It took a few questions, but toward the end of Mayor Mike Rawlings’ eighth and final State of the City address on Tuesday afternoon, the mayor finally seemed to slip into a more comfortable, even reflective, place.
The address took the form of a question-and-answer session with Dallas Morning News Deputy of Editorials Director Rudy Bush, who noted that eight years was quite a long time to be mayor of Dallas. Rawlings quipped, sounding tired: “A very long time.”
Bush pointed out that you’d have to go back to Woodall Rodgers—Dallas’ mayor from 1939 to 1947—to find someone who stuck around for as long. “I didn’t know he was a real person,” said Rawlings.
Bush asked what advice Rawlings would like to leave whoever survives the growing pool of candidates to replace him. “First of all,” he replied,” I probably wouldn’t tell them anything, because I’ve learned that people don’t take your advice. They just don’t.”
But he did come around to an answer: “If you don’t know what a servant leader is, hit the book and figure it out. Because this is all about leading from the bottom.” And: “It’s important that we understand that you don’t want to be mayor, you want to do something,” he said. “When I’ve had tough times—and I’ve had many, many tough times—I think about young people and say I’m working for them.”
Rawlings took the stage inside the Hyatt Regency for a final lunchtime address, one that tackled several of the pressing topics of his stint. Some he covered more substantively than others: the economic tale of two cities that separates many northern portions from southern ones; the city’s once-flailing, now improving public school system; its evolving transportation and mobility landscape (“part of it is to keep your head on a swivel and see what’s coming”). Housing, although it permeates many of the other topics discussed, didn’t receive a direct question.
Highlights were highlighted: The property tax base is up big during his tenure, from $82 billion in 2012 to $118 billion in 2018, with a projected $130 billion next year, he said. (“Is it sustainable? That’s pretty steep,” he said). He touted his GrowSouth initiative, saying it has yielded progress in the southern portion of the city (although he launched it as “a bit of a metaphor for including everybody in this growth”). Dallas has gotten greener with more parks, including a recent big win with the privatization of Fair Park.
Add to that the impressive strides within Dallas ISD, for which Rawlings gave credit to the board but pointed out his willingness to think radically about education. He cited his push in 2014 to make Dallas ISD the first home-rule charter in the state, a push that ultimately failed. He called it a “political mistake in some ways” but said it spurred some of the progressive action that has contributed to the district’s turnaround.
On Amazon’s HQ2, Rawlings said the city was able to look itself in the mirror and like what was peering back. “If you just went by the questionnaire, we had great scores,” he said. “We beat anybody for cost of living, all the things we wanted. We didn’t win because of other issues, but that’s OK.”
And on poverty, he voiced frustration at the constant stream of new data on the topic: “I’m tired of all the studies that show we’ve got poverty,” he said. “Because we could’ve figured that out real quick.”
And finally, at the close, Dallas’ 61st mayor made one more suggestion for the 62nd, in the process showing a rare bit of public emotion. He called on the next mayor to build strong partnerships. “My partnership starts at home with my—“ he paused for a long time, before Bush pointed into the crowd for Rawlings’ wife, Micki, to stand up.
“This city, for me, can be the prototypical best city for North America in the 21st century. We’re a young whipper snapper. We’re out of college. We’re 24 years old. We’ve got a lot of testosterone. We’re doing our thing,” Rawlings said. “We’ve got to make sure that we grow up and be all that we can be.”