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First Black mayor elected in Little Elm suggests growth, change in Denton County

“I think it signifies how much Denton County has grown and how open-minded its citizens have become,” said Ira Bershad, president of Denton Together.

DALLAS — The Town of Little Elm, in Denton County, elected its first Black mayor over the weekend, in an election that is gaining attention across the state.

“I knew I would be the first Black mayor, but I didn’t think it would seep out of Little Elm,” said Curtis Cornelious, the mayor-elect, in an interview with WFAA.

Little Elm, a town of 53,000, is east of Denton on Lewisville Lake, and about 45 minutes north of Dallas. 

Cornelious, whose name is pronounced like "Cornelius," defeated Ken Eaken in the runoff over the weekend with 53% of the vote to become the first new mayor in a decade. Previously, Cornelious served on the town council in Little Elm since 2009, along with four years on the town’s economic development board.

But his win is also significant because Little Elm leans conservative and, though municipal races in Texas are non-partisan, a majority of voters in the town supported Donald Trump in November 2020.

“This may be a very, very conservative area, but now people are seeing that if the constituents can see past the red-blue line, the party affiliations, we can work together,” Cornelious told WFAA. “I gained support from every party affiliation because they were able to see past their talking points.”

Others said Cornelious' win suggests a wider change in Denton County itself.

“I think it signifies how much Denton County has grown and how open-minded its citizens have become,” said Ira Bershad, president of Denton Together, a small-dollar donor, all-volunteer political action committee. 

“Our mission is to support candidates that will govern with empathy, compassion and integrity," Bershad added. "We believe Curtis represents all of those and are very excited about this win. People want leaders who are going to be servants who are going to be in it to serve the people and not be in it to serve themselves.”

Cornelious, originally from Arkansas, is a senior engineer at Raytheon Technologies working primarily with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The transition from the outgoing mayor who was term-limited out will be seamless, Cornelious said. 

When asked how he will lead differently, Cornelious said “budget-wise, you won’t see any difference. That won’t change."

"We’ll do what we can not to raise our tax rate," he vowed. "You won’t see a huge difference in our vision since we’ve worked together since 2009. How we get to it may be different. I’m a very energetic, excited person. I make sure that energy is given off.”

Like many burgeoning suburban cities and towns in North Texas, Cornelious said he wants to continue to manage growth in Little Elm.

“Our biggest thing has always been, how do we keep growing and maintain our small-town feel,” the mayor-elect explained. “Our [portion of Lewisville] lake is such an advantage because we are a lakefront community. But it kind of hurts us, because we can’t build on the water. We have to build around it. We don’t have a lot of land left. We have to be strategic about what we build where.”

On his first day in office next week, Cornelious said he’ll have to tackle the budget.

“We will continue what we’ve been doing. Our budget has been strong, and we have a strong reserve,” he said. 

Credit: Curtis Cornelious

Cornelious, who supported hiring more police officers and firefighters while serving on council, suggested that would likely continue as the population grows.

“Do we have enough officers? Just my opinion, but maybe not. But we’re going to get there as soon as we can. It just depends on growth. We’re set to hit 60,000 in the next few years,” he explained.

Cornelious has three children, a 27-year-old daughter, a 20-year-old son and an 18-year-old son.

“We’re on the verge of being empty-nesters,” he said.

But the win this weekend was emotional because Cornelious lost his father just after announcing a run for mayor. His father had been diagnosed with COVID-19 last November.

“I won’t say COVID is what killed him, but it took him back to point of no return,” Cornelious said.

His mother-in-law died last August from cancer.

Watching returns come in with his family from all 16 of the town’s election precincts on Saturday night was special, he recalled.

“That was probably the most heartfelt thing to see – to see those results – 16 of 16 precincts saying that Curtis J. Cornelious is the next mayor of Little Elm,” he recounted.

Cornelious will be sworn in on June 15 to a three-year term.