In a fiery town hall debate last night, held in Fair Park's African-American Museum, Dallas ISD trustee Bernadette Nutall and 20-year-old upstart Damarcus Offord both tried their hardest to prove, for better or for worse, that they were nothing like their competitor.
The majority of the 100 or so people there seemed to support Offord from the opening statements, when the candidates outlined their platforms. Nutall, well over twice Offord's age and the parent of two, has so much more experience, in life and in office, to say so would almost be redundant. She worked instead to paint herself as the fierce mother bear who cared about and sacrificed for the betterment of DISD students.
Offord, a South Dallas and DISD product, stressed that he'd be a servant of the people; he'd always be transparent with his constituents; and he'd fight for what they want him to fight for. Perhaps most appealing, though, at least to those in the room last night: He's not Bernadette Nutall.
What was immediately obvious was that the diverse audience -- Mayor Mike was in attendance (his PAC supported Nutall), as well as South Dallas activists, frustrated parents and teachers and even future DISD students -- raised more questions and concerns than the candidates had answers. Audience members broached subjects like gang violence, charter schools, DISD's role in educating parents to help their children, the importance of the new DISD superintendent, test scores, and the 11-school consolidation's effect on student safety. Many of the questions led to louder applause than the answers, because the questions seemed to pry at a larger one, which three audience members asked explicitly: "How are you going to regain our trust?"
Both candidates' answers seemed prepackaged at times. It was most obvious when a Texas Organizing Project volunteer voiced her concerns that DISD had become a school district better at incarcerating kids than educating them, asking, "What have you done and what would you do to address the situation?"
Nutall answered first. "First of all, we have to care to make the difference... What we're working on is we have to create a culture of caring." She said to keep more kids out of alternative schools and even prison she was working on revamping the student code of conduct.
Offord fired back. "Let's be specific when we say revamp. Because we have to get people involved. We don't meet with the community to see what they need."
The answers were the entire debate in a nutshell. Nutall spewed clichés, even saying on multiple occasions "it takes a village to raise a child." Offord riffed off of Nutall's more unsatisfactory responses and swore to meet with the community or research the situation, garnering applause with better sound bites but also highlighting that he didn't have much of a plan or personal vision.
The most memorable moment was when one heckler stood up and said: "I think it's a disservice if we look at Damarcus and don't see how arrogant as he is and doesn't know his history!" Many in the audience stood and shouted, outraged, and the heckler was ushered out of the room, but not before saying, "This is not even serious!"
The heckler touched on Offord's biggest weakness, which is also his biggest strength: his age. He is young, 20, comes off as aloof and arrogant, and he doesn't have a whole lot in the way of experience in terms of balancing a budget. But because he's so young, he represents hope, if only because he can't be blamed for the sad state of things. Nutall, the incumbent, has to answer to all that.
The candidates' best moments came in their four-minute closing statements. Offord did his best to attack Nutall's record.
"We have failed when it comes to educating students in Dallas ISD," he said to applause. "Nutall's voted against the teachers 10 out of 12 times. Look at the facts!"
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Nutall was also passionate in her final remarks, perhaps still steaming after meeting a constituent in the audience head on about protesting her husband and children at her home. She theatrically and tearfully voted to consolidate the schools, and she defended her decision.
"Any civil rights struggle is not about the building," she said. She spoke about full-time staff and AP classes students would get that they wouldn't have had access to in their under-populated schools. "I want our children to get it all."
She downplayed the importance of the buildings themselves, which was practical and even inspired. The only problem was she also downplayed the memories and history the schools represented to many of the constituents. Still, she was firm. The mother bear.
"If I had to vote again, I would vote yes."