Inside Dallas' Incestuous Mayoral Race
How two women manage a close friendship—and opposing political campaigns.
Sitting in a center booth at the original Pancake House on Lemmon Avenue, Sarah Dodd is the first to launch into the talking points for her candidate in this month’s mayoral race, former Dallas police chief David Kunkle. A longtime CBS Channel 11 reporter/anchor, Dodd switched sides after leaving the station in 2007, opening Dodd Communications. Now she is handling public relations—as a volunteer, she insists—for Kunkle, who, besides being a relative political outsider, is also her husband. Dodd says her man will make quality of life a priority, helping Dallas attract many more than the 9,000 new residents it has gained over the past decade—the number springing forth with practiced ease.
“David is a person who believes, of course, we have to have economic development, but we have to have a city that works for the people who live here,” Dodd says, polishing off her spiel with a wink.
Next to Dodd in the booth sits her close friend Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn Media. The two present a study in opposite demeanors. Where Dodd speaks animatedly and wears a gushing, red-lipsticked smile that comes from years of talking to a TV camera, Woodlief defaults to a scowl. As Dodd talks, Woodlief checks her iPhone and smears red jam on her toast. She waits politely for Dodd to finish, so she can talk about her own candidate, former Park Board president and Pizza Hut CEO Mike Rawlings. Then Woodlief hesitates, just for a moment. Are we going to do this? Are we really going to do the talking points thing? Of course we are.
Though the women’s friendship is perhaps more public than others in the biz, it’s not unique in Dallas’ political realm and its attendant PR-handler subculture. Everyone knows everyone else, everyone has a friend on the other side, and they all have worked for and against one another. It’s no surprise then that, though the women were apprehensive about doing an interview for this story (they initially declined), they come alive at the first opportunity to talk up their guys, their friendship carefully set aside for the moment.
After Dodd casually throws down the gauntlet, somewhere on the table between her iced tea (with a straw, please) and Woodlief’s cup of coffee, it’s Woodlief’s turn. She notes that Rawlings’ lifetime of success in the private sector, coupled with his advisory role in city matters, make him more qualified for the mayorship.
“While we have to be respectful of the fact that David did a great job as police chief, he never worked a day in the private sector,” Woodlief deadpans. It’s a sly move. First the compliment—and then the oh, snap. Rawlings knows business, she adds, and can bring it to the city.
Dodd can’t leave it at that. Twice more she jumps in, with a pleasantly firm “And if I could just add … .” The bullet points begin again.
But sprinkled throughout their philosophical discussion about the roles of government and business, there are knowing glances and sideways smiles. Whether they’re working together (as they did during last year’s wet/dry election) or apart (as they are now on the mayoral campaigns), they’ve maintained the friendship that began, appropriately enough, when Dodd needed Woodlief’s help to get in touch with Laura Miller back in 2001. Dodd was a reporter at Channel 11 with a reputation for breaking stories. Woodlief was working her way up the ranks at Allyn Media representing Miller, who was about to announce that she was running for mayor. Dodd and Woodlief first met in the living room of Miller’s Kessler Park home. “I liked her immediately,” Dodd says.
Dodd got her interview—right before jetting off to the Middle East to be an embedded reporter in Kuwait. When she returned, the women’s professional relationship continued. But soon, talk of boys and college memories crept in.
“I was fascinated by the job and that she was going over there [to Kuwait],” says Woodlief, who, like Dodd, attended Baylor University.
Ten years after that meeting in Miller’s living room (today, all three women go to a movie and then dinner regularly), Dodd and Woodlief are pushing politics at a pancake joint—albeit one that’s likely to see prominent business folk and politicos shoveling down hash browns on any given morning. They’re also reminiscing about dates, trying to remember the name of that new Lombardi restaurant, showing off new pairs of earrings.
The scene is a reminder of the blurry lines between politics and media in this town. An alt-weekly newspaper columnist (Miller) ran for City Council and later became mayor. The police chief (Kunkle) married a TV reporter (Dodd) who sometimes covered the police department. That former mayor’s husband (Steve Wolens) is now the campaign treasurer for the ex-chief’s mayoral campaign. Miller, in fact, is hosting Kunkle fundraisers at her home (she upgraded to Preston Hollow a few years back)—though she told D Magazine earlier this year that she likes both of her friends’ candidates. Everyone is connected, and no one stays on one side forever.
At the Original Pancake House, casual talk about the mayor’s race is off the table, but Dodd and Woodlief do admit they were each other’s first calls when it came time to announce their candidates’ intentions to enter the race. In Dodd’s case, it was more of a shock. She called Woodlief to tell her about her husband’s January 31 decision, which the couple had kept at that point even from their inner circle. Miller had to wait to hear the news on television.
“It was pretty much a bombshell,” Dodd says, “so I wanted to make sure Mari heard that from me before she heard that from anyone else.”
The women have no doubt they’ll work together—and against each other—in the future, but they say their professional affiliations will always take a backseat to their personal relationship. “Those things come and go,” Woodlief says. “Your friendships are the thing that’s the constant.”
As they leave, Dodd spots a friend and stops to chat with her. Woodlief laughs. The woman Dodd is side-hugging, Brenda Reyes, is working on Councilman Ron Natinsky’s mayoral campaign.
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