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Who Really Runs Fort Worth?

Dallas figures that if a guy is smart enough to be rich, he’s smart enough to run the city. In Fort Worth, they think that anyone with that much money must be a crook. So...
By JAN JARVIS |

M RS. SID BASS, who would probably prefer the anonymity of her family’s fashionable 5th Avenue apartment in New York to the streets of Fort Worth, where little-especially her Rolls Royce- goes unnoticed, has been trying to save the culturally deprived city from itself. Lately, that’s meant saving Cowtown’s long-suffering corps of ballet dancers, who often limp off stage without so much as a squeak of recognition. So Mrs. Bass imported two of New York’s prima ballet dancers to head the local company-not an unexpected move from a ballet patron who had raised $10 million for the American Ballet Co. It was a grand stroke. And just the kind of move that Amon Carter Sr., the granddaddy power player of them all, would have loved.

Carter, who purchased newspapers, radio stations and, later, television stations until he created his own media empire with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as the hub, was a hard act to follow. Fortunately for Fort Worth, no one could pick up the reins after him and lead with the same kind of all-encompassing power. Even universal power players such as the Basses don’t exercise the undiluted influence Carter enjoyed in Fort Worth. Today, Fort Worth has outgrown its early days as a one-man town, but it has taken more than half a century to come close to a representative democracy.

Fort Worth was Carter’s empire; he controlled it lock, stock and barrel. If he could have gotten away with it, Carter would have had the U.S. government run for the exclusive benefit of Fort Worth and to the detriment of Dallas. Carter’s bitter feelings about Dallas set the stage for a rivalry that stretched into the Seventies. And although the man who owned Fort Worth has been dead 30 years, his hand still seems to reach from the grave to mold his beloved city through the multimillion-dollar Carter Foundation.

Initially, Carter drew the battle lines, but Dallas community leaders fought back with equal ferocity. In 1936, when every city in the state wanted to be the showcase for the Texas Centennial, Dallas won out by bidding $10 million to build something (Fair Park) that surpassed anything the state had ever seen. The Chamber of Commerce, led by Robert Thornton, bypassed the city government and went straight to the people who could get the job done. With the help of his business cronies, they threw a Texas-sized Centennial that could have made Fort Worth tuck its tail and hide. But Carter retaliated with a vaudeville-style extravaganza that featured risque dance-hall showgirls, and even went so far as to put a billboard just outside Dallas’ city limits proclaiming that Dallas might be the place for culture, but Fort Worth was for fun. In a state known for its barroom brawls and shoot-outs, it came as no surprise that most folks weren’t quite ready to raise their artistic consciousness. Thousands made the 30-mile journey from Dallas to Fort Worth, and Carter had the last laugh.

But in the long run, Carter’s eccentric ways stifled the city’s growth. Without its highest priest, the city would have limped through the Depression. With him, Fort Worth damn-near expired. Carter pressured the city into keeping out Dallas businesses that could have pumped new dollars into the economy. And if he couldn’t stop Neiman-Marcus from opening a store in Fort Worth, he could prevent the exclusive department store from advertising in his newspaper or on his radio station. That kind of clout dies hard.



WHILE DALLAS was refining its vision and moving toward a new decade of power, Fort Worth was still thinking of itself as the heart of West Texas, just as Carter had ordained. In Dallas, the business community shifted from promoting its self-interest to looking out for the community as a whole. After Carter’s death in 1955, Fort Worth was left with a vacuum so large that the city spent 20 years groping for a new direction. The path Fort Worth took was cluttered with detours that prolonged the days of oligarchy.

Part of the trouble was that many people in Fort Worth failed to see the business elite’s obvious dominance over the city as a problem. In the early Fifties, Fort Worth folks thought it made perfect sense for those with the biggest stakes in the community to run the whole operation. Individually, Carter’s cronies weren’t all that eager to fill his shoes; but as a group they thought they were up to the challenge. Thus arose the Seventh Street Gang, composed of bank presidents, utility officials and department store owners who shared a downtown address. Out of that group emerged Fort Worth’s next political kingpin, Babe Fuqua, a hard-nosed oilman and rigid, outspoken conservative. Fuqua wasn’t the leader Carter had been, but he was a master at orchestrating political and civic projects. And if he had had the Star-Telegram in his corner as Carter did, Fuqua probably would have ruled with the same iron fist.

Instead, Fuqua saw the signs of change in the Sixties as the city turned from a thriving cattle capital into a ghost town. Fuqua saw upheaval, and in an artful move, he backed two extremes: Bayard Friedman, a Republican lawyer who would later go into the banking business and become one of the top power players today; and Willard Barr, a Democrat who printed a labor paper. Friedman became the last mayor who was selected by the business community’s hand-picked council rather than the voters. As a strong leader with the business community’s stamp of approval, Friedman had the city up and running.

True to its heritage, Fort Worth was again running in a race against Dallas. This time the controversy centered around the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, with Dallas’ Erik Jonsson and Fort Worth’s Friedman squabbling over the location of the regional airport. Carter, who had a fascination with aerospace, had come to the bargaining table earlier, but his outrageous demands (that the airport be named after him and all runways be built facing west) put a quick end to any agreement. While Friedman and Jonsson were far more compromising, it took them 38 months of negotiations to reach a decision. The compromise came only after the Civil Aeronautics Board stepped in and put the airport smack in the middle, exactly 17 miles from each city’s downtown.

The decision marked the beginning of the end for any serious Dallas-Fort Worth rivalry. No longer would planes hopscotch from Dallas’ Love Field to Fort Worth’s Greater Southwest International Airport; no longer would Fort Worth be cut off from the thriving commerce Dallas had enjoyed.

In Dallas, with the election of sportscaster Wes Wise as may or in 1971 and the establishment of single-member districts in 1975, the elite business circle lost its footing. It would be several years before it regained a modified sense of influence with the election of Robert Folsom as mayor. The real estate developers and business elite are still in control, although Max Goldblatt’s near-upset in this year’s mayoral race sent shivers down many North Dallas spines.

In Fort Worth, the election of Willard Ban as mayor in 1965 had paved the way for a string of shirt-sleeved mayors who seemed more akin to the man on the street than the man in the carpeted office. Fort Worth, which scorned Dallas’ chrome-and-glass commerce, balked at rapid growth and anything that smelled of commercialism.

Dallas could have silk-stocking plutocrats like Robert Folsom and Jack Evans, but Fort Worth had been led by a liberal printer, a right-winger iron worker and a populist plumber. And the blue-collar tradition has continued. In this year’s election. Bob Bolen, the bicycle and card shop owner, won a second term by a landslide.

After watching Dallas go through the growing pains of rapid development, Fort Worth came to distrust anyone and anything that reeked of expansionism and high finance. “Dallas likes to elect multimillionaires because they figure if the guy’s got enough brains to make money, he might as well make it for the city,” says one observer. “But in Fort Worth, people figure that if the guy made so much money in the first place, he’s a crook and we don’t want him messing around with our city’s money.”

While the business community continues to heavily support the arts and charities, it also steps in to promote the city like an unofficial Chamber of Commerce. For the past year, the Fort Worth Corp., a by-invitation-only group of leading businessmen, has done more than just encourage desirable businesses to relocate in Fort Worth. It has paid $3 million to boost the city’s profile nationwide. Still, Fort Worth is never as blatant or boastful about business as Dallas can be. “More money is accidentally left on the table in Dallas,” says one advertising executive, “than ever is intentionally paid in Fort Worth.” Just how far that public relations campaign will take Fort Worth remains to be seen. The city has already made some strides toward shelving its Wild West image of the past and coming to grips with the realities of being a modern city. Many people believe Fort Worth will one day become the magnet for industry that Dallas is, but others fear growth will do more harm than good.

In Dallas, Rolex watches adorn the wrists of most businessmen, but in Fort Worth status symbols and executive chic are almost taboo. In Fort Worth, you can’t always tell the multimillionaires from the man on the street. Some of the city’s richest men wear cowboy boots and golf shirts.

Sometimes Fort Worth’s laid-back style is a handicap, at other times an asset. When Las Colinas was wooing Burlington North-em Railroad Co., Fort Worth emerged as the surprise winner. The reason: With roots in St. Paul, Burlington Northern was more comfortable with Fort Worth’s down-home style. Las Colinas and Dallas were simply too glittery for the company’s taste.

Dallas, it seems, will always shout to be noticed, while Fort Worth will always whisper. How they appear to the world might not be as important as how they appear to each other. And while each has learned to tolerate the other, that’s about as far as they’ve come toward friendship.



IF THE RIVALRY between the two cities has waned, the power struggle that shook Fort Worth’s foundation after Carter’s death has all but ended. The bulk of the power may still be concentrated in the hands of a few, but those few wield power with the good of the entire community in mind. More than ever, Fort Worth, which has always prided itself on a commitment to quality-of-life issues, is in danger of seeing economic realities win out. As more businesses knock at the city’s door, community leaders will face problems that were unheard of a few years ago. Growth-with the congestion and chaos it brings-is probably the biggest challenge today’s leaders face.

How those leaders perched on the top rung of the power ladder respond to the challenge will determine whether Fort Worth retains its character or becomes another Houston. Not surprisingly, Sid Bass has shown more interest in revitalizing the downtown district than in unraveling sensitive issues such as transportation. But his brother, Robert, has been in the foreground supporting civic concerns including the I-CARE movement, which was formed to promote construction of an underground freeway instead of an expanded overpass proposed by the state for Interstate 30. As a family man who tends to stay close to home, Robert Bass seems to have more at stake than Sid Bass, who frequently jets to Washington. Robert’s motive is clear: “The way the issue [of 1-30 expansion] has been handled in the past is laughable on one hand and criminal on the other,” he says. “But the fact is, Fort Worth is being shown as a city that doesn’t care about its future.”

Other Fort Worth power-holders such as the Moncriefs, who made their fortune in oil, and the Tandys of Tandy Corp./Radio Shack fame, prefer the more traditional role of giving their money and names to hospital wings and museum exhibits. True, the Tandys can share the credit for revitalizing downtown, but in addition to building the Tandy Towers, the family donates heavily to civic causes. It’s not their style to dirty their hands with the mechanics of running a city. As the old guard, they don’t have to prove themselves. Without their nod of approval, aspiring city leaders have little chance of climbing the social ladder.

Because making the right contacts is important in Fort Worth, the country clubs are the hub of social life. Deals are made on a handshake at the River Crest Country Club, over drinks at the Colonial, or after a workout at the Fort Worth Club. Fort Worth values its country clubs so much that a few years ago, when the River Crest Country Club burned to the ground (without the benefit of insurance to rebuild), members were assessed $15,000 each to rebuild it. Some who shed tears because the fire destroyed the site of a granddaughter’s debut or a husband’s proposal, paid the amount willingly; others, who were in over their heads when they joined the exclusive club, lost their memberships and their foothold on power.

Becoming a power player in today’s Fort Worth is no longer a stab in the political dark. Newcomers hoping to break into the inner circle know they must be good corporate citizens and latch onto a mentor with access to the top. Movers and shakers know they’re dependent on the shape of the city’s growth and recognize that it’s logical for them to work with the arts board, hospital board, and other civic organizations. Joseph Grant, chairman of Texas American Bank/ Fort Worth; and John Stevenson, vice president of Bass Brothers Enterprises, demonstrate this symbiosis between business and civic life. Grant, a 46-year-old marathon runner with a doctorate in finance, is currently heading the Fort Worth Corp. while Stevenson holds the reins at the Chamber of Commerce. Neither man came to Fort Worth with personal power, but working for Robert Bass has put Stevenson, a former bank president and Harvard graduate, in the limelight. Grant, highly visible in the community, acknowledges that his very livelihood as a banker depends on the city’s growth, but his participation in civic activities is viewed as sincere.

Other corporate officers also wield power in Fort Worth. Though less visible than Grant or Stevenson, Bill Serrault of Southwestern Bell and Gary Cumbie of Lone Star Gas both play the game with the understanding that it’s in the community’s best interests. John Roach, CEO for Tandy, also represents a major employer and contributor.

Phil Meek, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, oversees the only daily newspaper in town and thus has a front-row seat from which to watch the community’s development. Although this soft-spoken former United Way chairman doesn’t vaguely resemble the flamboyant Carter, Meek carries considerable clout in the business community. Many a decision in Fort Worth has been delayed, says one businessman, until someone checked with Meek first.

Traditionally, larger companies such as General Dynamics and Bell Helicopter have been too concerned with the national arena to bother with local politics. But that changed last year when push came to shove over a series of Star-Telegram articles about malfunctions of Bell helicopters. This time, the city’s largest employer tried exercising its influential muscle in the community when employees boycotted the Star-Telegram. Although the newspaper lost subscriptions and advertising dollars, it was not bullied by Bell -and it was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize.

Fort Worth businessmen have learned that civic contributions can become the springboard for statewide and national influence. John Brumley, president of Southland Royalty Corp., chaired a local education task force that examined the busing issue. With Brum-ley’s record for civic involvement, it’s no surprise that he was named chairman of the Texas Committee on Education. But what might come as a surprise to many is that Brumley got the appointment without a single well-oiled political connection. Brumley, who says his appointment speaks well for the system, met Gov. Mark White only twice before the appointment was made. Instead, Brumley stood on his civic record and reputation, which landed him an influential position in the state.

Still, Brumley’s experience is probably more the exception than the rule. Fort Worth’s opinion molders might have financial strength and civic clout behind them, but it’s their strong political ties that bind them. Beginners seek out the opinion molders, knowing that they can bridge the gap between novices and those at the top. Some observers say that it’s impossible to succeed politically in Fort Worth without their blessings. Attorney Dee Kelly has personal power due mostly to excellent political connections nationwide, but it doesn’t hurt that he also represents Bass Brothers Enterprises and Justin Industries. Kelly, who once owned a piece of the Texas Rangers, owes much of his strength and influence to his uncanny ability to work both sides of the political street. He can head a Jim Wright for Congress campaign dinner one night, then attend a Republican fund-raiser the next. How he stays on the good side of both the liberal Jim Wright and the ultraconservative Eddie Chiles, CEO of the Western Co. and majority owner of the Texas Rangers, has mystified observers for years. Kelly says he’s learned not to let politics get in the way of friendships. But as someone who can frequently call House Majority Leader Wright and get a quick response, Kelly is one of the most powerful players in the city. It’s no accident that Fort Worth raises more money for state and national candidates than Dallas does, and it’s no accident that Kelly’s name appears at the top of the power list.

Sharing the top spot is john McMillan, me Coors distributor who is so well-known for his political influence that some people say his protégés run on the “beer ticket.” Although McMillan is now in his 70s, he shows no signs of dropping from the political reception circuit. A generous civic giver, McMillan not only finances candidates, but counsels them as well. He’s been the man behind Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis and Judge Mike Moncrief. The day before the polls open, it’s not uncommon to see election literature circulating in area bars with a simple request to support McMillan’s man. On any given evening, he might attend as many as four receptions, but friends say he rarely asks for political favors.

With men like Mayor Bob Bolen in office, some people would like to think that mutual backscratching and political puppetry have no place in city hall. After cutting hundreds of ribbons and presenting as many keys to the city, Bolen appears uncorrupted by politics and shows no higher political ambition beyond a desire to serve the people of his hometown. The easygoing Bolen is so well-liked and dedicated to his city that his many admirers choke on the mere suggestion that he is a mayor without power. They see him instead as a kind-hearted gentleman and gifted diplomat. When Bolen is involved, says one admirer, everyone leaves the bargaining table satisfied. Others take a more critical view. They see Bolen and the council members as political puppets who must answer to the financial contributors who pull their strings.

Despite speculation that Bert Williams was named mayor pro tern because it was time for a leader to emerge from the black community, some observers say the scenario more closely resembled the election of officers in high school. “He was simply the first to ask for the job,” says one political writer. Regardless of the motive, there’s still a feeling that Williams, an insurance executive, stands the best chance of becoming a leader in a black community where outspoken leaders are few. Until recently, the black and Hispanic communities were so fragmented that they carried little authority; their leadership is low-key and content to work within the system. Councilman Louis Zapata, however, has come to the North Side’s rescue on local as well as national issues.

Those with loftier political ambitions find that statewide and national power affords them, and their supporters back home, a much greater degree of influence. House Speaker Gib Lewis has Gov. White’s ear, which means the folks back in Fort Worth are not forgotten. Despite government cutbacks, if the label-maker-turned-politician says Fort Worth will have its new mental health facility, then it’s as good as done. Similarly, as majority leader and heir-apparent to U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Jim Wright is the most powerful Texan in Washington. Wright remains very responsive to the needs of local business and industry; the city isn’t home to Bell Helicopter and General Dynamics without a good reason.

Nearby Arlington also has its share of political heavyweights, most notably former Mayor and Congressman Tom Vandergriff. Caught between Dallas and Fort Worth, Arlington was a sleepy suburban town until Vandergriff began pushing for change. His first coup was the relocation of General Motors, followed by the opening of the University of Texas at Arlington. But perhaps Vandergriff’s greatest contribution was closing the gap between Dallas and Fort Worth with his important role in the development of D/FW International Airport. Meanwhile, Angus Wynne turned Arlington into another Anaheim with the development of Six Flags Over Texas. Arlington later added a water park and other top tourist attractions.

The other mid-cities have not been quite as fortunate. Until recently, the communities frequently squabbled with each other, but lately the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Chamber of Commerce, headed by Glenn Porterfield, has been struggling to unite the area and create a model community-and perhaps knock Dallas and Fort Worth out of the relocation game. There’s talk of a “second Las Colinas” in Arlington, and with National Semiconductor, GTE, IBM and Mattel moving into Northern Tarrant County or near D/FW Airport, it could mean a real shift of strength.

For every well-known politician who shapes a city, there are more subtle power brokers who usually keep to the shadows. Although Eddie Chiles is more likely to show up at the ballpark than a charity ball, he occasionally exercises power in Fort Worth. While Robert Bass was leading the opposition to the 1-30 overpass, Chiles was promoting the government project. Chiles sometimes makes the exclusive private party guest lists, but the same cannot be said of millionaire T. Cullen Davis. Even before his murder trial and bankruptcy, Davis did not spend his free time mingling among the powerful, unless, as one observer says, “he was able to buy his way in.” His brother Bill, on the other hand, is often labeled the “good brother” in Fort Worth circles. With his wife, Mitzi, Davis has played a key role in supporting the arts, most prominently the Omni Theater.

Another luminary, Billy Bob Bamett, took a leap into notoriety when he opened Billy Bob’s Texas, the largest honky-tonk in the world, but for the most part the soft-spoken Barnett has kept a low political profile. Recently, he has been involved with charities and social organizations, but he remains worlds away from the affluent West Side. Since he was instrumental in revitalizing the Stockyards, Barnett’s emerging role in the North Side is becoming difficult to ignore.

The same is true for his business partner Bill Beuck, an energetic Texas Tech graduate who made a name for himself when he negotiated the renovation of the downtown Hyatt. Barnett, who was a beer distributor before he opened Billy Bob’s, has always had more reasons to strengthen ties on the state level than to get involved with local issues. In the state arena, friends say he is known for handing out impossible-to-get reservations in Las Vegas hotels and tickets to sold-out Broadway shows. Favors, political or otherwise, are all part of the power game in Fort Worth.

Dallas and Fort Worth may have come close to burying the hatchet, but they still have a way to go. Fifty years have passed since the cities bickered over the Centennial, but last year, while Dallas spent millions wooing the delegates and media at the Republican National Convention, Fort Worth tried to steal the show with a neon sign telling visitors to go West, just as Amon Carter did 50 years before. Thousands went West to parties at Billy Bob’s Texas and exhibits at the Amon Carter Museum. Another grand stroke. The more things change…