In the growing suburb, a years-old debate about zoning policy has led to increasingly polarized rhetoric in typically nonpartisan races.
Harry LaRosiliere is, to put it frankly, looking forward to no longer being the mayor of Plano. A little over five years ago, LaRosiliere, the North Texas city’s first Black mayor, found himself in the middle of a controversy over its future after the city’s planning and zoning commission unveiled a plan that would allow certain areas to be developed more densely, with mixed uses like residential units, retail, and other businesses.
As news of the plan, titled Plano Tomorrow, trickled down from planning committees to city council to the public, rumors began to spread that the plan threatened the fabric of suburban life in the wealthy, fast-growing city, where the population had ballooned from 70,000 people in the 1980s to more than a 280,000 by 2020. With the growth had come a demographic shift in the once overwhelmingly white city. Today, 45 percent of residents are people of color.
Some residents pushed the lie that students who lived in apartments would overcrowd classrooms and bring down the quality of the city’s top-notch public school system; they claimed the plan would lower property values for homeowners. One resident accused LaRosiliere of trying to turn “Plano into Harlem.” Underlying these claims was the idea that those apartments would fill with undesirable neighbors, perhaps low-income residents or people of color, LaRosiliere says. “It’s an easy narrative. Fear sells,” he says. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now: It’s a dog whistle.”
Vocal residents formed a variety of political action committees and started backing candidates for local races who launched single-issue campaigns blocking new development. Lily Bao, a local realtor with no prior civic experience, ran for LaRosiliere’s seat in 2017. Her campaign promised to reverse the mayor’s plans for “high density housing,” rallying Plano residents around a promise to “Keep Plano Suburban.” She lost that race narrowly, but went on to win a seat on Plano City Council in 2019. Now, Bao is running for mayor again, vacating her city council seat two years early if she wins.
Bao’s crusade against apartment complexes and mixed-use neighborhoods hasn’t changed since 2017. In fact, she’s highlighting her opposition to dense developments now precisely because her main opponent, John Muns, served on the planning and zoning commission that oversaw the Plano Tomorrow plan. But the mayoral race, generally nonpartisan, has become increasingly polarized since she ran for office four years ago, and her campaign has become increasingly Trumpian. A vote for Bao is, according to text messages sent to registered voters, a vote to “Make Plano Great Again.”
The Plano Citizens’ Coalition, a grassroots group that backed her run, is one of the groups working to elect a similar slate of candidates to the City Council this year. “We represent homeowners and taxpayers, and our feeling is that Plano is best served by more homeownership,” Allan Samara, the group’s spokesperson, says. “The City of Dallas has to cure issues with schools and management of its police that we don’t have, and we hope not to have.” But because of proximity, he says, “it’s very easy for those to flow into our community.”
The city formally repealed the Plano Tomorrow plan last August. But Bao and her supporters say Plano’s suburban lifestyle is under attack. Justin Adcock, a candidate for city council who also received an endorsement from the Plano Citizens’ Coalition, wrote in a questionnaire sent out by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters: “Studies show that renters do not participate in the community at the same rate as homeowners as they don’t have a stake in it’s [sic] future.” His campaign did not respond to a request for comment regarding which studies he was citing.
When it was initially unveiled, the Plano Tomorrow plan was hailed by many as a forward-thinking effort, which could, in the words of D Magazine’s Peter Simek, “begin to reverse the damaging effects of 70 years of sprawl-style suburban growth.” It won national recognition with an award from the American Planning Association, even as it became mired in controversy locally. Plano’s aggressive courting of corporations, led by LaRosiliere, had resulted in an influx of young workers. Those workers needed housing and public transportation in a suburb on the cusp of becoming a central city in its own right, the planning commission insisted.
Muns doesn’t want to relitigate the past five years, but he is still perplexed by the controversy the plan generated. “We need to improve our infrastructure, so we can be a viable community that people want to live in, that’s the issue we should be talking about,” he says. “But instead, we’re talking about, ‘Are apartments bad or good? Why can’t you leave Plano like it used to be?’” The misinformation that he’s heard about the plan and the city’s growth troubles him. “I guess everybody’s got their own idea of what a perfect environment to live in is.”
Muns’ campaign is standard fare for a local election: He promises low property taxes, well-funded police and fire departments, excellent parks and libraries. He’s been endorsed by four former Plano mayors, and 17 former city council members. The Collin County Democratic Party recently recommended his candidacy too, over Bao and Lydia Ortega, a Californian-turned-Texan libertarian. Fixing potholes, supporting public education, and yes, rezoning city blocks, haven’t typically been partisan issues, says Jeff Quiggle, the communications director for the local party. Muns is a Republican, but so far he’s committed to running the race as a nonpartisan candidate, Quiggle says. Once local politics becomes mired in red-versus-blue debate, it can be hard to make progress on even typically mundane issues.
But the conservative candidates have questioned Muns’ Republican credentials on social media. One mailer supporting Bao linked Muns all the way to Ilhan Omar, a Democratic Congresswoman from Minnesota, and her support for “defunding the police.” Muns, for his part, has been endorsed by the Plano Police Association. “I bet I answer this question 10 times a day: ‘Are you a Republican, or a Democrat?’” he says with a stiff laugh. “I’m trying to avoid answering that directly and buying into that partisanship. My voting record is public.”
During her 2019 run for City Council, Bao received an endorsement from Governor Greg Abbott, a move that surprised both Republican and Democratic local officials. This month, Attorney General Ken Paxton and his wife, state Senator Angela Paxton, who are Collin County residents, made an appearance at a fundraiser for Bao in Plano. “In between suing the Biden administration—we filed a lawsuit last week, and you might see one next week—I came up here to make sure to do the only endorsement I have done in any city race in this state, for Lily Bao,” Ken Paxton said as the modest crowd gathered on a restaurant patio erupted into cheers.
Although it’s not unheard of for state-level officials to endorse local candidates, it’s usually predicated on a personal friendship, says James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University who studies local politics. “But these endorsements normally have been very carefully nonpartisan, and now I think you’re seeing more partisan undertones in all of that,” he says.
The Paxtons seemed to be teeing Bao up for a bigger fight: “We need leaders like you, conservatives like you,” Ken Paxton said. “We know what’s going on in this country, and it’s scary,” he added, without offering specifics. Angela Paxton said of Bao, who grew up in China, “She knows the difference between a free country and one that used to be. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen us as close to the precipice as I do now.” Neither of the Paxtons nor Bao replied to requests for comment.
Over the past few years, Plano and neighboring suburbs in Collin County have become less of a reliably Republican stronghold. Though it is far from flipping, Democrats began paying attention to the county, which has a highly educated and ethnically diverse voting population, during the 2020 election cycle.
Meanwhile, the growing hyperpartisanship spilled over into the Plano City Council during the pandemic, when it reached a 4-4 split last summer over whether to implement a mask mandate. The city received over 700 emails ahead of the vote, and 83 percent of people writing in were in favor of the mandate; eventually, the council passed a watered down, unenforceable ordinance that “encouraged” residents to wear masks in public. Emails obtained via a public records request show that Bao and fellow council members Shelby Williams and Rick Smith responded to those who wrote in support of their refusal to implement the mandate, sometimes expressing the view that it was a vote on personal liberty. Bao even asked residents to support her stance on Next Door, a neighborhood-based social networking site. The city withheld additional emails from the Observer, saying that they indicated a council member’s personal political beliefs, and did not pertain to “official government business.”
That the mask vote broke down along partisan lines is unsurprising to longtime observers of local politics. “From 2017 onwards, candidates who were very conservative made a lot of noise about their partisan affiliations,” Quiggle says. Bao in particular, he says, revels in it. In a local race for mayor, where less than 10 percent of the city’s registered voters turn out, that just might be more than enough for a polarizing candidate to finally take control of the city’s politics.
Nowadays, LaRosiliere, the outgoing mayor, can laugh at the partisan attack ads that show up in his mailbox, accusing Muns of waging a culture war against celebrating Christmas in public schools when he was on the school board. A few years ago, LaRosiliere was himself on the receiving end of an increasingly toxic campaign of misinformation. A Plano resident associated with anti-development groups accused the mayor of corruption during his primary against Bao in 2017, resulting in thousands of dollars in legal fees for LaRosiliere before the baseless charges were dropped. “It gets so ugly, and I think, ‘Is it worth it?’” he says. In one regard, he has some nostalgia for what Plano used to be: “It’s good to have healthy debate. But the personal vilification—it didn’t used to be this way.”