Saturday’s runoff election marked a new beginning at Dallas City Hall.
Mayor-elect Eric Johnson and a reconstituted City Council believe they now have the opportunity to tackle systemic Dallas problems without being saddled with warring factions, wedge issues and personal animus.
“I’m optimistic about this new term and this new council,” said Mayor Pro Tem Casey Thomas, who is returning to the council. “The citizens of Dallas want to see us work together, when we can, and they want to see us move the city forward with an agenda that includes real progress.”
The reset comes after Johnson overwhelmed council member Scott Griggs in the mayoral runoff. Voters resoundingly chose Johnson, who cast himself as a unifier over the veteran council member known for his opposition to outgoing Mayor Mike Rawlings.
Perhaps more stunning was the rejection of council member Philip Kingston, the often bombastic ally of Griggs who was ousted from the council by David Blewett. Kingston’s loss followed North Dallas voters’ rejection of his philosophical ally, former mayor Laura Miller, in a race against Jennifer Staubach Gates.
Now that the “Griggston” alliance on the council is out at City Hall, the council lacks any clear factions going into the June 17 inauguration.
Including Johnson, the 15-member council will feature eight new faces. Thomas said the end of the alliance led by Kingston and Griggs offers a fresh start.
“I believe with the change that’s taken place, there’ll be an opportunity to get our work done in a way that pleases the citizens of Dallas,” he said.
‘Schisms’ are gone
While Rawlings wasn’t on the ballot, Saturday’s results gave the term-limited mayor a final victory over his political rivals. He backed Johnson, as did four former mayors.
From Australia, Rawlings pointed out that Dallas voters were sick of divisiveness.
“For the first time in a long time, it’s not going to be a council drawn by schisms,” Rawlings said.
“It’s not going to be ‘us against them,'” he said.
Perhaps the local elections — with an albeit puny voter turnout — showcased a mood against cynical politics. In 2018, Democrats were able to seize the U.S. House. And in Texas, Republican incumbents lost 12 seats in the state House, most of them in Dallas County. North Texas voters also rejected two incumbent Republican senators — Don Huffines of Dallas and Konni Burton of Colleyville.
Rawlings said of Dallas, “The citizens want a council that works.”
“We’ve got a council where everybody will be able to work with each other,” he said.
Other Dallas leaders agreed that residents are tired of petty politics.
“The voters couldn’t be clearer: Stop the infighting and start working on long-term solutions that will reverse decline and start rebuilding our city,” said Matt Tranchin, president of the Coalition for a New Dallas.
That group, now led by former City Attorney Larry Casto, a creative policy wonk with strong ties to council members, was once a booster to progressive council members such as Kingston and Griggs. The coalition’s main goal is to get the city to tear down the elevated Interstate 345 in downtown Dallas and replace it with surface-level boulevards, as well as developing the land eaten up by the highway’s right-of-way into affordable housing and other mixed-use purposes.
“We are excited to work with the new pro-growth leadership at City Hall,” Tranchin said. “Now that the elections are over, it’s time for political rivals to come together and rally around those policies that will revitalize neighborhoods across Dallas.”
The council will have now-veteran City Manager T.C. Broadnax to make their plans work. But as the policymakers, the council’s toughest challenge will be solving the nagging problems that have hampered Dallas for decades.
Council members spend much of their time dealing with the day-to-day issues such as vexing zoning cases and constituents who want help navigating City Hall’s bureaucracy. But the big-picture problem, which Rawlings chipped away at for eight years, is the divide between the largely prosperous north and poverty-stricken south.
The north-south gap prevents the city from growing its tax base and reaching its potential in the booming region. Affordable and quality housing remains a problem, and Dallas is facing competition from other North Texas cities — especially Frisco and Plano — for economic dominance.
The mayor and council will also take office amid a crime spike. Forty homicides reported in May and an increase in aggravated assaults and robberies has taxed the Dallas Police Department, which has a shortage of officers caused initially by pay and pension issues. Johnson and the council have to figure out how to boost public safety without busting the budget or overburdening taxpayers who also expect parks, recreation centers, code compliance, improved streets and other quality-of-life essentials.
Johnson will take office with a mandate to bring the city together on big issues. He says he’s already worked with much of the council at various points in his career.
“I really believe that I could and I think I will be able to get them working together in a way that’s unprecedented,” he said Sunday on WFAA-TV (Channel 8) .
Johnson will be unique from any other mayor in Dallas history. He was raised in West Dallas and ran for the job from his perch in the Texas Legislature. At 43, he’s the second black man elected mayor and the first non-businessperson since Miller to win the post.