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In a debate at the Belo Mansion on Monday, mayoral candidate Scott Griggs, right, did not respond to personal barbs from opponent Eric Johnson, left.EXPAND
In a debate at the Belo Mansion on Monday, mayoral candidate Scott Griggs, right, did not respond to personal barbs from opponent Eric Johnson, left.
Jim Schutze

In Mayoral Debate, Johnson Calls Griggs Snarky, Then Snarks About It

In two mayoral runoff election debates so far between Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs and state Rep. Eric Johnson, half of Johnson’s entire pitch has been that he will bring an end to snarkiness, personal attacks and divisiveness at City Hall.

The other half of Johnson’s pitch has been snarkiness, personal attacks and divisiveness aimed at his opponent. So far at least, Griggs has walked way across over on the far side of that street, declining to be goaded, focusing instead on policy.

Dallas Morning News reporter Corbett Smith, who covered a debate Monday at the Belo Mansion, said in his story about it that “political style took precedence over policy” in the debate.

Eh. Not really. I was there, too. I thought political style — he’s snarky, I’m not — was the only so-called policy position that Johnson was able to muster on a whole series of important issues. Griggs, on the other hand, leaned hard away from snarky, instead slapping specific policy proposals on the table for every single question asked.

So how is that political style over policy? Seems to me it’s more like political style versus policy. When the moderator asked the pair what they thought was the most important issue facing the city, Johnson said, “It’s the tone at City Hall. It’s the ability to work together and build consensus and get things done. If you can’t build consensus, if you believe in the politics of personal destruction and you are a divisive person, you cannot effectively lead our city.”

He meant Griggs.

But Griggs answered the same question without even a nod toward his opponent: “Public safety is the most important issue facing the city of Dallas,” he said.

“Before the pension crisis, we had 3,600 police officers. I served on the Dallas police and fire pension system. I uncovered corruption and then worked within City Hall, worked within the board, worked with our state legislators to save the pension system. But as a result of (the pension crisis), we are down to 2,900 police officers.

“What does that mean? It means maybe the most important call you make in your life, a call to 911, a priority one call, only 50 percent of the time is there a police officer available to answer that call.”

No matter how you feel about it — we need more cops and firefighters, we have enough already, and they cost too much — public safety is a real-life issue that comes up out of the real city, as opposed to something invented by the candidate. I assume it’s why Griggs has received the endorsement of the biggest police collective bargaining group, the Dallas Police Association, as well as the Dallas Police Retired Officers Association.

Almost everything Johnson has had to say so far has been his own personal invention. In a live-streamed debate Tuesday, he doubled down: “When you are in the big chair,” he said, “when you are trying to move an agenda forward versus being in one of the roles of the gadfly or the critic, you have to be mindful of how you discuss things and how you handle things. Balance is important. This baby with the bathwater approach to every issue that’s ever come up in our city is what’s gotten us to the impasse we’re at.”

It’s almost fun to sit in the peanut gallery and watch while Johnson tries to bear-bait Griggs into making it personal — an effort that brings out the snark in Johnson. When Griggs said he was in favor of something called workforce development (I confess I don’t really know what that is), Johnson sniped that it had been his idea first:

In a debate Tuesday, Johnson, right, pressed his strategy of personal attacks on Griggs, left, but Griggs declined to take the bait.EXPAND
In a debate Tuesday, Johnson, right, pressed his strategy of personal attacks on Griggs, left, but Griggs declined to take the bait.
Jim Schutze from Dallas Morning News livestream

“Sounds like we have actually made progress on the campaign trail,” Johnson said. “I was the first person in this campaign to actually point out the importance of workforce development, so I’m glad that we actually see this the same way now.”

Meeeow!

At another point, Johnson tried to draw blood on the one issue I would have thought he in particular would want most to avoid — sources of campaign funding. Even though Johnson’s own money is coming from a handful of rich, uber-conservative old-school oligarchs and their immediate family members, he nodded pointedly toward issues in Griggs’ campaign finance reports. Johnson said he would work as mayor to end a campaign finance system that “allows candidates to shirk all of the rules, bypass the contribution limits, funnel contributions through minor children, funnel contributions through whoever you want to.”

Now, see, had I been in Griggs’ shoes, I couldn’t have let that one pass. I wouldn’t have been able to keep myself from saying, “Eric, is it a coincidence that everybody with development land in the southwest corner of downtown and all of their blood relatives are funneling contributions to your campaign?”

See? Then I would have been the snark. Griggs didn’t touch it. I wouldn’t have been able to control myself, but, then again, I never can. Somebody says good morning to me when I’m out walking my dogs, I say, “If you like mornings.” In fact, you know who I really identify with most at a personal level here? Johnson. I think he and I might be soul mates.

It’s not that Griggs backed off from a fight. In fact the day’s biggest applause at the Belo Mansion came in response to resistance from Griggs to another of Johnson’s very personal attacks.

“You’ve been there for eight years,” Johnson said, “and over that eight years you have not demonstrated the ability to get the support on a lot of these issue that you are now saying that as mayor you would be able to change the tone and the tenor of the conversation on. You have to be able to actually get these things done. You have to be able to build consensus.”

Griggs came right back at it: “Built a consensus on saving the police and fire pension system. Built a consensus, and now (CEO) Philip Jones is leaving VisitDallas (the scandal-plagued convention and visitors bureau).

“Built a consensus on Fair Park. We didn’t give that contract to someone who is a friend of the mayor. We put it out for open bid. I have built a consensus on so many issues following audits. I have a track record of doing that.”

Big applause.

I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that the issues of leadership and consensus are unimportant, nor am I trying to give the impression that this is a shootout between a bad guy and a good guy. Both of these candidates are pretty extraordinary people. The principle differences between them have to do with their personal experiences in politics and probably their understandings of consensus.

The worlds of the Legislature and Dallas City Council are different. The Texas House, where Johnson has served for nine years, may be crazy, even frightening at times, but it would be a reach to suggest that it suffers from being too tightly controlled. If only.

The council, where Griggs has served for eight years, is day for night. The people pumping money into Johnson’s campaign — oilman and major downtown landholder Ray Hunt, in particular — have had more or less absolute control over it for the better part of a half-century. If the council is dysfunctional or at an impasse, as Johnson suggests, then his own benefactors have at least 80 percent of the responsibility for it, leaving the other 20 percent to human nature.

Consensus? You’re kidding me. Their idea of consensus has always been, “Yes, thank you, sir, I will obey and always remain your humble and obedient servant.” They think a person is being divisive when he fails to curtsy.

But I don’t see the impasse. Just the opposite. The amazing thing is that a minority on the council have been able to wag the dog on so many key issues — Trinity toll road, Fair Park, gas drilling in parks, living wage, now the stupid VisitSchmizzit thing with the visitors bureau.

So we believe in bridging economic gaps and providing reparation for racial injustice? Great. Then we should give huge kudos to City Councilman Omar Narvaez in West Dallas, who took the seat away from a shameless pawn of the mayor and began fighting to rescue whole neighborhoods from ruthless displacement.

That’s who they mean when they say divisive. People like Narvaez. They mean people with guts and principles. People with the bones to stand up to them.

Let me say something clearly about Johnson. He has plenty of guts and principle, too. He is in no way a bad guy, and he has a tremendous amount to offer the city. But he has truly fallen in with a bad crowd. So far, it’s sad. I hope it doesn’t turn into a full-fledged tragedy, for him or for us.

This whole thing he is doing about going after Griggs on entirely personal grounds is straight out of the playbook of his backers. In election after election, on issue after issue they have never fought on the issues. It’s always straight ad hominem, the personal attack, the knife in the back.

On the City Council now and in the foreseeable future, we’re going to have a new center of gravity from a whole new generational wave, a new mentality, and they will truly be able to achieve consensus, real consensus based on mutual respect instead of personal attack. My fear is that Johnson just doesn’t realize yet into whose bed he has jumped. If he gets elected mayor, he will find out that night.

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