Here we go already, off to the slime pits. Bring a towel. Last week mayoral candidate Scott Griggs was one of a handful of City Council members caught with dodgy campaign donations in the past, and you’d have thought he'd shot and killed a child.
The donations were dodgy, not saying they were not. The thing is, however, the offense alleged against Griggs himself, if there even was one, was at the very worst picayune, at the least nonexistent. There was no case to make that Griggs himself had done anything illegal.
That didn’t stop one of his opponents in the race, Jason Villalba, from hurling a broadside that made it sound strangely as if Griggs had engaged in child abuse. I wouldn’t even bring this up in fact — it wouldn’t deserve attention — except that it fits into a disturbing pattern. This is how they play.
I have not seen accredited polling, but the observers on all sides with whom I have spoken in recent months agree that Griggs, in a very crowded field, is the one candidate with a shot at shooting past the rest of the scrum, maybe even winning it without a runoff. Because he’s one of the young progressives, the prospect of a Griggs victory arouses feral impulses in the old oligarchy that has ruled City Hall for a half-century.
We have seen before how they play when their backs are against the wall, especially in the case of Griggs. In 2015 they falsely accused him of a felony, something like an assault, which went away only when the prime witness finally signed a sworn affidavit saying it never happened.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be dismissive of the campaign contributions thing, but this smells like 2015 all over again to me — downtown deja vu.
Tim Rogers, editor of D Magazine, broke the contributions story and did a good job keeping it in perspective. A lawyer was using his own kids’ names on donations so he could give more than the legal limit. A city ordinance says an individual cannot give more than $1,000 to a candidate.
Griggs was one of several council members who got contributions with the kids’ names on them. If anybody’s in trouble, it’s the lawyer, not Griggs.
On the evening of the same day Rogers’ story went up online, I received a text from Villalba, a former Republican state legislator from North Dallas who is running against Griggs in the mayor’s race. Here is the text of the text, as reported last week here by Stephen Young:
“Quote from Rep. Villalba: ‘The disgusting betrayal of public trust discovered today by the media regarding Scott Griggs' abhorrent practice of using children to shelter his campaign finance violations is simply disqualifying from public service.
‘He owes it to the good men and women of Dallas to immediately withdraw from the Mayor’s race, apologize to the citizens of his Dallas for his immoral indiscretions and to completely withdraw from public service.
‘Scott Griggs represents everything that is wrong with the current crony corruption regime that has infiltrated Dallas City Hall for far too long. It is time for “a new kind of mayor.” One that respects the law, doesn’t line his pockets at the expense of innocent children and one who cares more about Dallas than the almighty dollar.”
Really? Griggs is abusing innocent children? That just seems crazy and unhinged. But there was another line in there that caught my own admittedly oversensitive ear. It sounded like a tell: “Scott Griggs represents everything that is wrong with the current crony corruption regime that has infiltrated Dallas City Hall for far too long.”
No, sorry, Villalba, but that one is clearly the contrary of what Griggs represents in this race. If he is anything — even if he’s the worst known accepter of child donations in the history of all mankind — he is still the most credible challenger the city has ever seen of the old crony politics at City Hall. And you have to know that. Right?
Maybe not. I want to give him a break if I can. Villalba has visited with us here at the Observer to share his views, and he certainly comes across in a first meeting as a bright, decent person with good ideas. He has been busy with state business as a state representative until recently, and I don’t know how much backstory he’s even aware of at City Hall.
The fact remains that this kind of jugular knife attack based on trivial evidence falls neatly in line with the way the old oligarchy has always played. Griggs, council member Philip Kingston and former member Angela Hunt, all lawyers, have for some years been the three musketeers of fiscal transparency at City Hall, often infuriating the old guard by exposing their financial foibles.
Those three were the ones who caught a former city manager secretly defying direct orders from the council by signing what turned out to be a disastrous contract for gas-drilling rights in city parks. Kingston single-handedly stopped the current mayor from giving the city’s benighted 277-acre exposition park in South Dallas, Fair Park, to a friend of his as a present.
Griggs, Kingston, Adam Medrano, Omar Narvaez and other allies on the council get 100 percent of the credit for bringing a top international entertainment company in to turn the rescued park around, a thing the old guard fought tooth and nail to the bitter end.
Some of what Griggs has done in the name of simple fiscal probity has especially infuriated the old charity ball set. He is responsible for exposing the unbelievable farce surrounding the $115 million twin hike and bike bridges at Interstate 30, for which a prominent old-guard family had bought naming rights. The bridges can’t be opened a year after completion because no one knows how long they’re going to stand up, and it’s not inconceivable they might have to come down.
So once Griggs knew what was going on with the bridges, what was he supposed to do? Not say anything? Wouldn’t staying silent about a basic public safety issue have been the sort of thing a public official should be sent to prison for?
It’s often very hard to fathom the thinking of the small circle of old families who have dominated City Hall for decades, but one thing isn’t hard at all to see: their blood-curdling ruthlessness when crossed. Of course, the really big cross, the one that sticks most bitterly in their craw, is their defeat in a 20-year campaign to build an unneeded expressway almost on top of the Trinity River through downtown.
In the old guard’s view, the Trinity toll road was their closely hoarded holy grail, and Griggs, Kingston and Hunt were the never-to-be-forgiven Round Table knights who burgled it from them. I think we all know which side history came down on in that particular legend.
Back to the campaign contribution limits, the thing is that bundling contributions through families and law firms is and has always been commonplace in city elections. I only have to skim Mayor Mike Rawlings’ contributions list for about 30 seconds before bumping into the Becks, Henry, Janet and Mary, the Crows, Patrick, Patrick (different address) and Trammell, and the Hills, Hattie, Henry and Lyda. I think they are all of majority age or better, but I guess I could still accuse Rawlings of moral indiscretion and hiding behind the skirts of innocent women, not to mention other men’s wives. But I wouldn’t do that, because that would be sooo craaazy.
A little crazy, I can do. It’s politics. But not sooo craaazy. That’s always the marker for one thing, which brings me to my next and final topic.
Call me so crazy. It’s OK, I can take it. Call me paranoid. Everybody does. But I smell something going on in this race that I do not believe is going to turn out to be accidental, coincidental or serendipitous, and I think it’s all going to come down to the real campaign contributions story when we get there.
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I don’t believe the full field of nine candidates is out there because they wanted to be on their own initiative. I suspect some of them have been put up to it, at least encouraged, maybe instigated, maybe paid in one way or another. I could be wrong. But the first window will come 30 days before the May election, the next window eight days before, when these people have to start filing campaign contribution reports telling us where their money comes from.
I am going to be looking for Dallas Citizens Council/old oligarchy/real estate developer money, because I think that’s who has nudged a lot of these people into the race. That will be the real money story, and I even wonder if the usual suspects aren’t trying to blunt that story in advance.
The Citizens Council announced pre-election that it is withdrawing this year from its usual practice of publicly endorsing a candidate for mayor in a move they tried to paint as a vow of restraint, like somebody who just got out of rehab. I wonder if it was actually cover for backing a bunch of candidates simultaneously.
Listen, this whole election has one name. Stop Griggs. That’s the whole game. Stop Griggs. It’s going to be very dirty.