Morning News Editorial Draws Line in Sand for Next Mayor's Race. Oh, Boy.

Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, a consistent foe of fraud and waste at City Hall whom The Dallas Morning News wants you to believe is a snowflake.
Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, a consistent foe of fraud and waste at City Hall whom The Dallas Morning News wants you to believe is a snowflake.
Mark Graham
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OK, this just in, we’ve got the playbook now for the next Dallas mayor’s race, and it falls somewhere on a line between, “Oh, no, not again,” “Tell me you’re kidding,” “Wait, wait, this might be cool” and “Bring it!”

Monday, The Dallas Morning News fired the opening salvo with a wonderfully old-style Dallas-Citizens-Council-sounding anti-property tax editorial in which they sort of forgot to mention the huge tax giveaways and boondoggles that Citizens-Council-types get (think people heaving bundles of money out the upper-floor windows of City Hall to suits waiting below with outstretched arms).

That’s kind of the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me part. And, sorry, if you are under 70 years of age, you have no idea what I mean by “Dallas Citizens Council,” so I will try to explain.

Back in the 1950s when much of the United States still had formal racial segregation, so-called white citizens councils were formed in many cities to fight integration. The Dallas Citizens Council is not that. It already existed. It’s a private group with two levels of organization — a public face that is somewhat diverse and an older, tighter, inner group from the city’s old oligarchy of business leaders and rich families.

It tells you something, though, that the Dallas Citizens Council has never modified its name. It’s like if you had an old fraternal organization called the KKKI and you went around town telling people, “Mind the I.” Most people are going to think, “No, I mind the KKK.” You know, did they ever consider a name change?

The Morning News editorial Monday tried to set up a day-for-night split between supposed tax-and-spend snowflakes on the City Council and tough-minded budget hawks. The joke is that their favorite budget hawk and the one they want to put forward as the establishment choice for mayor is council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, whose family is hip-deep in $100 million worth of real estate tax breaks in West Dallas.

And, look, it’s her father, revered sports hero Roger Staubach, who’s in the gravy in West Dallas and elsewhere, not Gates, so I am not alleging or implying anything dirty here about Gates. I am talking about mindsets and attitudes, and this is what gets us to the part about, “Wait, wait, maybe this is just what we need.”

The real targets of the Morning News editorial are two other council members, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston (please note alphabetical order), who are among a young set of leaders who are typically and I think sort of erroneously referred to as the progressives.

These guys are among three people, if you add former council member Angela Hunt, most frequently mentioned as candidates who might be able to knock off the Citizens Council candidate in the 2019 mayor’s race. I don’t have anything against the progressive label, I guess. But it’s used in a way that has sort of a left-wing whang to it.

Let’s go back to the Morning News editorial. The newspaper beats up on the so-called progressives for wanting to hire more cops and raise police pay. Let me ask you something? If you support the cops, when did that start meaning you were a snowflake?

Oh, wait. I do remember that. It was during the battle over police and fire pensions. And, yes, I have to say, that was one of the weirder and more surprising chapters I remember in all my 200 years of covering local politics. It caught me by surprise.

The cops and firefighters wanted the city to honor a pension contract that the Citizens Council types felt had become too onerous tax-wise. Mayor Mike Rawlings, the current Citizens Council guy in the office, took a very tough line against the police, more or less painting them as common grifters.

There were two good sides in that fight, and resolving it took a lot of hard work and guts on both sides. But the mayor’s attitude toward the employees opened a nasty little window on the way the old establishment views the people who work for the city.

They’re fine as long as they keep their heads down and don’t make trouble or cost any money, but if they ask for anything, all of a sudden they’re very bad people.

I was a hippie when I was young. I thought we were the only people who said bad stuff about the cops. There were moments during the pension debate when I half expected to see the mayor emerge with long hair, earrings and a tie-dyed bandanna around his head. I was worried I’d have to go sing a folk song with him.

The Morning News editorial takes that same strange line — the idea that buttressing the police department is somehow irresponsible. That’s the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me part.

Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs has helped design some of the city's most successful economic development projects. He just wants to be sure the money is always spent responsibly.
Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs has helped design some of the city's most successful economic development projects. He just wants to be sure the money is always spent responsibly.
Mark Graham

Sunday night on the TV news I saw that Dallas firefighters over the weekend had been confronted by a knife-wielding maniac, and the police didn’t have anybody they could send. The fire department had to send more firemen out there to fight the maniac.

You know who thinks that level of understaffing crisis in the Police Department is even remotely acceptable? Only people who can afford their own private security patrols. Even then they’re idiots.

Here is where I quibble with the progressive label. Griggs, Hunt and Kingston (please again note careful alphabetization) represent the solid middle class citizens who have flocked into the city’s older neighborhoods in the last 20 years. They are hard at work rebuilding and strengthening the parts of the city that the old Citizens Council leadership allowed to fall into disrepair, mainly because they were all out selling houses and shopping centers in the suburbs.

How is building back the city snowflake? Why would we even try to define it that way? Isn’t it just the right thing to do? Isn’t it our civic duty? Do we not all benefit by having adequate public services and infrastructure?

Angela Hunt, second from right, presided over one of the city's hottest growth areas during her years on the council but also fought against boondoggles.EXPAND
Angela Hunt, second from right, presided over one of the city's hottest growth areas during her years on the council but also fought against boondoggles.
Paul Wingo

Lastly, how is it conservative to want all that stuff but think you don’t have to pay for it? Who do you think’s going to pay for it, Puff, the Magic Dragon? (Song by Peter, Paul and Mary, 1963. Told you.)

That brings us back to the part of the Morning News editorial where they talk about taxes, and maybe we should have a talk about that. The city’s property tax rate is actually a little lower today than it was five years ago, but the editorial page points out quite correctly that people are paying more in taxes because the values of their properties have gone up.

Contrary to the editorial, that’s not a trick. It’s an equation. Rate down a little, values up a lot, tax bills up some. How it’s supposed to work.

Griggs and Kingston want to keep the tax rate flat but use the increased income from the rising property values to fix, among other things, the police staffing issue. “But what happens,” the editorial asks, “when the economy slows and property values and sales tax revenue begin to fall?”

I know that one. Been there. It sucks. When the economy goes down, we have less money. But how is that an argument for failing to get things fixed during the fat years? Isn’t that when you’re supposed to get things fixed?

If you let things go to hell in a handbasket when you have the money, then when you don’t have the money things will go even more to hell in an even bigger handbasket. Am I talking quantum physics here? I don’t think so.

Anyway, I doubt the police issue is really the main concern of the Citizens Council types and their minions on the Morning News editorial page. What they really worry about is that the three “progressives” want to take a sharper, more analytical approach to the whole budgeting process.

Griggs, for example, has conveyed that he thinks the city needs to be more consistent and rigorous in its approach to tax breaks under the rubric of economic development. That is where the real money goes, hundreds of millions of dollars handed out under the good-old-boy system, bales of cash out the windows.

Griggs has championed and helped design successful economic development ventures in his own North Oak Cliff district, so he’s not against economic development, just against bales of money out the window willy-nilly.

All three represent or have represented some of the city’s strongest growth zones, but all three also have made their bones in local politics fighting against some of the city’s zanier boondoggles, like the fake suspension bridge over the Trinity River that cost $115 million and still can’t be opened.

Griggs and Kingston earned the old guard’s particular ire by stopping the mayor’s plan to give Fair Park to a crony under what would have been an exorbitantly expensive deal for the city, forcing the city instead to open the privatization plan for Fair Park to open bidding.

They also have questioned other City Hall giveaways that would otherwise never have seen the light of day, like the multimillion-dollar subsidy the city gives the State Fair of Texas every year in free police patrols.

So here is where I think the battle over the next mayoral election will get really interesting. Will the old oligarchy, with help from its house-organ daily newspaper, continue to get away with painting itself and its candidate as the conservative responsible choice? Or will the other side succeed in exposing them as the real snowflakes — the kind of snowflakes who wind up costing the rest of us a lot of money? This could actually be fun.

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