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Mayoral Hopefuls Debated at Northaven United Methodist

We've got two more months of this, people. Stay alert!
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Fissures are beginning to show between Dallas’ mayoral candidates.

At a forum on Thursday night in North Dallas, six of the nine got a little over an hour to share their visions for the city. Many of the candidates, in interviews following their initial announcements, spoke generally about addressing the city’s most pressing issues, which include a shortage of police and fire fighters, fixing potholes and the city’s broken infrastructure, and building affordable housing. Now we’re hearing more specifics: whether we should stand up to the Legislature’s attempts to cap property tax rates or collaborate with state lawmakers, whether we should pursue charter schools or invest in our improving school district, and how to use the 1,500 properties sitting idly in our frozen land bank program.

The organizer was the group Women of Dallas United for Action, and the event sold out 250 seats at the Northaven United Methodist Church, off Preston Road. Lucy Billingsley, the co-founder and partner of Billingsley Co., moderated. Participating were Scott Griggs, the North Oak Cliff councilman; Eric Johnson, a Democratic state representative; Lynn McBee, the volunteer, civic leader, and CEO of the Young Women’s Preparatory Network; Regina Montoya, the attorney and civic leader; Miguel Solis, the Dallas ISD trustee; and Jason Villalba, a former Republican state representative. Developer Mike Ablon was on the lineup but was traveling.

Billingsley opened by asking how the candidates would navigate the city’s strong city manager/weak mayor form of government, which means the top position will need to build consensus around priority topics. Each then gave a brief biography and spoke of the need to bring people together in various ways, mostly to help create an equitable city where opportunity isn’t out of reach for so many. Nothing you haven’t heard before if you’ve been following the race.

She asked about mayoral appointments, to which Montoya and Johnson cited their own time on various boards. Montoya mentioned being aghast at the recent 20 percent DART rate hikes. Johnson vowed to “appoint people in a geographically diverse way, a racial and economically diverse way” and promised not to use the power for “crony positions.” Solis got granular. He, too, zoomed into DART and its prioritization of the region over the city. He noted how inefficient its bus route system is, how he met a woman he called “Ms. Mary,” who “plans four hours of her day trying to catch a bus on time to go pay bills, to go to the doctor, to get her groceries, and come home.”

“That is unjust,” he said, and board appointees have the power to help change that.

Things got interesting when Billingsley asked about the deep divisions that exist within the city, both shown in how segregated we are racially and economically. Griggs brought up how federally defined Racially and Economically Concentrated Areas of Poverty—abbreviated as R/ECAPs—have ballooned, even in the past 10 years. There were 18 in 1990 and now there are 36. These are areas defined as neighborhoods that count at least 50 percent non-white residents and 40 percent who are living below the federal poverty line, which is an annual household income of about $25,100 for a family of four.

“These are predominantly in southern Dallas, and they were about 20 square miles, the size of DeSoto,” he said. “That has doubled in size and grew to be an area over 40 square miles … about the size of Carrollton.”

Much of what is being proposed—whether that’s infrastructure improvements or police and fire raises or universal pre-K—hinge on having the money to pay for it.

He called for the city to win federal grants to pay for infrastructure improvements in these parts of town, which are pockets of concentrated poverty without much opportunity. He said more bond money should be deployed in these areas: “We need to be more targeted in our approach.” McBee said something similar, also calling for federal funds to be deployed. She also said the city should push for more federal low-income housing credits for developers, to add to the stock of affordable housing. She didn’t specify whether these should be prioritized in areas that have jobs and services, as suggested by the city’s housing policy. Much of the reason Dallas has such pockets of concentrated poverty is because federal dollars went toward shoving nearly all of its low-income housing south of the Trinity, away from job centers. Montoya noted a recent report that found 100,000 children live in poverty in Dallas, and 50,000 of those live in households that make $14,000 a year or below.

“We need to recognize the decisions that got us to this point,” Solis said during his time, echoing one of his familiar talking points. “This didn’t happen in manifest from nowhere, there were intentional decisions over the course of a century that got us to this point.”

And then it was off to education. McBee spoke of the success she’s had with the Young Women’s Preparatory Network, which helps steer young women to STEM schools. She said 100 percent of the young women graduated from high school and “100 percent were accepted to college.” She noted last year that 358 girls had received $53 million in scholarships. She called for public private partnerships to help shore up the financial gaps created by the state’s funding mechanism for public schools.

“We know when you strategically place private dollars in the public space that the outcomes are grand,” McBee said.

Griggs began his time by saying he “will not support a takeover of DISD” or “support DISD turning over to charter schools.” He noted that the state’s Robin Hood law requires Dallas ISD to send money to the state due to the city’s property wealth. Solis noted that the state isn’t required to spend that money on education, as many think, but can go “toward special projects.” Griggs and Solis both vowed to use the mayor’s seat to fight for school finance reform in Austin.

Villalba went the opposite way. He said he is “a champion of public schools, but charter schools are public schools. Charter schools have worked in areas where there has been a lack of proper neighborhood public schools.” It was the first time in the evening that he called for the city to be more collaborative with Austin lawmakers, which was the opposite stance of many on the stage.

Here’s Solis: “We need to create a coalition of big-city mayors to pool our resources, get a legislative agenda we can all agree on, get down to Austin and get our legislators working for us on comprehensive school finance reform.”

Here’s Griggs: “Over the next five years, over a billion dollars will leave DISD and go to the general fund in Austin. That is not right. … We can stop this if we stand up to the state government.”

Here’s Villalba: “Local officials would come down to our offices and dictate to us how we were going to vote, tell us what we’re going to do … they didn’t get a lot done. The way you get things done is you put people in the same room and you work together.”

This dovetailed into a conversation about rising property taxes, which Villalba said was “going to take away the American dream for a number of people.” Gov. Greg Abbott is pushing a bill that would cap the amount cities can raise property taxes each year without a public vote to 2.5 percent; it’s currently at 8 percent. The Legislative Budget Board projects that the bill will short local operating budgets by $900 million, which would instead remain with taxpayers.

This hung high over the forum. Much of what is being proposed—whether that’s infrastructure improvements or police and fire raises or universal pre-K—hinge on having the money to pay for it. Johnson called for an interlocal agreement with the city, county, school district, and community college district to create a focus on workforce development “to develop the skills they need for 21st century jobs.” Solis called for expanding the school district’s existing partnerships with 60 companies, which places students in internships while they’re in high school.

Johnson, speaking about property taxes, read from a piece of paper: “I’m gonna inject some facts in this. Everything everyone said up here, I understand it, but none of it will matter if what I tell you right now in this letter happens.” The letter was from Mayor Mike Rawlings, he said, and it contained some real doomsday numbers. If the 2.5 percent cap holds, the annual loss would be $32 million, “equivalent to salary, pension, and benefits of 358 uniformed officers.”

“What’s going on in the Legislature right now, what Gov. Abbott is proposing is going to destroy our ability to do exactly what these folks are talking about,” he said. McBee followed up his speech by saying she’d like to get first responders raises to get starting salaries “close to $70,000,” which would be about a $10,000 more. She said the city could make money by selling training to smaller cities. Griggs said he would find money by cutting out “vanity projects” like the Calatrava bridge and the white-water rapid feature in the Trinity, both of which he voted against.

The night was illuminating in how the candidates are seeking to separate themselves from one another—we’ll see if that can happen once all nine candidates wind up on stage at the same time.

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