There have been no disparaging words or even major policy disagreements between the two candidates in race for the District 4 council race, but it has shaped up to be the hottest Waco City Council campaign in years.
Ashley Bean Thornton and Dillon Meek, who are vying May 9 to fill the seat now held by Toni Herbert, have each raised thousands of dollars and put up hundreds of yard signs in a North Waco district where fewer than 400 people usually turn out to vote.
Early voting begins Monday and continues through May 5 at the McLennan County Elections Administration Office and the First Assembly of God Church, 6701 Bosque Blvd.
Thornton and Meek both list economic development, public transportation and the Prosper Waco anti-poverty initiative as their biggest priorities.
But they are differentiating themselves by their life experiences: Thornton as a community activist and pioneer of Prosper Waco, Meek as an attorney and venture capitalist.
Meek, 29, an attorney and partner in Rydell Capital Holdings, points to his role in creating five businesses that employ 100 people. He said he has developed insight into how to encourage entrepreneurship and create jobs that raise living standards.
“I get excited about the idea of working with other business owners and encouraging other companies to relocate here,” he said.
Thornton, 53, a Baylor University administrator, touts her experience as facilitator of the Poverty Solutions Committee, which laid the intellectual and research groundwork for Prosper Waco. She also founded the Act Locally Waco website, a forum for community discussions and information.
“I don’t have one bad thing to say about Dillon,” Thornton said. “He seems like a super-nice guy. He pins his talking points on him being a businessperson and bringing in jobs. I believe in that too. . . . What makes me an appealing candidate is that I have been involved with this work that has led up to Prosper Waco so long. I’ve seen what things are harder to deal with than they first appear, and I have relationships with people in these 85 jillion organizations that have to work together.”
Thornton has the backing of Herbert and former District 4 representatives Rick Allen and Robin McDurham, as well as friends from community organizations. She had raised $4,870 as of April 9, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
As of the last report, Meek had raised $8,525, mostly from the local business establishment. He has won the formal endorsement of the Association for Good Government, a business-minded group that encourages candidates to run.
He also appears to have strong support from members of Antioch Community Church, where he is an active member. Scores of Antioch families have moved into the neighborhoods around the evangelical megachurch at 510 N. 20th St., in the heart of District 4. Meek himself lives on Austin Avenue, the southern edge of the district.
Meek, a Houston-area native, moved here to attend Baylor, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2007 and law degree in 2010. He practiced civil law at the Haley & Olson firm, representing cities such as McGregor. In 2013, he became general counsel at Rydell, a startup that invests in real estate, housing and entrepreneurial businesses such as the new Fuego Tortilla Grill.
He said his business experience has given him insight into community issues. He said he wants to see a focus on job training and readiness. He supports proposals to realign Waco Transit’s routes along a central “backbone” route to shorten trips for workers.
“We’ve got to improve public transportation so people can get from their homes to their places of business,” he said. “Right now, what should take 15 minutes takes over an hour.”
He said Rydell’s companies are trying to set an example by offering personal finance classes to employees at Fuego.
“Our company is passionate about those employees,” he said. “People thrive when they’re working at a good job at a good wage, especially at a job they’re passionate about. If you can increase the amount of money they earn, you increase the tax base. It’s a wise investment.”
Meek said he also would like to recruit a grocery store in the downtown area so that residents of the inner-city “food desert” would have affordable, convenient and healthy food options.
Meek said he heartily endorses the anti-poverty strategies of Prosper Waco, which seeks to unite existing service providers around common goals rather than creating brand-new organizations.
“I think Prosper Waco is an excellent way to eradicate poverty,” he said. “I have been on boards of nonprofits, and my heart is to eradicate poverty. One way I have done that is by creating jobs for people in this city and investing my time in nonprofits, making sure collaboration is taking place.”
Meek has been part of Unbound Now, an Antioch-based effort to fight human trafficking; as well as Pack of Hope, which provides weekend meals to needy McLennan County children.
Meek is vocal about his Christian faith, mentioning its importance at a recent candidate forum when asked a question about a new internal city hiring policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis on sexual orientation.
At the time, Meek said he was in favor of “traditional family values” but did not answer whether he supported the policy. Thornton said she applauded the policy as protecting the “civil rights” of sexual minorities.
In an interview later, Meek said overturning the policy is not on his agenda. In general, Meek said, he never wants to “force (his) faith on others.”
“That said, as a man of God, I can’t help but see life through the lens of faith and the transformation I’ve experienced in my own life through my relationship with God,” he said.
Growth of Waco
One belief that Meek and Thornton share is that Waco is destined to grow, and that growth could benefit the community.
Thornton said now is the time for long-term, visionary thinking.
“We need to be thinking of Waco in the next 30 to 40 years,” she said. “What do we need to have in place to prepare us for significant growth? A key part of that is transportation. One thing that makes Waco desirable is that it’s easy to get around. I don’t want us to end up like Austin and find out 30 years from now that we should have gotten a good transportation system 30 years ago.”
Thornton supports the proposed reorganization of the Waco Transit system as well as significant spending on sidewalks and bike lanes. She said having the option of getting around without a car is important for everyone, not just low-income people.
“There’s a time coming when I won’t be able to drive at night, and I’d love to be able to get on a bus,” she said. “We are very car-centric in Texas, and we haven’t seen the benefits of a more varied system.”