The candidates face off inside the Belo Mansion in downtown Dallas. Dallas Bar Association

Politics & Government

Eric Johnson, Scott Griggs Trade Jabs in the First Debate of the Mayoral Runoff

Differences between the two candidates in the race are quickly becoming apparent.

On Monday, after a week of political endorsements and some heated back and forth, Dallas got its first chance to see the two remaining mayoral candidates, Councilman Scott Griggs and state Rep. Eric Johnson, head to head. They covered a lot of ground: the development of southern Dallas, the future of VisitDallas, District Attorney John Creuzot’s controversial reform plan, police pay, ethics, and yes, those Brett Shipp tweets that ignited a mini-debate on Twitter over the weekend.

But first, there were opening statements.

Well, actually the statements almost weren’t first. Because before he asked for them, moderator Gromer Jeffers, of the Dallas Morning News, accidentally fired off his Brett Shipp question, about whether Griggs saw a problem with the way his opponent is running his campaign. “So, we’re going to skip opening statements?” Griggs replied. “They’ve got the gotcha question ready to go.”

As it happened, opening statements did end up preceding that question—or, the answers, at least—and Griggs’ next few words told you he was staying his usual course: “Well good afternoon, how are y’all doing?” His statement touched his Dallas bonafides, his Oak Cliff residence, his kids and his city chickens. But he emphasized how he wants to lead the city into a new era by a focusing on the nuts and bolts, things like public safety, neighborhoods, housing, and transportation. He made mention again, as he did at his election night watch party, of his wife’s attendance. With Monday, she’s up to 26 forums. He cut the “more than some candidates” addition this time, making the poke at his opponent a bit more subtle.

Johnson’s opener was less roadmap than personal appeal. “I’m a son of Dallas,” he said. He talked about his upbringing in West Dallas and Oak Cliff. He spoke of the help he received from people in those communities. He talked about earning a scholarship to the Greenhill School and how that led him to Princeton and Harvard. “I’m going to be fighting every single day to make sure that my story, my Dallas story, is the same story that other kids around the city will be able to tell,” he said.

Jeffers came back to Griggs and the question about Shipp’s tweets. We had been scheduled to get our first look at the two candidates last Thursday, a date set prior to the primary election. But the Texas Legislature was in session, and state Rep. Johnson has been clear that he’s prioritizing his duties in Austin over his campaign. So, the Thursday forums were rescheduled. And then Shipp, a former WFAA reporter who has done some paid work for Griggs’ campaign, drove to Austin and snapped photos of Johnson’s empty seat on the floor. Johnson says he was in Dallas for a morning interview and that he still spent 10 hours on the floor that day. Suffice to say that this was not a “put the candidates at ease” sort of opener. As it turned out, Griggs sort of yawned his remarks away. “How Mr. Johnson runs his campaign is how Mr. Johnson runs his campaign,” he said.

“Here’s what I want to tell everyone in this room,” Johnson rebutted. “We have a choice when we campaign about how we’re going to campaign. Generally, that choice falls along these lines: you can be positive and talk about yourself and what you’re going to do or you can be negative and talk about your opponents.”

But as the debate played out, when it came to jabbing at his opponent, Johnson was every bit Griggs’ match. He seemed to allege that his opponent had a dotted ethical past and questioned how Griggs could lead Dallas into a more spotless future. He called out Griggs’ acceptance of campaign donations from the children of lawyer James Stanton and the since indicted developer Ruel Hamilton. (Griggs said he donated the money after this was uncovered by D Magazine and the Dallas Morning News.)

Johnson said his top issue right now is the tone at City Hall, and his reasoning felt pointed squarely at Griggs. Without naming his opponent, he pulled out the word “divisive,” a label the DMN’s editorial board has given Griggs, and said that Dallas’ politics have become snarky and full of personal attacks, things he believes his record as a House uniter proves he can turn around.

When conversation turned to public-private partnerships like VisitDallas, the mess of a visitor’s bureau that just parted ways with its CEO, Johnson credited Griggs for calling for the audit that showed the nonprofit’s true colors. But he said that over eight years, Griggs has “not demonstrated the ability to get the support on a lot of these issues that you’ve now saying, as mayor, you’d be able to change the tone and the tenor of the conversation on.”

Griggs fired back, saying he “built a consensus to save the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System.” He counted on his fingers as he began his list. “Built a consensus and now Phillip Jones is leaving VisitDallas. Built a consensus and on Fair Park, we didn’t give the contract to someone who’s a friend of the mayor, we put it out for open bid. I have built a consensus on so many issues following audits. I have a track record of getting that done.” To my ears, the hoisting up of his resume prompted the loudest crowd response of the afternoon.

But I wouldn’t call the crowd pro-Griggs. It seemed mixed, with folks clapping for ideas that resonated with them regardless of who they came from. A man directly in front of me applauded Griggs’ list and also gave it up for a point by Johnson about growing southern Dallas.

You could feel tension simply built into the two differing styles of debate. Nobody has been as intimately involved with the city as Griggs over the last eight years; he can talk data points all day, quote the specific history of certain city issues, and point to nuanced, multifaceted approaches to tackling various issues.

For better or worse, Johnson’s answers are generally easier to digest. At times, that resonated. At others, Griggs’ intense knowledge of the city won out.

On police pay, Griggs talked about going through the budget with a fine-tooth comb to find things to cut, making way for an increase to police wages from $60,000 to $72,000 a year. Johnson talked about needing to grow the tax base to bring about those increases, and he said the way to do it is by growing southern Dallas.

On southern Dallas, Griggs pumps his start-small successes in North Oak Cliff, which he wants to serve as a model. He wants pocket parks and street lamps. He wants to partner with DISD and the Dallas County Community College District. He talks about tax abatements for the right companies that agree to hire Dallas workers.

Johnson says Griggs is only trying to keep up with his own agenda.

“I was the first person in this campaign to point out the importance of workforce development and point out the importance of what we need to do in the southern part of the city to enhance our tax base,” he said. “The way forward in terms of developing our city south is to invest in our people. It’s not a new development play. It’s not a gentrification play. There are a lot of a great things about North Oak Cliff, but one of the things we need to do is make sure that the people south of there are invested in in terms of their workforce skills, so they can make more money.”

Both candidates spoke generally in favor of Creuzot’s reforms, with some tepid asterisks. Griggs reiterated his stance that he wants to tear down I-345, while Johnson says he’s for it if he’s shown proof that it wouldn’t disadvantage southern Dallas. And both candidates say they’re in it for the full four years. Johnson was questioned about rumors that he’s only running for mayor to gain steam for a run to replace Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. He called it fake news, said he has never said anything like that publicly, and vowed to serve all four years of his mayoral term—or even eight—if elected.

To close, Griggs returned to his well-established talking points and Johnson again positioned himself as the man who can unite this city, taking one last shot at the Councilman. “It is one thing to write a scathing critique of Gone with the Wind,” he said. “It is another thing to write Gone With the Wind.”

We’re 26 days from naming a new mayor. There’s another debate on the docket tomorrow. If Monday was any indication, we’re in for an interesting four weeks.

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