Farmers Branch's May 10 election poses a pivotal question: Will the suburb known nationwide for its efforts to expel illegal immigrants push forward on the same path, or will its some 26,000 residents chart a new course?
Mayor Pro Tem Tim O'Hare was the driving force behind Ordinance 2903, which would have prohibited landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. Despite wide approval in a referendum last spring, it remains blocked in the courts. Now, O'Hare is poised to become the town's mayor. He and his allies on the council are maintaining their hard line on immigration while insisting that the divisive issue is just one component of a long-term vision for the city that includes revamping old houses and redeveloping commercial areas to draw a higher-end clientele.
Yet O'Hare's detractors—including his mayoral opponent Gene Bledsoe—contend the 38-year-old attorney and his supporters have remade the town into an intolerant backwater. Critics point not only to the immigration efforts but also to strict code enforcement (no visible empty flower pots, for example), the removal of foreign language materials and cultural-themed art from the library and what's perceived as a pattern of taking actions without adequate public input.
Bledsoe, a businessman who has lived in Farmers Branch for 28 years, says that the three lawsuits that accuse the council of deliberating the immigrant rental ban behind closed doors in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, and measures such as pulling the Spanish television channel from the recreation center, show a level of pomposity and condescension that doesn't reflect the community's small-town history or growing diversity.
"It all stems from the same roots," Bledsoe said recently while at the polls during early voting. "You have meetings behind closed doors because you're arrogant, and you think you have the right to decide what the citizens want, that you have the right to control what's in the library and in the rec center. It's all the same mentality."
O'Hare and Tim Scott, a close supporter and fellow councilman, did not return calls seeking comment. Harold Froelich, their camp's candidate for city council Place 2, agreed to an interview but then backed out. "I'm having second thoughts," he said when reached by phone. "When you called yesterday I guess I didn't have a chance to think about the fact that it's the Observer." His supporters, he explained, just wouldn't approve of the Observer's back-page advertisements. "If you move to The Dallas Morning News or the Star-Telegram," he concluded, "I'll be happy to talk to you." All righty then.
A federal lawsuit filed by three Hispanic Farmers Branch residents and set to go to trial later this month charges that the city's at-large election system dilutes Latino voting strength and maintains the council's all-white status quo despite the suburb's nearly 40-percent Hispanic population. The outcome of the case may depend on whether Ruben Rendon, a Hispanic school psychologist who's lived in Farmers Branch for 36 years, can beat Froehlich and become the council's only minority member.
Rendon, who served on the planning and zoning board for 10 years, says he was motivated to run by what he views as a backlash against the town's changing demographics. "The [rental] ordinance came as a shock to me," he says. "I work out at the rec center, and all of a sudden you can't have the Spanish channel on. It was just over the top." Instead of using "politics of hate" and spending city money fending off lawsuits, he says, Farmers Branch should be spending money on redevelopment.
"There's an environment of hate and suspicion," he says, mentioning that during early voting, a woman complained to him that because restaurant staffs are mostly Mexican, servers give their Latino patrons larger portions than Anglos. The woman also parroted false claims that immigrants commit more crimes than American citizens (widely publicized studies in California and the United Kingdom recently found that the foreign-born are substantially less likely to commit crimes than natives).
"If you know your history, any time the dominant group is being threatened by a minority, they lash out," Rendon says. "And that's what's happening here. They're afraid they won't be the majority anymore, and that's going to happen no matter what—the housing stock is older, you're not going to be able to tear down all the homes and make them mansions. You have to deal with it."
O'Hare has expressed annoyance that his town continues to be associated largely with immigration, recently telling Texas Monthly's Karen Olsson that the topic "is important to our council, but we are about so much more than that, and that's all media folks want to talk about."
His efforts to garner a broader reputation were thwarted by two recent incidents. In late March, city staff sent documents to landlords requesting they enforce the ban on renting to illegal immigrants. A city attorney called the blunder "an unfortunate mistake" in violation of a federal judge's order and claimed the paperwork was mailed by accident. Next, in early April, someone stenciled a face and the name "Hitler" on some half-dozen O'Hare campaign signs outside the councilman's yard, campaign headquarters and the yard of fellow councilman Scott.
The climate worries Bledsoe, who wants to attract more businesses to Farmers Branch. "Corporations pride themselves on being diverse entities," he says. "Are they going to run the risk of moving to a city that may be perceived as racist?"
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Immigrants and Latinos aren't the only people that critics say have been marginalized. Zealous code enforcement—which last year captured headlines after reports that an 80-year-old woman faced jail time for a violation—has been particularly hard on elderly people living on fixed incomes, according to Rendon, Bledsoe and others. "We need to make sure we have a way to help them get their property up to standards," Bledsoe says. "The objective is to get the code followed, not throw an 80-year-old woman in jail."
Mary Jane Stevenson, former Farmers Branch librarian and assistant city manager, supports Bledsoe and thinks he would be more inclusive than O'Hare. "I think he'd listen to people," she says. "Things would be presented to citizens like they used to be in the past. We would get input on which direction people wanted to pursue."
The question is whether a majority of Farmers Branch voters feel the same way. Judging from last year's landslide vote in favor of the rental ban and the election of O'Hare council allies Scott and David Koch, not to mention the candidates' campaign coffers (O'Hare has raised $48,614 compared with Bledsoe's $38,825), the answer may be no.
Bledsoe doesn't have illusions about running against a well-known and well-funded council member, but he remains upbeat. "I can't promise that we're going to win, but it's going to be very close," he says. "Just by mounting a credible campaign, by shedding light on what this council is doing, we've changed Farmers Branch, and it will not be the same."