This City Election Says Maybe the Old Leadership Is Just a Tad Out of Touch

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (center) has promised that his plan for privatizing Fair Park would “spur economic development” for South Dallas.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (center) has promised that his plan for privatizing Fair Park would “spur economic development” for South Dallas.
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Revolution never happens in one fell swoop. It’s a process. I think what we just witnessed in our recently completed Dallas City Council election was a very early stage in the process. This election was the local equivalent of the 1825 Decembrist revolt against Czar Nicholas.

Not the full-tilt boogie revolution. That came nearly a century later in Russia. But hold on to your furry ear-flap hat and your vodka. It’s coming here eventually.

I’m a little wobbly on my Russian history. I believe if this was the Decembrist revolt, then the victorious insurrectionary cabal on the council — Mark Clayton, Kevin Felder, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano and Omar Narvaez — must be the Union of Salvation, also called the Faithful and True Sons of the Fatherland in the 1825 revolt, which we would have to amend today to call the Faithful and True Daughters and Sons of the Parentland.

At this stage, in terms of this particular election, it’s not terribly important to know specifically what all the rebels want or think they want. Even the Decembrists were split between one faction that wanted a British-style constitutional monarchy and another that wanted to seize all the land and give it to the peasants. That would be a very tough choice for me.

The big thing in the first phase is that people stood up for any reason and said out loud that the czar doesn’t know jack. Just saying it is the big breakthrough. I have been covering Dallas City Hall politics longer than I will ever admit. Incredibly long. I remember Dallas before it had politics. When I first got here, all we had were announcements.

Some of the most interesting races in this election were in African-American districts in southern Dallas where the deal with the czar has been almost inviolable in the past. The question — why — is complex.

In a still dramatically racially segregated city with a harsh racial past, it seems like race has got to have something to do with everything. But it’s also easy to get it wrong.

Why would a history of racism and segregation forge a strong bond between black leadership and the old white money, as exemplified by the private Dallas Citizens Council? But that has been the pattern in the past. Whenever the white voters up north got fractious or gave the Citizens Council trouble for some reason, the white money downtown could count on the black City Council members to supply the missing votes needed.

But isn’t that backward or upside down or something? If black people were the targets of racism and the old white leaders were the authors, then shouldn’t black leaders have been rebels from the beginning? Maybe, maybe not. Life is complicated.

The traditional black leadership in Dallas was always less interested in assimilation than in separation and self-sufficiency. Its pact with the Citizens Council was seldom about love or loyalty and more often about pragmatism and money, sometimes delivered in brown envelopes on church parking lots.

But sometimes the relationship wasn’t entirely cynical. Black people and white people and Hispanic people, after all, are all just people people. A lot of the time, they think alike more than they do differently. And in Dallas, for almost as long as I have been here, which is a very long time, all people of all races and creeds have had a shared faith in rich people.

Eventually under the old downtown leadership, most of Fair Park and the area around it would look like this.
Eventually under the old downtown leadership, most of Fair Park and the area around it would look like this.
Artur Baboev via Wikipedia Commons

If the man who spoke for the rich people (it was always a man) said that building a new highway along the river through downtown would bring shared prosperity and peace to the entire city, the entire city had an overwhelming inclination to believe him. It wasn’t a racial thing. Everybody was that way. And for a long time, people may have been right.

We think of southern Dallas now as the land of bitter poverty, high crime and infant mortality, all of which are true, but that impression masks a day not so long ago, 50 years at most, when black southern Dallas was a place of middle-class upward mobility and pride. It may be that an era of hard work, long bus rides and deference sort of worked for the people of an earlier southern Dallas.

In fact, the bleak picture of today feels to me like it reflects not failure but success — the incredible upward mobility of those families who were still in South Dallas a half century ago, many of whom are now scattered across affluent suburbs and farther across the nation and world.

What’s left behind is a different story. A hard nut of people in southern Dallas suffers from every conceivable shortcoming of poverty — economic, political, cultural, moral, psychological. They are pressed on every side, by unattainable affluence in front of them and hard-charging immigrants pushing up from behind.

The old bromides and the old solutions — even the things that worked in the past — don’t accomplish jack now, and everybody knows it. We even have smart, committed, old, rich white guys who know it and who say it out loud every chance they get.

A major reason southern Dallas did not buy the mayor’s plan for restoring Fair Park, the city’s neglected 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas, was that Don Williams, retired CEO of the world’s biggest real estate company, stood up and said the plan would not do one bit of good for South Dallas. Tiffinni Young, the council member from District 7, which encompasses Fair Park, got tossed out in this election by Kevin Felder because she did exactly what most of her African-American predecessors on the council did for decades: trust the mayor on the money.

Mayor Mike Rawlings, like most Dallas mayors selected for the post by the Citizens Council, promised that his plan for privatizing the park would “spur economic development” (bring money) for South Dallas. Williams explained why it would not. Felder believed him. Felder ran against the mayor. Felder won.

I have no idea what Felder will do on the council. He may race into the council chamber on his first day and leap directly into the mayor’s lap. That really is not what is important in this moment. What is important is that the people of District 7 did not trust the czar this time around.

Neither did the people of District 6. There, the mayor vowed to a poor, mainly Hispanic community that he would protect them from displacement by gentrification. District 6 council member Monica Alonzo, a mayoral loyalist, was tossed out by Omar Narvaez, a newcomer who told people not to trust the mayor. They didn’t.

In District 14, the Citizens Council crowd ran a bizarrely tin-eared campaign, probably a disservice to Matt Wood, the affable candidate whom it backed. It shipped out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mail pieces accusing incumbent Philip Kingston of being disruptive, ill-mannered and rebellious. It’s not easy to express how dumb that was.

If District 14 had a flag, it would show a green rubber garden boot on the neck of some pathetic white-haired Daddy Warbucks Citizens Council stooge over blood-red lettering that says, “District 14, Disruptive, Ill-Mannered and Rebellious Forever.” It’s like every dollar the Warbucks types spent on that election should really have been declared as a contribution to Kingston’s re-election.

It is difficult, in fact, to imagine a more out-of-touch, possibly even downright goofy approach to leadership than what the old guard displayed in this election and has been displaying generally in the city in the last several years.

And that’s a big part of what happens, too: the czar just gets a little too far out there and away from things. One of my favorite stories about the fall of the Romanovs, possibly apocryphal, is that when word came that their empire had fallen to the Bolsheviks in 1917, they were all roller-skating around the decks of their royal yacht, Standart.

Anyway, that’s my view of the Citizens Council leadership in Dallas: still roller-skating around the decks of the yacht, dreaming of building a new royal road on top of the Trinity River and turning Fair Park into a dressage course for horse jumping.

In this election, a significant number of people in the diverse center of the city rose up and said they thought the czar was goofy. They were ready to listen to somebody else, somebody serious, even somebody ill-mannered and disruptive.

That means eventually the czar will be toast. Not now. Not yet. But the clock doesn’t run backwards. There may still be the sound of roller skates and violins on the decks of the yacht. (I wonder what in the world that sounded like.) But eventually the boat has to pull into port. We’ll be waiting, furry ear flaps, vodka and all.

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