But money spent in the races suggests some donors might think otherwise.
The District 4 race this year has drawn an unprecedented flood of campaign donations, including some from well-known party activists and even a political action committee.
Meek, who describes himself as more conservative than Thornton, has received $10,000 in donations, including $2,500 from the new Waco-based Fiscal Conservative PAC. The PAC includes longtime Republican donors and helped bankroll the campaigns of two county Republican candidates last year.
Thornton, who has raised $5,600, said she was “shocked” at the scale of contributions in a race for what is essentially a volunteer position.
“I remember when someone mentioned the PAC, I thought, really?” said Thornton, a Baylor administrator and community activist. “A PAC for a city council election in Waco? . . . I guess if a PAC wanted to come and give me money I would have said, ‘Sure.’ But I was surprised to hear that.”
Meek, 30, an attorney with a local venture capital group, said the PAC donation resulted from his friendship with its founder, Scott Salmans, the CEO of WRS Group. Salmans, a longtime Republican donor, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Contributors to the PAC include local businessmen such as Jim Hudson, Curtis Cleveland, Melvin Lipsitz, Othel Neely and Curves founder Gary Heavin, who gave $5,000 to the group.
The PAC spent $5,415 last year on the campaign of Jon Gimble, who defeated Democratic incumbent District Clerk Karen Matkin. It spent $1,200 on Republican Tony Abad’s attempt to unseat Commissioner Lester Gibson, a Democrat.
Meek also has received contributions from Gimble himself, as well as local Republican activists such as Brad Holland, Chris DeCluitt and Wes Lloyd. Meanwhile, Thornton has donations from Matkin and former county Democratic Party Chairman David Schleicher.
District 4 Councilwoman Toni Herbert, who supports Thornton, said she worries that this race marks a “sea change” in Waco City Council politics.
“What is unprecedented is that it seems to be taking on the attributes of a partisan election, even though there’s no Ds or Rs on the ballot,” Herbert said. “Our nonpartisanship at a local level has been one thing that allows us to work together and get things done. . . . The whole conservative-liberal thing doesn’t exist at the local level.”
Meek said he has never been involved in a partisan campaign, and he doesn’t fit neatly into political categories.
“It’s not a partisan race, but I do think Ashley and I represent different values,” he said. “I would say, on the whole, I’m probably more conservative than Ashley, but it depends on the issue.”
For example, Meek has described himself as a believer in “traditional family values” when it comes to LGBTQ issues, while Thornton has said lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people should have legal protections.
Meek said he is also fiscally conservative in “wanting to steward our tax dollars well.”
However, he also has spoken out in favor of regulating payday lenders, improving public transportation and helping ex-felons have a better chance at employment — not exactly the usual Republican talking points, he notes.
By the same token, Thornton said she doesn’t want to be defined by a political label.
“I never felt like I was particularly liberal, but maybe I am,” she said. “I think of myself as being middle of the road. The only thing that’s saving our government right now is that people at the local level don’t line up along those lines. I think that would be a disaster. We have to meet in the middle.”
Thornton said she also doesn’t want to be seen as anti-business. A leader of the community effort that led to the Prosper Waco initiative to combat poverty, she said that “for Waco to thrive, business has to thrive.”
“Sometimes the race has been characterized as Dillon the businessman vs. Ashley the do-gooder social service person,” she said. “I came from a business background, too. I grew up in the corporate world, doing corporate things. . . . I don’t like it being characterized that way.”
Attorney Wes Lloyd is president of the McLennan County Republican Club, but he said he sees city government as nonpartisan. He said he’s supporting Meek because of his “energy, enthusiasm and new ideas about things,” not because of partisan politics. But he acknowledged that some people see this as a race between a conservative and a liberal.
“I don’t think the candidates see it that way, but some of their supporters do,” he said.
Lloyd also is chairman of the Association for Good Government, a bipartisan, business-minded group that encourages qualified candidates to run for local office.
Lloyd said the group’s board interviewed both candidates in the District 4 race and voted 7-0 to endorse Meek.
“It was unanimous for Dillon,” he said. “It was surprising to me the way it went. Dillon did very well in the interview. He hit it out of the park.”
The association sent out hundreds of letters urging people to support Meek, and several members contributed to Meek’s campaign.
Thornton said she felt the association gave her a good hearing, and she has no problem with civic groups forming to endorse candidates.
But she acknowledged she wasn’t expecting the District 4 race to have such a high profile.
“It certainly surprised me in the amount of energy that has gone into it,” she said. “I had not set aside the bandwidth for it and had to crank that up. But that’s good. I think it’s a sign of the overall new energy in Waco. As we become a more vibrant town, people are going to want to get more involved with things.”