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Mayor Mike Rawlings, the Promise Keeper

Mayor Mike Rawlings has promises to keep.
Mark Graham

I was of little faith. I freely admit that.

See, I thought Mike Rawlings, Dallas' new mayor, was bailing on us. But he said no. We spoke last week, and he reiterated his commitment to banning lobbying by political consultants at City Hall.

"The big issue is that we cannot have any lobbyists have any advantage at City Hall," he told me, "so I am supporting that effort 150 percent, and if we find that [a ban on campaign consultants] is one thing we need to do to make that happen, I will support that as well. I think this needs to be a thoughtful process."

So now I have faith. Pretty much faith. Fairly good faith. They wouldn't pull a fast one on me, would they?

I asked to speak to the mayor as soon as I saw an op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News by his chief campaign consultant, Mari Woodlief. In it, Woodlief argued that campaign-runners should not be barred from lobbying the mayor, city council and city staff.

But that's not what Rawlings said on the campaign trail down which Woodlief walked side by side with Rawlings this spring. So I asked Paula Blackmon, Rawlings' chief of staff, if Rawlings intended to stick to his promise to work for just such a ban.

Because, listen: Rawlings didn't just promise he would work for a ban on campaign-runners coming back to the trough representing commercial clients at City Hall. The man vowed it. He said it had to be done.

It was during an East Dallas campaign stop that Rawlings explained why such a ban was essential: "The reason is that we have a long way to go to restore the confidence of the voters and the trust in our city government, and we must err on the side of ethics every time. Every time."

It's not like he has wide margins here. The day he was inaugurated, the FBI paid a call on Woodlief as part of a dramatic day-long series of raids, interviews and subpoenas looking for evidence of corruption, chiefly by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price but less chiefly by any number of players.

And what kind of corruption were they looking for? The kind that comes from people peddling political influence. The kind Rawlings said he would work to ban.

Now Rawlings is on the edge of that very picture himself, and so is Woodlief. When Rawlings was running for mayor, he and Woodlief paid Kathy Nealy, a campaign consultant and lobbyist, $270,000 to handle his black campaign for him. Nealy is now a target of the FBI investigation.

The shape and direction of the Dallas FBI political corruption probe so far indicates it has everything to do with monetizing political influence through so-called consulting fees. The evil brew of campaign consultants, lobbying and influence-peddling at City Hall is front and center. But in her op-ed piece, Woodlief suggested broadly that it was all twaddle.

"Removing good professional consultants (whose activities are fully disclosed) only gives any bad actors (who are unregistered and undisclosed) proportionately greater influence, behind closed doors," she wrote.

What? I'm trying to sort that out. This is a conflict-of-interest issue. The Dallas Citizens Council does not endorse candidates. But its members, usually acting in concert, are the single biggest source of campaign money in city elections.

In this town, if a political consultant runs the campaign of a Citizens Council-type like Rawlings, especially for mayor, then that consultant will be viewed by all other officeholders as hard-wired to The Money.

So imagine that the same consultant comes back to City Hall later to lobby for some imaginary billionaire named B. Moon Dickens, who wants to buy the Trinity River. The city council and top elected officials don't look at the lobbyist and see him or her merely as the representative of B. Moon Dickens. They see the lobbyist as the representative of B. Moon Dickens and The Money and the mayor.

And that makes a big difference. That's the difference — and the conflict — that the ban Rawlings promised, the ban his campaign boss is now saying we don't need, would root out.

Here's what might give me the willies about all this, if I did not have my recent newfound faith based on Rawlings' 150 percent assurances. Rawlings tells me he is 150 percent committed to keeping his pledge, but then he adds this wrinkle about how " ... we cannot have any lobbyists have any advantage at City Hall."

So now it's not a question of conflict of interest any more? Now it's a question of one kind of lobbyist getting an advantage over another kind? And then I see Woodlief saying that removing a certain kind of lobbyist, which I will presume to be her kind, "only gives any bad actors proportionately greater influence."

They're not setting me up on this, are they? No. Can't happen. Can it? Because I remember, when I asked him about it in a forum I moderated, how Rawlings specifically acknowledged Woodlief's type of lobbying and how he believed it should be banned.

His opponent, David Kunkle, challenged him, pointing out that his campaign was being run by Woodlief, a frequent lobbyist at City Hall. But Rawlings explicitly promised that the ban would apply to Woodlief.

"First of all," Rawlings said, "I think we need to respond to Chief Kunkle's thing that somehow I would be doing a disservice toward my people and my campaign if I supported Jim's question, and I don't care. I really don't. If the rules need to be tight and hard, and if people can't support my campaign because of that, I can run the campaign. We can get ad agencies. We can do all that, so this isn't about being nice to people."

In making the vow, Rawlings took a high and mighty line, condemning the entire Dallas City Council at the time for a recent vote weakening ethics rules on campaign contributions.

"I am really saddened and disappointed in this last thing, not only the policy that was voted but the fact that there was no public exposure and transparency," he said. "People will make up a lot of excuses, but when it comes to the moment of truth when we look at a leader, we've got to make sure he is so far over to the ethics side that there is no question of anything else."

He went on to expressly promise he would prove his own mettle by seeking a ban on campaign-runners as lobbyists: "I think it is one of several things that I as the mayor would go in and really try to strengthen."

I want to believe him. Does that count as faith? I don't know. I'm sort of new at this faith thing.


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