City Hall

Mayor Mansplainer: Mike Rawlings and the Morning News Rise to Defend Tender Womanhood

Sir Michael Rawlings lines up on a windmill.
Sir Michael Rawlings lines up on a windmill. iStock
Last Monday, Observer columnist Jim Schutze wrote a story in which he accused The Dallas Morning News editorial page of telling lies about Dallas City Council member and mayoral candidate Scott Griggs. Schutze suggested this was a deliberate smear campaign aimed at attacking a candidate, Griggs, opposed by the mayor and the city's establishment.

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Sir Michael Rawlings lines up on a windmill.
On Friday, the mayor fired back on Facebook. We'll get to what he said in a bit, but first some background.This stems from a 2015 incident in which Griggs, angry over what he saw as Mayor Mike Rawlings' underhanded attempt to push through a last, failed effort to keep the Trinity toll road project alive, yelled something in the city secretary's office.

A police report said Griggs told then-Assistant City Secretary Bilierae Johnson, now the city secretary, “You better not push those briefing materials out or I will break your fucking fingers.”

Griggs denied it; Johnson later told the Morning News he did say it.

He said. She said. Tough one. Johnson did, however, say she didn't feel threatened by Griggs and did not wish to file a criminal complaint. The police chief at the time didn't think a crime was committed. Nevertheless, thanks to diligent, entirely sleazy work by then-City Attorney Warren Ernst, a case was referred to a grand jury, which declined to indict Griggs.

Before the mayor posted his response online, his office sent us a copy.

In recent months, the Dallas Observer has attacked the integrity of a civil servant who I have come to respect as much as anyone I have worked with during my two terms as mayor. City Secretary Bilierae Johnson is an ethical, honest, diligent woman who epitomizes the best of what City Hall has to offer. The Observer has written things about her that are false and inflammatory. In my capacity as one of her 15 bosses, as well as an advocate against mistreatment of women, I cannot allow these attacks to continue without a response.

Ms. Johnson is a private person and, through no fault of her own, she was put in the middle of an awful and highly political situation that began with an incident between her and a councilmember in April of 2015. Specifically, the councilmember told Ms. Johnson, "You better not push those briefing materials out or I will break your f—-ing fingers.” The Observer has written that Ms. Johnson signed an affidavit saying that the incident in question did not happen, essentially accusing her of initially lying. That is not correct. Ms. Johnson has always maintained the incident occurred, though she also made clear that she did not wish to pursue criminal charges against the councilmember because of the public attention it would bring upon her. I imagine the types of articles the Observer has written about her in recent months are exactly what she was hoping to avoid by declining to pursue charges.

This was one of the most regrettable episodes during my time as mayor and I wish that no media outlets published another word about it after 2015. Apparently, that is not happening. Politicians sign up for these kinds of nasty battles. Civil servants do not. Ms. Johnson does not deserve to relive this incident and she certainly does not deserve to be painted as a liar or political stooge as part of some half-baked and ever-evolving conspiracy theory. The Observer’s articles about this case send a terrible message to all women who have had the courage to speak up about mistreatment in the workplace.

The Morning News followed up Friday afternoon — the timing was no doubt coincidence — with an online editorial that denied any collusion between the paper the Griggs' opponents. The editorial suggested that Jim's comments were a sign of hypocrisy by "progressives." "Why is there one woman in Dallas progressives won't believe?" was the headline.

Jim's response is below, but before we get to that, as Jim's editor, I'd like to add my overpriced 2 cents: What a load of facile crap. Incredibly sexist, too.

Johnson stated plainly that she didn't feel threatened and didn't want to pursue what turned out to be a bogus criminal complaint. So why did she? Was she pressured by the former city attorney, who pursued this case against her wishes and against the advice of the chief of police and a member of his own staff? Did she face mistreatment in the workplace if she didn't go along? Coerced? Cajoled? Who did that, Mr. Mayor? Please jump on your high horse and hunt that guy down. Let us know when you find him.

Jim's reporting on this story has focused on the dishonest effort to use criminal law to attack an elected councilman over his stance on a political issue, an effort the Morning News editorial writers ignore. That's what this story is about. Jim has written two columns that mention Johnson since December, the latest in direct response to a News testimonial editorial. Jim's nicer than he appears.

His editor is not.

Tell the truth and shame the devil, no matter who the devil is.

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That jerk — me — progressively believes women should be treated and respected as adults, so my opinion of Johnson is lower than the mayor's. She might not be a liar, but she was, objectively, someone's stooge. What Jim, this paper and the public deserve to know is: Whose stooge? Allowing herself to be used as a stalking horse to lob a potential felony charge at Griggs, even though she didn't want to, didn't feel threatened, is not the work of a saint. Johnson is mentally competent, older than 21 and thus responsible for her own actions, even under pressure, even if she is a civil servant and a woman.

She's a public servant and a human, and that comes with duties. If Griggs threatened her, as a public servant she should have raced to the police department to file charges. If she thought a criminal case was unwarranted, she should have shouted from City Hall's roof that someone was building a railroad for Griggs, lining up a felony charge that might have ruined his life, career and reputation.

She did neither, and her upset feelings today pale compared with the damage someone schemed to inflict on Griggs. Was she fearful for her job and caught in a scrum of angry, male big shots? I sympathize. I would probably do the same if I were in her shoes.  That doesn't make it respectable.

Johnson "epitomizes the best of what City Hall has to offer," the mayor says. He should know. But are we suppose to feel good if that's true?

Our articles "send a terrible message to all women who have had the courage to speak up about mistreatment in the workplace," the mayor says, with a straight face. What courage did Johnson exhibit here? Where did hers and Griggs' mistreatment begin and end, and who was responsible? The real message we want to send to Johnson and any other public servant who collects a paycheck from taxpayers is this: Tell the truth and shame the devil, no matter who the devil is.

The mayor and the Morning News are engaging in some legerdemain to deflect your attention from the fact this was never about Johnson's character. It's about the lack of character of the men around her. To conflate that with domestic violence, workplace mistreatment of women or how our culture responds to women's reports of abuse or rape is despicable.

But that's just me. Onto Jim's reply to Mayor Mansplainer:

I never said the incident did not happen, nor did I say Bilirae Johnson claimed it didn’t happen. I said it did happen.

But I said Johnson later told authorities she did not feel threatened.

The argument is not in dispute. The core of the criminal accusation against Griggs is not that there was an argument but that during the argument Griggs made a personal threat of physical violence against Johnson. The fact is that Johnson told authorities she did not feel threatened.

How could that have happened? The closest thing to a third-party account of the confrontation is in an affidavit sworn by Lindsay Kramer, an assistant to the city manager who was on the phone with Johnson during the encounter. Johnson was asking Kramer for documents to support the backdating of a document that the mayor and city manager were insisting Johnson do for them so they could post a notice of a public meeting after the deadline for the posting.

In her affidavit, Kramer said, “She asked for the documents which I told her were not yet complete. In the background I heard (council member) Griggs yell and ask, ‘Where are they on the website?’

“I responded that the items were being completed and were not online yet. At that time Billierae asked me to come to her office. In the background I heard (council member) Griggs yell that the posting wasn’t valid. ‘I want the documents.’ At that time I ended the call and went to her office.”

Kramer, the closest thing to a direct witness, was on the phone with Johnson during the entire encounter and heard Griggs clearly but did not hear the finger-breaking comment later attributed to Griggs.

I interviewed Johnson about this in October 2016. She said that Griggs did threaten her during this phone call. I asked her why Kramer had not heard the threat, since Kramer heard everything else. She said she did not know. I asked if there could have been another phone call. She said no.

So something is amiss. Let’s not forget that Johnson is the one who told authorities she did not feel threatened. The mayor suggests that she did so because she wanted to make the whole thing go away. So was she lying at that point? Did she in fact feel threatened and then decide later to lie about it in order to get out of an uncomfortable situation?

The Dallas Morning News in its editorial Friday suggested that Johnson is the one “woman Dallas progressives won’t believe.” Well, I guess that proves The Dallas Morning News doesn’t know what a progressive woman is. A progressive woman would stand up and defend herself. Rawlings and the News paint Johnson as a shrinking violet, hiding behind their skirts. That’s absurdly patronizing.

The entire matter begins with an accusation that the mayor and former city manager coerced Johnson into illegally backdating a document. If they really want to have all of this out again, let’s have that part out again, with hands on the Bible.

The mayor, the Morning News and the Citizens Council crowd have trotted all of this out again because it’s the only way they know to take some of the shine off Griggs’ candidacy for mayor. I assume Johnson must not be happy with this development, and I take the mayor’s statement on Facebook as an apology and, however twisted, a confession of shame for putting her through it all over again.

In its repeated use of the Bilierae Johnson story as political propaganda, the one thing The Dallas Morning News has never attempted to do is find out or report what actually happened. I reviewed my own files over the weekend and found some things that might help. (I have more, if anyone is interested.)

One document attached here is the full report of the Dallas Police Department of its investigation. Even a cursory reading shows police witness after police witness declining to corroborate the story of the physical threat against Johnson.

Some witnesses positively state that Griggs was shouting at other people, not Johnson. What seems more likely when all of the accounts are taken together is that the infamous F-bomb dropped by Griggs was “fucking bullshit,” addressed to City Attorney Warren Ernst, not Johnson.

No one ever said Griggs cannot be tough. He can. But toughness between adults is not the same thing as the use of superior status or power to bully someone. Please note at the end of the police file that an undercover officer witnessed Johnson and Griggs hugging and making up, Griggs apparently with tears in his eyes. That doesn’t sound like a bully.

But the second document I offer here is even more telling. This is a chronology, by its appearance hastily composed by then City Attorney Warren Ernst soon after the incident – a sort of “memo to self” of a type that head-up people may use to establish a record. Please note the last paragraph of Ernst’s own chronology:

“Bilierae asked me to call her. I returned her call at 1:03 pm and asked if she could come to my office. She did, and we discussed the matter. She said that she did not feel threatened, that other council members had also yelled and screamed, that it was just the council member expressing his frustration with the mayor. We discussed the matter at some length and I shared with her my concerns. I told her that I would be following up with a meeting with Chief Brown.”

The most important words here are “frustration with the mayor.” Those words offer the only true window on who is really at the heart of the Bilirae Johnson story and who continues to drive it now.

Ernst, we see in his own words, did not initially have any reason to believe that Griggs had physically threatened Johnson. Subsequent events, however, tell us that Ernst went to great lengths to make the case that Griggs had indeed made such a threat, even pursuing criminal felony charges that would have ruined Griggs’ life had the charges been upheld by a jury.

All of the pressure here begins with Rawlings. The subsequent behavior of both Johnson and Ernst, both changing their stories to create a narrative that they knew was false, is the very regrettable dishonest behavior of people under great pressure.

The Dallas Morning News wants to make this a story about a woman, Bilirae Jonson, being bullied. I would like to add a man to the equation, Ernst, because men can be bullied, too. Being bullied is not an excuse that works for adults. The damage intended against Griggs here was almost mortal. It was deliberate. It was fully witting. It was reprehensible. But I do have to ask the obvious question of the Morning News editorial page: Can you people truly not see the bully?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze
Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams