bastion of party free elections.”
The Texas Democratic Party and some Republicans, according to Texas Monthly’s Ratcliffe, sought “to make elections in the Lone Star State even more partisan. … Even if city charters and school district laws call for non-partisan elections, the parties want to erase that line.”
McKinney conservatives sought to make it law during the 2021 legislative session when their state representative introduced a bill that would require local candidates to identify their parties on the ballot.
Based on a review of 2022 campaign filings, the nonpartisan line has nearly vanished in Denton after the May city election for mayor and two council seats. Candidates made their party affiliations known through the support of Democrat and Republican campaign organizations. They also stressed their political leanings in advertising and on a progressive platform.
Donations from outside the city also poured into several campaigns, in some cases seemingly because candidates had run on a progressive slate or were friendly to developers of luxury communities. That left at least one critic questioning why the city doesn’t have a rule requiring elected officials to recuse themselves on projects from special-industry PAC donors.
While Denton’s city elections are nonpartisan, city spokesperson Stuart Birdseye said the charter requirement doesn’t mean voters don’t know a candidate’s political leanings.
“Candidates would exercise their discretion whether to identify themselves by party in their campaign literature and speeches,” Birdseye wrote in a July 20 email to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
But in this campaign season, discretion was an afterthought.
Focus on nonpartisan races
The dead canary in the coal mine, Texas Monthly’s Ratcliffe wrote in 2017, may have been the November 2015 Houston mayor’s race when Bill King, a Republican and former mayor of Kemah, and Sylvester Turner, a former Democrat state representative, faced off with the help of Republicans and Democrats who organized voting efforts. Texas Monthly pointed to a 2015 Houston Chronicle report:
“The result is a race without overt party identification, but with all the trappings of a partisan battlefield. ‘We’ve seen across the country the intensity of the partisan division grow,’ University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. ‘It’s not that the overall population has become more partisan and polarized, but people who vote, particularly in a low-turnout election like a Houston mayor runoff, tend to be partisans.’”
The Texas Democratic Party, Texas Monthly reported, had decided to focus on nonpartisan elections after its candidates lost every statewide election and 200 partisan county judge and commissioners posts in 2010. The party believed “a stronger, blue Texas — our goal and core mission — requires a sustained effort across the state to recruit and train excellent Texas Democratic candidates for both partisan and nonpartisan offices,” according to a memo by Texas Democratic Party then-Executive Director Kay Perkins, obtained by Texas Monthly for the 2017 story.
Yet, the Texas Democratic Party wasn’t alone in wanting to focus on nonpartisan local elections.
In late February 2021, state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney filed House Bill 2092, a law that would require candidates for municipal elections to declare a party affiliation and for that declaration to appear on the ballot. Derek Baker, a McKinney real estate agent and prominent Collin County Republican, told the Texas Scorecard in February 2021:
“There is no such thing as a nonpartisan election. It is disappointing and I believe misleading to the general public for Texas to continue the charade that local elections are somehow nonpartisan.”
Two months later, Monty Winn from the Texas Municipal League claimed one of the primary reasons city governments respond efficiently to their constituents is because they’re nonpartisan and able to avoid “the partisan gridlock that plagues Washington, D.C., and, on occasion, the state legislative process in Austin.”
“H.B. 2092 is a simple bill that would have a disastrous impact on local communities across the state,” Winn wrote in an April 1, 2021, letter to Briscoe Cain, chair of the House Elections Committee.
The bill never made it out of the committee.
Denton campaign filings
About a year after the Texas Monthly story, Paul Meltzer, then a member of the Denton City Council, wrote a guest essay for the Record-Chronicle about the importance of Denton’s nonpartisan local elections.
“I think it’s a darn good thing, too,” Meltzer wrote in the Jan. 20, 2018, essay. “… The last thing we need is dug-in tribal affiliations putting our city in the kind of unproductive partisan gridlock we see year after year at other levels of government.”
Four years later, Meltzer ran on a progressive slate with Amber Briggle, a District 6 candidate who is a renowned supporter of transgender rights, and the working-class candidate Brandon Chase McGee, for District 5, to unseat Mayor Gerard Hudspeth and bring change to Denton. Donations poured in from around the country.
The slate’s campaign finance reports reveal a level of grassroots and candidate support not seen in recent years in Denton. Meltzer, McGee and Briggle appear on each other’s reports under contributions, in-kind contributions and expenditures for thousands of dollars.
For example, Meltzer gave in-kind contributions of $11,269 to Briggle’s campaign and $9,936 to McGee’s. In return, McGee donated $6,650 to Meltzer’s campaign, while Briggle topped it at $17,146, becoming Meltzer’s top donor, according to Meltzer’s 2022 campaign filings.
They were also the only local candidates to list paying campaign workers for their grassroots help.
Briggle could not be reached for comment.
Former Denton Mayor Chris Watts, who won Meltzer’s old District 6 seat in May, has run for several local elections in the past but said he never aligned with a political party. According to his 2022 campaign filings, a majority of his $24,715 in donations came from Denton residents. He spent $33,296 on the May 2022 race.
Briggle and McGee received about $48,600 and $26,478 in donations while spending $56,000 and $12,856, respectively on their races. A majority of Briggle’s donations came from outside of Denton, while McGee utilized The Collective PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps Black candidates get elected around the nation.
“I am proud to have been supported by several organizations during my recent campaign,” McGee wrote via email Friday. “I received broad support because I committed to focusing my efforts on the working people of Denton. Now, as a blue collar worker on Council, I am intensely focused on solutions to the problems working people face in our daily lives.”
All three candidates — Briggle, McGee and Meltzer — utilized Denton Together, a group of volunteers who help progressives get elected. Meltzer also paid a $5,250 consulting fee to The Mellinger Group, a Baltimore political organization that fundraises for Democratic candidates in local, state and national elections.
“This was probably one of the more — I don’t want to say expressly but implicitly partisan elections,” Watts said. “The slate came out with the flyer that showed all of them in a photo-op with Beto O’Rourke. It was clearly, based on the campaign and some of the wording, representing a side that was well-known based on the language for a political party.
“It’s unfortunate,” he added. “People can run a campaign, use certain words while not expressly stating it, and we all know that words have meaning. They have political meaning.”
Meltzer called the cooperation between himself, Briggle and McGee a direct response to special industry money that poured into races in previous election cycles. He claimed it was “complete transparency showing collaboration and a lot of coordination that wasn’t expressed so transparently [by other candidates].”
“It enabled us to create some massive impressions,” he said.
During the previous election, special industry money appeared on 2022 campaign filings for District 5 candidate Daniel Clanton, Hudspeth and Watts. The donations came from apartment, home builder and Realtors associations from outside of Denton. Kent Key, who owns Key Custom Homes, also donated to their campaigns.
Clanton, who couldn’t be reached, didn’t report his $11,000 in special industry donations until his July filing after the May election. Some of those donations came from the Texas Association of Realtors, the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas and the Dallas Builders Association, based in Plano. Key donated $4,000.
Watts received $1,500 donations from HOMEPAC of Greater Dallas, which is the Dallas Builders Association’s PAC, and the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas. Key donated $2,500, making it Watts’ largest donation in his late April campaign filing.
In a Friday email, Watts said that based on their values, council members make their own decisions case by case on which contributions to accept or reject. They disclose the donations to voters who then can decide if they’re acceptable or not.
“I see no issue with special-industry PACs donating to local candidates,” he said.
In the mayor’s race, Hudspeth received $10,289 from TREPAC — the Texas Realtors Political Action Committee — and $3,000 from HOMEPAC of Greater Dallas. He also received about $6,500 from people associated with companies such as Centurion America, Hillwood Development and San Antonio real estate company Cardinal MF.
Hudspeth has a political history of receiving money from development PACs, outraising his mayoral competitor, Keely Briggs, in the 2020 election with the help of large contributions from those PACs, according to an April 4 Record-Chronicle report.
According to his 2020 campaign filings, Hudspeth raised more than $109,000 and spent about $104,000.
“I appreciate the fact that as a candidate, I have the requisite balance of personal property versus public health versus growth, and I have shown the ability to balance those interests and not focus on my own ideology,” Hudspeth told the Record-Chronicle in a Dec. 1, 2020, report. “Developers understand that and appreciate that.”
He is also a candidate the Protect and Serve Texas PAC appreciated with $17,279 in donations. Formed in 2020 by police associations from around the country, the PAC’s mission is to embrace candidates who don’t “embrace the disastrous policy of ‘defunding the police’” but recognize law enforcement’s role in the community, according to the PAC’s website.
Hudspeth campaigned at the Denton County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner. And Brint Ryan, founder and CEO of property tax consulting firm Ryan and the namesake of the University of North Texas’ business school, held a meet-and-greet for the mayor at Galleria Tower in Dallas.
In total, Hudspeth received $94,499 in donations and spent $80,752 without taking out loans, compared with Meltzer, who raised about $67,091 while spending $98,512 and taking $57,750 in loans.
To run a successful campaign, Hudspeth paid $61,553 to Murphy Nasica & Associates, a political consulting firm that represents candidates in municipal, state and national elections. The firm has won several awards, including “Best Biographical Online Video for a Republican,” “Best Online Video for a Republican Bootstrapped Campaign” and “Best Villain in a TV Ad Republican,” as well as several awards for the firm’s direct mail campaigns.
He went on to beat Meltzer with 52% of the 15,909 votes cast in the May 2022 race, according to a May 7 Record-Chronicle report.
“I have used Murphy Nasica since my 2019 campaign,” Hudspeth wrote in a Monday email. “I use them because of their professionalism and their staffing. They are a full service organization that provides exceptional customer/client services.”
Partisan or nonpartisan?
Shortly before the May election, Meltzer pitched the idea to the City Council for members to consider forced recusals related to campaign donations from industry PACs.
“In our fast-growing city, the public needs confidence that decisions about development are made with the interests of the community as a whole in mind,” his request read, according to the April 4 Record-Chronicle report. “It undermines that confidence when we see thousands of dollars flowing into political campaigns from interested parties like Texas Realtors, Apartment Association of Greater Dallas and Texas Association of Builders.”
He wasn’t the first to consider the idea. The city’s Board of Ethics, Birdseye said, had discussed tweaking the conflict of interest definition to include recipients who received $500 or more in campaign contributions.
The proposed amendment was submitted in June to council members who, in turn, sent it back to the board to refine, Birdseye said.
But Watts said that “if money buys influence and bias, it is not just limited to PACS or organizations pursuant to personal political ideology; it goes across the board.”
For example, Watts said, Meltzer paid Jordan Villarreal a total of $12,000 for political consulting, $4,000 of which Watts said occurred one day prior to Villarreal’s appointment to the Planning and Zoning Board via a consent agenda vote.
Neither Meltzer nor Villarreal, he said, disclosed the payment to Meltzer’s council colleagues who were voting for Villarreal prior to the vote.
“What and how much influence did that buy and continues to buy because Villarreal is still on P&Z?” Watts said. “Additionally, Meltzer contributed a substantial amount of money to his fellow slate member candidates’ campaign. How much influence was Meltzer buying with said contributions? McGee, a recipient of the contributions was elected. What influence does Meltzer have over McGee?”
While some conservatives want partisan local elections, Birdseye said no one has approached the city about issuing a charter change to turn Denton’s elections partisan.
It may not be a good thing if someone does. As Watts indicated, “Unfortunately, a partisan environment at the local level creates what we’ve seen with the recent state and national issues becoming something that gets on a resolution, and staff have to spend time doing that, in essence, on something that we can’t do anything about.”
Brent Hagenbuch, chair of the Denton County Republican Party, said in a Friday email that making local elections partisan would allow his party “to provide voters with so much information about the candidates so voters could be better educated about how each candidate would approach the position they were elected to perform.”
He added that partisan elections offer voters an educational advantage. Similar to the progressives, local Republican activists, he said, try to determine which candidates have conservative approaches and let voters know who has a GOP voting history.
“I believe most Republicans in Denton County would strongly support making these elections partisan,” Hagenbuch said. “Because of the excellent educational advantage partisan elections provide to voters, I have no reservations about partisan elections for municipal and school board campaigns.”