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Local Government

Mr. Shipp Wants to Go to Washington

Will you send him there to replace Pete Sessions? The longtime newsman is betting you will.

Brett Shipp, wrapped in a peacoat and surrounded by family, told the four cameras and the two dozen or so onlookers on Thursday that he was ready to act out. The longtime Channel 8 investigative journalist was standing on the porch of a home-turned-event-venue in Garland that dates back to 1895, the symbolic “center of the 32nd district,” according to him, where, he said, he has decided to drop the whole impartiality thing and fight back against what is happening in Washington, D.C. by running for congress.

He declared himself a lifelong Democrat, no longer a news reporter but a man who has opinions and passions that he can now publicly declare. For instance: Brett Shipp is pro-choice. It also frees him to admit other things, like that he voted in last year’s Republican primary, an effort to “place a strategic vote to have an impact and I’m not sure that worked out.” He wouldn’t say whom he voted for. Shipp also gets to put a bullseye on the Republican incumbent, Pete Sessions, and actually say so. He argued that his opponent has buddied up to Trump instead of his constituents. However, he did not say much about the four Democratic primary candidates he will have to get past first, some of whom have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that Shipp has not.

But this is Brett Shipp, the dogged reporter who showed that Dallas police in the early 2000s were planting fake drugs on Mexican immigrants, the reporter who got the state involved when Atmos Energy wouldn’t replace the decaying cast-iron gas lines under the city, even after houses exploded. The city watched as County Commissioner John Wiley Price shoved him out of a county building. The city has watched him for 26 years on channels 4 and 8, as a matter of fact, which is why he can announce that he’s launching a congressional campaign five days before the filing deadline and still have a shot. He didn’t offer many details about his ground game up to this point.

“The research is in my heart. It’s in my mind. It’s in my soul. It’s what I see on TV, it’s what I hear from people on the streets; sitting back and doing nothing is no longer acceptable,” Shipp said. “I can beat Pete Sessions. It’s time.” 

A source with close connections to the state and national Democratic cognoscenti told me Thursday that Shipp was not a part of any conversations between the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its state and local affiliates in the race for Sessions’ seat. Shipp says he broke the news to WFAA news director Carolyn Mungo last Saturday, over dinner at Campisi’s, by showing her his yard sign. She probably wouldn’t have believed him otherwise.

(Full disclosure: I worked with Shipp for close to two years at WFAA, where I was a web producer. We sometimes worked closely, in particular on his sweeps season investigations, when I’d edit the television copy to read more like a newspaper story for our website. So it was a bit jarring to hear that Shipp had abruptly resigned to run for office, but it wasn’t a total shock. He’d always been attracted to stories involving powerful people or organizations that could be hiding something. Politics isn’t that far a jump, even if it means becoming the sort of powerful person he once hounded.)

“I’ve just been connecting, networking, getting ideas, conducting what is essentially a new investigation into just what the hell it is I’m about to do,” he told me over the phone Friday. He’s echoing the journalist-turned-politician strategy that he espoused at his press conference, arguing that he’ll take the skills his viewers have grown accustomed to all the way to D.C.: “I’m bringing my biggest, baddest, and brightest flashlight with me. We’re gonna shine a light! We’re gonna shine a light on the wasteful spending. We’re going to expose the broken system. We’re going to call out bad policy that benefits the wealthy and corporations at the expense of the rest of us.”

He says he spent his Friday morning on the other side of the notebook, interviewing with the Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze at a diner off Irving Boulevard, taking some “chin music” from former colleague Jason Whitely and the Star-Telegram’s Bud Kennedy on WFAA’s Inside Texas Politics, getting grilled by the Dallas Morning News’ Gromer Jeffers and NBC 5’s Brian Curtis for its politics show. “It’s good practice to know that people like to come after politicians,” he said. “I need that.”

Shipp says his contract with the station was up in September, but he said he “knew they could not keep me on board.” He added that “they have been so gracious” and said “their reception of me, it moved me to tears.” Local TV news journalist Ed Bark last year quoted a Shipp at a panel, apparently telling a joke:

“You don’t want to ask my opinion of what is going on today in television news. Because I’ll get fired.”

Shipp, both in his press conference and our interview, emphasized that he didn’t want to leave journalism, that he had “the best television reporting job in the country,” that “this was a hard, hard, decision for many, many, many reasons,” adding that “I worry about my deceased father and whether he’s pissed at me,” referring to Bert Shipp, the legendary WFAA news director, reporter, and assignments editor who passed away at 85 years old in 2015.

“But I’ve been torn by trying to balance my role as a journalist and being impartial with my growing disgust over the leadership and direction of this country,” he said. “It’s clear that we live in a system where our government is rigged to benefit the wealthy and the well-connected while ignoring the middle-class Texas families.”

The congressional district Shipp wants to represent is an oddly shaped one (like many). It resembles a cave drawing of a dog, a swath encompassing the Park Cities, North Dallas, Richardson, Garland, Sachse, and Wylie. Democrats did not run a candidate against Sessions last year, and he won in 2014 with 61.4 percent of the vote. He took 2012 with 58.29 percent.

It is a district that narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump (48 percent to 47 percent). Clinton’s flip of the 32nd has made the incumbent appear vulnerable, which has attracted four others to the race. Ed Meier, the would’ve-been transition chief of Hillary Clinton’s White House, has raised about $585,000 as of September 30, according to federal data. Civil rights attorney and former NFL player Colin Allred has raised $245,000. Lilian Salerno, President Barack Obama’s appointee for a position within the Department of Agriculture, has brought in more than $150,000. Attorney George Rodriguez is also in the race.

Shipp will formally file to run on Monday morning, he said.

“This is not all about money,” he said. “I’ve got to raise a lot of money, and, yeah, I’m behind. The others have worked very hard to establish themselves and I have to work very hard. I do feel my trust in the community and the work I have done in this community will help make a difference.”

Attorney Tom Melsheimer will serve as Shipp’s treasurer. His campaign manager is Andrew Smith, a 2013 Boston University grad who has helped get a city councilor reelected in Cambridge, Massachusetts and done field work for politicians like State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). Sessions told our Eric Celeste that he welcomes a fight from the left: “If the Democrats want to think they can take their party, that is dead, and resurrect something in Texas 32, bring it on.” His opponents will likely point to outbursts like the town hall meeting in March, when Sessions told the crowd “you don’t know how to listen.”

Shipp’s No. 1 platform, he said, is promoting unity, to listen to all in the district in order to get votes from both parties in a show of rare civility. He’s tying Sessions to Trump by his voting record, making the bet that there’s enough frustration in the district to identify with.

“Pray for me,” he said Thursday, flashing a smile, patting my arm, rushing back into the crowd that had gathered for Brett Shipp, the politician.