Justina Walford says one big reason she is running for the Dallas City Council Dwaine Caraway left in August for a stay in the federal penitentiary was the fact that she wasn't thrilled with his potential replacements.
"I was not noticing people I admire to step up to run," Walford says. "It really was out of a dire hope that we have a change in this district, because this district has been ignored for a really long time."
The founder of the Women Texas Film Festival and Studio Movie Grill community outreach coordinator filed to run for the District 4 seat just a couple of weeks after the former council member Caraway resigned and pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. She's one of 13 in the running for the office on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The quality of candidates is one of "probably a combination of reasons" behind her decision to run, but they all surround the negligence she says the city has paid to the district she calls her home.
"I think in Dallas, a lot of the city's priorities have been in the northern part of Dallas, so there's socioeconomic tension and definitely a history of racial tension," she says. "What happened is they've taken these amazing suburbs and let them go into disrepair as a city. The residents have not, but the city has. ... Dallas is growing, and with growth a lot of negligence has happened when the city's not ready, and a lot of that sacrifice has come from southern Dallas."
Walford says she started to step up to the plate long before she filed her candidacy. It started shortly after she moved into the area.
"I bought my house a decade ago and moved here a few years ago and started off realizing there was a stray dog problem here," she says. "So I started capturing and rescuing dogs, and that opened the door to all the other things happening in District 4 like homelessness and code compliance issues. I got to know District 4 a lot better through dog rescuing. I got into the animal advisory commission, and I got to understand Dallas politics a little more."
The other problems in District 4 are plentiful and more than noticeable. Walford cites glaring omissions of basic necessities, like adequate grocery stores that created a "food desert" in the district and even amenities that other communities take for granted, such as movie theaters.
She says finding a solution requires creative thinking, but it starts simply with "giving resources to District 4 to create its own revenue, which would mean injecting some activity" such as attracting more small businesses and tourism for the district.
"The unique thing is money is a huge part of that and money has not been utilized well for District 4," Walford says. "While we don't have a council person, the money will not come in the amount we need. What's required is imaginative, created solutions. We've already started to meet with nonprofits in District 4, neighborhood associations, churches, the ones who have been lifting up the community, and they're doing their best, but they can only go so far."
An influx of money could also address her district's public safety concerns, but Walford says funding and increased police officer incentives alone don't fix any long-term problems.
"The current idea in the budget for increased code compliance and animal welfare will help public safety a lot, and on top of that, a proposed raise for police officers is a start in terms of getting more police officers and recruiting more police officers," Walford says. "I was actually just talking to someone about other cities in terms of what they do to incentivize police officers. I'm going to do that, reach out to other cities and ask what has helped
So how can a film festival founder deal with her district's most pressing concerns and issues? Walford says the key to being a good councilperson is "the ability to bring people together for a cause.
"I founded the Women Texas Film Festival within a year of moving here because a full-fledged film festival for women did not exist here," Walford says. "That same attitude is what made me see the stray dog problem and how it affected our neighborhood. When 311 calls didn't work, I called [animal] rescue, worked with them, got a trap and we caught them ourselves."
The trickiest part, of course, is adapting to the political process.
"I know how to be an advocate," Walford says. "I don't know how to be a politician, so it's a learning curve for me right now."
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Her campaign strategy is pretty simple: getting the word out by talking to the voters and hearing their concerns and ideas.
"I'm just meeting with everyone," she says. "I'm meeting with neighborhood associations, churches and basically anyone. I've been to every single town hall that was specifically for District 4 about the budget, and I plan on going to some more community meetings, and I definitely want to visit some more small businesses along Illinois Avenue."
She's also eager to see more progressive choices stepping up to the job, including new players and seasoned politicians like former Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, who planned to run against Caraway long before he entered his guilty plea.
"Even if it's not me," Walford says, "I'm excited to see more thinking outside of the box, progressive people."