On Thursday afternoon, the Observer had the chance to sit down for the better part of an hour with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. Rawlings, fresh off losses by several of his allies in this spring's City Council election, talked with us about the changing council, a changing city and the challenges Dallas continues to face at home, in Austin and abroad.
Here's the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Dallas Observer: How was Canada last week?
Mike Rawlings: Cooler. And busy. The importance of trade in the United States is on everybody's mind up there, as you well imagine. It's their lifeblood of growth. A lot of people don't know that Toronto is Dallas' number one trading partner. That's city-to-city. Mexico City is number two and Montreal's number three. So they're interested in how we felt about Trump. How we felt about the state of Texas passing a law requiring that we buy U.S. steel for TxDOT projects. Those things were very important to folks. But overall it was good to meet with a lot of dignitaries and heads of government — sit on panels and talk to people about what was happening in Dallas. That was my main story. The perception and reality gap about Dallas is so significant. People still don't understand what's happening here.
What are some misconceptions people in Canada have about Dallas?
Well it used to be J.R. [Ewing]. Those people are getting really old now. Now it's the Dallas Cowboys. Whatever people think about Texas, they think about Dallas. They don't understand the significant commitment we've made in arts. They don't understand how diverse we are. Many people think we're a very red city. They don't get the fact that we're this blue city in a red state. Those are some of the misconceptions. That's why you meet people. That's why you talk.
You went to Canada right as the City Council runoffs were happening and came back right before the council inauguration. Were you surprised by the results of the election?
You know, I am not a good picker and try not to be a puppeteer in all of this. I was probably surprised not that Omar [Narvaez] won [in West Dallas' District 6] but by the amount that he won by — and the same with Tiffini [Young, who lost South Dallas' District 7]. The fact that they won didn't blow me away; it was just the amount. I didn't know how Tennell [Atkins] and Erik [Wilson] were going to end up [in southwest Dallas' District 8]. And I felt the same way about Dwaine [Caraway] and Carolyn [Arnold in south central Dallas' District 4]. You know, to me, all those races, all those four races could have gone either way. They were tight enough, but Dwaine won pretty handily; Omar won and Kevin [Felder, who won District 7] won pretty handily. That was the part that surprised me. A good part for me is that Dustin [Marshall in Dallas ISD's District 2] won so convincingly after losing in the first round.
The City Council election has been represented by the media as a loss for you, with many of your allies losing their races. Do you feel like that's what happened, or did you feel like the elections were a series of isolated incidents?
Well, I don't think there was a great trend taking place there. I do believe that Monica [Alonzo] was an ally, and she got beat. Monica didn't vote with me all the time, but she voted with me 80 percent of the time. Tiffini was less of an ally. She was one that I always kind of had to figure out where she was going to go on an issue, and Dwaine and Tennell I worked with great on the council, so having them back is riding the bicycle again. That being said, I do believe that the city is becoming more extreme. The world is getting more extreme. You know, small towns are going pretty far right and big towns are going pretty far left. Those in the middle like myself need to be very passionate about our agenda. If we don't, we're going to be seen as kinda milquetoast. So I do think there is strength in that.
I don't really believe there's an ideology that the people are kind of buying into. They buy into candidates. They buy into the strengths. Look, I think people are much closer to Hillary Clinton's ideology than Donald Trump's; Donald Trump was such a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. It just is a fact. So, to read ideologically into what's going on is not true. I think you had four candidates that won that were better candidates than the ones that were in there.
It seems like there is a geographic stratification happening on the council now where five members opposed to your agenda [Scott Griggs, Adam Medrano, Narvaez, Mark Clayton and Philip Kingston] have been elected in the core of the city, splitting north from south. How do you feel about that?
I don't see Mark as part of the urban core at all. I mean, I think Mark is Lake Highlands and good East Dallas, and Sheffie Kadane was there. I mean, he's got neighborhood issues, so I don't see an urban core issue. No question. Districts 1 and 14 — kind of North Oak Cliff, downtown, Lakewood — and, to a certain extent, Adam's District 2 — I think that represents an urban core. So I think you could go inside out, but I don't think politics had anything to do with it. Mark was just a better candidate. There's a good example there, I think, from an idea ideology standpoint, and Mark can speak to this better because he lives there; I mean, it's a progressive part of the city, but it's not a polarizing part. They don't — they're not running to one side or another. It's a pretty kind of down-the-middle community. Mark was just a hell of a candidate. He went out there and worked hard and got elected. He's just a very likable guy.
In District 6, there was the situation with the houses owned by the Khraish family that seemed to break for Narvaez the week before the runoff. How do you feel about the way that crisis is being resolved?
I'm so thrilled that people are getting the opportunity to buy those houses. I talked to Omar this morning, and there were two or three ladies that were very old that Khraish had told me that he wants to develop right there [on the property occupied by the women]. And he apparently has changed his mind and is going to let them live there. So I'm so happy about that for those ladies. They've been in my office crying on this. I think the nuance in that district that's missed is what is happening in northwest Dallas, OK? Next to Preston Hollow, kind of the Midway Hollow area. There are a lot of voters up there. Alex Dickey [the third-place finisher in District 6] — he was from that area. He was definitely more of an Anglo progressive. They woke up this time more than they had before. I don't know how much that swung things. Look, Monica was there for six years. People had a choice to know Monica and support her. Or they didn't, and, you know, Omar's a fresh face.
I think the bigger issue about that district is really the issue about not Khraish so much but what Jim [Schutze] wrote about in regards to the development coming across that area. You know, what everybody used to call a "bridge to nowhere," and we kind of insulted those people. Now it's happening, and we've got a little bit of a conflict there. That to me is probably the bigger dynamic for somebody like Monica, who was always trying to support the neighborhood and support business, and it was easier to just say, you know, she was doing the wrong thing. So a change agent was good there.
It's so hard to tell, though, when you have so few people turn out. It's pathetic when you really think about these races, that people can win with 600 votes or 800 votes like this is a high school prom queen thing. We need to get more people engaged, and more people need to vote.
In places like District 5 and District 6 where it seems like nobody votes, how do you fix that? What do you do?
You know, I think a lot of it is cultural. That's what I've understood — and a lack of trust in government. Nobody is really getting behind anybody. It's a whole issue in the Latino community, the lack of leaders that have come in. There should be — I told what's-his-name that ran against me [Marcos Ronquillo] — he was sitting right there one time, and I said there should be a Latino running for mayor every time. He went away, came back and says, "You're right, I've decided to run against you." I said fine; that's alright. But it should be, we should be talking about who the next Latino leader is, but they seem to go and do the House or Senate versus the city stuff. You know, the city stuff is a tough, rock-and-roll job. You have to vote on a lot of tough issues that are community sort of things. Being a legislator, you can usually just kind of vote for your party, and other people can think these things out, but it's tough being a City Council person.
District 14's race this year was hot, with the race between Matt Wood and Philip Kingston, but the turnout was still 9 percent.
It's something that concerns me. The real sub-part of the problem is there's a great apathy among young people. They don't care anymore. I don't know if they're too selfish, or they're too spoiled, or they don't believe that it makes a difference or they just don't have the time to study the issues. The lack of civic engagement among millennials blows me away. Now, the millennials want to go off and march for this issue or that issue, but actually showing up voting for political candidates is really hard because there's no way I'm going to study this issue, go down and register and go on a Saturday when I have a chance to hang out at the volleyball court. It just seems to be apathy. It worries me.
There was a study that came out recently on municipal voting that showed older voters in Dallas have many times the political clout of younger voters. Is that something you've seen?
Casey Thomas told me this, and I think it's a great insight because I was disagreeing with him on a school issue. I forget exactly what it was. But he made it very clear to me that the people that voted in his district, the great lion's share were over 65, and those people had a very clear perspective on that school issue. And it was like, "OK, at least I understand why you're doing that." You know, it's what has happened generationally. Even at the national level, young people don't vote. I obviously, and my generation, haven't done a good enough job talking about the importance of civic engagement. They'll spend more time in some sort of online chat room, you know, talking about stuff versus actually making a difference. But it is what it is, and we have to do it. So I talk about a lot; I talk about it at schools and talk about it other places, but we'll see. It'll be 2020 that once again we'll redistrict, and redistricting will redraw things. We're not going to be under federal oversight. So there's probably a little more flexibility in having to be so precise in every little thing and maybe bringing communities together tighter. Gerrymandering can create some of that problem as well.
Just to put a bow on that, I know you and Dallas state Rep. Eric Johnson were really worried about the potential for mail-in ballot fraud in District 6. Do you feel like that actually played a role in the election? In the end, those votes were pretty evenly split between Narvaez and Alonzo.
Well, I'm concerned about it because someone's doing it. To me, that's unacceptable. It's just flat-out unacceptable. If someone's making money and someone's paying someone for that, that's also a terrible thing. We need to corner this rat and get him out of the system. So I'm really passionate about this. I'm not as passionate because it affected an election. It's just because I've been hearing about this for a long time.
By the way, I'm proud of being a Democrat, and it makes me very mad when Republicans talk about voter fraud and trying to raise the hurdles for voting. But if we don't do something about it as Democrats, and we sit back and say, "It just happens; it's no big deal," then we're complicit in this. So to me, I want more people to vote, but I want to be clean, so I can with good conscience fight tooth and nail on every Republican issue on trying to make it more difficult for people to vote. It's a principle issue for me as opposed to a practical one.
Swinging back to gentrification, it seems like in District 6, parts of District 1 and parts of District 4 in The Cedars, this is going to be a really big issue moving forward. How do you think we should balance developing these areas that are so ripe for development with not displacing the people who already live there?
We all kind of ran around like chickens with our heads cut off because we thought it was going to happen. I think one of the reasons it didn't is the economics eventually kind of play out on this. I mean, it does make a lot of sense looking at his [Khraish's] houses, where they were located; it was going to be very hard to develop that whole area. I guess my first belief is that growth is good. We talk in this city and we talk in this country about financial and social justice. People want resources; people want access to jobs; people want growth. We cannot throw the baby out with the bath water on this.
I'm a big believer that people are better off with growth coming into the neighborhood. Now people used the word gentrification as a class issue, but the technical definition of gentrification, which is the values going up in an area, shows that those neighbors can actually benefit from that. The first thing is that growth is not a bad thing; it's a good thing. The second thing to me is about asset ownership. That's why we're so passionate about the Khraish family selling these homes to these folks because now they've got a part of the American dream, and they're able to pass it on to their families. They can participate in that dialogue about, "My land value went up — do I want to sell it, or do I want to keep living here?" Then they're not the tail of the whipsaw on this thing. They're not just being manipulated, so them being part of it, that's the second part of the solution.
The third is this is a role that the city must play in our housing strategy — which I still don't believe we've got a clear housing strategy — about how we work with people that ultimately don't want to buy their homes. They're just renters. How do we make that growth if a developer or if someone rents homes, and they want to sell their land to developers, which they have the right to do? How do we soften the blow to those individuals? If there was anything that I'm critical of myself and the city about, it was not being prepared for that immediately. We caught up to it. We've got money, and we're able to move people around, but we didn't have that plan in place day one.
Is there an area of the city that you can point to as having gentrified in a way that has been good for the community and good for growth?
I think The Cedars is a good example. Shoot, The Cedars was the pit hole 10 years ago. Now you've got good neighbors that live there. Property owners have got to be part of the solution. It's still got issues with homeless and the like, but I think there are some exciting things happening in The Cedars. Old East Dallas is there. There are so many strong folks there. But remember what we're trying to do. We're trying to take care of all of our citizens, including the poorest citizens. The biggest issue poor citizens have is lack of access to basic services, and so somehow the public or some of the public believes that we can legislate where grocery stores go into. You just can't do that. OK, capital comes into a place where they can have a viable business and a growing business. So I think East Dallas has gentrified in a very healthy, positive way. Now people can look back and say, you know, "My grandpa used to live there; I wish he still lived there," but the world changes. I mean that's just, that's the basic, number one tenet of history and time: Nothing stands still. Eventually Little Mexico goes away. I mean, Little Mexico was a wonderful neighborhood, but those individuals, Mexican-Americans, at one point decided, "You know what, I think I want to sell. This is good; I can put my kids through college or move to another place."
So do you support something like the bill Johnson proposed that would've given property tax breaks to homeowners in West Dallas with tax incentive money?
I support the basic concept of that. There were some legal issues with it, so I couldn't say that, as written, it was something that legally could be supported here at the city — at least that was according to the city attorney. This idea of trying to — that was the third part of my stool. What can we as government do to help provide that? That wouldn't necessarily help those folks because they were still renters. We've got to find ways for individuals to be able to buy. I'm OK with landlords owning a lot of homes. I mean, we've talked to many of them. We're trying to help them to get their houses up to standards without killing themselves. I tell you what I didn't realize — they go down to the county tax assessor, and they fight to prove that their property is poor or very poor because they get to pay less taxes. It's a false motivation. As opposed to what you need is to have a house in really good condition but not pay more taxes. So our tax structure is wrong. I'm talking to all these folks; they're saying, "You want our properties to look better?" "Yeah it's better for the neighborhood. It's better for everybody." "Well that's going to cost us a lot of money with taxes, so it's better to have houses in poor condition." And so to me that's what structurally needs to change. Not money coming in. I mean it's OK, but some sort of tax incentive at that level.
There's also the issue of renters who can't afford more than $400 a month for housing. How do you keep some rents at that level when you force landlords like the Khraishes to meet the city's increased Chapter 27 housing standards?
Just for the sake of clarity on that, the city was never asking Khraish [to] go to Chapter 27. He just needed to do the basic stuff that was done before. OK. He wasn't meeting the basic code standards that were not Chapter 27. I was very willing to work with Khriash to get a plan in place, use economic development money: "Khraish, how can we help you, incentivize you, to put money in your homes and still keep the rents low?" That takes a partnership, and we're working with other landlords in order to do that.
After the legislative session and after everything that's happened, how do you feel about the current state of the police pension system?
Well, I believe we have a chance now to save it. We had no chance a while back. The patient was dying, and they were overboard. We've got them now in the boat. We've got some heartbeat, and we've got the doctors coming in. We've got money coming in. We've got a chance to save this. I'm very proud of the officers and the firefighters looking at these plans honestly and making sure that benefits — mainly newer officers' benefits — are being cut as opposed to the older officers. Still, we've got the cuts in place. The [city of Dallas] CFO said yesterday that next year the city is going to contribute $41 million more. That is more than we spend on all these human services that we want to do as a city. Housing. Gentrification. We don't even spend that much money on that. So it's a big, big nut, but it had to be done. We had to right this ship, and we'll get the right people in there now and hopefully invest the money in the right way.
How do you feel about the idea that in cutting pension benefits, DPD has lost its best recruiting tool to fight things like the attrition rate that's plagued the department?
I think that the pension obviously was a great recruiting tool because they got a guaranteed 8 [percent] to 10 percent on their money when they hit a certain age. So that's a helluva benefit. I don't necessarily mean that the world's going to come to an end because that's gone. I think there are other factors in this. I know for a fact young officers do not come, just like young people don't come for pension plans. They aren't thinking about their retirement plan right now. "Give me cash right now. OK. I'll figure that out later." That's just the way the world works. Where it hurts us is really as you get older. We don't have that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; that was pretty much mythical in many ways. We've got to find a better way to retain older officers so they don't just quit at a certain age and go off and start a new job. I want to keep them, keep those firefighters because ultimately they're a very important part of it. I wasn't here back then, but you know I know that that was one of the reasons a lot of people were here.
Is that something you'd want to see from the new chief, someone come in with kind of innovative ideas for recruiting and retention?
No question. I mean that's what leadership is all about, building a strong team, vision. Remember, we can isolate this financial issue all we want. OK. But you've got to copter back here a little bit and say, "We are not making it a wonderful world for police officers and for people to go into policing." First of all, it's a tougher job today than it ever was before. And second, we don't, as a community, lift our police officers up and our firefighters up the way we should. A lot of it's legitimate because some mistakes have been made and there's been some black eyes. But I talked to chief upon chief upon police chief, and people are having a tougher time recruiting in this field.
We've got a big anniversary of, you know, one of those examples of why policing is so hard now coming up [the July 7 police ambush]. How do you feel about the fact that the city still has not given extra money to protect DPD facilities?
It's an issue, and we want to make sure we protect our police. Any amount of money that we're going to spend isn't going to stop crazy people from doing this stuff. I do believe that the transition of city manager and our chief has slowed that process. So this is one of those situations that I think there's more appetite in the council to spend the right money to do that. This is a dangerous job, and we've got to make sure that we don't do stupid things. We can't spend the money to build a place that is going to be impenetrable. It's just not going to happen. Police are out there doing too much, and bad stuff is going to happen. That's why they're really heroes and that's why we really appreciate what they do — put their lives on the line all the time.
Do you have any thoughts on the first list of candidates that came out for DPD chief last week?
I don't. This is T.C. [Broadnax]'s process. I'm going to let him run it, and I'm not going to second guess from the sidelines. I know the three internal candidates. I've heard a little bit about the other guys, but [I don't have an opinion] at this point.
Another thing that could make Dallas police officers' jobs harder is Texas' new "sanctuary cities" law. How do you feel about SB 4?
Well, it's a sad state when a city's got to sue their state. I love the state of Texas, and I want to support our governor and I want to support our legislators. You know, I want to be on the same team with them. But when they cross constitutional lines, that's when we're obligated on behalf of the citizens of Dallas to protect constitutional rights. That's why I was an advocate to do that. We'll see how it plays out, but it just blows me away that after Sept. 1 if I speak out against SB 4, the attorney general can take me from office. Now there are probably a lot of people in the city that would like that to happen, but it's because I'm speaking my mind? That is not America, and I think that's a fundamental flaw in the bill.
Do you feel like SB 4 is indicative of anti-city attitudes in Austin?
It's an ideological belief. I think Abbott said that these are the United States of America, not the United Cities of America, and that the states constitutionally give the power to the federal government and give the power to the cities. So it's the statehouse that we should all be saluting and asking permission from. I think they are simplistic and they over-read the Constitution in that thinking. I do believe states are important, but in reality, it is the cities in America and the cities throughout the world that are creating the wealth, that are dealing with the huge population and education of our citizens for the future, are dealing public safety issues, are dealing with the transportation issues and getting people to and fro. They're creating jobs. It's the cities.
I'm not saying the cities don't work in concert with the state, but the state kind of puts the ground rules in place, and the city has to go and deliver all that stuff. We are the tacticians; we are the operators of that. When handcuffs get put on us and one of them is we can't tell our police officers how they should do their job and we've got to ask permission at the state level, you wonder if we're going to be hindering the growth of these cities or helping them grow. We are the growth engine for this state. There's no question. The Dallas area, Dallas-Fort Worth. Especially since the price of oil has come back down, our diversified economy makes us such a growth engine. To me, as I've told the governor before, I think you should be trying to figure out how you fan this flame of growth, not inhibit it, for the good of the state of Texas.
Are you planning on serving out the rest of your second term? Are you going to break the string of mayors who've resigned before finishing eight years?
I am. I think a lot of people didn't think I'd make it through four years because I was going to run for some bigger office at that point. People didn't think I would run for the second term. People thought I was going to win and immediately resign. Look, this is one of those where I have to say "God willing." Who knows what's going to happen? But there is still a lot to be done here. I think we've got a good City Council, got a good city manager. I am so lucky. I mean, this week I go to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and they are so envious of what is happening in Dallas. I mean, it's just remarkable.
I guess it's a little late now, but you don't want to run against Pete Sessions in U.S. House District 32?
I thought that was a ridiculous idea because no one that asked that question knows me. I don't like the legislative acts, and I am definitely at a point in my life that hopping on a plane every weekend, going back and forth, is not something that I would desire.
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So you wouldn't want to run for governor or anything?
I am not a politician. I've never been a politician. I am a politician by definition, but I just am not fascinated by the ins and outs of all of that. The other point is I don't do anything unless I honestly believe that I can win it. There's an old saying, "Don't get into a knife fight unless you're going to win the knife fight," and it's very hard as a Democrat to do anything at the state level.
Lastly, I think the Democrats have got to do some soul searching. You know, the question is: Do we want to be right, or do we want to win? There is a great population in the state of Texas that doesn't want to be preached to. They want to get on with their life. They want the government to stay out of their lives. They want to have a great family, and we Democrats over complicate it. You know, I've always said that [there are] two types of people in the world, complicators and simplifiers. We Democrats are constant complicators. We need to be much clearer in our focus. We should be about inclusion and letting everybody participate, but we're not. We're about these people get this and those people get left behind. That's why I'm a Democrat.
What do you hope you can get done with this City Council over the next two years?
First of all, we've got to get this bond package through and get it passed. That's first. We've kind of gotten [the] pension fund in place. We've got this big pay referendum lawsuit coming up in December. So dealing with those three issues just to get ourselves back — we've always been on good financial footing, but we've always had some clouds overhanging, you know. The Trinity Park. Getting that started. We've got the $50 million gift, so we're going to look at a local government corporation and try to get that done in August. If the city finally gets serious about Fair Park, I'd like Fair Park to get to the next level. Then lay some strategic templates in place on housing, on poverty, on green space. Those are three things that are important that I'd like to leave as at least a plan going forward.