The runoff campaign in the District 14 East Dallas City Council race is a mirror of the citywide runoff for mayor. In both contests, a challenger backed by the business community accuses a long-term City Hall incumbent of being a jackass. It’s the jackass question that I have a particular interest in, being a bit of a paid professional in that area myself.
The mayoral race has been a disappointment for me so far because both candidates keep insisting on behaving as gentlemen. My hopes, however, were high last week for the first District 14 debate I had been able to attend between incumbent council member Philip Kingston, a lawyer, and challenger David Blewett, a mortgage banker. I thought if I could find hair-pulling and a good sock-in-the-nose photo anywhere, it would be here.
I will cut to the chase. I was 85 percent disappointed and thwarted. They were both doing the gentlemen thing as well. But what they did have to say was really interesting. My heart flew up at first when Blewett, in his opening remarks, said Kingston’s personality was his main reason for running for the office.
“I very candidly tell people that I am a former supporter of Philip’s,” Blewett said. “I have watched him over the years. I have watched him go a different direction in terms of how he interacts with City Council and our city staff and our residents. So I decided that the way he operates as our City Council member is something that I refuse to accept.”
I tried and failed to catch Kingston’s eye, trying to give him my best you-can’t-just-take-that look. But Kingston went off in a totally Kingstonian direction instead, bragging about how much he has accomplished in six years on the council. “Many of the most important policy improvements we’ve had in the city of Dallas have started their life on my laptop,” he said. “That’s stuff you are entitled to see if you would like to verify that I’m the guy who wrote the memos. I don’t think anybody actually doubts it.”
The debate was in the lobby lounge of the Hotel A/C on Commerce Street at the east end of downtown. It’s a place I had never visited before because I so seldom leave the small, dark office/closet at home where meals are supplied to me through a slot in the door. I saw the name, Hotel A/C, and assumed it was one of those old, decrepit downtown hotels still bragging about having air conditioning. But, no! It’s a very sleek redo, a Marriott operation. About 100 cosmopolitan-looking people were lounging around the lounge, sipping wine. Most of them, I gathered, had walked there from downtown residences.
Kingston talked about how incredibly downtown has changed in recent years: “When I moved to Dallas in 1999, there were fewer than 200 people living in downtown. The Manor House was the only residential structure in downtown. With over 12,000 people inside the freeway ring, now it really is Dallas’ most vibrant and most improved neighborhood.”
Blewett’s view of downtown in particular and the city in general was somewhat dark: “The No. 1 issue in downtown,” he said, “is the same issue all throughout District 14 and I think citywide, and that’s public safety.
“It just is a fact. We talk about a lack of police. You could say we’re down 800, we’re down 1,000, but we’re also down all kinds of inspectors. We’re down code (enforcement personnel). We’re down you-name-it. We’re missing all kinds of people, and because of that, it’s affecting how we live. That’s before we get into the real crime issues. Crime stats are going up a little bit. Violent crime is going up. We see it. The stats are there to back it up.”
Kingston was bumptiously optimistic but in a bumptiously Kingstonian way: “Downtown is the safest neighborhood in District 14,” he said, “and has been so for the last six years, in no small part because we added a third shift of police right after I got elected.”
Both candidates talked about a new prosecutorial philosophy and policy enunciated last month by newly elected Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot. The new approach is designed to take homelessness and other poverty-driven behaviors out of the local criminal justice system and especially out of the jail, where incarceration costs are high, along with recidivism. Creuzot’s new approach drew cheers from liberals, some support from conservatives because of the tax savings, and angry howls from some suburban and small-town police chiefs, who complained of being blindsided.
Blewett said, “The way that this was implemented or is being implemented is flawed. I believe that DA Creuzot had good intentions, but the way you make a massive change like this is you simply have to have engagement with the different neighborhoods and the different communities that are affected by it. I don’t think the different police departments in the county understand what it means.”
Kingston said, “What John (Creuzot) did was, he took the principle that you shouldn’t go to jail for being poor, and he singled out all of the crimes that police are arresting and taking people to jail for that come down to the offender simply not having sufficient resources.
“Last year just in jail expenses alone, you all paid $11 million to house people, primarily homeless people who were arrested for criminal trespass. This is one of the crimes that he is no longer going to prosecute.”
Then Kingston added: “To say that there was no engagement is bogus. These police chiefs have lied about their level of engagement with John. He has notes from the meetings with them.”
I was trying to catch Blewett’s attention to give him the old you-gonna-take-that fish-eye, but I believe he may actually have been ignoring me. Instead, in response to another question, he and Kingston went off into a discussion of the proposed Simmons Park on the Trinity River downtown. Kingston’s point was that plans calling for an elaborate man-made system of hills and pergolas in the floodway are proceeding as if the public had expressed some desire for such a thing.
“The city hasn’t done a comprehensive, public, grassroots-driven planning of this project in years,” he said. “And even if you go back to the mid-'90s, that process, I believe, was fatally tainted by people like Deedie Rose (philanthropist, socialite, widow of former Texas Rangers owner Rusty Rose) who continued to push for the Trinity toll road and made the park to fit around this horrible infrastructure mistake.”
The Trinity toll road project, intended to be a new multi-lane expressway jammed against the banks of the Trinity River through downtown, finally was extinguished two years ago after an exhausting 20-year debate in the city. Blewett said in his conversations with people, he finds most are sick of hearing about it, which I’m sure is true. But the fact that the toll road took 20 years to kill is hardly the fault of the people who finally won after incredible effort and misuse, and everybody would be a lot more sick today if the stupid thing had gotten built.
All that said, Blewett surfaced what I thought was a brilliant idea. He said all the things the patrons of the new river park seem to want to accomplish down there in the floodway could be done so much more reasonably and practically two and a half miles east of the river at Fair Park, the city’s abysmally neglected 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas. “I say, ‘Look East,’” he said.
The minute he said it, I thought, “Bingo! Why not? If it’s so damned important for us to have a $100 million mini-knockoff of New York Central Park, why put it in the floodway where it will be coated in sludge twice a year during the rainy seasons? Why not do it in Fair Park?”
Then I remembered why. The socialites have spent the last 25 years sucking all of the city’s prime cultural assets out of Fair Park, because Fair Park is surrounded by a black neighborhood. Kingston had to stop the mayor from giving Fair Park to a friend of his. Yeah, well, that’s one reason I think Blewett’s idea is brilliant.
I thought I might actually get a hair-pulling shot — had my phone out, heart beating fast — when the two candidates drilled down to Kingston’s own neighborhood, the Belmont Conservation District just south of the M Streets in East Dallas. A battle there over loosening up the underlying city conservation ordinance for Belmont has been the source of some anti-Kingston animus.
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“I am hearing from a lot neighbors in Belmont,” Blewett said, “and if you drive through Belmont you will see signs that say, ‘It’s time.’” Blewett said neighbors just want a conversation about possible changes. “They have reached out to Philip a number of times, and the reason that those green signs are there and the reason there’s a little bit of hostility on this issue is he has been adamant on not making any changes.”
Kingston waited patiently for Blewett to finish. Then he said, “Almost nothing that came out of his mouth was true.”
There was much laughter and cackling from the well-upholstered peanut gallery, but this was late in the evening and, according to my own observation, an amount of wine had been consumed. I was hoping for you-know-what at that point, but, instead Kingston listed ways in which he had accommodated critics of the existing ordinance. Then he launched into a lecture on the merits of architectural conservation, which I could have heard if I took a political science 101 class in night school, which I am never going to do.
Bottom line? Two smart guys, both grown-ups, both perfectly capable of handling themselves. As in the mayoral race, all the talk about a personality war just feels … as I guess Kingston might say … bogus.