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  • John Henry

Fort Worth City Councilman, Real Estate Broker Working Double Time

Updated: Dec 27, 2022

BY JOHN HENRY | FEB. 28, 2022 | 9:45 A.M.

One can probably credit the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, the one-time spouse of the troubled Prince Andrew, with helping Michael Crain master the art of shifting gears on a dime.

Crain, then the chief of staff of the U.S. Embassy in the People’s Republic of China, was in attendance, as was Ms. Ferguson, at the grand opening of a Ronald McDonald House in Beijing. Ferguson, immersed of course in the Queen’s deportment, protocol, and style, noticed Crain chewing gum.

“I never chewed gum like a cow,” Crain says recently. “My mom would backhand me. But Sarah looked at me and said, ‘Are you chewing gum?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Then I swallowed the gum, and she said, ‘Did you just swallow the gum?’ And I said, ‘I did!’

“She summoned for her help and said, ‘He needs a mint.’ From that day on, I’ve only carried mints or something else because of her.”

He says a better rebuttal would have been something to the effect of a reference to those salacious photos the paparazzi shot that made the rounds 30 years ago with the duchess and a Texas oilman carousing poolside at a resort. “But you’re scolding me for chewing gum?” However, discretion being the better part of valor — and remembrances of a mother’s backhand — he passed.

Today, Crain — who has a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M, a law degree from the A&M Law School in Fort Worth, and an MBA from Rutgers — moves on his feet as well as any late-40-something, juggling figurative fire torches while on duty for constituents in District 3 as a first-term Fort Worth City Councilman, succeeding Brian Byrd, and clients as a partner with Will Northern in Northern Crain Realty. Saying he is busy is minimizing words. Crain is more like a Swiss Army knife’s implements in use all at once. Or think of a life in which every moment sounds as if an orchestra warming up before showtime.

“I think I am,” Crain says when asked if and how he gets it all done. “You’d have to ask people I represent. It depends on what your definition of ‘it’ is [laughs]. I am spending a lot of time [at City Hall]. I’m sure Will would like me to spend more time at the brokerage.”

He gets it done, observers say, because he works so hard.

“I just don’t sleep that much,” he says. “If there’s something I have to do, I just get up and do it.”

That might include taking his three children to school, two 13-year-old twins, Mackenzie and Mackaylee — who do as most teens that age do and give dad the stiff arm as they get closer to the school building — and Ainsley, the youngest, whom dad says has a unique zeal for living.

There are lots of wild cards in the chambers of City Hall, including those of real estate and commercial development in the 12th-largest city in the U.S., which lacks home inventory commensurate to its size. A variety of issues pop up at a minute’s notice, and not all of them are potholes needed filling or lampposts gone dark. On this day, a council meeting day, when he’s chock-full of meetings (he intentionally schedules that way), the hot matter needing council attention is a concessions and catering contract at Will Rogers Memorial Center. As written, at-risk is wording in the contract that many local caterers fear will leave them out of business at Will Rogers.

He takes a phone call, presumably on that issue. When asked about it, he says he is confident the council will reach agreement on wording that will take care of the local concerns. (They eventually do and approve it unanimously later that evening.) It’s part of the theory of “win-win” solutions that public servants vie for.

“Knowing him personally and the sheer volume of workload he can handle gave me the confidence to be comfortable with [Crain running for a place on the dais at City Hall],” Northern says. “We had some good talks about him running for office beforehand. That’s a huge time commitment. I’ve supported him every step of the way because I know he’s still available to the company and to the community. A lot of positive things come out of it.

“For our clients, just having someone who knows the ins and outs of how a city functions. We work with a lot of commercial clients, and Michael is a great connector. If a developer is having a problem with a project, he can help.”

Like any public servant in the public eye, speculation swarms about his future in politics. “Much to my wife’s dismay, there is no game plan.”

He has plenty to do right now, he says.

And ain’t that the truth.

Crain, 49, was born and raised in Fort Worth, graduating from Saginaw Boswell High School. He likes to joke — the first thing you learn about him is he does a lot of that — that he is as well-rounded as anyone on council.

During the campaign in the spring, he would answer the question of where he was from like this: “Well, I live in District 3. I was born at Harris Hospital, so I was District 9 before Ann Zadeh and now Elizabeth Beck. I grew up on NW 25th Street so I was District 2 before Carlos Flores was District 2. My dad had an auto salvage on Riverside Drive, so I was District 8 before Kelly Allen Gray and now Chris Nettles. And I lived on Eagle Mountain Lake, so I was District 7 before Dennis Shingleton and now Leonard Firestone.”

Flores, a senior member of the council and born and raised on the North Side, readily disagrees about who has been in District 2 longer.

His father’s business was Crain Auto Salvage, owned by David Crain. It’s still there but under different owners. Michael Crain says he spent “tons of my summers putting tags on parts.”

It’s a point of pride, this idea of a strong work ethic.

At the brokerage, Crain oversees the residential and property management piece. Northern, who founded the company in 2010, handles the commercial real estate portion. The firm will soon move into a new building in the 800 block of Hemphill Street.

“Will and I see eye to eye on how we want to treat people, how we think clients and agents should be served, and just in general have the same philosophy. We share the same values: character and integrity. When you say you’re going to do something, follow through with it. It’s a Fort Worth ethos, he says.

“In this city, your character means much more than most anything you do,” Crain says. “I want people to know that I’ve worked far too long and hard on what my character is. That people know if I say something, I’m going to do it or come back and say why I couldn’t get it done. But probably 90% of the time, I got it done. I’m going to do it efficiently and with everybody’s best interest at heart.”

Crain and Northern became friends through each’s association with Steer Fort Worth and Leadership Fort Worth and a lot of other things that overlap. They formed a friendship. They have been partners for 2 1/2 years.

Northern, whom Crain calls “just a really solid guy,” has his own share of local government experience, only recently stepping aside after eight years on the city’s Zoning Commission.

Northern says he needed help managing the residential domain of the company and wanted to bring on a different skill set.

“Right out of the gates, I’ve never met a harder worker than Michael Crain,” says Northern, who in 2019 won the Charles Tandy award for most complicated transaction of the year for his years-long work on Race Street from the Texas Association of Realtors. “He is relentless, which goes a long way, especially in the real estate business because there is so much communication and correspondence. So, it really takes someone that’s an effective communicator that is very direct, and that is absolutely him. He can accomplish a large volume of correspondence in a condensed time.”

The firm, Crain says, is about building business and being present in Fort Worth.

“The vision is to build a team as invested as Will and me in seeing the city grow and prosper, all parts of the city,” says Crain, noting the firm’s interest — and Northern’s expertise — in historic preservation. We have this idea of legacy of sorts that we want to leave for our kids and grandkids — that we have been present here in the city.”

On council, Crain brings a heaping helping of levity. He enjoys having a good time; that is clear the first time you meet him. It’s just who he is, but it can be very strategic in his professional life trying to navigate the sticky issues that arise.

“He’s really funny. He can also be wildly inappropriate,” Northern adds, laughing. “What I’ll say about that is when he goes into a lot of intense meetings, he can disarm people. And get people talking to one another. He is a natural mediator. He just has a knack for it. He applies that skill set and knowledge base in real estate and his role as city council member. An he’s making a lot of really cool stuff happen.

At the city and the issues that come before it, there is naturally conflict. Northern says one of the best lessons Crain has taught him is “not to be conflict avoidant.”

“Meet it head on,” Northern says. “It’s really helped me out in my business addressing things as soon as they come up. Don’t let them build because they become bigger issues than they otherwise would be. Nipping things in the bud, so to speak. It might not be the outcome everyone thought would happen or wanted, but it’s at least pushing the ball forward as opposed to a stalemate that continues to fester. He’s good at busting up gridlock.”

Says council colleague Beck, the District 9 representative: “I think he brings levity in a way that we need when we’re having these real heavy conversations. And Michael can say things in a way that makes everybody laugh and not in a silly way but like in a ‘this is hard, and the tension is building,’ and Michael has a way to just decompress it, right, make everybody laugh.”

Before there was real estate, there was public service and leadership. Crain has always been drawn to it, it seems. He was the student council president at Boswell, class vice president at Texas A&M as an undergrad, and the bar association president.

His opportunities in public service all came from merely showing up. It’s amazing what happens when one simply shows up. Through working on the reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth) in 1996, he met two very important figures. One was George W. Bush, the then-governor of Texas and leading prospect for the Republican nomination for president in 2000. The other even more important figure was his wife, Joanna. Crain also got to know then-council candidate Brian Byrd much the same way. He asked him if he needed help on the campaign. When he became a member of the council, Byrd asked Crain to stay on as district director. Crain says he was immediately drawn to Byrd’s work in reaching voters, saying he is convinced that Byrd — who stepped aside as a council member to run for mayor — increased voter participation in municipal elections by this vigorous campaign to walk the streets during his three elections.

Granger facilitated a contact to work on Bush’s first presidential campaign in 1999. By 2001, Crain was in the White House, first working as a scheduler, doing advance work for the president and first lady. In short, that person briefs the president on the event and what to expect at it. That led to a job in the Department of Health and Human Services to then the Republican National Committee for the reelection campaign and the 2005 inaugural committee to the Department of Commerce, and eventually to a place in the biggest departments of them all in a presidential administration, the Department of State.

The ambassador to China, Sandy Randt, asked Crain to serve as chief of staff. He says whatever made him accept is still a mystery to him.

But the job was life-changing, and not merely because he had to live without air conditioning or the great gum dustup with the Duchess of York.

During his three years there, he was the lead officer for Bush’s trip to the 2008 Olympics, which marked the first time a U.S. president had visited the Games on foreign soil. He was also the lead officer for George H.W. Bush’s trip to open the new embassy.

Generally, the deputy chief of mission handles presidential visits. However, the deputy had other responsibilities associated with the Olympics that prevented his handling Bush’s visit.

“The ambassador was fretting over it,” Crain says. “And then he says, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but you’re going to run it.’ I had a history with the White House doing advance.”

Crain and his wife expected to stay until Bush’s term was complete in 2009, “but over the course of things, a year in, we liked it.” The couple stayed another five years and put down roots. That’s probably oversimplifying it.

After his work with the embassy was complete, Crain took a job with an international law firm facilitating inbound and outbound investment. Joanna started a business assisting business executives traveling to China.

The couple also started a philanthropy, Foodie Philanthropy. It has raised more than $1 million for more than 35 charities in China. It’s a good deed the couple brought back with them to Fort Worth when they returned in 2014. The philanthropy, a registered 501(c)(3), is a collaboration with restaurants, who host dining events and fundraisers. Restaurants donate a table of 10, which includes a three-course meal. Patrons host a full table or purchase individual seats. So far, more than $225,000 has been donated to charities here. (Disclosure: Fort Worth Magazine is this year’s media sponsor.)

Foodie Philanthropy wasn’t all the Crains brought back with them.

Adopted daughters Mackaylee and Mackenzie were also in tow, kindergartners when the Crains returned. The new parents wanted the girls educated in the U.S., “so they could fully understand the honor of being an American,” Crain says.

“Those girls were meant to be ours. I know that,” he says. “God had a plan for us and the girls, for them and for us. Families work out the way families are supposed work out.”

He follows with a quip that only a dad could make, that God thought the parents had it too easy with their girls and gave them another, Ainsley.

The moral of the story is, you never know what might come next.

As far as public service goes, Crain says he doesn’t even know if he’ll run again. Yeah, yeah … that sounds very typical of elected policymakers, he knows. However, if there’s anything about Crain, it’s sincerity.

“My hope is that as a brokerage, we built and held true to our principles and values and is serving our clients and the community. We don’t have designs to be the biggest and all this stuff because we want to serve our clients and attract the best agents out there with an understanding that this is where Will’s and my hearts are. The rest will take care of itself.”

In 10 years, he won’t be sitting on council.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing. We’ll see how this sorts out. If I’m still viable and effective for citizens, I’ll continue to do it if they want me to run again. If at some point I’m not and someone better comes along to do it, I don’t have enough pride in it. I’ll go sit on the beach and drink a margarita. This is not about power or name or pay or anything like that. It really is about trying to make this city the best it can be.”

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