Dallas' Next Mayor Will Face Tough Budget Choices. Too Bad The Candidates Won't Talk About Them.

The group of mayoral hopefuls—the police chief, the politician, the CEO and the long shot—agree on just about everything.

Raising taxes is naughty.

Natural gas drilling should be allowed only if science proves it's safe.

Neighborhoods are kick-ass, though it's unclear whether anyone can be found who's anti-neighborhood.

Former Pizza Hut CEO Mike Rawlings, the well-financed presumed frontrunner, estimates that he and his fellow candidates find common ground between 90 and 95 percent of the time, which makes for some seriously dull campaign forums. But maybe that's because all four candidates deftly sidestep the city's biggest issue: how to trim a budget that's sucking gobs of air, with a $60 million to $100 million expected shortfall, according to City Manager Mary Suhm.

Outside of the forums, the Dallas Observer pressed each candidate to identify specific cuts they'd make. Rawlings, city council member Ron Natinsky and real estate consultant Edward Okpa gave non-answers. Only ex-police Chief David Kunkle came up with something concrete: requiring DART to contract with the Dallas Police Department for its officers, which would eliminate the duplications of command staffs, communication centers and overhead.

But that was it. One measly cut among four candidates.

Whoever wins the May 14 election will have to make tough calls on the budget deficit as the economy continues to flounder. About half of the city's $2 billion operating budget is its general fund, and more than 60 percent of that is dedicated to public safety. Voters will decide who's most qualified to get the best out of the remaining $400 million, but can any of the candidates identify waste without having to skimp on filling potholes, mowing the grass at parks and staffing libraries?

The candidates think they can. Each puts forth his own brand of optimism, affirming that the city's budget woes are no match for a strong commitment to economic development and improved efficiency at City Hall.

Since these men agree on that and just about everything else, the race comes down to four guys and four personalities—and a handful of pricey campaign consultants working their tricks to extract votes from places where voters seem challenged to care.

Of course, stirring up voter interest might come a little easier if any of the hopefuls were willing to say exactly what they might cut to balance the books, but what's true of politics at the national level is also true at City Hall: Candidates who get too interesting or too specific when it comes to wielding an axe seldom fare well on election day.

Mike Rawlings is the Establishment candidate, the man who belongs to the Dallas Citizens Council and has a long history in corporate America, just like his predecessor, Tom Leppert, who resigned in February to launch a bid to replace retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. But Rawlings has the most unlikely bloc of supporters in Dallas: the homeless.

Take Ricky Hernandez. He knows what Rawlings has done, even though he doesn't know Rawlings. "Whoever built this did the right thing," he says about The Bridge—a homeless assistance center at the edge of downtown Dallas. It's the brainchild of ex-Dallas Observer columnist and former Mayor Laura Miller, but Rawlings' handprints are all over it.

Hernandez, a 41-year-old ex-con, visits The Bridge daily for free meals, healthcare, job assistance, laundry services and showers. "It's good for people who don't really have nothing, people who are homeless, people who really, really need a place to stay and a place to eat," Hernandez says.

Released from state prison in January after serving an 18-year sentence for cocaine possession, Hernandez is energized about an interview for a dish-washing job at a local nursing home, arranged with help from his care manager at The Bridge. "If everything goes good for me tomorrow, I probably won't be here any longer than three more weeks," he says.

For Hernandez and the nearly 1,000 homeless served there daily, The Bridge represents a last chance to pull themselves out of homelessness and extreme poverty. "If I was a rich guy—a multimillionaire—I'd open another one right next door," he says.

Despite spending five years as the city's homeless czar, Rawlings makes little mention on the campaign trail of his time dedicated to The Bridge and raising millions of dollars in private donations to maintain it, even contributing money from his own pocket. Since it opened in May 2008, The Bridge has reduced the number of chronically homeless by 56 percent and provides shelter for around 350 homeless men and women every night.

"I'm still a little bit uncomfortable about helping out poor people and trying to get credit for it," Rawlings says. "It seems a little disingenuous."

Instead, Rawlings has relied on his corporate experience as the chief executive of three companies to become a candidate in the mold of ex-Turner Construction CEO and former Mayor Leppert. Leppert was one of the best salesmen this city's seen in a long time, and Rawlings says the city needs "a dealmaker" to lure economic development.

Like Leppert, who hasn't endorsed any of the candidates, Rawlings is a member of the influential Citizens Council. Former mayors Erik Jonsson and Jack Evans—ex-CEOs of Texas Instruments and Tom Thumb, respectively—once led the Citizens Council. The group of wealthy business leaders includes Ross Perot Jr. and Dallas Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones.

Following Leppert's blueprint, Rawlings named former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach as his campaign chair and hired Mari Woodlief of Allyn Media as his consultant. He's also counting on consultants Kathy Nealy and Willis Johnson and support from Dr. Frederick Haynes, pastor of one of the city's black megachurches, to mine valuable votes in southern Dallas.

Leppert's former deputy chief of staff, Paula Blackmon, also works on his campaign, and Rawlings has nabbed endorsements from dozens of Leppert supporters and business leaders, such as T. Boone Pickens and former mayoral candidate Tom Dunning. (Dunning preceded Rawlings as homeless czar and has also chaired the Citizens Council.)

Also stolen from Leppert's playbook: an ad blitz of TV commercials and pricey mailers aimed at building name ID and selling a platform that includes forming education task forces, even though the mayor has no control over the Dallas Independent School District.

There is, however, a significant distinction between the two: Leppert's a Republican and Rawlings is a Democrat.

Rawlings refuses to admit as much or discuss his contributions and voting record—the mayoral race is nonpartisan—but they paint a clear picture of a bleeding-heart liberal. More than 88 percent of the nearly $85,000 he has donated since 1992 went to Democratic campaigns, including $32,950 given directly to federal Democratic committees. He also contributed to candidates such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Al Franken. (To be fair, he gave to George W. Bush and John McCain as well, but those donations are the exception.)

"I really feel strongly that we need to keep partisanship out of city politics," he says. "It is destructive, and we need to pull the city together."

Rawlings has created a wedge between himself and former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle, claiming the private sector brings the best ideas to the table while pointing out that Kunkle has spent his entire career in the public sector. The two candidates have accounted for most of the campaign's sporadic fireworks, as Kunkle criticized Rawlings' home in the affluent neighborhood of Preston Hollow (a comment he later apologized for), which is on the tax rolls for $2.8 million. He also joked at a forum about receiving a pizza late, an obvious reference to Rawlings' tenure as Pizza Hut's CEO.

The public- versus private-sector battle between Rawlings and Kunkle could pave the way for Ron Natinsky, who's represented by top political consultant Carol Reed, architect of five successful mayoral campaigns, and has experience as an entrepreneur and city council member. Natinsky, along with Edward Okpa—a lesser-known candidate who claims Governor Rick Perry calls him his "brother from another mother"—identify themselves as Republicans, which could translate to votes in North Dallas, where they both live.

Although he has voted in two Democratic primaries and no Republican primaries, Kunkle professes to be an independent. He hired Republican consultant C.P. Henry as his campaign manager and has aligned himself with two Republican former council members—Mitchell Rasansky and Donna Blumer—and two prominent Democrats.

Former Democratic state Representative Steve Wolens serves as Kunkle's campaign treasurer, and Wolens and his wife, Laura Miller, have hosted fundraisers for Kunkle and offered him advice on how to be a better candidate. Miller—who appointed Rawlings as homeless czar, praised Kunkle at his retirement press conference and served two years on the council with Natinsky—declined an interview request. Kunkle, on the other hand, is quick to distance himself from the polarizing Miller, who has yet to make an official endorsement.

"Her personality and style are probably 180 degrees different from mine," he says.

Calling him charismatically challenged, socially awkward, a public-policy wonk and a flat-out geek might seem harsh, but that's how David Kunkle describes himself. It's easy to see why. He has a voice as inspiring as political commentator Ben Stein's, possesses the social acumen of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, brags about his intimate knowledge of city government and proudly drives around his Lower Greenville neighborhood on a lime-green Vespa scooter.

He even has the nerdy look—short in stature with glasses and spiked hair—and he carries around a book, Good to Great, as a prop. (The best-selling leadership book was made into a documentary featuring Kunkle.) Hardly what you'd expect from a former Dallas police chief, much less a mayoral candidate.

Shortly after Kunkle was named the city's top cop in June 2004, Sarah Dodd, who was working as a City Hall reporter for KTVT-Channel 11 and would later become his wife, took him to lunch in an attempt to teach him to speak in sound bites instead of droning on. Kunkle rebuffed the offer and told Dodd: "For reasons I don't understand, people have liked me and believed in me, so I don't want to change."

The 60-year-old avid marathon runner has a son from his first marriage who's 36—the same age as Dodd—and lives in Fort Worth. Kunkle's relationship with Dodd, who resigned from her TV gig and registered as a City Hall lobbyist 10 days after her husband's retirement, became the subject of media exposés, including an Observer article ("Awkward," September 28, 2006) in which Kunkle admitted to dating Dodd before the ink was dry on his divorce with his fourth wife, Kris Ankersen, who he'd married just two years earlier. Shortly before marrying Ankersen, Kunkle told The Dallas Morning News he was "frankly embarrassed" about his marital history.

Kunkle says pretty much the same thing now that he's hit marriage No. 5. "I wish that I had not been married five times, and anything I say other than that is going to sound defensive and not serve any purpose. I wish it weren't the case."

If four failed marriages aren't enough of an uphill battle for Kunkle in a conservative city, he's embraced the label of anti-establishment candidate—a role most political observers thought would be played by Angela Hunt, who decided not to enter the race because she doesn't believe the next mayor should be a sitting council member. Kunkle has hired divisive community activist Avi Adelman as a campaign worker, and if he wins, Kunkle says he'll serve only one term: "It's not my intent to run again."

Kunkle voted as a citizen against the Trinity River toll road and convention center hotel—two projects pushed hard by Leppert and widely supported by the business community—and believes now is not the time for another chief executive-type leader. He's also fed up with a group of wealthy business people (not-so-secret code for the Dallas Citizens Council) anointing the next mayor. "When I chose to run, I knew that I'd run as an outsider," he says.

Born in Fort Worth and raised in Hurst, Kunkle returned to the Dallas Police Department in 2004 after spending three years as Grand Prairie's chief, 14 years as Arlington's chief and another five years as Arlington's deputy city manager. Former Dallas City Manager Ted Benavides selected Kunkle against the wishes of then-Mayor Miller as DPD's chief to replace Terrell Bolton, who was fired after a four-year tenure marred by a fake-drug scandal, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from commanders demoted by Bolton and the nation's highest overall crime rate among large cities.

When Kunkle retired nearly six years later, crime had plummeted by a whopping 36 percent, but a handful of changes he implemented weren't popular with the rank and file, along with longtime Dallas Police Association President Glenn White. The head of the city's largest police union regularly criticized Kunkle in the media but didn't respond to interview requests for this story.

DPA secretary-treasurer Ron Pinkston echoes most of White's earlier complaints about Kunkle, questioning his firings and demotions and the restrictions he placed on pursuing suspects in vehicles and using deadly force. "Officers on the street felt like he was taking tools away from them to fight crime," he says.

DPD officers speaking not for attribution express similar frustrations with Kunkle's elimination of the chokehold, the limitations placed on car chases and his propensity to fire, demote and sanction officers who slipped up.

Greater Dallas Chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association president and 19-year DPD veteran George Aranda says he was also displeased with those decisions, claiming Kunkle "buckled" to community pressure when demoting officers. But he's quick to praise Kunkle for promoting diversity, maintaining an open line of communication with various police union groups, boosting morale and "turning around a department in turmoil."

Pinkston attributes most of the crime reduction under Kunkle to the city council's approval of 800 new officers and Kunkle's modification of how the DPD reports crime. Kunkle admits both were factors but stresses the department was understaffed during his first three years on the job because of the DPD's bad reputation and low pay.

Under his leadership, Kunkle says public trust was restored in the DPD. He purchased new equipment and cars and required officers to attend neighborhood crime watch meetings. "I always thought when I was chief that I represented everybody," he says. "It was different from running for political office where you try to get half the votes. I always thought I needed 100 percent of the votes all the time."

Kunkle describes the city as "overtaxed and underserved" but won't offer much in the way of specific budget cuts. Instead, he focuses on what he won't slash—neighborhood quality-of-life expenditures. Kunkle says budget cuts affecting neighborhoods—resulting in closed libraries, pockmarked streets and poorly maintained parks—contributed to Dallas' meager increase of fewer than 10,000 residents during the past decade, according to recent census data.

"That means that people voted with their feet and chose not to live in this city, and, to me, that should be a concern to people who live here and pay taxes," he says. "If you've got a lot of money, Dallas is great. If you're middle-class, normally it doesn't work out very well for you."

Kunkle may be running as an outsider with an insider's knowledge of City Hall, but Ron Natinsky is the race's real insider.

His campaign is somewhat of a Leppert-Ed Oakley cocktail. Not only was Natinsky Leppert's right-hand man on the council, especially during the Trinity River toll road and convention center hotel campaigns, but he hired Carol Reed—a high-priced consultant who worked on Leppert's mayoral campaign as well as the pro-toll road and pro-convention hotel campaigns.

Like Oakley—who lost to Leppert in the 2007 mayoral runoff and joins 11 other former and current council members on Natinsky's endorsement list—Natinsky is relying on his small-business experience and nearly six years as a city council member. Oakley also made his affiliation with the Democratic Party known in '07, while Natinsky can't hide as a Republican—having voted in 13 Republican primaries since 1976.

Oakley served on the council with Natinsky from 2005 to 2007 and helped campaign for the toll road and hotel. On this mid-March afternoon, Oakley's on the phone soliciting donations and endorsements from inside the Uptown offices of Reed, who joins Natinsky in a conference room to oversee his Observer interview.

While Natinsky sells his council experience as a plus, there's also a significant downside: He has a track record to dissect.

He represents himself as a fiscal conservative, but he backed tax increases in 2005 and 2007 and was busted in October 2008 by The Dallas Morning News for spending $12,000 in taxpayer funds for thousands of plastic pizza cutters, letter openers, dish-scrubbing brushes and other trinkets bearing his name. He didn't see anything wrong with it then and doesn't now either.

Natinsky fought against last year's 6.5 percent tax hike but makes a startling admission: He claims he could have found the $40 million needed to avoid the tax-rate increase that restored rec center and library hours, park maintenance and street repairs. Some of that gap could have been filled with private donations, Natinsky says, but instead of asking for money, he told companies to save their dough to pay their taxes because an increase was imminent. But why not cobble together as much funding as possible in an attempt to avoid that predicament?

"It appeared to me that the iceberg was coming toward the Titanic, and we were gonna have a tax rate increase," he says. "It was real clear that there were enough votes to do it."

The council passed last year's budget by an 8-7 vote. Had he secured the funding and found the cuts he claims would have balanced the budget, all Natinsky needed to do was convince one of the eight not to vote for a tax hike that was no longer necessary. But he didn't.

Astoundingly, Natinsky says he believes some council members wanted to raise taxes even if the services could be restored without one.

Natinsky also made several erroneous claims during the toll road campaign and in 2010 reversed his position on concession contracts at Dallas Love Field Airport after Leppert publicly criticized awarding "no-bid contracts." Natinsky offers no apologies for his comments during the '07 toll road campaign but admits a couple of his statements proved to be inaccurate. He says he switched his stance about the airport contracts because the deal changed, but it was actually restructured because of his own effort to devise a new bidding process that would appease Leppert's concerns. Natinsky shrugs off both issues, seemingly attributing any inconsistencies to savvy salesmanship. Perhaps that's because it's in his blood.

Natinsky, 65, found his way to Dallas in the back of a Chevy station wagon in 1958 after spending his first 12 years in Detroit. His first job was at M.E. Moses, a five-and-dime store, and Natinsky later worked at Goff's Hamburgers on Lovers Lane. After graduation from Hillcrest High School, Natinsky enrolled in the pre-dental program at the University of North Texas (called North Texas State University at the time). He found himself consumed by thoughts of starting his own business, though, and ultimately abandoned college to start Dallas Tape Deck, which, through the years, installed stereos and sold 4-tracks, 8-tracks and cassettes.

Natinsky followed that with several other businesses, involving radar detectors, plastic molding, computer technology, clocks and convention and trade shows. Natinsky also had what he calls his "tchotchke business" (Yiddish for a cheap trinket), which imported items from China and sold them to distributors nationwide.

Natinsky's wife, Nancy, has not only been his life partner for nearly 42 years, but the two are also business partners, and she's constantly by his side at public events. The Natinskys have two grown sons and remain investors in several businesses. "I'm always looking for that next company to start," he says.

Natinsky, chair of the council's Economic Development Committee for nearly four years, takes credit for encouraging international investment in the city, the relocation of corporate giants like AT&T to downtown Dallas, the recent sale of the former Statler Hilton hotel and a proposed expansion by Walmart.

Natinsky declines to suggest budget cuts and seems to want it both ways: no tax increase and no reduction of services.

"Parks and rec and all those things are used more heavily when the economy turns down, so I certainly don't want there to be a negative impact when people need those facilities more than in good times," he says. "But, at the same time, we've got a budget we have to live in."

Since Kunkle's the insider running as an outsider, and Natinsky's the insider running as an insider, that leaves an opening for an outsider running as an outsider—a role Edward Okpa knows quite well.

Despite running for mayor a third consecutive time, Okpa is hardly a household name. To fully appreciate his dearth of prominence and support, consider the 2007 mayoral candidacy of Jennifer Gale, who died in 2008. Gale was transgender, homeless and a perennial candidate for city council and mayor in Austin, never receiving more than 10 percent of the vote. She took a shot at becoming Dallas mayor in '07 and garnered only 554 votes. But she didn't finish last in the field of 11 candidates. Okpa did.

It's easy to see why The Dallas Morning News rarely mentions his name—which, by the way, doesn't bother Okpa—or why he hasn't been invited to a handful of debates. His 429 votes in '07 represented a significant drop-off from his poor showing four years earlier, when his 1,999 votes accounted for less than 3 percent of the turnout.

Okpa, a 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant who moved to Dallas in 1985, also hasn't exactly been the most dogged candidate. His schedule is clogged with meetings related to the real estate business he started, The Okpa Co., causing him to skip out on some of the forums he's been asked to attend. It also makes him 40 minutes late arriving for an interview, which had been rescheduled four days earlier because of another last-minute conflict.

Unapologetic for his tardiness, Okpa, sans his trademark bowtie, explains in a thick accent why this time will be different. He says he's received more exposure, is more confident about conveying his message and is known by more people. "I can't say I'm gonna win it, but I feel like I'm gonna win it."

Despite the $60,000 salary that comes with being mayor, Okpa plans to continue working as a real estate broker and international trade consultant if he's elected, stressing he'll avoid signing contracts with the city of Dallas. Leppert not only stopped his work in the private sector before becoming mayor, but he also donated his salary to educational programs. Okpa, on the other hand, seems to view being mayor as a part-time job.

He still drives the BMW he bought in 1987, which has nearly 400,000 miles on it, and wears the same suits he wore 20 years ago. "My attitude toward money is different," Okpa explains.

Although he talks generically about "addressing structural deficiencies" and "consolidation" to balance the budget, he does offer one suggestion: Refinance the city's bonds at a lower rate. Like the other candidates, he's reluctant to discuss any cuts, saying only, "We have to look at the way we spend our money."

Mike Rawlings also stumbled upon the American dream in Dallas. It just turns out he didn't have to travel nearly as far as Okpa did.

Stocky and standing just shy of 6 feet 4 inches tall, Rawlings looks every bit the former linebacker he was at Boston College.

A large painting by his daughter hangs on the wall of his office at CIC Partners, a private equity firm where Rawlings serves as managing partner and CEO of Legends Hospitality Management. Legends provides food and beverage services at sports venues such as Cowboys Stadium and Yankee Stadium. If Rawlings wins, he's arranged to step down from both positions at CIC.

Sitting comfortably in a black leather chair, Rawlings claims the mayoral race isn't about personality—a statement he's repeated at several campaign stops. "It's what you bring to the party and the experience base you've got," he says.

Rawlings' path to private-sector superstardom began in Borger, a small Texas city about 50 miles northeast of Amarillo. After stops in Kansas City and Syracuse, he accepted a football scholarship to Boston College. At just 19, he married his first wife, who later gave birth to their daughter Michelle. Rawlings grew tired of working as a doorman and valet, prompting his move to Dallas after landing a job at WFAA radio as a reporter.

The media world didn't turn out to be his calling—he was fired 18 months later—but Rawlings shrugged off that "humbling" experience and used his writing skills to become an account executive at a small ad agency called Mitchell and Manning that has since disappeared. That led to a job at advertising giant TracyLocke in 1979, where he began working his way up the corporate ladder, eventually serving as its CEO until he left in 1996.

Rawlings, 56, would meet his second wife, Micki, at TracyLocke. They have a son, Gunnar, who enrolled at his father's alma mater—Boston College—after graduating from Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, where Rawlings serves as a director. He would join Pizza Hut as its president and chief concept officer in 1997, increasing profits and reestablishing its position as the country's top pizza chain until his departure in 2003.

The following year, Rawlings became a full-time partner at CIC Partners, a spin-off of Cardinal Investment Co. Cardinal had at one time invested in Ace Cash Express, which provides check cashing and payday loans. Several council members and state legislators have pushed for restrictions on companies like Ace, which they believe prey on lower-income families. While Rawlings served on Ace's board starting in 2000, he points out that he never invested any of his own money in the company and sold the shares he received as a director in 2006.

Rawlings entered the public sector in September 2005 when former Mayor Miller named him as the city's homeless czar, a position that no longer exists. One year later, Miller appointed him to a two-year term as chair of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. Rawlings left his position as homeless czar when Leppert nominated him as president of the Park and Recreation Board in August 2010.

During the end of his time as homeless czar, Rawlings took some lumps over the creation of 50 permanent supportive housing units for the formerly homeless at the Cliff Manor apartment complex in North Oak Cliff, which angered nearby residents who say they were blindsided by the move. He deflects the blame to council member Dave Neumann, claiming he failed to convey the plans to his constituency. Neumann, who didn't return a phone call seeking comment, publicly expressed his surprise about the units in May 2010, even though a council briefing in April 2009 outlined the plans for Cliff Manor.

Rawlings says he's spent a lot of time thinking about the budget, but he makes it a perfect four-for-four in candidates without an overall plan for reducing the deficit. Generally, he says he'd axe "non-relevant programs" and fire lackluster employees.

"I want to create jobs, and the only way you create jobs is to have the best and brightest at City Hall," he says. "And if we don't have the best and the brightest, we need to get them."

Tonight's stop on the mayoral caravan is Thomas Jefferson High School. It's only March 28—long before most voters begin paying attention—but, as Kunkle explains to a crowd of some 75 North Dallas residents, the candidates are already out of new material.

"We can give each other's speeches and answer each other's questions because we do this three or four times a day at different venues throughout the city," he says.

And compliments among the four candidates are more prevalent than criticisms. "Thank God Kunkle was our chief," Rawlings says.

The first question of the night might have been the best: Why are you the best and most qualified candidate?

"In every city, the single most difficult job where you have to provide leadership and work with the community is being the police chief," Kunkle says. "I've been a success in a way that helped achieve national recognition."

Natinsky says he's "the best of both worlds," having run small businesses and serving on the city council. "I can provide both the leadership and the vision to work with the council, city staff and community to move the city forward."

Okpa says he's led without authority and accomplished things nobody thought he could. "I am the candidate who will relate to everybody in the city, no matter their circumstances."

Lastly, Rawlings says he's the only one with experience running a large company. "Simply put, I've done it before. This is ultimately about execution. It's not about strategy at this point. It's about who can do it."

And there it is: a perfect summary of the choice facing voters. Unless there's a dramatic shift in how the candidates sell their ideas about improving the city, this race has become about the personalities behind a shared platform. Because no one, it seems, has the guts to take on the elephant clomping around City Hall—that budget, and all the tough choices it represents.

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