All nine candidates on the ballot for mayor of Dallas in the election Saturday have come out officially in opposition to corruption. Several have offered specific plans for combating corruption. Most of those proposals are aimed at catching people in the act of being corrupt. We could do that all day long. Then what?
I’m not even sure we should take it as all that sincere. More often it's just a way for candidates to distance themselves from the drumbeat of local corruption stories — an understandable motive, for sure, but hardly a source for fundamental change.
The person who makes the most sense is not a candidate. Former Dallas Mayor and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told The Dallas Morning News: “Sadly, the biggest thing is people need to get out and vote. We need people to run for office for the right reasons and greater participation in the political process.”
If that sounds vague or pie-in-the-sky, I would point out that there will be three candidates on the ballot Saturday who will offer their own versions of exactly what Kirk is talking about: better voters, better candidates, better communities.
The corruption we see at City Hall and in other local government isn’t imported into the city from some evil empire in another galaxy. It is an expression of what this city is and has been for too long. For decades Dallas has been a place where the active and involved middle class is missing in action, ceding the ground instead to a sick symbiosis of the very rich and the very poor. The only real long-range answer is to beef up the literate and involved middle class. The only way to pull that off is by creating places within the city where life is truly good for middle-class people.
Face it. The very rich people who live here only when it’s not hot are not going to stick around long enough to fix the pot-holes. Very poor people who live on the edge of hunger and homelessness will always be tempted by the closest dollar. You and I know rich people we like, and we know poor people we like, but they’re not the answer to city-building. The bastion, the foundation, the wall that guards the city will always be the literate middle class.
And this isn’t just my own screwy theory. Recently three graphical illustrations of it were sent to me. The first came from a group called Who Votes for Mayor, a project of Portland State University and the Knight Foundation. It’s just awful. Of 30 cities examined, Dallas comes in dead last in voter participation.
In Portland, Oregon, 60 percent of eligible voters vote in mayoral elections. In Dallas we do a 10th of that. But, c’mon. Let’s not even try to compare ourselves to Portland. How about one of the nation’s most economically and socially beleaguered cities, Detroit? Detroit has four times the turnout we do, four times the civic engagement of Dallas.
The next two graphics were put together by the brilliant statistics gurus at the Commit Partnership in Dallas. One shows the relationship between educational attainment and voting in the 2018 national midterm elections. Three-fourths of people with advanced degrees voted. One-fourth of people with less than ninth-grade educations voted. The second graphic is a scatter plot for Dallas County voter participation in the same election showing the same clear pattern.
I wish somebody would do one showing the relationship between net worth and voting. I think it would be less pejorative of poor people, at least because it would show the same lousy turnout among the uber-affluent. My only evidence for that so far is the affluent couple who were standing in line in front of me at Whole Foods last Sunday after I voted early. The woman spotted the “I voted” sticker on my shirt.
“Oh my goodness,” she said, “what did you vote for?”
“Mayor and City Council,” I said.
“For real.” (Thinking to myself, “Yes, we have a real mayor and a real council. They’re downtown. REALLY!”)
We can talk all day about the relationship of despair with apathy and the relationship of apathy with despair, and so where does that get us really? The ultimate truth is always going to be the same: The more educated people you have, people committed to the communities around them, the more civic engagement and the less corruption you will have. Corrupt slicks cannot stand up to involved squares.
I realized something about dangerous urban streets a long time ago. The one thing the bad guys can’t handle, the thing that runs them off like cockroaches is a bunch of squares pushing strollers and carrying takeout lattes. The bad guys will stand and fight the police SWAT team, but if you send a battalion of latte-toting stroller-pushers against them, they’re gone like smoke, especially if the squares bring those double strollers. I think it’s the unbearable pain of sunshine.
I said at the top that three candidates are addressing the election in terms that speak to this level of city-building. The first, Eric Johnson, is owed an apology by me already because of something I said recently. I said another candidate, City Council member Scott Griggs, was the only person running for mayor who has represented southern Dallas as an elected official. Not true. Johnson has done a yeoman job serving southern Dallas in the Texas House of Representatives for nine years.
Of all the anti-corruption proposals offered by candidates, Johnson’s may be the best aimed and most politically streetwise. A lot of our corruption problems have involved local officials selling their legally required seals of approval to affordable housing projects. Johnson has proposed a change in state law taking local officials out of that loop by no longer requiring their stamps of approval on specific projects.
Miguel Solis is arguing for education reform as a way for the city to build its new middle class from within. In his six years on the Dallas school board, Solis has been the leader of an important movement. He and his team have proved with hard results that poor kids can learn reading and arithmetic right up there with the children of the squares. His way to build the city is to lift up poor people, not push them out.
The one who puts all of that together is Griggs. When I wrongly said he was the only one who had represented southern Dallas as an elected official, I was thinking he was the only one who had represented southern Dallas at City Hall, which I do think makes a difference.
Look at his district. Before he took office eight years ago, Oak Cliff was still the butt of bigoted jokes, the city’s ugly brother across the river. Since then and with Griggs’ know-how and strong stewardship, Oak Cliff has embraced development while standing strong against the worst of gentrification.
He doesn’t just think it would be a nice thing if we could do some urban place-making and attract the middle class into the inner city. He’s doing it. He has scaled it up. It’s happening in his district, and he has everything to do with it.
At the candidate forums I have attended or watched online, almost all the other people running are what I call the wouldn’t-it-be-loverly candidates. Wouldn’t it be loverly to have more cops? How loverly to have fewer potholes. It’s sort of sweet. Sometimes when they talk, I can’t help hearing Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady: “Lots of chocolate for me to eat, lots of coal makin' lots of ‘eat.” Griggs never sounds like Julie Andrews. He counts down precise ticktocks for how to do each thing, because he knows how.
So you can tell which way I lean, but I would never ask anybody to lean with me just for that reason. My endorsement and five bucks might buy you a cup of coffee in Lakewood, if you could even get through the strollers and the people changing diapers at sidewalk café tables. (Which way did the bad guys go, for God’s sake?)
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The corruption story, the low voter turnout story, the story of despair: not one of those is the story of the future of Dallas. The story of the future is about Dallas as a vibrant, well-run place for middle-class families to dwell and prosper. In the schools and in the neighborhoods, we are already making it happen.
A couple of weeks ago, The Dallas Morning News, which fears Griggs terribly for some reason, endorsed three other candidates — one white, one black and one Hispanic. I call it the Morning News Something-for-Everybody Anybody-But-Griggs troika. So if they can have a troika, I can, too, only mine is a suggestion, not an endorsement.
My troika of Johnson, Solis and Griggs is unified by one theme. If you listen carefully to any one of these people, you will hear him speaking ideas and plans that have to do with place-building, the weaving together of the underlying social fabric that can be our only true safety net.
You listen to the others, and it’s all the same song: “Wouldn’t it be loverly if I were the mayor?” Yeah, go home and sing that one to the mirror, Babe. We've got sewers to fix, potholes to fill, kids to teach and, if anybody stands in the way, we’ll call out the strollers! I know I’d run.