Vibe, Not Wonk Issues, Will Decide Who Becomes Dallas' Next Mayor

Will it be an old person or a young person who leads the city into the future?
Will it be an old person or a young person who leads the city into the future?
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The 2019 mayoral race will have the potential to make Dallas a new kind of city because it will be the first time for a whole new generational wave of voters to have a shot at anointing the city’s only citywide elected official, effectively putting their stamp on the city. Or not.

Politics, after all, will still be politics. It is the land where nothing is guaranteed, or we wouldn’t need politics.

We in the news business have a very hard time understanding politics because of our personalities. But here and now, we are already getting it a bit wrong, and I expect us to get it more and more wrong as the time draws nigh. We want to draw up lists of tough questions on specific issues and then grab all the candidates by the ears, poke sharp sticks at them and make them declare their positions. I speak for myself. That’s what I want to do.

But I also know that the political consultants — the people who get people elected — snicker behind their hands at us for this. They know that people don’t get elected on wonkisms, or technical issues, because the voters don’t really have time for wonkisms. They have lives.

The consultants have a point, sort of, to a limited extent. As important as the generational wave and the chance to change the city may be, people are not going to vote consciously on that basis. People won’t ask each other, “Which generation are you voting for?” And they definitely won’t vote based entirely on way-insider technical issues.

But they will vote for somebody who looks like somebody they might like or trust, who sounds like somebody they might connect with, who makes them feel better when she or he talks. For example, let’s look at the first guy out of the box to declare for mayor so far, Albert Black.

Black, 58, has close ties to the old business establishment and has been around forever. He is a successful businessman. He has been involved in the easy, antiseptic issues like economic development. He’s for it. (As time wears on for me, I fear I may go to my everlasting reward without ever having met the first candidate who is against economic development.)

Like many successful local businesspeople, Black’s approach to the hard and dirty issues — pensions for cops, Confederate memorials — has been to walk around them as if circumnavigating a landfill in July. I don’t blame him. I’m sure he wears expensive shoes.

He told The Dallas Morning News, “I believe Dallas can and should be a place where everyone who wants to find a good paying job can get one, and where they can afford to stay, live and raise their families, just as I was able to do.”

That’s not a bad line. Born to the Frazier Courts public housing project in southern Dallas, Black, who is African-American, is a handsome, personable guy who rose against odds to become a success.

The question might be this: Black rose to success 20-40 years ago. So what does he know about the lives of people trying to succeed or just survive in today’s world, and what does he know about the kind of city and world they want or need? And here is where the issues begin to creep back in.

The issues come back into the equation not as the very tight technical formulations we news wonks tend to propound but as what we might better call sensibilities. The issues are there, but they lie deep.

Take one broad area of life and politics, the environment. I am so old, I actually remember an editor at the Detroit Free Press telling me when I was in my early 20s never to use the word environmentalism again in a Detroit Free Press story. He said it was a made-up word invented by hippies.

Now every 20- or 30-something I run into is a person who grew up with environmentalism somewhere in the curriculum since elementary school. Half of them were dandled on knees before school by someone reading them When the Animals Saved Earth.

That makes a huge difference in people, and it’s a difference that trickles down even to the level of wonk issues. Drainage, the issue that has guided me through most of my career, is all about land use, for example. Land-use issues are mostly impenetrable to the generations who grew up thinking of land as an infinite resource.

To the ears of people who grew up being taught that Earth is a finite resource, a person who talks the same way — and really gets it — sounds very different from somebody who doesn’t really get it. And I could name a whole rainbow of sensibility issues that work the same way, including the big rainbow, diversity.

If you don’t believe me, watch the faces of young people next time you catch an older person speaking to them about race, gender or national origin. It’s not an especially flattering look.

No, that doesn’t mean the 2019 mayoral race will turn on drainage issues. (Drat! I’m so up on that). But it may mean the election could turn on questions that speak to broader sensibilities, like rewilding the Trinity River, expanding the trail system, creating neighborhoods where poor people can live on the same street with middle-class people and the middle-class people won’t pass out every time they see them.

In those very broad areas that speak to worldview, authenticity is going to be very important, mainly because you probably can’t fake that stuff, at least not all the time. Those issues are so deep, so close to the bone that people just read them in each other by mental sonar. I don’t know if it’s body language or pheromones, but people can tell. It would be like me singing blues. No sale.

And that brings us to the question of the kind of candidate, if there is one, who could carry the other team, the new generation, across the line. What does that person have to bring to the party?

To some extent, it’s the same stuff Black brings — a look, an affect, a voice, traits to convey a certain sensibility. And may the best sensibility win.

Some things work the same way no matter whose side you’re on. Voters still don’t have time to get too far down in the weeds with you. No matter who they are, they’re going to vote on the basis of very broad general impressions. We might even summarize all of that as a simple question of personality.

The fake kayak rapids that had to be torn out at a cost of $2 million: That was sort of a wonk drainage issue, sort of a universal worldview issue.EXPAND
The fake kayak rapids that had to be torn out at a cost of $2 million: That was sort of a wonk drainage issue, sort of a universal worldview issue.
Jim Schutze

Then we must bring to bear this city’s especially abysmal record of voter turnout, especially among younger voters. In 2015, when Mike Rawlings was elected to be mayor of this city of 1.2 million inhabitants, a total of 42,087 persons voted, not enough to inhabit a decent-sized suburb.

The pheromones, by the way, work both ways. The young rewilding candidate who vibrates to some pitch that younger voters find beguiling will grate on the ears of the old folks just as forcefully.

The cynical take on all of this nowadays is always that it’s all big money, or it’s all TV, or we’re all cholesterol-poisoned idiots, anyway, young and old, so who cares, toss a coin and forget about it. That’s all complete nonsense.

This upcoming election for Dallas is enormously important, and it will turn on fundamental, deeply felt issues. Those just won’t be issues that reporters will be able to compile in lists and poke sticks into people about.

And we’re not stupid. We are thinking deeply about the future. If anything, the wiring has never been tighter between very local questions and universal existential questions.

But it’s going to get worked out as personality. That’s how politics works. You could almost say the reason we have politics in the first place is so we won’t all have to work on drainage issues.

We’re going to choose someone who looks and sounds and feels like the one who can fix the stuff we care about. We’re going to make our choice in a pretty visceral, impressionistic way. But at the deepest level, we will know what we’re doing.

Say this for the technical side of politics: With that tiny a sliver of the city’s potential voters making the decision on vote day, any candidate who can push the stack by even a few thousand voters one way or the other will have an enormous advantage. The math starts to pile up quickly, either by drawing new younger voters to the polls or by persuading more old ones to come back.

In the end, you know what it is? It’s a fair fight. Albert Black may not turn out to be the only exemplar of the old guard to run for mayor, but he’s a good one.

And among the potential standard-bearers for the new sensibility, we have an embarrassment of riches. I don’t merely wish they could all run. I wish they could all win. I wish they could all be mayor at the same time.

Hey, I’ve watched them coming up now for at least a decade, maybe longer. I honestly believe if they all got elected mayor simultaneously, they’d work it out. I am not saying they don’t have egos, Lord knows, but they seem to have some new kind of ego that is more capable of collaboration.

I hope that won’t change when they finally come out on top. And by the way, that may or may not be this time around. Depends on the politics, and that may depend on who has the right look. Who knows?

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