You hear it said all the time by people visiting our fair burg. “People in Dallas are so nice.” It is an impression that follows a cliche: the hospitality of the south, the politeness of Texas. Other characteristics we export to fuel the preconceptions of visitors: life is easy here, the cost of living is low, the weather is great, opportunity abounds. As I heard a local city leader say recently, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere — but if you can’t make it in Dallas, you can’t make it anywhere.”
It’s a good line. But then what do you say to the thousands of our neighbors who are stuck in endemic poverty? Or is it too impolite to mention them?
Dallas politics have long been defined by a culture of politeness. To the cynics and the stick-in-the-muds, it is a culture that is characterized as a city of backroom deals and backslap endorsements, cabals of the wealthy, well-connected, Park-Citied who map out the city’s future like Risk players laying their armies across the board. To those on the inside, this is all called community service or selfless civic stewardship. In reality, it is a blend of the two.
In this way, Dallas is not unique. Cities across the country have been shaped and guided by those who are most personally invested in their futures, close-knit business associations, civic groups, and church boards. In New York City, the first municipal plan was drawn up over a hundred years ago by a business association. In Santa Cruz, CA, a downtown business association virtually ran the government until a cohort of progressive groups wrestled power away from them in the 1970s.
But what is feels unique to Dallas is the way in which this traditional way of running things has sunk into and calcified within the culture. It is not just that our wise leaders expect to have their way, it is that it seen as impolite to wonder if it could work in any other way. To this view, to question, critique, or object openly, or with the wrong tone, is to be uncooperative and anti-Dallas. Naysayers are cynics, and cynics are not to be engaged – they are to be outmaneuvered.
This is what makes the current District 14 Dallas City Council race so fascinating. The race, between incumbent Philip Kingston and all-around-neighborhood-nice guy Matt Wood, isn’t really about issues or positions. In fact, both Wood and Kingston line up on a lot of issues. Rather, the race is about manners — about being nice.
Kingston has been a real pain in the ass as a council member. He is the pain in the ass who blew up the mayor’s Fair Park deal. He’s the pain in the ass who shouts his opposition to Trinity Toll Road, DART, and a hodgepodge other issues near and dear to the hearts of those who see themselves as the city’s stewards. He scoffs at his colleagues at the horseshoe and publicly dresses down city staff. But the debate in District 14 isn’t whether or not Kingston was right to advocate for these things or if his record as a council member has delivered on the improvements, policies and programs his constituents want. Rather, the conversation is about whether or not Kingston is a nice guy.
Over on the Dallas Observer, Jim Schutze writes about how at a recent debate between Kingston and Wood the chief point of contention wasn’t any particular platform position, but rather the looming presence a Political Action Committee that has run a smear campaign against Kingston, trying to tell everyone how not-nice he is. The campaign is well-funded. Thousands of mailers have been sent out with Kingston’s scowling mug on them. Former-Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who must conjure more nice feelings in Dallasites than any other public figure, offers a smiling endorsement of Wood on a billboard overlooking Central Expressway.
The PAC is run by political consultant Mari Woodlief, and it has become something of a third candidate in the District 14 race. Schutze writes he believes the PAC has actually hurt Wood, if only because it’s principal donors are all the kinds of establishment figures that the East Dallasites who turn out to vote elected Kingston to be mean to in the first place.
I’m not sure why anyone hires Mari Woodlief anymore, particularly after the Susan Hawk debacle. Perhaps it is because it would be impolite to question her work. But Woodlief’s obtuse political strategy is symptomatic of its own brand of naivety. East Dallas is one of the few places in the city where having a mean, nasty, ogre down at City Hall is understood as a good thing. Without the ogre protecting the treasure chest, all the names in Woodlief’s Rolodex would run amok. But according to the logic of Woodlief’s campaign, city politics should function like a toddler’s play date. If someone doesn’t play nice, they shouldn’t be invited to stay for dinner.
Democracy is messy. It is designed that way. It is supposed to be an imperfect, unforgiving blood sport. Obstruction and vocal frustrations are tools that can serve political ends. Political agency is achieved through friction, not accommodation. It’s what makes democracy great. It’s what helps hold democratic governments accountable. In a culture of politeness, transparency is treated like airing dirty laundry. In a democracy, it is the basis of a well-functioning government.
I’m not saying you should vote for Philip Kingston. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote for Matt Wood. I’m just saying that running an entire smear campaign to prove that Kingston isn’t the kind of person you would want at the church potluck seems to encapsulate so much that is wrong this city’s political culture. I believe Dallas could be a better place if people were a little less nice. When we disagree, argue, and publicly hold each other to account for our ideas and actions, we end up better understanding ourselves and the positions we hold. Things get better when we confront our warts and our wounds head on, however uncomfortable that process may be, and especially if some people in this city believe it is impolite to mention them at all.