Last night, Robert and Maggie Murchison held a fundraiser at their Preston Hollow home for mayoral hopeful and state Rep. Eric Johnson. A surreptitious audio recording of the proceedings was passed along to D Magazine. It shows some interesting — and not altogether truthful — ways in which his opponent, Councilman Scott Griggs, is being depicted to donors.
On the bill was Mayor Mike Rawlings, Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, and Dallas ISD Trustee Dustin Marshall. (All referred to on the flyer as “Hon.,” as to not violate the city’s ethics code that bars sitting elected officials from using their office to endorse another candidate.) They did what you’d expect.
Marshall, who attended the Greenhill School with Johnson, opened the evening talking about his longtime friend and their battles on the football field. Gates spoke next, saying Johnson was the candidate who would work to build coalitions, adding, “I’ve worked with his opponent now for six years. We are friends, we get along. My mom is here. She said not to say anything bad about somebody so I’m going to leave it at that.” Johnson then delivered a more casual version of what you hear during candidate forums, focusing on how to improve workforce training and his desire to grow the tax base in southern Dallas.
Then came former U.S. Ambassador Jeanne Phillips, a senior vice president at Hunt Oil. She delivered the evening’s most interesting remarks. She claimed that Griggs “has voted for every single tax increase since he’s been on the City Council.”
That’s not true. According to the Dallas Central Appraisal District, the city’s property tax rate, as set by the Council when it passes its annual budget, is actually lower now than it was in 2011, Griggs’ first year as a councilman. Peruse them here. I can find no evidence of Griggs voting to raise the property tax rate. It remained the same from 2012 until 2016, and then has dropped each year since 2017. Griggs has voted for cuts to the property tax rates each of the last three years.
Phillips said that a national group called Our Revolution “is actively and aggressively” supporting Griggs, adding, “It’s dangerous for outside groups to come into our hometown and run a national agenda regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on.” Someone in the room interjected that Our Revolution “is the former Bernie Sanders campaign team and platform that celebrates socialism.” This revelation led to audible gasps.
Again, this information isn’t quite accurate. The local chapter of Our Revolution has indeed independently endorsed Griggs; there’s no evidence of outside influence from anyone working on a national level. Griggs today told me, “We have not been endorsed by Bernie Sanders or any national groups.” He said, “We do not coordinate with any other outside groups.” For context, according to an analysis by the Dallas Morning News, about $50,000 of Johnson’s donations—roughly a tenth of his first campaign finance report—came from out-of-state donors.
But I have no doubt about the veracity of the most interesting thing that Phillips said last night. It was a story about how she and Ray Hunt first met with Johnson “about four months ago.” Both Johnson and Phillips confirmed for me today that this meeting took place after Johnson had announced his run for mayor; he says he came to the decision to run “after prayerful consideration with my family.” I’m going to give you the full anecdote transcribed and then the audio itself. Here’s the story Phillips told:
“I first met Eric at SMU. I chaired the Simmons School board and he was a member of the executive board. I met him and he’s a nice guy, and about four months ago he walked into our office. Ray Hunt and I sat down and visited with him, and in the middle of the meeting, we said, ‘Sorry, do you mind if we step outside? We need to visit with each other for a minute.’ I’m sure he thought that was strange. It was strange for us; we’ve never done it in all the time that we worked together. We went outside in the hall and both of us at the same time said, ‘This is the guy. This is the one we’ve been waiting for.’ We had planned to stay out of the race in the first round. A lot of good people were running and we just knew one thing, and I’m going to be very direct here, we did not want to see Scott Griggs elected mayor.”
Here’s the audio (Phillips begins her remarks at the 19:04 mark):
Phillips’ story, along with the Griggs narrative presented last night behind closed doors, will make one man in particular very happy. Dallas Observer city columnist Jim Schutze has for months been writing about the coordination among the city’s rich and powerful to influence the mayoral race. Which, OK, that’s politics. It happens. Not a surprise. But this audio shows how the machine worked, at least last night, in a city whose mayors have found their votes with lots of help from the monied class.
A couple weeks after the meeting with Hunt and Phillips, Johnson’s campaign mailed out a letter soliciting donations. It was signed by people like Hunt, Phillips, Peter Beck, Richard Collins, Doug Deason, Forrest Hoglund, Maggie Murchison, Mike Myers, George Seay III, and Randall Stephenson. And they’re seemingly spooked by Griggs, enough to paint him as a candidate who will hike taxes and stifle development.
“This is a race. This is not a coronation. This is a race,” Phillips said last night. “And we are up against a very serious opponent who will not rest because his supporters have a different reason for going to the polls. They’re against things. We’re for things.”