How the 2020 campaign is dividing Houston’s booming suburbs

HOUSTON — This summer, Whitney Hanzik got a startling notification on her phone. There’d been a stabbing near her home, and one person was injured. Then she looked outside and noticed a helicopter flying over her suburban Houston neighborhood.

Hanzik, a 35-year-old mom who home-schools her three children, wanted to know whether a dangerous person was on the loose. So she logged on to the Prestonwood Forest Neighbors & Friends Facebook group.

“Can anyone verify or does anyone have any further details?” she posted, along with a picture of the crime alert.

Hanzik, who’d grown up in Prestonwood Forest and moved back as an adult, didn’t expect the firestorm that followed.

One longtime resident, an older white woman, complained that it was yet more evidence that the area surrounding Prestonwood, a subdivision developed in the 1970s, was turning into “the ‘hood,” according to several residents who read the now-deleted comment.

That triggered accusations of racism from some residents, including a Black couple who said they never truly felt at home in the mostly white but slowly diversifying neighborhood. Those posts were followed by several from white residents who said they couldn’t understand why people were making it about race.

Fifty-three comments later, Hanzik scrolled through the replies, stunned.

“I just wanted to know what was going on,” she said of the stabbing, which turned out to be tied to a domestic dispute at a nearby apartment complex. “I’ve got three kids at home by myself. I just want to know that the area is secure, right? And then when somebody made one comment, everything took a turn for the worst.”

But it wasn’t the first time this year — or the last — that Prestonwood Forest’s community Facebook group has unraveled into a heated argument over crime, politics and race. And the incident was by no means unique to this one Texas subdivision.

Similar feuds have blown up in suburban communities across the country in recent months, fueled in part by changing demographics, the nation’s ongoing reckoning over racial injustice, an unusually contentious election season and Republican leaders who’ve been stoking unsubstantiated fears about growing lawlessness in the suburbs.

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In Texas and across the country, Democrats are spending tens of millions of dollars trying to win votes in neighborhoods like Prestonwood Forest — once solidly Republican suburban communities that have trended somewhat more Democratic since President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

In response, Trump and other Republican leaders have made a direct appeal to the fears of some white suburban residents, claiming without evidence that former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats are seeking to “abolish the suburbs.” Last month, before Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis upended the presidential race, his campaign sent a text message warning millions of supporters that members of antifa, a far-left protest movement, would “attack your homes” if Biden is elected.

Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, a former Florida congressman, confirmed in an interview that fears about crime are central to his party’s strategy in the fast-growing suburbs around Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. West, who is Black, said promises by some Democrats to cut police funding are driving record numbers of “suburban white women” to buy guns, which he said bodes well for Republicans. (When asked for evidence to support the claim, a Texas GOP spokesman sent articles from 2017 and 2018, published well before the phrase “defund the police” was popularized this summer, showing that more women of all races and more Black people in particular had been applying for concealed handgun permits.)

“I believe that when you make the comparison and you look at what I call the rule of law versus the rule of the mob, folks are paying attention to that,” West said. “And so I believe that right now, the left, sure, they’re putting a lot of money in here. But that’s not going to make people vote for a message that is detrimental to the future of the great state of Texas.”

But in interviews with several Prestonwood Forest residents, none listed crime and safety as their top concern. These voters said they were more worried about health care, the economy and the fight over confirming a new Supreme Court justice.

Elizabeth Simas, a political science professor at the University of Houston who lives in the same congressional district as Prestonwood Forest, said Trump’s remarks about Democrats’ wanting to “destroy suburbia” amount to “very thinly veiled racism, quite frankly.”

“He’s making a very, very clear racial appeal,” said Simas, who is white. “I mean, he’s talking about suburbs in probably the most stereotypical, 1950s, 1960s sense of white, cookie-cutter homes with a bunch of stay-at-home moms in their nice dresses and aprons that have dinner and a cocktail waiting for their husbands to get home. And it’s just not the case. They’re very diverse communities.”

That’s especially true, Simas said, in the booming communities surrounding Houston, one of the fastest-growing and most diverse regions in the country.