White House

Fort Worth mayor leverages White House access

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is shown at the White House Rose Garden ahead of President Donald Trump’s announcement on re-opening the government, January 25, 2019.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is shown at the White House Rose Garden ahead of President Donald Trump’s announcement on re-opening the government, January 25, 2019. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The Trump Administration wants allies for its ideas to address poverty in urban centers. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price wants federal money for renovations to her city.

Together they’ve turned Fort Worth into a Republican case study of public-private partnership for urban renewal — and built a relationship that’s earned Price unusual access for a mayor to a White House.

Price, a Republican, has visited the White House five times in the past two years. Interviews with administration officials and people familiar with the meetings describe her work on the trips as a savvy effort to leverage connections to help Fort Worth with projects the White House supports, and ones that still kindle skepticism among administration staff.

“She has not been shy at all about asking for what her community needs,” said Beth Van Duyne, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional director for Fort Worth. “She comes in and she is very organized, she knows exactly what’s she’s asking for, she tells us how to get there.”

Price is well-known for seizing her opportunities.

When Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings invited her to greet the Obama family on the tarmac after a 2016 Dallas police shooting, Price used the occasion to chat with then First Lady Michelle Obama about her city’s fitness initiatives.

In the White House meetings under the Obama administration, “she had a mission in mind, she knew who she needed to talk to,” said Van Duyne, who attended those gatherings as the mayor of Irving. “She threw out her Fort Worth, Texas, hand, ‘Howdy,’ and got those meetings set.”

Now under an administration that’s regularly singled out Price, one of the nation’s few big city Republican mayors, she’s been given increasing access to an audience of eager partners.

“The White House is obviously focusing on their high-growth cities,” said Price, who noted that Trump prefers smaller, more intimate meetings that have allowed her more access than previous administrations. “My theory is you’ve got to be at the table.”

At a White House visit as part of the United States Conference of Mayors in January 2017, Price was one of a handful of mayors who was asked to sit at the table with the president; President Donald Trump referred to Price at the time as a “fantastic friend.” Price was invited back weeks later for the rollout of Trump’s plans for infrastructure.

During that infrastructure event, Price requested a separate meeting with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to discuss her own plans to address housing shortages in Fort Worth, and to request one of the agency’s EnVision Centers, which aims to connect low-income people with government help for housing, education and health care.

“Mayor Price personally put her application for her city’s EnVision Center in the secretary’s hand,” said Van Duyne, whose agency awarded Fort Worth one of 17 centers nationwide. “Nobody wants to be the one to say no to Mayor Price.”

Price’s approach has opened plenty of doors in Trump’s White House, which views Fort Worth was as fertile ground for its approach to economic revival.

Ivanka Trump, who helps run the White House Office of American Innovation, has taken a particular interest in Price’s plans for early childhood education.

And in addition to the EnVision Center, the city is home to three Opportunity Zones — a key piece of GOP’s plans to address poverty by offering tax incentives for businesses that come into low-income areas. The zones have come under criticism from some Democrats who say they’re thinly-veiled corporate handouts.

The city has also taken advantage of programs that incentivize investors to overhaul outdated low-income housing units, which Price got special permission from Carson to expand in Fort Worth.

Price launched a challenge to find private partners for that initiative to find housing for 100 homeless veterans in 100 days at the end of last year, and blew through that goal with 181 units due to an excess of eager partners.

On Wednesday, Price will host Carson in Fort Worth on Wednesday to see the results.

The HUD secretary’s visit comes after Price’s most recent White House trek in January, where she spoke to Carson, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about her city’s success with their public-private match programs. Carson now holds up Fort Worth as a model for best practices for some of those programs, and Price has been asked to speak about them at conferences with other mayors.

“Dallas Fort Worth has thrived under the leadership of Mayor Price thanks in large part to her focus on economic and workforce development, which are shared priorities between the Trump Administration and many other local officials across the country,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere. “The President appreciates the leadership of the mayor and looks forward to continuing to work with her.”

So far the Trump administration’s investments in Fort Worth have yet to yield much attention for the president, who lost the city of Fort Worth by three percentage points to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“If the EnVision center does what it’s expected to do, it would do great things... right now it’s in its infant stage,” said Rev. Bruce Datcher, pastor at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Southeast Fort Worth.

“It’s her job to look out for the welfare of this city, and if White House and the administration is where resources are, to bring back and help this city, then I think that’s her responsibility,” Datcher said of Price.

Price has used her access to push for projects the White House is less fond of as well, such as the $1.16 billion Panther Island project, which was skipped over for federal funding by the Trump administration in June 2018.

Though the project has received federal funding in the past, Trump’s budget office says it doesn’t consider the project to be a high priority for federal funding because it lacks an analysis proving that its economic benefits would outweigh its costs.

In September, Price was invited to the White House to attend an economic summit hosted by the Office of American Innovation, which is run by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and aimed at applying solutions from corporate America to solve the nation’s biggest problems. Price sat through the summit, moderated in part by Ivanka Trump. After the meeting ended, Price darted out of the West Wing conference room in hopes of catching then-White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who attended part of the summit, to lobby on behalf of Panther Island.

Price didn’t get to talk to Mulvaney, but used the visit to meet with another budget office official, Jim Hertz, to discuss Panther Island, according to her office. After that meeting she called for an audit of the project, aimed at re-gaining the confidence of a skeptical White House.

Back home a growing band of critics has become increasingly vocal in opposing their city’s GOP leadership since Trump’s election. But Price’s internal polling, conducted at the end of February by the GOP firm Ragnar Research and shared with the Star-Telegram, showed her approval at 71 percent.

Price is seeking re-election to a fifth two-year term this May, and faces three challengers. That’s after running unopposed in 2013 and 2015, and winning reelection against a single challenger with 70 percent of the vote in 2017.

Still, many Democrats say they don’t fault her for leveraging her White House access.

“Truth of the matter is Texas, and Fort Worth in particular, don’t get much out of their U.S. senators, so that increases temptation for other people to reach out on behalf of the city,” said Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic strategist and director of the Lone Star Project, a political action committee trying to elect Democrats in north Texas.

Agreed, said Rawlings, another Democrat: “Your first commitment as mayor is the citizens of your city and you have to do everything in your power to make sure your city’s in a better place. If it means visiting the White House when the White House is unpopular, you do it.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.