City Hall

Mike Rawlings on Tenure as Homeless Czar and Why "Citizens Council" Isn't a Pejorative

During our 90-mintute interview with Mike Rawlings at CIC Partners inside Crescent Court for last week's piece about the mayor's race, Rawlings repeated a statement about the campaign that he's made at countless debates: "It's not about personalities."

We argued the opposite in our story.

Since all four candidates agree on almost everything (between 90 and 95 percent of the time, according to Rawlings), there's little left from which voters can choose to determine the best candidate, so personality is likely to be a big-time factor when early voting begins May 2.

What's perhaps most puzzling about Rawlings's decision to distance from his personality is that's exactly what he's remembered for by several of his former colleagues.

"What people need to be looking at is the person, the man in this case. That's where Mike differentiates himself," says Bruce Orr, who first met Rawlings in 1979 when the two were young account executives at advertising giant TracyLocke. Now senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Addison-based RAZOR, Orr succeeded Rawlings as the TracyLocke's CEO and the two remain close friends. "It's really Mike the man and the person and the heart that has helped him accomplished all the things he has in the private sector."

Potbelly Sandwich Works CEO Aylwin Lewis is one of the country's most successful businessmen, previously holding the CEO title at Sears Holdings Corp. and working under Rawlings as COO at Pizza Hut. He says he'll never forget seeing Rawlings at the back of a black church in Houston as Lewis eulogized his dead father in 1999. "I didn't expect that, but I really appreciated the support. ... There's a handful of people where if they said, 'Gee, I need you,' I would literally drop anything to go help them, and Mike's one of those people."

Leah Evans, who served as chief food innovation officer under Rawlings at Pizza Hut, says he was instrumental in developing a minority supplier base and promoting women and minorities. "He was creating opportunities and looking at the field of candidates with much more openness to their possibilities than perhaps some of his peers at the time."

Evans also praises Rawlings's tenure from 2005 to 2010 as homeless czar and chair of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, saying she was pleased to see a business leader take on such a monumental challenge in an effort to assist an underprivileged segment of the population.

"I don't know many people in my business experience who actually would have the courage and stamina to go do something like that," says Evans, who retired from Pizza Hut's international company in 2009 and now lives in Alaska. "In many ways, I think running a business is easier than what he took on."

While Rawlings's Dallas Citizens Council membership and time spent as homeless czar were touched on briefly in our story, here's our full conversation about both issues.

[David] Kunkle has alluded to this when he talks about not wanting a mayor elected by the downtown business community, but there's a feeling -- and I'm not saying it's an accurate feeling -- that the Citizens Council is an all powerful body that waves a wand on somebody and they're the next mayor. I know you're a member, and you have certainly received support from folks on the Citizens Council, so explain to me with your experience on the council how it works and dispel some of the rumors out there.

I can't dispel all the rumors. I can shine light on what the facts are. So let's talk about the Citizens Council. No, no, let's back up. Let's back up for a sec. I think we need to talk about the business community because people use the Citizens Council as the lightening rod for the business community.

What I've found out is our business community is not that well organized. We've got the Citizens Council. We've got the Greater Dallas Chamber [now the Dallas Regional Chamber], which you've already referred to and its different focus. We have our regional chambers -- Bob Stimson and the Oak Cliff Chamber, the North Dallas Chamber. I was just out at the Southeast Dallas Chamber. Then you've got the ethic chambers. You've got some great people in the black chamber and the Hispanic chamber that are very powerful.

The mayor doesn't have this cabal of a few people that he can get around and say, "OK, what are we gonna do about this?" to speak to the business community. Now, the Citizens Council has a great legacy of city leadership and, for some people, a negative or infamous legacy if you will. It is a different organization than it was 20 or 30 years ago. It's diverse. But it has stayed with a bigger company focus. I have not been on the board, for instance, since I left Pizza Hut because they want bigger companies represented on the board.

But you're still a member.

I'm a member, and I'm a member of a lot of organizations.

I just wanted to clarify...

No, of course. I'm still a member, and it provides a role.

It has decided that it's not going to focus on economic development. It's going to focus on transportation issues, education issues, state issues. So it's not getting as involved in City Hall politics as much as it probably did at one point. A good example I think is this year's [mayoral] race. Ron [Natinsky] stepped out and decided to run and had the backing of several Citizens Council members. I decided to run. A lot of my friends and business relationships, some of those people have supported me. So I think that's the way it works.

I think it's a valuable resource to be able to mobilize larger corporations. They need a seat at the table, but that's not the only table. This table needs to have ... First of all, the business community needs to kind of pull together and clarify its point of view. And then you need to take the business community with the neighborhood community as well. And then you need the arts community. We haven't even talked about the arts. The arts need to be the soul, the aesthetic soul, of this town. You've got the faith-based community. You've got four or five cornerstones in this town that it all doesn't work if we don't all pull together.

Did you join the Citizens Council when you joined Pizza Hut?

No, I was a member when I was with TracyLocke.

Do you remember what year you joined?

No, I don't. I don't remember. Talk a little about the homeless issue -- where it was at when you took over as czar, where you think it's at now and where you want it to go moving forward.

I'm careful about this because it's a serious topic, and I don't want it to be used as a political legitimization. This is hard for me to do, running for mayor, because my mom always taught me not to talk about myself. And, now, that's all you're doing is talking about yourself and advocating for yourself.

I want to use my words carefully here, but when we implemented our 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in 2004, there were so many cynics. There were so many disbelievers. We had to be very thoughtful about it and careful in putting our four-point strategy in place organized around making sure we get folks the basic services they need, around permanent supportive housing and around mental illness. And we had tactics against each one of those things, just like the southern sector. You talk about the southern sector, that's what the southern sector needs is a plan like that. And then we have to put a person's name next to each of those things. And we have to put time lines next to each one of those things. And they slowly start to make progress.

I'm proud of what the city has done is probably the best way to put it. It took a lot of people to come to bear ... The city council committed $3.5 million. The voters passed the bond election. The private money came to bear. The county gave us a million dollars. I even got money from the state to come in. We did this all together. My metric of success is chronic homelessness. Can we end this? And last year we were down 57 percent.

Where does it go from here? I'm scared. I'm scared. I really am for two reasons. One is funding. And, two, the challenges that permanent supportive housing creates. When I laid out the plan to city council, I said I want permanent supportive housing in every district. It needs to be spread throughout the whole city. And we've had success in a couple of those places. We had our issues with Cliff Manor in Oak Cliff recently. I went back there last week, and I was so proud of the community. It has a community garden that everybody gardens there. We put 50 people in, and only two of them caused problems and had to leave. To me, I've been in their houses, and these are the same folks that are in the Dallas Housing ... So we didn't do a good job of communicating and talking.

It seems like most of the uproar was caused by the disconnect between the community and leadership.

I think so, and that's why I met with all the city council people about everything in their district. Did the same with Mr. [Dave] Neumann early on. He decided to go a different direction. Other city council members went different directions.

Did he go a different direction as far as communicating to his constituency?

That was were he went. OK? And I've learned a lot about that. Now, as mayor, this cannot be my top priority. I've already told you what my first three top priorities are [economic development, economic development and economic development]. John Castle is chairman of MDHA. I'm a big fan of John. I will help him and have a fan in the corner with me, so I hope we continue that progress. I'm cautiously optimistic is probably a better way to put it.

*During a separate question about the southern sector, Rawlings also offered this comment about his time dedicated to the homeless. "I didn't do the homeless thing because it was a nice thing to do. I did it because it was the right business thing to do."

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten