Scott Griggs and Eric Johnson at the NBC 5 and Dallas Morning News debate at El Centro Community College on May 14, 2019.

Politics

Another Day, Another Punchy Mayoral Debate Between Scott Griggs and Eric Johnson

Ethics takes center stage in the second debate between the two candidates for mayor.

Tuesday’s hourlong mayoral runoff forum at El Centro was in many ways a continuation of yesterday’s Dallas Bar-sponsored debate at the Belo Mansion. There were plenty of jabs between Councilman Scott Griggs and state Rep. Eric Johnson, but their policy differences are becoming more apparent.

This event—hosted by The Dallas Morning News, NBC 5, and the Dallas Regional Chamber—covered a wide range of topics, from ethics reform to how to grow southern Dallas. But each candidate seemed most focused on establishing how their personalities, ethics, and leadership differ. Johnson posited himself as a candidate who has proven in the Legislature that he can work with people who think differently than him, a crucial quality in a weak-mayor system like what exists in Dallas. Councilman Scott Griggs presented himself as the back-to-basics candidate, the longtime City Hall representative who will prioritize the needs of the city over the region and go to work on improving infrastructure and bolstering resources for public safety.

The two candidates to make it out of the May 4 election have been rapidly lining up their supporters. Hours after Tuesday’s forum, Johnson stood on the roof of a Cedars hotel with seven council members and Mayor Mike Rawlings, who announced that they “wholeheartedly endorse” the state representative. (That group included Lee Kleinman, Carolyn King Arnold, Casey Thomas, Adam McGough, Tennell Atkins, and Jennifer Staubach-Gates.) Just before that, The Real Estate Council, the powerful promotions and education arm of the city’s development community, added its endorsement to Johnson’s list, which is getting to be too long to fit on a mailer.

Griggs has earned the support of the Dallas Police Association, which waited until after the runoff to endorse a candidate, and five of his colleagues on the City Council—Adam Medrano, Omar Narvaez, Mark Clayton, Sandy Greyson, and Philip Kingston. He raised less than half of his runoff opponent in the primary, and he has used this as an underdog rallying cry that Johnson refutes.

“For too long in the city of Dallas, we’ve had a select group of power brokers that send out a letter to pick the next mayor,” Griggs said. “They have a fundraiser, raise half a million dollars, one and done. That needs to change. It’s actually suppressing the vote in the city of Dallas. We want to give the people of Dallas a choice.”

This dichotomy has already painted the two debate forums.

Griggs wanted to talk about the services that keep the city going. He’s a details guy, and that’s where he’s most comfortable. He zeroed in on Dallas being “in a public safety crisis” and mentioned the need to find money in the budget to raise salaries for first responders. He said this was his No. 1 focus, and believed there to be as much as $30 million in the budget that can be reallocated. Johnson instead said ethics reform was the top priority for City Hall, but touted his own record more than any specific plan. He said it was important to grow the tax base by luring more businesses to Dallas; to do that, he said he would increase workforce training, particularly in southern Dallas.

Johnson also frequently questioned the record of his opponent and his ability to build a consensus; he even used Griggs’ successes against him. He also used his alignment with Councilman Philip Kingston as a negative, using the narrative that Griggs and his allies have been difficult to work with and overly critical of their colleagues. The councilman responded by ticking off the same list of wins that he did on Monday—helping save the failing police and fire pension, getting Fair Park’s operations put out to bid, saving Dallas parkland from gas drilling, and helping spur change for the problematic operations at VisitDallas.

“Your track record doesn’t really support this idea of being a strong consensus builder,” Johnson said. “Part of being a leader is taking responsibility for not just the successes of a collective but the failures. So I think if you’re going to take credit for the issues that you’ve been working on where you say you’ve built consensus, you have to also take responsibility for the things you’ve been critical of other City Council members for.”

To Johnson, Griggs being critical of City Hall’s failures was also an indictment of his own performance around the horseshoe. He again called him “divisive,” that descriptor that has followed him off the Dallas Morning News’ editorial page. (“For years, people have been labeling common sense as divisive,” Griggs shot back.)

For VisitDallas, the convention and visitor bureau that accepted millions of public dollars but lacked any sort of metrics to prove its success, Griggs’ efforts weren’t enough for Johnson. He said change should’ve come sooner. Griggs debated his opponent with details, saying that the state blocked the release of public records that he had requested as part of the Freedom of Information Act. Then, he took his concerns to the city auditor and asked for the analysis that exposed the problems within the organization.

“I was one of the first council members to say that we’ve got a problem here that we need to address,” Griggs said.

Johnson stuck to his strategy, returning to general questions of Griggs’ ability to lead.

“This is yet another one of the situations where the question is, where have you been for the past eight years that this happened on your watch?” Johnson retorted. “It’s a question of leadership.”

Griggs offered more in the way of policy ideas. For ethics reform, he wants to bar City Council members from speaking with low-income housing developers who had submitted requests for financial help with City Hall. That is how former Councilwoman Carolyn Davis got caught up in accepting $40,000 in bribes from a developer in return for her prioritizing his project. Griggs said he wanted to create an easily searchable database of all campaign contributions and require council members to keep a record of visits by lobbyists. He wants to record executive Council sessions and make them public after there “is no longer a reason to keep them secret.” He’d also create an Office of Financial Responsibilities to investigate ethical claims.

Johnson touted his own record around ethics. In particular, he highlighted his recent attempt to get a bill passed to remove elected officials from the process with which the state determines where to send federal funds to help pay for low income housing developments. The bill hasn’t made it out of committee, but Johnson said he was confident he could achieve its goal by adding an amendment to another bill that’s further along. Johnson again brought up Griggs’ accepting of donations from school-aged children, as well as the indicted developer, Ruel Hamilton, who is accused of paying off Davis.

“This is rich. I mean, Scott, you and I have been friends for a long time,” Johnson said. “But I will tell you this, it’s incomprehensible to me that you would sit here on this stage and imply that you don’t have donations from wealthy individuals in this town. You have donations from people who are under federal indictment. You have donations from wealthy Republican judges who have been giving money through their children to you.”

Griggs said he donated all of the money as soon as he learned about where the money had come from, and then alleged that Johnson had not given back past contributions from former Councilman Larry Duncan, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion as part of a bribery scheme while he was board president of Dallas County Schools. This triggered the following exchange.

“Larry Duncan was a democratically elected official and long before I had any idea of what was going on with anything involving with Larry Duncan, he made contributions or a contribution, I suppose, to my campaign, along with dozens of other elected officials over the 10 years I’ve been in office,” Johnson said. “There’s no way for me to know what Larry Duncan’s contribution, where it is in my, in terms of relative to how much money I received and how much is Larry Duncan’s, but I have received money from dozens and dozens and dozens of elected officials over a 10 year period, so I have no idea what that has to do with a mayoral race, with you taking money from this race from children.”

“I did not take money in this race from children,” Griggs said. “That needs to be corrected. I did not. My campaign is so ethical. If any past contributions are shown up, even if they’re 10 years ago, from anyone whose questionable, I give it back.”

Based on these two forums, expect more of this in the coming debates. There will almost certainly be ethical back-and-forths. Expect a lot of policy talk and criticism of City Hall’s past from Griggs. From Johnson, expect a fair amount of aggression toward his opponent and passion around how he can build consensus around issues at City Hall. He called Griggs a “perpetual and persistent critic of our city” and added that “the mayor of Dallas has to love Dallas.”

“My love for Dallas is not questionable,” Griggs responded.

Before the debate began, Griggs and Johnson were brought out on stage six minutes prior to its 11:30 start time. Which meant there was six minutes of dead time. Griggs took out a kerchief and brushed off Johnson’s shoulder. The men smiled and joked and had their makeup reapplied. And then they went after one another, as they will until the runoff election on June 8.

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