A Conservative Civil War in Collin County
A Texas county has enjoyed remarkable growth and success in recent years. Now its political identity threatens to change everything.
Driving north on Preston Road, an asphalt artery connecting downtown Dallas to its northern suburbs as far as 50 miles away, yields just about every sight one might expect from a lower-density American metropolis. Neighborhoods lined with sprawling homes, retail areas complete with restaurants and stores, and consistently horrendous traffic render the experience of the average Preston Road commuter an unbearably mundane one. But after miles and miles of driving northward from Dallas, a watchful motorist will be offered a curious reprieve. At the intersection of Preston and Main Street in the Collin County suburb of Frisco, the northeastern street corner stands out. A large metal sign reads “BRINKMANN RANCH” in bold white letters on a navy blue background. Less than a mile east of the intersection lay the remains of Cloyce Box Ranch, the filming location for the first five episodes of the soap opera Dallas. Despite being enclaved by modern suburban homes and businesses, Brinkmann Ranch fits the classic stereotype of a Texas landscape a little too well. Longhorns roam its wide-open pastures next to old-timey farmhouses under pristine azure skies. The whole estate feels a bit like the setting of a typical Spaghetti Western.
In line with another Texas stereotype, Dallas’ northern suburbs have a penchant for supporting conservative politics, and Collin County is no different. Like most places outside Texas’ biggest cities, Collin County has historically been reliably Republican. But recent years have brought significant changes — though not all are the result of liberal Californians arriving. The population has diversified noticeably in recent years, shifting the area’s demographic and electoral identity. In 1990, about 86 percent of Collin County residents were non-Hispanic White; by 2019, that proportion had fallen to about 55 percent. During that period, the population quadrupled from 264,000 to over 1 million. The changing demographic identity of the county has prompted many experts to label it as a bellwether. But while Collin County’s shift toward the left (12.4 percentage points more Democratic in the 2020 presidential election than in 2016) has raised the hopes of many local liberals, the conservative side of the county has become mired in crisis.
In the past, I have discussed the divides plaguing American conservatism, chiefly those between traditional, pro-business conservatives and the anti-establishment, market-skeptic supporters of Donald Trump; many of the same ideas apply here. Right-wingers here in Collin County are more disunited than ever before. Some Republicans who adhere to the party’s moderate or orthodox, anti-Trump wings defected to vote for Joe Biden in 2020, while others have rallied behind the right-wing populism of the 45th president. The rift has roused a new class of conservative voices in a manner that has become increasingly concerning for local governments. Collin County’s reputation and even its future prosperity may be in crisis. Just as fast as its suburbs have grown, the region’s politics have reached a level of uncertainty and partisanship previously unseen by longtime residents. What is happening to conservatism in Collin County, and how will the discord between its factions impact the area in the future?
Though the Republican Party and conservative thinking have always been dominant here, local politics in Collin County have traditionally been quite pleasant, productive, and nonpartisan. Municipal governments have generally found a common desire to embrace the growth made inevitable by the expanding population of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Frisco, my home city, has made attracting businesses a major priority, particularly those in the sports industry. With six professional sports franchises playing or hosting their operations in the city, Frisco has earned the unofficial title of Sports City USA. Perhaps the most notable recent achievement of the Frisco City Council was its vote to welcome the headquarters of the PGA of America, accompanied by other new developments such as a golf resort, a conference center, hiking trails, and retail space. The project, which could have an economic impact of $2.5 billion or more over the next two decades, is just the latest of many to raise Collin County’s profile on the national stage. Frisco is far from the only place to stand out as a destination for businesses. Neighboring Plano, the county’s largest city, hosts the headquarters of Frito-Lay, Pizza Hut, and Toyota Motor North America, among other multinational corporations drawn to the area. Nearby McKinney’s largest employer is Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, owing to the conglomerate’s engineering facilities in the city; another suburb, Allen, hosts companies such as Experian, PFSweb, and MonkeySports.
As a senior in high school, I was mentored by a city councilman in Frisco and had the opportunity to meet dozens of public officials and city staffers. The message I got from them was clear: partisanship is not a real consideration for city leaders. There was a practically universal commitment to building new roads, funding new schools, expanding public safety services, and promoting job opportunities. Since only proper budgeting and contract-hunting are required to meet these objectives, the partisan motivations and rhetorical chicanery found on the national political stage are as unnecessary here as they are unwanted. Although support for fiscally conservative and pro-business policies was common, such sentiments did not override the general spirit of pragmatic politics nor the desire of city officials, including City Council members, to serve their community above all. Many people I corresponded with had lived in Frisco for more than 30 years. Regarding the changes they had seen, most said they were delighted by the city’s new diversity and opportunities, although many also felt that Frisco was doing well by maintaining its small-town, family-oriented identity.
Yet it appears that Frisco and other parts of Collin County are parting ways with this more neutral, level-headed approach to local affairs. Even though much of the county’s land area remains undeveloped and city officials have plenty of work to do, a new antagonism has begun to disrupt municipal politics. From residents sparking nationwide controversy to ugly city council elections, Collin County’s right-wing politics have a very different look and influence nowadays. But why should other residents — moderate and orthodox conservatives, centrists, and liberals alike — be concerned by these new players in the local political landscape?
Investigations have revealed that three dozen of the 377 people arrested in connection with the January 6 storming of the Capitol in Washington are from Texas, tied with Pennsylvania for the most of any state in the country. Several of them came from Collin County and other rapidly-growing, quickly-diversifying suburban areas. A report by the Los Angeles Times revealed that those from Collin County charged do not fit the profile of stereotypical right-wing extremists. Lawyers, tech executives, realtors, and veterans were among those apprehended by federal authorities. Like Collin County residents of all backgrounds, they tended to be educated and affluent. Such revelations mortified city and community leaders. A dilemma of this magnitude makes it unsurprising that some moderate Republicans in Collin County can no longer recognize their party.
I realized the magnitude of this divide in Frisco’s recent municipal elections. A competitive race for Place 3 on the City Council seized public attention unlike any other I have seen. But as great as it is to see civic engagement, Frisco residents were interested in this contest for all the wrong reasons. After an initial election on May 1 that featured four candidates, none of the contenders secured a majority of the votes, allowing top-two finishers Angelia Pelham and Jennifer White to advance to a runoff scheduled for June 5. While Pelham ran a campaign that resembled those of her predecessors by focusing on nonpartisan, bread-and-butter issues, White infused the race with a type of zealotry that was unprecedented for a local election.
White’s strategy was simple yet remarkably effective: she marketed herself as the sole bona fide conservative in the race. She cast herself as a “political outsider” and a crusader against “special interests,” which she claimed supported Pelham rather than the best interests of Frisco citizens. Her rhetoric had clear populist overtones; she touted endorsements from local conservative groups and her vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. She accused Pelham of being a liberal Democrat, alleging she supported Joe Biden for president, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other progressive causes, even though Pelham is a self-described fiscal conservative and unaffiliated with any political parties. Most surprisingly and interestingly of all, White did not run on a pro-business, fiscally hawkish platform. Instead, she called for a return to small-town values, an increase to Frisco’s homestead exemption, and a rejection of high-density housing and even some business interests.
Meanwhile, Pelham and her supporters said they were focusing on Frisco rather than any partisan motivations. Republicans and Democrats alike banded together in support of her campaign, with her Facebook page featuring many graphics reading “This election isn’t about red or blue; Frisco, it’s about you!” and listing her many endorsements from current and former city officials. As Election Day approached, the conversations on social media became shockingly vitriolic; an unsightly quarrel emerged on Facebook, with White and Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney each accusing one another of ethics violations and spreading disinformation. Allegations of personal attacks toward spouses and even children also surfaced. Frisco residents were rightly bewildered and confused by the ugly nature of the race. I cannot deny that this contest had me feeling more tense than any other Frisco vote I have ever tracked. In my 13 years living here, I’ve seen a thing or two go down in local politics, but never anything as unsettling as this.
Moderate and traditional conservatives, particularly those dedicated to preserving Frisco’s pro-business, pro-growth climate, have found plenty of causes for concern even since Pelham’s historic victory over White in the June 5 runoff. Should Collin County continue to grow its notoriety as a hotbed of conspiracy theories and hardcore right-wing populism, Frisco could lose much of its luster among enterprising newcomers and the business community. If Frisco wants to welcome Fortune 500 companies and the jobs and prestige they bring, the city will have to do a better job maintaining a solid reputation. As well as this once-unknown suburb has fared in the last 20 years, there is still plenty of competition out there, namely places like Austin, Houston, Nashville, and Atlanta. These cities and others could undoubtedly attract businesses more effectively than Frisco and other Collin County suburbs if the county’s displeasing political character becomes a significant drawback for businesses.
More worrisome still is that White is likely far from the last candidate of her kind. If even one or two conservative firebrands like her were to take office, Frisco’s entrepreneurial spirit would be in great jeopardy, and its image would irreversibly suffer. Businesses and families on the move would be far less drawn to the area, while the tax burden on current residents would grow thanks to the presence of fewer corporations that fund the city’s budget needs through taxes. Such a reduction in commercial activity would also cause real estate to lose much of its value; considering that Frisco still has about a quarter of its land area undeveloped, this could make economic stagnation a real possibility. Potential public policy changes brought about by unnecessary political polarization and anti-growth attitudes would only serve to exacerbate Frisco’s woes. In short, Frisco is in for a rude awakening if its ideological character continues to drift in the wrong direction.
Frisco residents cannot continue to take their city’s prosperity and successes for granted. Though the Frisco City Council generally remains a voice of reason, the emergence of more nasty politics will hurt local lawmakers and citizens alike. Even if hardcore conservatives do not win elections in the future, their influence will remain palpable. While these unpleasant truths are shocking news to some, these new developments in the world of Collin County conservatism are not as unexpected as one might think. After all, these are the explosive impacts of the political, demographic, and commercial changes Collin County has undergone in recent years, as well as the culture war that has shaken the American populace to its core.
To dampen the mood even further, it seems that Collin County’s political landscape can only get more cutthroat. Rising numbers of eligible young voters and increasing ethnic diversity will only make elections more competitive across the board, with similar trends simultaneously influencing the partisan leanings of Texas as a whole. Say what you will about Texas Republicans, but they will fight like hell to keep their state and communities red. A painful three-sided conflict between Collin County’s traditional conservatives, populist Trump supporters, and increasingly influential Democrats is certainly not out of the question.
Collin County’s conservative civil war may be a petty one, but to dismiss it as trivial or temporary would be a grave mistake. Just like the contrast between Brinkmann Ranch and the bustling suburbs that surround it, Collin County as a whole will continue to see the modern pitted against the traditional, the pragmatic pitted against the quixotic, and the calm pitted against the coming storm. Such battles may only be the beginning, especially given that potential new crises could surely emerge in the future. Whatever this struggle looks like and however it develops in the next several months and years, one thing is for sure: we all ought to brace ourselves. The worst may very well be yet to come.