Will Dallas Mayor’s Office Be a Political Dead End for Johnson?

Dallas state Rep. Eric Johnson
Dallas state Rep. Eric Johnson
Brian Maschino
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If he's anything, Dallas mayor-elect Eric Johnson is an ambitious guy. He's got degrees from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and took his seat in the Texas House of Representatives before turning 40. In the legislature, he's sought out high-profile fights, sparring over things like criminal justice reform, gentrification and corruption in municipal politics. The résumé that Johnson's put together is almost too perfect for someone who aspires to hold higher state or federal office.

That's what makes his current position so interesting. Saturday night, Johnson won the keys to one of the most useless big-deal jobs in the United States. Dallas' mayor is, essentially, just an at-large member of the City Council. He or she gets to run the council's meetings and can place an item on the council agenda if he or she wishes to do so, but the city manager draws up the city's budget and has all the real power. Johnson has long been at the top of the list whenever people talk about potential replacements for longtime Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but one has to wonder if that's changed, given the mayor's office's challenges and history.

To find a former Dallas mayor who sought and won higher office after leaving City Hall, one has to look way back to Earle Cabell, who resigned as mayor in February 1964 to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Bruce Alger. Since Cabell's successful campaign, former mayors Wes Wise, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert have all run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House or Senate. Laura Miller, Kirk's successor, couldn't even win a Dallas City Council race 12 years after leaving office, getting trounced by incumbent Jennifer Staubach Gates in May.

Mike Rawlings, Dallas' current mayor, is also unlikely to continue his political career, despite his having been mentioned as a potential candidate both for the U.S. House in his North Dallas district and governor in recent years. His politics are too centrist to run for partisan office, he told the Observer on Tuesday.

"Radical centrists do not do well in our two-party system," Rawlings says. "I've been a Democrat for my whole life, but I believe that where the Democrats seem to have a lot of energy is around issues that I don't think are germane to how human beings live on a day-to-day basis and I'm definitely not going to be a Republican, even though there are some qualities that are positive. They just do not understand what's happening in our social fabric in America."

If Johnson wants to break the cycle, whether it's in 2022, 2024 or 2026 — Eddie Bernice Johnson, 83, may live, and serve in Congress, until she's 150 — he needs to get on the board quickly, says Dallas political consultant Vinny Minchillo.

"What he's got to do to make this not a dead-end job is get something done. There's a lot of things that need doing," Minchillo says. "We've had a bunch of violent crime. If he can fix that, he's a hero. If he can bring south and north together more, if he can show getting something done, that's going to make it not a dead-end job ... If he wants to use this as a springboard to Congress, he's got to do something in six months."

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