Do you care who the next mayor is? Who any mayor is? I mean really.
Lots of people want you to care. The field of candidates for mayor of Dallas in the election this May, already swollen to just over a half-dozen with the announcement Monday of school board member Miguel Solis, will fatten even more later this week when City Council member Scott Griggs jumps in. Still more candidates wait in the wings with bated breath and may join the fray before the Feb. 15 filing deadline.
But does it all still seem to you like somebody else’s business, not really a part of your deal?
I get that. But maybe you like to go places. There’s some city you’d like to live in or maybe one that just sounds like a great road trip. You’ve been there already or read or heard about it, and it seems like a city that really has its act together.
That’s what the 2019 Dallas mayor’s race will be about. It will be about using your vote to turn this city into that city, not overnight but a lot sooner than a million years from now.
Now think about this. Isn’t this city — this one, right here, now — already at least a little bit of that city? Isn’t that why you are here?
Are there not some things about this city that you think are cool? What if we could take those qualities and turn them into the whole city?
This election won’t be about turning Dallas into something it never was or wanted to be. It will be about turning it into what it is already, but better — taking the very best qualities that are in place already in some parts of the city and using them as models for the future of the whole city. Not that everybody wants the same thing.
One thing about Dallas that makes me feel at home again after a long trip out of town is that Dallas is a wee tiny bit rackety-crackety, just undone and unfinished enough to leave some breathing room. There’s still enough margin for a little bit of mischief, and maybe that’s something we should preserve.
This election is important because the old traditional leadership of the city has grown seriously out of sync with the very best new qualities of the city. If you want to see what’s happening in Dallas today, what’s working and where the big successes are, you have to go out into all of the self-made communities that have grown up almost in spite of the old leadership, often actively opposed by the old leadership.
It’s two opposite ideas in a head-on collision. One is that you build a great city from downtown out. According to the old school, a small cadre of great men must draw fat lines and circles on maps to show what should happen, and then an army of lesser mortals must go to work turning those lines into office towers, freeways and subdivisions. It all makes sense.
Except that it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t how people want to live or work. More than 1.34 million people, each with 100 billion neurons in her or his brain, live in Dallas, each and every one with a slightly different, somewhat peculiar, idiosyncratic vision of what the city should be. So the system that makes the most sense, in terms of building the happiest, healthiest city, is the one that best accommodates all of that complexity and individuality.
It is no accident that the city’s most successful districts have been in Old East Dallas, the M Streets, North Oak Cliff, The Cedars just south of downtown and now in nascent form elsewhere, springing up in places like the South Boulevard/Park Row neighborhood in South Dallas and South-Central Oak Cliff. The great neighborhoods of the city seem to rise organically from the soil, take root and then refuse to budge.
So that’s the other idea in the head-on collision — that the great city doesn’t grow from City Hall out. It grows the opposite way, from the neighborhoods and the public school attendance zones in to City Hall and school district headquarters. All of those trillions of neurons out there bounce off each other and combine to weave the fabric of the new city, and there’s only one way to know what it’s going to look like. Wait.
During the coming election season, the old leadership will insist that the neighborhoods and school zones are too parochial a place to look for citywide leadership. Their line for decades has been that they alone own the overview, the long-range vision for the entire city. I think when they say that, they are expressing their sincere and cherished view of how the world works.
In their view, neighborhoods and school zones are small. In their view, they are big. The mayor should be big. The mayor should be one of them.
They’re wrong. And we don’t have to argue philosophy about it anymore. We finally have come to a moment in time when the proof is on the ground, before our very eyes, not just in our own city but in big cities all over the country. What succeeds in cities is individualism and grassroots empowerment.
If you know how to do it.
A successful city council person or school board member in these successful inner city areas must bring certain qualities to the table. The ability to listen. A real interest in what people have to say. Respect for an opposing opinion. The ability to draw a line across the page and make a decision even when people tell you they’re going to poison your great-grandchildren. Do that and stay cool.
These are not qualities for which the boardroom people are famous. In fact, I don’t know that anybody is born with all of that in them just naturally. It takes time and some toughening experience. I measure the development of council members from my own district in East Dallas by how long it takes them to get to the point where I can no longer get under their skin.
I see that happen — they outgrow me — and I think to myself, “OK, I need a fresh one.” My current council member, Philip Kingston, took 30 seconds.
There definitely is a learning curve for knowing how to lead from the roots up instead of from the top down, especially when people think they are making a profound political and philosophical statement when they tell you to go screw yourself.
I don’t believe the difference in the two worldviews is entirely generational. Or, if it is, then it’s entirely generational except for me, which would make me awfully special, would it not? But I do think being younger helps.
The one golden quality upon which all of the organic, roots-up system of city-building depends is social trust. People have to be able to sit across the table from each other, fight hard for a position, duke it out verbally and then go get a beer together.
The essential ingredient in that trust is respect. Each party to the argument needs to understand that he and the other party have the same standing, the same legitimacy and the same interest in achieving a worthy outcome. They just disagree on how.
That’s tough for a generation of people who have a history of very narrow social experience. And, please, I do know how unfair it is to paint with so broad a brush, and I do know lots of cool old people. Some of my best friends are old people.
But generally speaking, the social and leadership skills we’re talking about here — including the ability to build consensus in a diverse constituency — occur more commonly below a certain age line. I don’t know where that line falls anymore. I’m just worried about falling myself.
All of these candidates for mayor are going to look for their own lanes. Each of them is going to have her and his own gift basket for us, special party favors they promise to deliver to us if we deliver them our votes.
I don’t know how realistic it is to ask you to care deeply which person becomes the next mayor. But in those moments when life lets you lift your head a few inches above the daily grind, I suspect you do care about the city you see around you. There are things you’d like to see more of, things you’d like to see less of.
Some, like racism and poverty, are serious. Some, like independent coffee shops, are less than life and death, but still. You care. You do care about your own city. You have a city in your mind you’d like this one to be.
That happens or does not happen depending on who is the mayor and who sits on the City Council. You make it happen by choosing.
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So are you supposed to do homework every night for a week on a dozen candidates for mayor so you can know which one to vote for? Fat chance, right?
You need an app. A mental app. We all need a mental app for this. Everybody needs a way to make this simpler. This is what I have to offer.
Turn your ears down a little when they start offering you presents. Instead, open your eyes to where they have been. Try to figure out what they have done. Do they come from the city you want to see? Did they help to create it? Do they know how it works?
Don’t buy the argument that those vibrant neighborhoods out there are small-time and irrelevant. If they are windows on the city you want to see, then they are the big picture. Always vote for the big picture.