So the news here is pretty simple. The East Kessler Nighborhood Association in Oak Cliff scheduled a mayoral candidates forum for Tuesday. Challenger Marcos Ronquillo is going to be there. Until late last week, so Mayor Mike Rawlings, as far as everyone knew.
Then, on Friday, Rawlings made it clear that he wasn't going to show up. He informed the neighborhood association that he had a prior engagement. The timing of the notice buoyed the notion that "Rawlings is too chicken to debate the toll road." Rawlings told the DMN that he simply wasn't going to participate in a debate before the mayoral filing deadline, which comes on Friday. He is willing to talk about the toll road, he says, in the context of the campaign's other issues.
Responding to the mayor's turning the Oak Cliff group down, Ronquillo was clear about how he and his campaign are going to frame the race.
"I was looking forward to a spirited first debate with Mayor Mike Rawlings, which would have included our differing opinions on the $1.8 billion Trinity River toll road project. Unfortunately, the Mayor recently informed the media that he would not debate the toll road issue then abruptly canceled his appearance for Tuesday night," Ronquillo said in a statement. "Let's be very clear. The Mayor's race is a referendum on the Trinity River toll road boondoggle. We have an obligation to Dallas voters to publicly debate our difference of opinion on this controversial project."
The location of Tuesday not-a-debate is worth noting. North Oak Cliff, like its cousin East Dallas, has developed a distinct political identity that's not at all friendly to the toll road, which the mayor strongly supports. Tuesday night's crowd would not have been friendly to the mayor.
There's the larger question as well. What happens if Scott Griggs' Oak Cliff District 1 and Philip Kingston's downtown and East Dallas District 14 turn out disproportionately in May? Griggs showed his ability to engineer unexpected results in 2013, when he blew out his fellow incumbent Delia Jasso in what was expected to be a close election. Turnout for Dallas municipal elections is so low that any excess energy that gets injected into a campaign -- something that might happen were Rawlings to face a hostile, inquisitive crowd -- is dangerous for the candidate it runs against.
Rawlings is still in the driver's seat by every measure. He's a prodigious fundraiser and has the bully pulpit of incumbency. Ronquillo has is his opposition to the toll road. He seems ready to bludgeon Rawlings with it, but he's got to get in the room with him first.