The Dallas mayor’s race so far is intriguing, sure, but it’s also madness.
One guy has been in the race from the beginning. Other unexpected people are showing up, tossing their hats in the ring. Another person whom everybody assumed would run has just now taken her hat out of the ring.
Meanwhile, the three main suspects — the ones everybody assumed would jump in first — are not in yet. They’re staying out way late. They’re sitting on their hats. I keep wanting to tell them, hey, that’s not good for your hat.
Former Dallas Housing Authority board chair Albert Black put his own hat in the ring early. He’s a successful businessman who has wanted to be mayor for decades.
Two more candidates have announced and one has sort of announced in the last week. The announcers are former Dallas city attorney and lobbyist Larry Casto and Children’s Medical Center vice president and general counsel Regina Montoya. The semi-announcer (didn't fill out his form all the way) is real estate developer Mike Ablon.
Their job titles don’t tell you their full stories. Ablon was and is a moving force in the redevelopment of the old Trinity Industrial District, now known as the Design District — the area between Stemmons Freeway and the Trinity River levees just northwest of downtown.
The old establishment in Dallas tried for decades to move heaven, earth and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to redevelop that area, but they never got anything off the ground. Ablon represents a cadre of new thinkers who knew what the new urban market was looking for.
Casto was amazingly effective as city attorney, single-handedly cleaning up a morass of leftover litigation from prior regimes. He has been talking about the concept of smarter tax incentives designed to both boost development and strengthen existing neighborhoods, in line with the thinking of state Rep. Eric Johnson, who has emerged as our most important thought leader on those issues.
Montoya, a product of Wellesley College and Harvard Law School, is a former White House adviser and top national Democratic Party fundraiser. She has been active and held leadership positions in a number of local and national political and social action groups. She’s a heavy hitter.
The one who took her hat out of the ring — well, her sombrero, really — was Dallas City Council member Jennifer “Pancho” Gates. Only I call her that. No one else does. I can’t help myself.
I made fun of her last Halloween. Gates, a rich white person, allowed photographs of herself to be posted on Facebook wearing a sombrero and a wax mustache as part of an elaborate, hugely unamusing joke about margaritas.
Gates had been prominently mentioned as the 2019 mayoral candidate favored by rich white people. Her defenders came after me pretty hard, arguing that she didn’t mean anything by it, and it wasn’t her fault, because she’s a rich white person. I rest my case.
Left out of this picture so far are the three people just about everybody believes are the main contenders — (in strictly alphabetical order) City Council member Scott Griggs, former member Angela Hunt and current member Philip Kingston. Those three are the people everyone expected to see tossing hats in the ring first, but none of them has tossed yet.
All three are lawyers. All three are identified with the city’s two greatest successes of the last 30 years: the now solid and deep-rooted resurgence of East Dallas and the incredible urban boomtown in Oak Cliff.
I am not saying that East Dallas and Oak Cliff have been the city’s only successes. The Design District is one. The Uptown area north of downtown is another. West Dallas is coming along. Lake Highlands in the far northeast corner of the city shares qualities with East Dallas and Oak Cliff, and council member Adam McGough from that part of town could still jump in.
But East Dallas and Oak Cliff are the city's main change-agent zones, sites of major serious migration, people of diverse backgrounds and ages voting with their feet, not sucked en masse by fads or good deals on rent but finding their ways to these places one by one, household by household, and putting down serious roots.
East Dallas and Oak Cliff are where people have created the real urban infrastructure, the social and cultural framework that comes before the pipes and gutters. That’s everything from neighborhood associations to organized political campaigns, those expressions of will and commitment that say to the world, “We’re here; we’re staying; we know what we want; we know what we’re doing; we are taking our stand here and now.”
There is a mantra I hear repeatedly in both places that is sort of irritatingly self-congratulatory but also sort of true. It is that everything good that people there have accomplished they have accomplished not merely in spite of City Hall but often in the face of City Hall’s active opposition.
Yes, it’s probably a bit overbaked. But the mantra nevertheless expresses a core reality about what has worked well in the city in the last several decades and what has not. What has not worked well at all has been the big, top-down, City Hall-centric, urban master-planning, grand scheme of things. From spurring economic development in southern Dallas to making North Dallas more like Seattle, the big plans are always launched into the sky with huge hoopla only to spiral back down slowly to earth like somebody shot the Goodyear Blimp with a pellet gun.
Then there is this great jazz coming up off the streets in Oak Cliff and East Dallas, all of this scuttlebutt and hustle as people work out the details of their community. It is these two parts of the city, usually painted as contrarian, where the big jumps have taken place in land value, and it’s probably high time we stop acting surprised.
Almost a full decade ago, the nationally respected urban land-use expert Christopher Leinberger came to town presenting us with a whole new picture of ourselves that exactly predicted what has taken place since. Dallas, he predicted, would belatedly join the national trend by which land in close-in, so-called walkable neighborhoods would soar to values 40 to 200 percent higher than values in the suburbs.
That’s what’s happening now. One might assume (wrongly) that the city’s old elite would welcome this trend. The two things the old elite believe in second-most and third-most, after all, are money and real estate.
The problem is that the thing the old elite believe in first-most (sorry, Jesus) is control. And the kind of success seen by East Dallas and Oak Cliff cannot, does not and will not happen as a product of top-down control. It’s the contrary of that.
I wish there were more to say about southern Dallas, and one day there will be. But right now the habit of southern Dallas leadership continues to be selling out to the old establishment, knuckling under to the old top-down model — a habit of followers, not leaders.
Meanwhile, East Dallas and Oak Cliff have burgeoned through long, very messy, hairy, bulgy, pokey processes of hyper-local politics, with half-blocks pitted against half-blocks over issues like proper porch columns. You can dismiss that as laughably picayune if you like, but those are the fights that build true community. People get terribly mad at each other over the porch columns, but then eventually they have to make up and reunite because now they’re all facing a joint crisis of unbearable roof colors.
You know what that’s like? Family. You know how terrible families are, right? Oh, my God. But how wonderful they are. And how families help people figure out things too big for them to figure out alone. That’s what has been going on in East Dallas and Oak Cliff, and Kingston, Hunt and Griggs (reverse alphabetical) have been in the thick of it, kind of the moms and dads of it.
One of them will toss a hat into the ring eventually. I don’t think more than one will. They won’t split their base that way. All three are more serious about change than they are about ego, which is not to say that they don’t have egos. Or hats. But they will choose one hat to toss, and the other two hats will stand at that hat’s shoulders for the fight.
Far be it from me to suggest this early in the contest that the inner city trio are presumptively superior to the other candidates mentioned above. Still more candidates may be lurking in the wings. City Hall is not the only hall in this town, the only place where exciting new leadership may arise. School board members, for example, get just as deep into the heart and soul of the city as do city council members, and there is precedent in the past for a jump from school trustee to mayor.
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The trio of Hunt, Kingston and Griggs, however, share a keen insight into the real underlying challenge for Dallas. Their shared experience at City Hall has taught them the enormous importance of the control issue. It’s not a question of tribes, our gang versus your gang, the new kids versus the ones who’ve been here longer. Sure, those vibes are always present, because they are inevitable in human nature. But that’s not the true underlying challenge.
The grand lessons of Oak Cliff and East Dallas are that no tribe must be allowed to have control over the whole city. Power and control must be shared in that same hairy, bulgy, messy process by which East Dallas and Oak Cliff have blossomed. The contrarians must be the only establishment. City Hall must do what neighborhoods want it to do, and the neighborhoods will always want conflicting contrary-wise things that make no sense when you look down on all of it from above. The answer is not to look down on all of it from above.
Let me ask you a question. In strictly engineering terms — something you could put on a blueprint — how much sense does your family make? Well, that’s how much sense the city should make if it’s doing things the right way.
I can’t wait for one of the three to toss that damn hat, and I wonder who else may toss one in by then as well. It's time to raise the curtain on this show.