Cold, quiet weekday afternoon. One of my favorite East Dallas sausage and egg places, Barbec’s on Garland Road, is still as the tomb, empty but for this table, where a waitress hovers over five of us with a pot of hot coffee. Here I am, chatting up a table full of communists.
No, I don’t mean East Dallas guitar instructors. I mean communists. These people are members of the Socialist Workers Party. One of them, Alyson Kennedy, is running for mayor of Dallas. She’s the one who tells me I can call her a communist or a socialist.
“I kind of use them interchangeably,” she says. “I don’t think there’s much difference.”
Except for one thing. She does not want to be confused with the better-known socialist who ran for president in 2016: “When we tell people we’re Socialist Workers Party,” she says, “some people say, ‘Oh, you’re Bernie Sanders.’ So we explain we’re not like Bernie Sanders.
“We don’t believe you can just pass laws in Congress and fundamentally change what’s causing these problems we face.”
Kennedy, 68, believes in revolution. During her entire adult life she has been a missionary for the revolution, a relentless peddler of communist books and tracts door to door in neighborhoods across America. She is soft-spoken, conservatively dressed, with eyes at once friendly and a little sad. When she appears outside a front door or through a peephole, she could be a Seventh Day Adventist or from Meals on Wheels, but she’s a commie through and through.
I’m not sure how serious her mayoral candidacy is. She and others at the table have run for mayor of other cities. They have lived in many places. Kennedy ran for president in 2016. I think the consistent thing is the door-to-door proselytizing and the selling of the books. But I do not question her integrity or her commitment to cause.
The talk around the table is interesting. News flash, the communists, at least the ones at Barbec’s, seem to sort of like President Donald Trump.
“There’s a big change that has happened,” Kennedy says. “Many workers and other layers of society voted for Trump, who wasn’t, you know, a traditional politician.”
So they voted for him, I suggest in my best reportorial objective tone, because he’s a racist idiot?
“I think it’s more that Trump talked about real issues,” she says. “The very wealthy who really call the shots in Washington depend on the elections as like a steam valve. This election was different.”
OK. Now we’re all going to pay up (each according to his own tab), drive down Garland Road and go door to door in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood where we will see how the revolution is selling in Dallas these days. Maybe I’m channeling my own student days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, over a half-century ago, but I wonder if I need my helmet. Forgot. Don’t have a helmet anymore. I’ll just stand off at a safe distance.
Kennedy and her team split up into two, two-person squads — one team selling books and the other selling books and running for mayor. I go with the mayoral team.
The first house we hit is a tidy, freshly painted frame post-war structure of about a thousand square feet. After a couple of doorbell rings, the homeowner appears and barely cracks open the door.
He is Jerry Palmer, 76, a tall distinguished-looking white man. We learn eventually that he is a retired member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and a former Home Depot employee.
Kennedy starts in with the communism: “Let me give you my campaign flyer. I’m running for mayor. I work at Walmart. I’m a cashier. I was a coal miner for many years. We’re running in the election because we think that millions of working people are not part of this so-called recovery that’s going on.”
Palmer is silent, glancing from her face to the flyer she has handed him. She asks him, “What do you think about what’s going on in the United States and the world?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just a mess. I don’t know what to think.”
He steps out onto the porch with her. “You hear all this stuff,” he says. “You raise the wages and you’re going to put everybody out of business.”
Now he’s off to the races, and the communists can barely get a word in edgewise. The cost of his insulin has quadrupled. CEOs are paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year. He watched a documentary recently that explained how Hillary Clinton stole the 2016 primary election from Sanders. He doesn’t like the anti-immigrant talk.
“I don’t blame the Mexicans who cross the border to get jobs,” he says. “If we didn’t offer them jobs, they wouldn’t be here. What would you do if you could drive to Oklahoma and make 10 times more money than what you’re making right now?”
Kennedy laughs at that. She loves this. She moves in for the close: “In 50 years,” she tells him, “we’re going to see a big struggle by working people. We’re going to be able to build a big enough, very wonderful movement, and we’re going to be able to make a revolution and take political power for our side and build a new kind of society.”
Palmer shrugs, thinking about that. I’m on pins and needles without a helmet.
“I don’t want to be negative,” he says, “but I hope I live long enough to see it.”
So, wait. I’m not saying this means the revolution is at hand or Dallas is about to elect its first communist mayor — well, second if you count the Swiss utopian who was appointed mayor by the Reconstruction government in 1868. But my afternoon with the commies did plant a question in my head. Are there broad national themes in the air that will play some part, one way or another, in the 2019 Dallas mayor’s race? My personal lament in the past, given my job as a local political columnist, has always been that Dallas didn’t have any politics. About the closest it had to politics was real estate. So in the tradition of lemonade from lemons, I wrote about real estate and pretended it was politics.
Is there something else in the air this time around? Something bigger and broader? I don’t mean Trump. Or, if I do, I don’t want to talk about him. I’m thinking about the economy, immigration, income disparity, segregation, criminal justice — any and all of the larger issues we typically in the past have left to state and national elections. Has something new made those kinds of considerations more local this time?
I tried to put my question to the nine serious candidates running for mayor in the May 2019 election. Three blew me off. State Rep. Eric Johnson told me to refer my question to his campaign staff. Neither the campaign nor Johnson got back to me in time for this story. The two Preston Hollow/Park Cities persons in the race, Regina Montoya and Lynn McBee, were equally nonresponsive.
Real estate developer Mike Ablon had a public relations agent send me a statement: “Mike Ablon believes national politics — and the divisive partisanship such discussions bring — have no place in the race for Dallas Mayor.”
OK. You heard him. National politics, keep out. That would certainly make it simpler. I’m just not sure it can be done by fiat.
Five of the nine candidates, including Kennedy, had thoughtful things to say about the role of national political issues in the upcoming mayoral race and were eager to share their thoughts with me. Jason Villalba, a lawyer and former Republican state representative from North Dallas, surprised me by going first for an issue I had always assumed was national apple pie for Democrats, income disparity:
“I do believe,” Villalba said, “that we have to provide opportunities for those who might not have shared in the expansive wealth that we have experienced in Dallas over the last 30 years.
“So how do you do that? I think you create certain kinds of incentives that bring ownership opportunities to the table. I was riding yesterday over in South Dallas for a couple of different things and saw some of the new development, some apartments and a 7-Eleven and the kinds of things that start to come up when a neighborhood is being revitalized.
“I wondered to myself, ‘What percentage ownership interest do the people of this community have in these developments?’ I bet you the number is starkly small. I bet on the fancy modern apartment buildings I saw going up, most of that money is going to come from north of the Trinity River.
“What if we as a city began to create the kind of incentives that would encourage ownership participation from south of the Trinity? I think that is to me a shift of the paradigm, and I think it does begin to address this idea of income disparity.”
Miguel Solis, a member of the Dallas school board and a candidate for mayor, offered an intellectual overview putting Dallas in context with all of the nation’s major cities:
“I think that there are elements of national issues that certainly will manifest themselves in this race,” he said. “But I want to take a step back for a second, because you really hit the nail on the head when you asked the question, is the state of our national politics relevant at the local level?
“My answer to that question would be, absolutely. I am convinced we live in an era of city-states, an era of new localism.
“The rise of the global populism and the national populism that we see today in our country has produced a hyper-partisanship in our national and state governments. That hyper-partisanship has basically rendered moot the ability for national government to solve critical issues that impact everyday citizens.
“Hyper-partisanship at the state level has left cities as the last vestige of government to actually make an impact on the lives of everyday people.”
Businessman Albert Black has not held elective office before, but he has the longest record among all mayoral candidates of involvement in Dallas civic issues, especially in housing and education. He said immediately that national issues and national politics are important in this race, and I could tell he was a little restless with my desire to avoid talking about Trump.
“It’s one of the reasons I have decided to run for mayor,” he said. “You have veered away from the Trump administration, so I agree with you we’re not talking about the president per se. But I start with good governance. We need governance that we can rely on, a set of standards and set of policies that are executed properly.”
Black said failures of governance at the national and state levels make it all the more imperative we attack the same kind of failures locally. He said his long experience in both business and civic involvement has taught him that Dallas measures its own success the wrong way, mistaking construction activity alone for civic success.
“We have a dysfunctional governance that oftentimes is celebrated as successful because we see cranes in the air,” he said.
Black believes City Hall’s efforts at minority inclusion in contracting have been a failure. “Other cities get more success in the [minority] community with construction mistakes than we do [with successes] in Dallas. The Big Dig [in Boston] produced more minority millionaires than we have in Dallas.”
He cites specific instances in the recent past when bad governance has harmed communities in Dallas. Some of that, he strongly implies, may have involved corruption.
“If we look under the covers in this West Dallas development and the development in the Bottoms [a 126-acre neighborhood just south of the Trinity River at Interstate 35E] and the developments over in Joppa [one of the state’s last remaining Freedman’s towns near I-45 and Loop 12] and other areas, it’s going to stink. It’s going to stink, and it’s going to stink, and it’s going to stink.
“It’s terrible, he said. “I am embarrassed. It brings me to tears to know that a slave settlement from 1873 and people that chose to drop their bucket there are finding themselves exploited in the same manner today as they were in Reconstruction.” (Residents of Joppa last year managed to defeat plans for a concrete processing plant near their neighborhood that they feared would worsen Joppa's air quality, already poor because of the nearby industrial sites.)
Scott Griggs, the current City Council member from North Oak Cliff who is seeking to move up to the mayor's seat, agreed with all of the above on the role of national politics in this election, with one significant difference. He has spent eight years representing a developing inner-city area on the council and several years before that on city boards and commissions. He says he has specific hands-on knowledge of how national themes may be woven into effective real-world policy at the city level and has already been working toward those ends as a council member.
“All the issues that come up in the nation come up in Dallas,” Griggs said. “Dallas is the ninth-largest city in America. What we can’t do in Dallas is wait for solutions from Austin or the federal government.
“We need to take action ourselves and look after what’s in Dallas’ best interest.”
Griggs offers as an example the success he and other progressives on the City Council have achieved already on wages. “We first fought for a living wage for employees of Love Field Airport. From there, we went on to contractors. We also fought the battle on increased wages for our first responders, who are some of the lowest paid first responders in North Texas. That’s an example of the city taking action.
“... We have addressed a lot of labor issues without waiting for the federal government or the state.”
I asked Griggs, whose district is one of the hottest real estate development areas in the city, about the typical comeback from the development community: Anything that increases their cost will drive development into the suburbs.
“I think we have increased economic activity in the city,” Griggs said. “We know one of the big factors that holds back economic growth is poverty. The initiatives we have passed on raising wages are helping people stay out of poverty.”
Griggs said developers are eager to get into the city and also eager to win tax breaks from City Hall. He has been able to use that as leverage to win concessions for workers.
“When companies want to come in and ask for tax abatements,” he said, “you have seen many of us on the council pushing for a greater number of jobs, for them to hire Dallas people as well as to pay an increasing wage.”
He said the real pushback hasn’t come from the developers. “To me, they have been very open to it, if they want a tax abatement.”
Resistance has come from the conservative old-school wing of the City Council. “The City Council hasn’t been willing to put the Dallas residents first in terms of jobs and wages. The council too many times has let developers be too greedy and put profits over people, allowing the developers huge profits, while not guaranteeing that anyone from Dallas will be hired at a sufficient wage.”
Griggs and I also talked about a topic on which I have spent a lot of time as a reporter: the role of zoning and building codes as tools of gentrification. Gentrification is a major issue in Griggs’ district, where two distinctly different types of development have taken place in the last decade.
At East Davis and Eighth streets, the landscape is unrecognizable from only a few years earlier. What was once an early 20th-century landscape of low-slung brick commercial buildings and modest cottages has been uprooted and supplanted by something that looks like a newer version of downtown.
Only a few blocks to the west on Davis, that same original landscape is surviving and thriving in the Bishop Arts District and its surrounding neighborhoods. There, an authentic and diverse ambiance seems to provide the secret sauce that draws transplants from the suburbs into the inner city.
Griggs explained to me that the zone to the east, where high-rise new construction has erased the original community, was the result of zoning ordinances passed before he was elected. Since taking over the council seat, he said, he has been able to protect the Bishop Arts area from erasure by manipulating zoning and building codes. He explained some things to me at a technical level, things I wasn’t aware of despite having covered these issues for God knows how many years.
In the past when new zoning has been imposed to enable or encourage redevelopment of an area, all of the buildings that don’t comply with the new zoning have been granted what is supposed to be grandfathered status. Only in this case, Grandpa’s not necessarily the owner’s friend.
The supposedly protected status is called a grandfathered “noncomplying use.” The problem is that the status can be revoked at any time through a process the city calls amortization. A city board can decide that you’ve had plenty of time to make your money back on your investment, and now it’s time for you to go.
You sell or the city sells for you. Basically your property is taken from you. It’s a favorite tool often used to push people out of the way when big, well-connected developers want to wipe out a neighborhood.
Talk about communism.
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So what Griggs has done with new zoning at the other end of Davis is simply eliminate grandfathered noncomplying uses. Now new zoning laws in that area say that whatever is there now is fully compliant. Forever.
He says that change has encouraged a lot of adaptive reuse of existing structures instead of bulldozer wipeouts. I told him it was a level of technical plumbing of which I hadn’t been aware.
“I’m very happy to be a plumber,” he said, “because you don’t think about the plumbing when everything works right.”
It’s early. They haven’t started talking yet. We don’t even know yet who will file petitions with enough signatures to get on the ballot. I would say, for example, that I doubt the communist will have the signatures. But then I do have to concede something. The painter signed her petition right away.