Clay and Mike: Bryan Burrough’s Tale of Two Dallas Leaders

Dallas’ handling of the Ebola crisis has just been put into perspective for a national audience, thanks to Bryan Burrough’s thoroughly reported piece in the new Vanity Fair. Burrough’s lengthy story puts a generally heroic shine on the response by local officials.

And it offers a refreshingly frank, behind-the-scenes look at the actions of two powerful local politicians, both Democrats, who someday may aspire to higher office. My initial impression was that the piece portrays County Judge Clay Jenkins as some sort of steely Superman, while Mayor Mike Rawlings comes off as, well, considerably less effective.

The story implies, for example, that Rawlings was relieved to learn that it would be Jenkins—and not him—who would be in charge of the Dallas effort. Writes Burroughs: “Afterward, talking to Mayor Rawlings, Jenkins tried to explain how the [incident command structure] would work. But Rawlings cut him off. ‘I don’t give a f*** about that,’ he said. ‘Who’s in charge?’ ‘Well, I am.’ ‘Oh, good,’ Rawlings said, exhaling. ‘Good.’ “

The mayor also seemed a little petty reacting to the suggestion by his wife, Micki, that the Troh/Duncan family move from their contaminated Vickery Meadow apartment into the Rawlings’ home. This suggestion was made after Micki expressed doubts about a plan to move the group into an unoccupied Oak Cliff bungalow owned by the Rawlings’ son, Gunnar. “She said, ‘Then bring them to our house—we can put them upstairs,’ ” Burroughs quotes the mayor as saying. “I said, ‘Micki, we can’t. We have good furniture. You don’t know what’s going to happen.’ “

Buttonholed at an event last night, Rawlings put a different spin on both points.

He said he was only “relieved” to learn finally that the locals, not the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, would lead the response. “It was obvious that the CDC was not in charge; the state wasn’t in charge,” the mayor told me. “And we had to make a decision. [Jenkins] is in charge of health, so it was good that we clarified that he’s in charge, and not the state and not the feds. … It was more about, I want to know who’s in charge.”

As for the furniture, Rawlings said he was just contrasting the situation at his home with Gunnar’s place. “I said, ‘Hold off on that, because we have to move all the furniture out, and [Gunnar] doesn’t have any furniture in his house,’ because he was just getting it redone,” the mayor explained. So, it wasn’t because he was worried about the Troh family messing up his stuff? “Well no. I’m the one that said let’s put ‘em in my son’s house, and my wife said let’s put ‘em in our house. I don’t care. Look, to me, that’s all about PR. To me, what was important was that we had one person die, and we had 16 [with] West Nile virus. I’m so blessed that we powered through that.”

For his part, Jenkins told D CEO‘s Matt Goodman this morning that Burrough’s story “captures the essence of some things that were going on.” Rawlings, the county judge added, was “the best partner you could hope for on this. He did everything he was asked to do on this, he went above and beyond the call of duty, he was a problem-solver. … Mike was steady and thoughtful and a good leader, and if that’s the way it portrays him it’s accurate and if it portrayed him some way different, it’s not accurate.”

And, what is Burrough’s assessment? Asked in an email today whether he considered Rawlings to have played a “somewhat ineffectual” role, the Vanity Fair writer strongly disagreed. “The fact is, the management structure they chose put Jenkins in charge, thereby relegating Rawlings, yes, to secondary status,” Burroughs said today. “He handled much of the media, police and fire, and well, no small job. My takeaway, for what it’s worth, was that both Jenkins and Rawlings did very good jobs. Imperfect, perhaps, but that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, given the extraordinary circumstances. Ebola coming to Dallas? I would’ve bet an asteroid would hit Dallas before Ebola. You know, this is a story about how the sausage got made. Yeah, parts of it are a bit ugly, but in the end that was pretty good sausage.”



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