You can’t say that Tarrant County Precinct 2 Commissioner Devan Allen is a newcomer to politics, although her primary victory and then her defeat of incumbent Commissioner Andy Nguyen in the November general election was her first run.
She’s been around government and politics for a while, first working for Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem and District 8 Council Member Kathleen Hicks, State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, during Davis’ first year as a senator and State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, in several positions including campaign manager. She also was senior director of external affairs for the University of Texas at Arlington
Allen was asked “not literally millions but it felt like millions” of times when she would run for office, including for the city council in her hometown of Arlington.
“My answer was pretty much always the same, but I think I probably figured out how to answer it more succinctly as I gained more experience,” she said in an interview with the Business Press. “I would run if it was the right time, for the right reasons and if I was the right person.”
And that time came in 2018.
She is 36.
At one time, she thought that she might make a career in health care, perhaps as a physician. She was certified as an emergency medical technician and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UT Arlington; she also did some undergraduate coursework at Tarrant County College.
But when the time came to get really serious about medical school, take the entrance exam and visit campuses, she had figured out that while she really loved the concept of helping people, it was not necessarily in a health care setting.
“Public service in local government is where I kind of found my niche and was able to see that's what I was truly passionate about,” Allen said.
She won the Democratic primary for the county court position and on Election Day defeated Republican Nguyen, the first Asian-American elected in Tarrant County, with 51.4 percent of the 154,786 votes cast.
Precinct 2 covers the southeast quadrant of Tarrant County.
No doubt one factor was the higher-than-usual turnout for mid-term elections, but another was her work ethic and her extensive community service both in Arlington and Fort Worth.
“I spent a fair amount of time visiting the stakeholders in the community just to get their thoughts on if they thought that I was the right person. … What are the issues that you're most concerned about? Where do you see the county 10, 20, 30 years from now?” Allen said. “And based off of that feedback, and obviously having already decided that the county commissioner role would be most appropriate, then I ultimately decided to put my name in the hat.”
She and her husband, Mark, were college sweethearts and will celebrate 14 years of marriage come July. He is a commercial real estate broker with Colliers International and works in Dallas. They do not have children.
So far, this is a pretty ordinary story of a young woman drawn to politics and following a relatively common path to achieve that dream.
But people are the sum of their experiences. And Devan Allen brings a lot of experiences to her job in county government.
She’s a board member of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition. She interested in public access to health care. She’s concerned about problems that keep poor people from being considered for housing and jobs. She interested in criminal justice, especially bail reform. And she’s a first-class foodie.
And all of those interests are personal to her because of her background.
At one time, both of her parents were serving time in state prisons, her father in California on a drug-related offense and her mother sentenced to 10 years in Texas for what amounted to $2,200 in bad debt, Allen said.
“She was a single mom, had escaped a domestic violence relationship marriage, and she didn't have a college degree. So she started a bad habit, which was a crime, of writing fraudulent checks. She attempted to pay off those fines and to make good on it, but the county justice system at that time – we were living in Houston so in Harris County – pooled together those misdemeanor offenses and she received that felony conviction,” Allen said.
With a felony record, it’s difficult to get a well-paying job and find a stable place to live. And transportation was a problem.
The family moved back and forth between Houston and Denver – where there were family connections – sometimes with a car and sometimes not. Sometimes there was money for a bus pass, and sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes they had furniture, sometimes not. Sometimes it was a mattress, sometimes it was pallets.
“I know what it's like to carry groceries on the bus, or if you can afford the cab ride, after you have all these bags of groceries,” Allen said.
During the campaign, another campaign worker told her he could see how experiences like that could harden her.
“And I said, ‘Well, it probably did for a time, you know, if I'm being honest.’ But I had to work through the pain. I had to work through that bitterness. I had to work through all the things that I thought that I didn't get, to be able to see what opportunities were in front of me if I was willing to let go of the past and just try to have laser focus on the future,” Allen said. “Really it's just made me grateful.”
She was in her mid-20s before she stopped overbuying food.
“Because I had been without food before, and because we'd lived in motels before, and if they didn't have kitchenettes then we ate out of a cooler,” she said. “Food still plays a very major role in my life. I love food, I'm a huge foodie. I will try just about anything. But I had to work through getting over the fear of not having food again, or not having it when I need it.”
At friends’ houses, people would comment on how much she would eat.
“Well, yeah, because I may have gone all day in school with no food. Or maybe things were really scarce at home, so when the food was there … it's survival instinct to eat while you can,” Allen said.
“There was just something very comforting and securing about opening up the fridge or the freezer and you see the food there. Or open up the pantry. I mean, I really had to work through that. Because I knew part of that concern was really fear, and that was irrational,” she said.
The point is, Allen said, that she understands that people need sustainable options if they are to be able to work toward their next phase of life.
With a turbulent childhood, two central figures in her life were her grandparents Betty and Charles Hollie of Fort Worth.
“They owned and operated a family business off of Morningside and Berry for I think maybe 38 or almost, if not 40 years,” she said. Her grandfather died a decade ago, but she still gets to hang out with her grandmother.
Allen went into the general election confident but not so much so that she took anything for granted.
“In fact, it made me work harder because I knew that the opportunity was there,” she said. “Obviously I didn't do it on my own. I had a great team within the campaign, within supporters, within the community and people who believed in why I was running.”
Allen tried to reach as many people as possible.
“We talked to Democrats, we talked to independents, we talked to Republicans, we talked to everybody,” she said. “Now obviously we weren't able to talk to every single person but we talked to as many people as we could. I spent hours, countless hours, going door to door and attending community events where I could directly communicate with residents and ask for their support, and I did that very explicitly.”
Her first priority now that she has been sworn is to get acclimated and make sure she has a good understanding of the current priorities for Commissioners Court and county administration.
“I would imagine that people may have had concerns about who is going to come in and make sweeping changes immediately, and that's not really the way I operate. I like to gather information,” Allen said. “But that will take some time, and that's going to be an ongoing process for the life of my time in serving in this role.”
She campaigned vigorously for the recent JPS Health Network bond issue, which voters approved in November, and its implementation will be important for her.
“That was important to me — one, as a former health care provider, but also because of the work I had done as a board volunteer and advocate, and as a former staffer and seeing what our access to health care is in the state,” she said. “There is a diversity of options, but that doesn't mean that they're necessarily affordable to as many people as we would like.”
She’s interested in criminal justice, with bail reform.
“Public safety is a priority, but if someone is otherwise not a risk to public safety, they're not a flight risk, then it doesn't do us any good for them to just sit in jail because they can't afford any other option until they get their day in court,” Allen said.
And she’s interested in transportation issues, in part because she was Turner’s lead staffer on transportation.
“I have for years attended all of the various transportation-related meetings and heard directly from residents, not just in southeast Tarrant County but all over the county, that access to transportation is a major concern and, in some areas, it's a legitimate barrier to some people being able to get to school, to get to work, to get to the doctor,” she said.
But a major priority is being accessible and letting people know that they can reach out to her.
If you spend time with Devan Allen, it quickly becomes obvious that that will not be a problem.
Devan Allen’s community involvement includes:
Action Arlington – 2015 to present
Arlington Chamber of Commerce
Arlington Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Advisory Council – 2013 to 2016
Jubilee Theatre board – 2014 to 2016
Chair - City of Arlington Community Relations Commission
Co-Chair – DRC Annual Fort Worth Breakfast with the Mayor;
Community mentor – UT Arlington Center for African-American Studies – 2014 to present
Day Resource Center: Community Solutions to End Homelessness – 2015 to present
Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce Woman’s Business Issues Division – 2014 to 2015
Founding board member - BRIDGE
Leadership North Texas, Class 7
Representative – Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Advisory Council – 2015 to 2016
Representative – Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee – 2015 to 2016
Tarrant County Homeless Coalition – 2016 to present
UT Arlington African-American Alumni Association – 2013 to present
UT Arlington Alumni Association – 2013 to present
Women Inspiring Philanthropy