Although he typically exhibits a dry temperament, former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle nabbed some much-needed laughs from the audience last night at the first mayoral forum of the campaign season.
"This is our Iowa," he told nearly 200 folks at Methodist Hospital's Hitt Auditorium in North Oak Cliff.
Kunkle -- who received the endorsement of southern sector pastors and civil-rights activists earlier in the day -- would again break free from his measured statements when answering a question about the city's reliance on oil, pointing out that he drives a Vespa scooter, which he noted averages 80 miles per gallon.
"So I'm trying to do my part," he said. The crowd roared.
During his opening statements, Kunkle attacked former Pizza Hut CEO Mike Rawlings, saying the city's next mayor should be someone who understands city government, not a person selected by "a handful of businesspeople."
"I believe now is not a time for a CEO to be mayor," he added.
Rawlings wasted no time dropping the name of his campaign chair when he began his initial remarks and offered a retort to Kunkle's claim.
"About a month ago, I was talking to Roger Staubach and trying to decide whether I should run or not, and Roger thought I should -- maybe contrary to what the chief said -- because I was a businessman, but I had worked the city at the same time," he said.
The city's former homeless czar and Park Board president also reiterated several of the statements from his campaign kick-off speech, describing business as the city's lungs, saying economic development is a necessity as opposed to a luxury and claiming the city needs to focus on basics like neighborhoods, potholes and parks. Rawlings offered no solution to the city's upcoming budget shortfall, but voiced his opposition to a tax hike.
"We can't raise taxes," he said. "Raising taxes is not an option."
Kunkle said the budget can be cut, and he'd prioritize city services related to neighborhoods and small businesses.
"There are a lot of savings in the city's budget," he said without elaborating.
Council member Ron Natinsky arrived 25 minutes after Kunkle and Rawlings had already answered several questions from the audience, citing a prior engagement to explain his tardiness. He touted his 25 years as a city volunteer and council member, along with his experience as a small business entrepreneur.
Questions from attendees ranged from gas drilling to the Trinity River Corridor Project to improving customer service at the city.
Kunkle and Rawlings offered few details about gas drilling, with Kunkle only saying the ordinance "needs to be revisited" and Rawlings stressing the importance of "breathing good air and drinking clean water." Natinsky was not present to answer the question, although he supported the ordinance when the council approved it in February 2008.
There weren't many specifics from Kunkle or Rawlings about the Trinity project either. Natinksy was not present to answer the question, but he served as Mayor Tom Leppert's right-hand man in support of the road during the 2007 referendum.
"The saddest thing about the Trinity is nothing's been going on," Rawlings said. "And this is an example of a lot of talk and no action. We need to do something. We need to see dirt flying."
Rawlings refused to say whether he's a proponent of the toll road, only mentioning that it's more expensive to build now than when the citizens voted for the project in 1998.
"We need to go back and examine those costs and understand what's going to happen with the Mixmaster," he said. "We have a huge transportation issue. It's time to say, 'All right, something's not working here.' We need to get everybody around the table and then put a plan together so that we move quickly to solve this."
Echoing what city leaders have said about the project, Kunkle said the city should be focused on safety and resolving the current flood control issues with the levees, while also noting he's a proponent of the park component. While he clearly didn't endorse the toll road, he didn't commit one way or the other, despite claiming Rawlings didn't answer the question.
"I have questions, and you can put me in the category of skeptical," Kunkle said. "I'm respectful of the fact that the issue has been voted on by the voters twice. As I understand it, though, it didn't necessarily enforce a toll road. It was listed as one of the options. I'm skeptical and trying to find more information about the toll road as part of the overall project."
Kunkle and Rawlings (again, Natinsky hadn't arrived yet) also discussed the city's homeless assistance center. Rawlings, who served as chair of the organization that operates The Bridge, said the facility has lowered crime and spurred economic development downtown and saves the county and city $5 million annually. Kunkle said it has been "beneficial to downtown" by helping remove homeless from the streets and providing services to them; however, he disagreed with its location in "a critical part of the downtown area."
At one point, Rawlings conceded that he and Kunkle agree on most issues, although Rawlings believes the city needs to be "more entrepreneurial."
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Kunkle said he understands urban issues because he lives near Lower Greenville and told the crowd -- three separate times -- that North Oak Cliff has grown and succeeded at some times in spite of the city's rules and regulations.
Natinsky took credit for luring Walmart to the southern sector, claiming he and Leppert convinced executives to build in South Dallas after taking them on a tour of the area.
Several politicos and consultants were on hand, including council members Tennell Atkins (supporting Rawlings) and Angela Hunt, former council member Ed Oakley (supporting Natinsky), former DART board member Joyce Foreman (in negotiations with Kunkle to work on his campaign), Mari Woodlief of Allyn Media (representing Rawlings), Sarah Dodd (Kunkle's wife and campaign consultant), Avi Adelman (working for Kunkle), Paula Blackmon (Leppert's former deputy chief of staff who's working for Rawlings), Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman and community activist Jason Roberts.
Council member Dave Neumann and candidate Scott Griggs were also there to discuss the District 3 council race. More on that later.