The Dallas Revolution: Will the Next Dallas City Council Election Will Be a Game Changer?

By this time next year, the Dallas City Council will look radically different. There are 6 seats that are opening up due to term limits – half the council and the entire South Dallas leadership.

Over the past week, Jim Schutze has been speculating on what the next city council election may mean for the future of the city. Last week – and again in this week’s paper — he writes about the “liars,” the city’s political old guard whom he believes will try to influence the council race in the same way they have sustained support for the Trinity Toll Road through the years, spinning the facts and coercing the city government to stay the course.

Earlier in the week, though, Schutze posted an addendum to his article on Unfair Park changing his tune a touch. The next election won’t be about liars necessarily, he writes, it’s about a change in civic culture. He relates a story about a city meeting in the Great Trinity Forest and how he observed a new alignment of environmentalists and activists who typically mobilized separately around issues like White Rock Lake and the Trinity River now coming together and forming a more cohesive bloc. It made him think that something else was going on in the city’s political soup:

I still think it’s important to hold the toll-road backers’ feet to the fire on public lies and deceptions. But maybe it’s even more important to recognize that a tectonic cultural tension underlies all of this, and that the time has come for the new culture to elbow the old one out of the way.

I think Schutze is right: the March 2015 city council election is going to be a game changer. It has to be just by virtue of how the numbers stack up. By this time next year, the council will look radically different. There are 6 seats that are opening up due to term limits – half the council and the entire South Dallas leadership. There’s no telling which way the council will lean on the big issues facing the city until we know who takes those seats, but we do know that some of the staunchest supporters of the Trinity Toll Road won’t be on the city council anymore. Plus, the chair of nearly every council committee will be out on term limits, and Vonciel Jones Hill and Sheffie Kadane will no longer represent Dallas on the Regional Transportation Council.

Once the rookies are sworn in, the veteran leadership on the council will include the trio of Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, and Adam Medrano. If the boldness of Griggs’ challenges of late to city’s often duplicitous bureaucracy is any indication of the tone and style of this new leadership, then we’re in for a completely new look on Marilla. What we still don’t know is whether or not Mayor Mike Rawlings is going to run again. If he does, he’ll likely win. But the makeup of the council may be more impactful in terms of determining the city’s overall character than the one vote and the bully pulpit the mayor has to leverage.

What makes the prospect of all of these new faces really interesting, however, is the way the political forces seem to be rearranging heading into next year’s election cycle. It feels like the next election will be all about the big issues: rescuing the city’s vanishing economic base, urbanization, transportation, and the future Trinity River Project and toll way. These are the issues the old guard “just doesn’t get,” as Schutze puts it. The Trinity supporters have been pushing their agenda for a long time. They have lots of pride on the line, and decades of entrenched thinking. But as the Dallas Morning News reports today, as increasing evidence points to the utter uselessness of the Trinity River Toll Road, its backers have gone silent.

Meanwhile, those traditionally supportive of the old guard’s agenda, most notably the real estate community, have thrown their support behind ideas like burying I-30 and repurposing I-345 as a street grade boulevard in order to stir economic development downtown. The mobilization of environmental supporters that Schutze describes in his piece represents another political shift. Even the suburbs realigning on the issue of road building and regional transportation will likely have a residual effect on uprooting conventional thinking on the goals and forms of regionalism. All of these things represent ways in which the influence and money in this city is refusing to align along the old battle lines. What will be fascinating to watch is just how the realignment shakes out and which candidates various influencers back in the next election.

There is a cultural shift underway, and I don’t think we know yet exactly what it will all look like when the chips fall or how long it will take to fully manifest itself. But at the heart of all is the implication of political change on the city manager’s office. A.C. Gonzalez – who promised reform and has subsequently provided pay raises and a resume of screw ups – is not long for the job. A new city manager, a shakeup in the bureaucracy of Dallas City Hall, and a fresh set of outlooks around the horseshoe: you might not recognize Dallas, TX, by this time next year.

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