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Why both parties are so fixated on a nonpartisan Texas mayor’s race

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President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 vaccination program.

What happens in Tarrant County is closely watched, both inside and outside the state. Once a Republican stronghold, Tarrant has seen its GOP margins decline in recent years — President Joe Biden’s narrow victory there in November marked the first time in over a half-century that a Democratic presidential nominee carried the county. If the county continues to move leftward, it stands to affect the balance of power in statewide elections.

“We’ve never had a race that was this partisan,” said Kenneth Barr, the former Democratic mayor of Fort Worth who led the city from 1996 to 2003. “In Texas, you’re not allowed, for city governments, to hold partisan primaries. And this particular election has moved as far in the partisan direction as any we’ve ever had.”

The runoff features Republican Mattie Parker, a former chief of staff to Price, and Democrat Deborah Peoples, a retired AT&T executive, both of whom insist they are running nonpartisan campaigns.

To some extent, it’s true: Parker declined any GOP endorsements in her general election campaign and Peoples backed away from joint events with the national Democratic groups backing her campaign. Central to the contest are questions related to how Fort Worth will change as the city continues to grow — it’s currently the 12th largest city in the nation. The population influx has increased the need for more city infrastructure, and brought public safety issues into sharper focus for voters in light of a rise in violent crime in 2020.

Yet the county Republican Party continues to make calls and knock doors on Parker’s behalf. And Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed her on Wednesday, specifically underlining her support for law enforcement — and contrasting it with Peoples’ record.

For her part, Peoples, a former Tarrant County Democratic chair, has been endorsed by a slew of national Democratic groups and prominent state and national Democrats including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison.

The Collective PAC — which helps elect Black candidates to office — poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in an effort to turn out the city’s Black voters in support of Peoples, who would be the city’s first Black mayor.

Republicans worry that Fort Worth’s rapid growth is not only altering the city’s traditional character and politics but moving it in the same direction as the state’s four largest cities — Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Those cities typically power Democratic candidates in statewide elections.

“There’s a great concern here that if you end up with a Democrat mayor, it will change what people know Fort Worth to be,” said Rick Barnes, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.

The ongoing national debate on race and policing has served to heighten the partisan stakes. Republicans have sought to make the contest in part a referendum on Democratic leadership in other cities across the country. Against the backdrop of ongoing conversations about police funding in Austin and the rest of the country, the topic has become the biggest talking point in the final days.

With a Democratic mayor, Republicans argue, Fort Worth would be more susceptible to the scenes of disorder and violence that occurred in some large U.S. cities last summer.

“We see what Democrats have done more to Austin than Dallas, but those two cities [have] Democrat mayors. And then when you add in Houston and San Antonio, people in Fort Worth are just not accepting of letting their city go in that direction,” said Barnes.

In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Abbott described Peoples’ reform-oriented stance on policing as “along the lines of taking a position of defunding the police.” He and other state Republicans have sought to paint her as an opponent of law enforcement.

While Peoples’ campaign platform calls for reallocation of funds from law enforcement to community policing initiatives, she has eschewed the term “defund the police.”

But her opposition to a taxpayer-funded police budget referendum in 2020 has given Republican critics some ammunition. While a majority of Fort Worth voters passed the Crime Control and Prevention District, a half-penny tax that helps pay for police equipment as well as officers’ presence at special events and in schools, Peoples opposed it, saying that citizens should have more input in how the money is used.

“You can’t deny the fact that she was out there trying to defeat this, that she was on the wrong side of that issue,” said Cary Moon, a Fort Worth city councilmember. “I think that’s probably the larger issue that people see — and they don’t want to defund police.”

Peoples, who has stressed racial inclusion as part of her platform, has referred to herself as a “progressive change-maker.”

“What [Fort Worth] leadership is espousing now does not include the entire population of the city. We’re a minority-majority city,” Peoples said in an interview. “Our biggest issue is ensuring that all of us across the city benefit from this explosive growth that we’re seeing.”

Peoples criticized Parker for accepting the governor’s endorsement, citing the governor’s support of the voting bill put forth by Republicans in the state legislature that would curb access to the ballot for millions of Black, Latino and low income voters.

“This endorsement makes it clear that Mattie Parker will embrace Abbott’s divisiveness as mayor,” she tweeted.

Parker concedes that the pull of national politics has served to intensify the race.

“Some of it’s just what’s happening across the country that seems to translate here, whether it was a problem here or not,” said Parker, who has endorsements from the city police officers’ and firefighters’ unions. “Because Fort Worth grew so fast and we’re now the 12th largest city, sometimes we haven’t always talked about the hard things that a growing city has to talk about.”

Fort Worth’s pattern of voting — it’s elected both Democratic and Republican mayors in recent decades — makes Saturday’s outcome hard to predict. Peoples was the top vote-getter in the May 1 general election but Parker stands to pick up votes from some of the more conservative candidates who were eliminated.

“Anyone who runs for the mayor’s office that tries to run it based on, ‘I’m doing this for Republican or Democrat control’ is going to lose,” said Brian Mayes, a Texas-based media strategist who cut ads for the Parker campaign. “The voters [in Fort Worth] have always just had an independent streak.”

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Trumpworld: Critical race theory backlash is our springboard back to power

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Trumpworld: Critical race theory backlash is our springboard back to power

“This is the Tea Party to the 10th power,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser who has zeroed in on local school board fights over critical race theory, said in an interview. “This isn’t Q, this is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”

Concerns about critical race theory, which examines how race and racism permeates society, have been percolating for months in what activists describe as a sincere grassroots phenomenon led by parents. Critical race theory dates back to the 1970s, but as the country remains in a prolonged conversation about race following George Floyd’s death, a new political battle over how to teach American history has emerged.

It has increasingly become a major focus of the Republican establishment, which has sought to capitalize on the angst even as some officeholders have failed to define what critical race theory is and the threat it poses. (Critical race theory, for example, does not imply white students should feel guilty about past civil rights issues and is not taught in many of the schools where lawmakers are seeking to ban it).

Their efforts to elevate the issue have worked.

Google searches for “critical race theory” skyrocketed on March 18, for example, the same day that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed banning it from Florida’s school curriculum. Fox News mentioned critical race theory nearly 1,300 times over a three-and-a-half-month span, according to an analysis done by the liberal watchdog Media Matters. Last week, Texas became the fifth state that passed a law taking aim at critical race theory or similar topics, and legislation has been proposed in more than a dozen other states.

Democrats, liberal political analysts, and even celebrities have used the power of the Black press and broadcast news to push back.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association and a friend to the Biden White House, supported a thorough teaching of American history — including the more painful parts — in an NBC interview last week. “We have made many mistakes in this country, but our kids, our kids deserve to learn all of that truth,” she said.

Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hollywood actress and LGBTQ activist Lena Waithe, along with dozens of academics and writers are also backing efforts to support teaching students about systemic racism. They penned an open letter in The Root in support of Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project, which many Republicans see as a key tool for pushing critical race theory.

They are combating the decision of major Trump World and other national Republican figures who are increasingly entering the fray. Earlier this month, Republicans at the North Carolina GOP’s annual convention jumped to their feet with enthusiastic applause when Trump called for a ban on critical race theory from the local school level to the federal government. Some top Republicans aren’t coy when they talk about the electoral benefits that stoking such a culture war issue could provide.

“I look at this and say, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to win.’ I see 50 [House Republican] seats in 2022. Keep this up,” Bannon said. “I think you’re going to see a lot more emphasis from Trump on it and DeSantis and others. People who are serious in 2024 and beyond are going to focus on it.”

Jessica Anderson, executive director of the Heritage Foundation’s advocacy arm, said critical race theory is one of the top two issues her group is working on alongside efforts to tighten voting laws. A former Office of Management and Budget official in the Trump administration, Anderson’s Heritage Action for America put out a pamphlet on Monday calling critical race theory a “destructive” ideology and urging voters to call on their lawmakers to support anti-critical race theory bills introduced by Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Dan Bishop (R-N.C.). It also urges voters to use Freedom of Information Act requests as a tactic to identify critical race theory-tied elements in schools’ curricula.

“It could turn out to be one of the most important conservative grassroots fights since the Tea Party movement,” she said.

In addition to Heritage Action, a new group called Citizens for Renewing America, an outfit started by Russ Vought, Trump’s former Office of Management and Budget director, has rushed in to bolster anti-critical race theory efforts.

As OMB director, Vought drafted a September memo warning federal agencies that Trump wanted them to “cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions.” More recently, Citizens for Renewing America has circulated a 33-page document titled, “An A to Z Guide on How to Stop Critical Race Theory and Reclaim Your Local School Board.”

In Washington, Heritage Action is pursuing a longshot strategy to try to shoehorn anti-critical race theory language into must-pass legislation such as the annual defense spending bill. Vought’s group, meanwhile, is pushing for Republicans to force the provisions in Bishop’s bill to be included in legislation to raise the debt limit this fall.

“We believe it’s necessary for us to find leverage points to get that onto bills that must pass,” Vought said in an interview.

Slightly outside Washington, another prominent Trump alum has been active on one of the other major frontlines of the critical race theory debate.

Ian Prior, a former Justice Department spokesperson in the Trump administration whose children go to Loudoun County, Va., schools, is spearheading an effort to recall six Democratic school board members in that Washington D.C. suburb. Heritage Action helped organize a rally there earlier this month after a Loudoun County High School teacher complained that white students “are being told to check their white privilege.”

But Prior, who has become a semi-regular on Fox News to discuss the matter, insists that his group, Fight for Schools, isn’t “some astroturf thing that’s powered by big money,”

“We just sat on a back porch and started it,” he added. “There is an energy here that transcends political parties.”

Polls don’t quite show that the issue is cutting across party lines. A new Morning Consult/POLITICO survey, for example, found that while the majority (54 percent) of Republicans believed critical race theory was negatively impacting society, a plurality of Democrats (48 percent) and Independents (46 percent) said they didn’t have a sense of any impact. The survey found that the population was fairly split on whether it should be taught in K-12 schools: 32 percent supporting it and 36 percent opposing it.

Few of the organizations working to oppose critical race theory, including Heritage Action and Citizens for Renewing America, disclose their donors. Prior said he did not have donor information to share. So it is impossible to know which big-moneyed interests, if any, are funding the anti-critical race theory initiatives those groups are undertaking.

But some deep-pocketed individuals are contributing to the cause.

Anderson, for one, said Heritage Action had “huge donor interest in this.” Other donors have started new groups of their own — including some who revved up the budding Tea Party movement a decade ago.

Frayda Levin, a longtime libertarian donor who’s served on the Club for Growth’s board, recently started her own group, Color Us United, which aims to be a counterweight to Black Lives Matter in the press.

“Our side is really gearing up to push back against what we call the race industrial complex,” Levin said.

And 1776 Project PAC, which was founded to support local school board candidates against critical race theory in schools, has raised over $135,000 from 1,600 donors in less than a month, said its founder Ryan Gidursky, a 34-year-old former political operative who created the PAC after listening to complaints from friends with kids.

“It really isn’t this organized effort on the part of, like, a right wing intelligentsia or political think tank or some plan for us to have a boogeyman so we can get the suburbs back,” Gidursky said. “I’m sure it would be a lot more interesting if we were all meeting up in a castle somewhere.”

Delece Smith-Barrow contributed to this report.

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Harvard won’t host joint campaign managers event with Trump aides

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Harvard won’t host joint campaign managers event with Trump aides

On Saturday, there will be a “look back” discussion, but only featuring one half of the 2020 campaign: the Democrats. But a parallel effort to invite former aides to Donald Trump for a separate event is foundering over scheduling problems, amid internal worries of a backlash over hosting allies of the former president.

Saturday’s invitation-only virtual event includes conversations with former Biden campaign officials — including Jen O’Malley Dillon, Kate Bedingfield and Mike Donilon — on the Democratic primary and the general election, a “Democratic Primary Campaign Managers Roundtable” with at least nine campaign managers from losing Democratic campaigns and a panel on the Democratic convention that includes operatives Anita Dunn and Stephanie Cutter.

Only a very small number of students are being allowed to view the Saturday session, and such access is being determined by a lottery. Just like in 2012 and 2016, audio will be released of the Democratic event but a date hasn’t been set for release of it.

“Dates for the IOP’s conversation with President Trump’s advisors and Republican Party officials will be announced in the coming weeks,” said an IOP invitation sent to Harvard Democrats obtained by POLITICO.

“It will not be open to the public nor additional journalists and as of today we have not made any announcements about our plans,” Mark Gearan, the IOP’s director, wrote on Monday in an internal Kennedy School email invitation obtained by POLITICO. He called it a “reimagined” conference this year.

At least three top former Trump campaign officials have been invited to a future unscheduled session, according to a person close to the IOP: campaign manager Bill Stepien, communications director Tim Murtaugh and pollster Tony Fabrizio, who told POLITICO he had been invited but that “no time or date yet” had been scheduled and his “participation would be dependent on my availability.”

Stepien and Murtaugh didn’t respond to requests for comment when asked if they planned to go.

“In April, we invited several senior officials from both the Biden and Trump campaigns to share their perspectives on the 2020 election,” Gearan said in a statement. “In an effort to create a more accurate and substantive conversation on the campaign cycle, we decided to give both campaigns more time to share their perspectives. As we have for nearly 50 years, each conversation will be transcribed and compiled into a book released later this year. We are grateful to have scheduled times with the Biden team and hope advisers to President Trump will confirm their participation later this summer.”

Trump’s questioning of the 2020 election results by raising false claims of voter fraud and the Jan. 6 insurrection, along with the Covid-19 pandemic, has complicated the institute’s usual planning. But a person familiar with the matter also said the holdup has to do with scheduling and getting affirmative answers from some Trump campaign officials.

“The idea that they’re not participating raises the question of: Is it because participation would mean they’re accepting the results of the election, which would not sit well with the former president?” the person close to the IOP said.

Brad Parscale, who was Trump’s first campaign manager on the 2020 campaign but left before the convention, told POLITICO he hadn’t been invited, and Justin Clark, who was Trump’s deputy campaign manager, said he also hasn’t been invited. Mike Reed, a spokesman for the RNC, said he had “no indication they have reached out to us.”

Four and a half years ago, the IOP hosted a two-day conference on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 2016, with Republican and Democratic campaign managers, which at one point devolved into a shouting match between the two sides after Clinton aide Jennifer Palmieri accused the Trump campaign of fomenting racism.

“If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am proud to have lost,” Palmieri said, referring to former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who did not attend the conference. “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”

Kellyanne Conway, who was Trump’s third and final campaign manager in 2016, hit back by saying: “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform?”

Palmieri responded by saying Conway had. To which Conway replied: “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for white, working-class voters? How about, it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about, they have nothing in common with her? How about, she doesn’t have an economic message?”

The 2016 conference also featured a dinner panel where Jeff Zucker was heckled by top aides from a number of unsuccessful Republican campaigns, who accused the CNN chief of granting Trump too much unfiltered air time.

The makeup of this year’s conference has been “very much debated” within the institute, according to a person familiar with the discussions — with some participants expressing concern about the potential backlash to Harvard from hosting Trump officials.

Harvard’s IOP has been the subject of controversy in the past for its dealings with Trump allies. Six days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf removed Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) from the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee after she stoked false claims of voter fraud. Stefanik, a 2006 Harvard graduate, had been the subject of a petition signed by hundreds of people affiliated with Harvard demanding the university eject her from the committee.

In 2017, there were also calls by students for Harvard’s IOP to rescind visiting fellowships it had awarded to former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

An IOP invite sent to a Harvard Democrats listserv on Tuesday notes that students attending the Democratic campaign manager conference are forbidden from disclosing any of its contents publicly until the release of IOP’s quadrennial report summarizing the event.

“By registering for the conference, you are agreeing to not record any of the webinar, post anything you hear or see on social media, or make public in any way,” the email reads. “The conversations are all ‘off the record’ and are embargoed until the official release of materials by the IOP.”

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‘Rogue city leaders’: How Republicans are taking power away from mayors

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An usher holds a sign.

“Next year, if a liberal town … imposes a mask mandate again on businesses throughout the community because of a bad flu virus or the sniffles, everybody would have to abide,” said state Rep. Joseph Chaplik, a freshman lawmaker who is skeptical of the science showing masks help reduce transmission of disease. “If we’re going to give up our freedom and liberties for temporary safety, we’re going to have neither safety nor freedom.”

The strategy used in Arizona has been employed with new intensity by Republicans in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia, where lawmakers over the past year passed legislation preempting the ability of city — and state — leaders to enforce their own regulations. The bigfooting of local officials accelerated as the pandemic turned public health decisions into political minefields, but it also also touched on other wedge issues, like police funding, gun control and climate change.

The move by GOP lawmakers represents a sharp ideological shift for a party that has long championed states rights and local control. Republicans, their influence growing in statehouses and shrinking in cities, see an opening to extend their reach into urban centers. And Democrats, typically the targets of these preemption laws, fear they could be left powerless.

“At the end of the day, we want to give community members the voice to have the policies and laws that they’re voting for local officials to make,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director for the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities, a nonpartisan advocacy group generally opposed to preemption legislation.

“Giving local officials the space is that goal,” he said. “There shouldn’t be these big dichotomies in how policies are being made between state and local.”

As Republicans have maintained a tight hold on the majority of state legislatures, much of today’s preemption battles feature GOP-led assemblies handicapping Democratic-run cities. That dynamic is drawn from the stark partisan divide between statewide and local power: Republicans control 30 state legislatures while Democrats control 64 of the 100 biggest cities in the U.S.

Preemption fights are nothing new. State and local officials have been pitted against each other on what seems like every policy, from soda taxes to minimum wage increases to transgender rights. But in recent years, deep red states have latched onto preemption legislation more and more as a strategy to snatch away power from Democratic city leadership and rally their base.

Take Florida, where the Legislature this session pushed through several major preemption bills, starting with a high-profile “anti-protest” measure as part of the backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement. Buried within the law is a provision checking the ability of counties to redirect funding from police departments and giving the state’s governor the authority to review and reject those budget decisions. Lawmakers also enacted a proposal tightening an existing law forbidding local governments from approving any policies on guns.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, capitalizing on the conservative resistance to Covid-19 protocols, also issued an executive order waiving fines issued to businesses by local governments for violating Covid-related mandates and signed legislation allowing a governor to preempt local emergency rules.

And now, environmentalists took another hit after DeSantis this week signed a law that preempts local government decisions on energy and makes it difficult for cities to reduce fossil fuels by switching to renewable energy.

“It’s like there’s a competition out there for Florida to be the worst of the worst on these awful preemption laws,” said Brooke Errett, a senior organizer for Food and Water Watch Florida who lobbied against the bill.

Supporters say the bill, backed by oil and gas interests, shouldn’t deter cities from setting or achieving clean energy goals and is in fact needed to prevent them from cutting off natural gas used by homeowners or restricting consumer choice on energy.

Opponents don’t buy that. Rep Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) called the bill a “power play” by utilities and the fossil fuel industry at the expense of solar and other clean energy sources.

Preemption bills protecting fossil fuel interests have surged across the country, with legislation recently passing in 15 states, including Arkansas, Arizona, Iowa and Kentucky. Critics say these laws pose a serious threat to combating air pollution and climate change.

Republicans even succeeded in Kansas despite the state having a Democratic governor. Lamakers muscled through an energy bill this session that preempted parts of a town’s plan that set a goal of shifting all community energy use to renewable energy sources by 2035. It became law without Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s signature due to its passage with a veto-proof majority.

Colorado, which has a legislature controlled by Democrats, is going the opposite direction. Democratic lawmakers have been working to undo some of the major preemption laws on the books. They first repealed a state law prohibiting cities from enacting rules about gun ownership. It was proposed in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a King Soopers supermarket in Boulder in which 10 people were killed.

“Communities should be able to decide what are the right policies to keep them safe,” said Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who led the bill’s passage.

The state also enacted a law to ban plastic bags and plastic foam containers used in restaurants and retail. It lifts a ban on local governments setting their own plastics regulations that are stricter than the states. From Pennsylvania to California, political clashes around eliminating widespread use of plastic bags and other single-use items have emerged as some of the most contentious preemption fights in recent memory.

Fenberg views Republicans’ aggressive approach to preemption as a “race to the bottom.”

This debate exposes how deep the ideological split is between the two parties. Republicans see themselves as defending personal choice and freedom, while Democrats argue they are actually the ones advancing those same principles by letting communities self-govern.

“Our job is to protect individuals and protect their liberty,” said North Dakota state Rep. Jeff Hoverson, a Republican who shepherded a law restricting state officials’ ability to enforce mask mandates. It was vetoed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, but the Legislature overrode it.

“We should be protecting them from not just state government and federal government but local government as well,” he said. “The government needs to have a lot more compelling case than it does to interfere. Really, the S.O.B.’s, they’re wrecking our country.”

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