When Mike Rawlings took his spot at the center of Dallas City Council's horseshoe-shaped table, the 2011 World Series had yet to break local sports fans’ hearts, Rick Perry was still governor of Texas and Deep Ellum was still Deep Ellum.
By remaining mayor until Eric Johnson took the oath of office Monday, Rawlings did something unusual for Dallas mayors. He stuck around. Rawlings is the first Dallas mayor to serve two full terms since they were extended to four years 30 years ago, and one of only three to hold the office for eight years, joining R.L. Thornton and Woodall Rodgers.
As Mayor Mike heads off into the sunset — or Preston Hollow, anyway — let’s take a look at some of the biggest issues from his tenure and write his report card.
Dallas’ mayor has little executive power and can succeed only by herding an eight-vote majority on the 15-member council to and fro. The mayors who are good at that often get things done by sheer force of personality.
Personality, above all, is Rawlings' strong suit. The former Boston College football letterman has a laugh to match his big frame and the ability to cue up some steely-eyed determination when the situation calls for it.
Rawlings shined whenever crises hit the city. When the Ebola virus hit in 2014, Rawlings went in front of the media every day, dispelling rumors and calming fears. Rawlings’ leadership when a gunman killed five police officers downtown in 2016 led to calls for him to run for governor or president, and the mayor was among the first in line to greet refugees from Texas’ Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017.
“Personality counts in these executive-type jobs,” says Dallas political consultant Vinny Minchillo. “It’s not unlike being the governor of Texas, which is a relatively weak position. It’s a force of personality job. Mike Rawlings has a big personality and used it well.”
Public Safety: C+
Dallas faced two major public safety-related threats with Rawlings in the top job. First, the city had to do something about its police and fire pensions system. As recently as two years ago, it teetered on the brink of insolvency because of a series of failed investments made by the fund’s leadership as they tried to make up for years of underfunding. Second, Dallas faced a decades-old lawsuit over pay for police officers that could have bankrupted the city.
Dallas settled both issues, at least for the time being, in 2017 and 2018, but it’s arguable how much of that success can be chalked up to Rawlings’ leadership.
During the pension fight, Rawlings lashed out at the city’s police officers, suggesting that a potential pension deal brokered in the Texas Legislature wasn’t fair to the city.
"They have taken the citizens out in an alley and just pistol-whipped them," Rawlings said, incensing Dallas’ police associations.
Eventually, the edges of the deal were softened — the city agreed to increase contributions to the pension fund by 7% per year, and the pension system agreed to deeper benefit cuts than had initially been proposed. Rawlings decided he could live with the deal, but the associations never forgot.
“When five officers were murdered in cold blood by a sniper on July 7th, 2016, in a crime that captured national attention, you said all the right things when the glare of the cameras were on Dallas, and used us as props for photo ops. But just a few months later you went to Austin to beg legislators to shut down our pension system. You claimed we ‘took the taxpayers out in a back alley and pistol whipped them,’” Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata wrote in a letter to Rawlings in October, after the mayor pushed back against a proposed salary increase for police and firefighters.
“You have fought us at every opportunity, turning the DPD into a training ground for suburban police forces that lure our experienced crime fighters away with better pay and benefits," Mata wrote. "You are the best recruiting tool suburban police departments have — and this comes at the expense of the safety of Dallas families.”
Last week, Rawlings said he regretted how much was needed to fix the pension system but not the eventual outcome.
“I regret it was so difficult to get our pension fund back going in a positive direction,” Rawlings said. “We did it — that thing was a month away from going completely belly-up. That was hard stuff.”
Like the fight over the pension, Dallas’ decades-old police pay lawsuits, which claimed the city reneged on a promise to link officers' raises proportionally across different ranks, could have saddled the city with billions of dollars in debt that it could not have paid back. While Rawlings believed the city would’ve prevailed in court, he and the council signed off on a $235 million settlement championed by former Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs, who lost his bid to become mayor to Johnson, and former Dallas City Attorney Larry Casto.
“I never felt the city was guilty of anything, but we didn’t want to bet the ranch,” Rawlings said. “We settled it for pennies on the dollar from what everybody said it was going to be valued at. Those things were very, very hard and shouldn’t have been that hard.”
Dallas’ police attrition issues and current murder spike could end up being either blips or black marks on Rawlings' civic résumé. As mayor, he has little direct influence on the Dallas Police Department — City Manager T.C. Broadnax hired police Chief U. Renee Hall and the City Council hired Broadnax — but the fact remains that DPD’s staffing levels have dipped by more than 20% since Rawlings’ election in 2011. If things get worse, people are going to tie the problems to him whether he deserves it or not.
Affordable Housing: C
Rawlings gets one big credit.
“(Rawlings) did one thing which was very good and very important (for affordable housing),” says John Greenan, president and CEO of CitySquare Housing. “He managed to satisfy HUD and address the problems they had. That kept us from an absolute disaster.”
Had Dallas not escaped a four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development into potential housing discrimination in Dallas in 2014, the city would’ve lost millions in federal funding, further setting back its difficult push for housing equity.
Affordable housing development is still recovering from Dallas' decision to take a three-year pause in distributing federal affordable housing incentives as the city devised new systems for handing out the money. Nevertheless, Greenan says, that's better than an alternative in which HUD sanctioned the city.
So, Rawlings deserves credit for helping Dallas avoid HUD’s scythe, but the rest of his record on affordable housing is a mixed bag. His run-ins with West Dallas landlord Khraish Khraish are alone enough to pull down his grade.
Using tough new building codes approved in 2016, Rawlings led an effort to drive Khraish, whom the city called a slumlord, out of business. Khraish also was one of the few people to rent houses at prices affordable to people who earn far below Dallas' median income. Shutting him down would have thrown Khraish's tenants into a rental market with few options for the poor.
In 2017, Rawlings tried to push Khraish into giving up the West Dallas houses that Khraish couldn’t afford to upgrade to meet the new codes. Rawlings went so far as to ask Khraish where he banked during a meeting that Khraish recorded, which Khraish took as a veiled threat. Eventually, Khraish worked together with City Council member Omar Narvaez to finance the sale of many of his homes to their occupants, getting him out of the West Dallas low-rent housing business and winning a commendation from the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The Big Deals: D
For most of the mayor’s first term, the City Council was consumed with the 20-year-old fight over a proposed toll road between the Trinity River levees. Rawlings and Dallas’ business elite supported the road, claiming the city needed another highway connecting northern and southern Dallas.
Opponents pointed out that it was intended to be built in a flood plain, wouldn’t improve traffic and would ruin the park long planned for the same area.
Supporters also faced nagging questions about who would pay the road's $1.7 billion price.
The toll road became an easy political shorthand. The establishment, which backed Rawlings, was for it. The insurgents, led by Griggs and City Council member Philip Kingston, were against it.
"This is the worst boondoggle imaginable, and it's time to get serious about developing southern Dallas. Think of what we can do with this money and the opportunity cost," Griggs said in a now sorta-famous 2015 speech. "This thing has been nothing but a sales job based on some watercolors. Fancy watercolors. It's time now to just kill this road and get on with business."
Eventually the no-toll-road side won, killing the project via City Council vote in 2017.
“It turned into a political wedge issue that, in my mind, was not worth the product itself,” Rawlings says. “I started talking to people at the state level and at the (North Texas Tollway Authority), and no one was going to invest in (the smaller proposed version of the road Rawlings preferred).”
Rawlings also pushed to hand over city-owned Fair Park’s operations to a nonprofit headed by Highland Park’s Walt Humann without considering bids from anyone else. This time, Rawlings was rebuffed by Casto, the city attorney, who said the project had to go out for bids.
With help from Dallas oil tycoon Ray Hunt, Rawlings also fought for Dallas to ban the Exxxotica porn convention from the city-owned Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, a decision that eventually cost Dallas more than $1 million in settlement and attorney’s fees.
Domestic Violence: A
The former mayor says he’s disappointed that Dallas didn’t make more progress fighting domestic violence during the last eight years, but Jan Langbein, the CEO of Genesis Women's Shelter, says Rawlings could’ve hardly done a better job fighting for one of his biggest priorities.
“I give the mayor an A-plus because he recognized a problem and he stepped up and used his influence and his bully pulpit to absolutely make a difference,” Langbein says. “When he realized — according to studies — that this impacts one out of every three women that are citizens in this city, he wanted to do something about it.”
Langbein credits Rawlings for challenging men in Dallas to consider their own responsibility for stopping domestic violence. While the number of domestic violence arrests in the city may be up, that’s likely because more women have the courage to report being abused, Langbein says.
Economic Development: B+
Under Rawlings’ leadership, Dallas’ economy has thrived. Its housing market remains hot, and immigrants from California and other points east and west are flocking to the city, thanks to a robust job market. Neighborhoods like North Oak Cliff, West Dallas and Deep Ellum have attracted significant business and residential development, and the city’s tax base continues to grow.
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Dallas is prospering, but southern Dallas, a priority for Rawlings, is still lagging behind the rest of the city. Rawlings says an end to that disparity could be on the horizon, however.
“Southern Dallas is a big aircraft carrier to turn,” Rawlings says. “We’ve made a lot of progress in North Oak Cliff, the Red Bird area, West Dallas and in parts of Pleasant Grove. You look at crime being down, or people investing in their properties. We’ve had, for instance, 2,500 new single-family homes built in southern Dallas. We’re making progress there, but we’re just at the beginning of this project to make southern Dallas a big thing.”
Rawlings says he’s proud that, with the help of some city incentives, investors are putting their money into projects south of Interstate 30, but that replacing the financial foundation eroded by both black and white middle-class flight from the area will be a multidecade project.