Rumble in District 33
Trying to parse the overcrowded, topsy-turvy battle for the newly drawn congressional district.
The battle for who controls Oak Cliff is on with (clockwise, top to bottom) Carlos Quintanilla, Domingo Garcia, Chrysta Castañeda, Steve Salazar, and Jason Roberts—among others.illustration by Michael Witte
The first time I heard Scott Griggs speak to a crowd, I predicted he’d run for office. The occasion was the November 2009 demolition of the Colorado Place apartments. Griggs and his neighbors from Stevens Park Estates were invited to scarf doughnuts and sip coffee as they watched a wrecking ball destroy the crime-ridden complex. I was there in my capacity as the managing editor of Oak Cliff People. Griggs—who arrived via bicycle, which gets you points in that part of town—was president of the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group, an organization of volunteers who want to beautify their namesake thoroughfare. Griggs told his neighbors that the destruction of Colorado Place was just the beginning. Exciting things were happening in North Oak Cliff, with new, upscale businesses on the way. By the time he promised that “for every foot of streetcar track laid on that side of the river, there will be a foot laid on this side of the river,” I could practically hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swelling in the background.
A little more than a year later, Griggs, an intellectual property attorney, made me look smart. He launched a City Council campaign in December 2010, and he ousted incumbent Dave Neumann the following May.
One year later, Griggs is one of the few North Oak Cliff politicians not running for Congress. In late February, federal judges in San Antonio ended months of redistricting drama by issuing a map that included a brand-new, incumbent-free District 33 stretching from Oak Cliff to Fort Worth. Candidates were given 10 days to submit their paperwork. When the smoke cleared, there were 11 Democrats on the ballot for this month’s primary. Among them were former City Council member Steve Salazar, Kessler Park attorney Chrysta Castañeda, and Hispanic activist Carlos Quintanilla. But the candidate I had my eye on was Jason Roberts, whose name appears in Oak Cliff People about as often as mine does. We first wrote about him because he and his wife, Andrea, play in a rock band called the Happy Bullets, named after some of their neighbors’ penchant for holiday gunfire. But he has since been featured for his work with Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, and Go Oak Cliff. (Because there are so many couples involved here, we’re just going to have to use first names for everyone.)
Go Oak Cliff is responsible for Bastille on Bishop, Brew Riot, Cliff Fest, and all the other street fairs that happen in the Bishop Arts District seemingly every other week. Jason is a founding board member, as is Amy Cowan, a former event coordinator for the Dallas County Democratic Party. Her husband, Eric, was the first of what I like to call Oak Cliff’s hipster class—a group of white thirtysomethings who grew up elsewhere but are very proud to live west of the Trinity—to secure a public office. In May 2010, he was elected to DISD’s board of trustees, becoming North Oak Cliff’s first non-Hispanic representative on the school board since 1991. Despite his two Hispanic opponents, Eric won the endorsement of political heavyweight Domingo Garcia, who is also a candidate in District 33.
Domingo is—well, my wife, who was raised in Winnetka Heights, put it best: “You can’t grow up in Oak Cliff and not know who Domingo Garcia is.” He’s a personal injury attorney with prominent billboards, and he has served on the City Council and in the Legislature. When Eric was running for the school board, I called Domingo’s wife, Elba, who until 2009 sat on the City Council herself, to ask if she would offer an endorsement in the DISD race; she said she was staying out of it because she was running (successfully) for county commissioner. When I asked if Domingo would be endorsing anyone, she advised me to ask him via text message. When I followed her instructions, Domingo replied: “Ed Cowan.” I texted back, with an appropriate emoticon: “Do you mean Eric Cowan?”
As I watched the Cowans celebrate Eric’s victory with Jason, Scott Griggs, and Scott’s wife, Mariana, I thought, “This is the start of something.” These three couples seemed to be the leadership class of the new Oak Cliff. Three months later, the Griggses posed American Gothic style for a Dallas Observer cover story about “Oak Cliff activists.” The story included a photo of Amy Cowan and the Robertses swimming in a converted Dumpster at the “West Dallas Country Club,” a property reportedly owned by the Griggses. By year’s end, Amy, Scott, and Jason—along with half a dozen other partners—had opened a Bishop Arts District restaurant called Oddfellows. In February 2011, Amy and Jason were two of several North Oak Cliff luminaries—including musician Ray Wylie Hubbard, Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig, and writer Terry Southern—pictured in a mural unveiled inside the since-shuttered Luckie’s Smokehouse. (Also included were Elba Garcia and Delia Jasso, Elba’s successor on the Council.) Three months after that, Scott’s ascendancy to the City Council solidified things.
“Griggs represents a new, younger energy that is focused on quality-of-life initiatives for our area,” Jason told Oak Cliff People on the night of his friend’s victory. Damn right he does. This crew of bike-riding, chicken-raising, coffee-loving hippies was taking over.
But my rosy view of North Oak Cliff politics was shattered March 23, when I opened the Metro section of the Morning News to finish reading about Royce West endorsing Domingo. A state senator supporting a former legislative colleague was not surprising. It was the photo on the jump page that made me do a double take. Standing behind Domingo with a big smile was none other than Scott Griggs. It was as if Domingo was telling me, “Oh, you think you know who runs Oak Cliff? You don’t know anything.”
When I called Scott to ask why he endorsed Domingo over Jason Roberts, he basically declined to comment. But he did confirm that he and Jason are still partners in Oddfellows, and he said he endorsed Domingo “a few days ago.” A look at the Domingo campaign’s Facebook page showed I was actually a full week late to the news.
So then I talked to Jason, who said he’d heard about his partner’s endorsement of Domingo secondhand. Jason said that when he called Scott to get an explanation, Scott told him he planned to endorse both Jason and Domingo. When this issue of D Magazine went to press, I was still waiting for Scott to confirm that. So let’s speculate on why Scott might have made bike-friendly Oak Cliff a little less friendly.
Last fall, the City Council went through a little redistricting drama of its own. When it was all said and done, Scott found his house in Delia Jasso’s district. Unless one of them moves, the two incumbents will have to run against each other in 2013. A white man trying to defeat a Hispanic woman could do a lot worse than having Domingo Garcia on his side. But just as Delia found her way into that mural, she’s also in that newspaper photo that rocked my world. Given that she is also entrenched in the Garcia camp, I’m going to make another prediction: one year from now, Scott Griggs will be out of office.
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