Political attack in tax assessor-collector race echoes Republican divide statewide

dfwnewsa | February 27, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Political attack in tax assessor-collector race echoes Republican divide statewide

Tarrant County tax assessor-collector candidates Wendy Burgess, front, and Rick Barnes, back, speak at a Feb. 7 candidate debate. (Camilo Diaz | Fort Worth Report)
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An increasingly contentious Republican primary for a lesser-known Tarrant County position is highlighting dueling factions of the state’s Republican Party. 

Incumbent Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess faces an interparty challenge from former Tarrant County Republican Party Chair Rick Barnes. Burgess has served as tax assessor-collector since 2018, after winning a crowded primary race that included Barnes and defeating her Democratic opponent. 

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In previous years, it was uncommon for party leaders to endorse a challenge against a sitting Republican incumbent, Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said. That’s changed over the past several years. 

“One of the things that’s interesting to see over time is that the party really did kind of slowly evolve into this more conservative version of itself,” Rottinghaus said. “And that really is, I think, partly why now you’re seeing this civil war inside the party play out in a dramatic fashion in primaries.”

In the months since Barnes and Burgess announced, the two have traded barbs over each other’s records. The last time Burgess ran against Barnes, in 2018, the race was not nearly as “venomous,” she said. Since then, she said, attacks from fellow conservatives have become more common. 

“Their attacks are baseless, and they are absolutely dividing the party,” she said. “And it’s misleading the public as well. Which is unfortunate, because that’s exactly what we should not be doing.”

One of the political action committees at the center of that divide this election cycle is Texans United for a Conservative Majority, which describes itself as a grassroots PAC “determined to distinguish between genuine Republicans and the Democrat-enabling lawmakers who are Republicans in name only.” Primarily funded by Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn, the PAC is targeting statehouse incumbents who voted to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

It’s also spending to influence the Tarrant County tax assessor race. The PAC is paying to send text messages to potential voters that ask whether they’ve “heard the audio of Tax Assessor Wendy Burgess allegedly intoxicated?” in reference to audio of a remote December 2020 meeting published in an article by the Dallas Express. The PAC’s text then says, “Wendy has been MIA for conservatives her entire time in office,” and provides a link to the audio. The Fort Worth Report has independently obtained the audio for the full meeting — it can be played below. The portion included in the Dallas Express article begins at 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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Burgess vehemently denied the allegations in the text.

“I absolutely have never been intoxicated at any public meeting,” Burgess said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report.

Burgess believes the allegation in the article originated as an attack by Chris Putnam, the Tarrant County Republican Party’s finance committee chair, she said. Putnam announced he was becoming CEO of the Dallas Express seven days before the article and accompanying audio were published. 

“I’ve not listened to it because it is not worth my time,” Burgess said. “I’m busy running a $6.5 billion business for the taxpayers in Tarrant County. And it is not worth my time and giving them another click.”

Putnam did not respond to a request for comment. 

Barnes told the Fort Worth Report in a statement that the meeting audio speaks for itself. 

“Anyone who chooses to ‘excuse’ the audio is living in an imaginary world,” he wrote in the statement. “I cannot imagine any employer in any industry that would not, at the very least, consider termination of any employee who showed up for work in that condition. My opponent was at work on behalf of the Tarrant County Taxpayers on that call and was clearly impaired in some manner.”

He wrote that conservative Republicans have high standards for their elected leaders, and the credibility of the party is contingent on them meeting those standards. 

“I expect the same of my opponent,” he wrote.

The text is likely to be compelling to Republican voters, Rottinghaus said.

“You have this notion that the incumbent is causing some kind of controversy,” he said. “You want to know more, and that’s the kind of thing that is attractive to voters in general. Even if it’s not persuasive to them, they’re still going to click the link, and that’s going to potentially change minds.”

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In other counties, he said, these kinds of primary fights have played out in a way that’s beneficial to the more conservative challengers.

“These are races that are usually not on people’s radars, where the position is lower down the ballot,” he said. “And so it’s more susceptible to influence by groups who want to make a change.”

He added there is a sizable portion of Republicans who use the support of Texans United for a Conservative Majority, specifically, as a signal for who to vote for.

“In a way this PAC support has got sort of a double-effect,” he said. “One is a symbol of where you stand inside the Republican Party and the second is the money that it brings.”

Financial mismanagement, property taxes among other hot button issues

Outside of political action committees, attacks also have come from the candidates themselves. Burgess has accused Barnes of financial mismanagement during his time as Tarrant County Republican Party chair. 

Federal Election Commission records reviewed by the Fort Worth Report show the party incurred more than $10,000 in fines for filing errors during Barnes’ tenure. Those fines, Burgess said, demonstrate “gross negligence and incapacity in performing his duties.”

In a written statement, Barnes attributed those fines to mistakes made by a volunteer treasurer, and said he quickly acted to replace the volunteer with a professional finance manager as soon as he was made aware of the issue. 

“Anything Ms. Burgess has to say regarding the Tarrant County GOP is second-hand-knowledge, if not worse,” he wrote in the statement. “Despite being in a partisan elected position, Ms. Burgess is a Republican in name only. She has not been to a meeting of the TCGOP in at least four years, including those leading up to the current election cycle.” 

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Barnes said that Burgess should answer for her own filing problems, citing a 30-day report that was filed three days late on Feb. 8. 

For his part, Barnes has accused Burgess of not doing enough to advocate for taxpayers while sitting on the county’s appraisal district board of directors. He has campaigned on cutting taxes, though the tax assessor-collector does not have the power to raise or lower property tax rates. 

At a debate hosted by the Fort Worth Report, Barnes said he would accomplish lowering taxes by limiting property value appraisals to every three years, and limiting to 5% the amount a property’s value can be raised at one time.

Burgess said Barnes has purposefully misrepresented what a tax assessor-collector is actually able to do in regard to property taxes.

“I believe he is being very intentional in his lies to confuse voters,” Burgess said. 

Rottinghaus said Barnes’ messaging could still carry weight irrespective of the tax assessor-collector’s actual ability to change property tax rates.

“The tax assessed on people’s property is one of the biggest complaints that voters have, so using that as a political issue is always gonna win support,” Rottinghaus said. “In particular, in a Republican primary, the talking point is easy to sell because it’s something that has been used as a hook to pull in voters. Challengers have made clear that they see the incumbent is not doing enough.”

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or @_wolfemily

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