Dallas met its new mayor and City Council on Monday. At the Winspear, seven new faces and seven returning ones—with one absence—took their oaths and swore to faithfully execute the duties of the office.
Former Mayor Mike Rawlings earned a standing ovation. He told the packed Winspear Opera House that today was a day for thank yous and for welcomes.
“Our city is special. It will face harsh winds at times, but we are made of something unique,” he said, and then referenced the city’s response after literal harsh winds took power from hundreds of thousands of Dallasites over the last two weekends and did much worse to residents of an apartment complex in Old East Dallas.
But more than anything, Monday was about one man, Eric Johnson, who officially became Dallas’ 60th mayor at about 10:40 a.m. Later in the day, Johnson and his colleagues took their seats around the horseshoe for the first time and unanimously selected Adam Medrano as mayor pro tem.
The new Council then voted down a motion to make fourth-term Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates the deputy mayor pro tem. Johnson and Gates voted for it along with Cara Mendelsohn, Chad West, and Carolyn King Arnold. The Council then unanimously selected Adam McGough for the role instead, meaning three men will again occupy the horseshoe’s highest seats. (The mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem titles have traditionally gone to black and Latino council members when there is a white mayor, to ensure diversity among the leadership roles. Johnson is black, Medrano is Latino, and McGough is white. The mayor pro tem assumes the mayor’s duties should the mayor step down, and also runs meetings in his absence.)
But back at the morning’s inauguration, Johnson took the microphone, declared campaign season dead, and delivered his vision for his next four years. That vision carries distinct similarities to his campaign priorities. It also ventures into new territory and digs deeper into areas he’d only touched on during debates. He did not address the shooting outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building about two hours earlier.
Those who closely followed the race won’t be surprised to see the inclusion of Johnson’s goals to bring greater civility to City Hall, eradicate corruption, and develop Dallas’ workforce. He delivered those as three prongs of his five-part agenda.
Often as an indictment of his opponent, the term-limited Councilman Scott Griggs, civility and divisiveness became some of Johnson’s biggest talking points on the campaign trail. During one debate, he went so far as to say the tactics of former Councilman Philip Kingston, a Griggs ally, helped motivate his run for Dallas mayor. On Monday, Johnson said he’d be keeping an open door and an open mind, and asked that Council members treat each other “with a spirit of grace, a tone of civility, and we need to be coming from a posture of friendship.”
He said he’d work with that Council to solve the city’s well-documented ethics problems. And on workforce development, which he called his No. 1 priority while campaigning, he brought into focus his plan. He will create a new City Council committee focused on education and workforce needs and appoint a “czar or czarina” with the same aim.
He also spoke about education.
“We’ll continue to push for common sense ideas like expanding full-day, public pre-K, aligning our public schools with 21st century workforce needs, and improving access to affordable childcare,” he said. Enhancing the workforce will take buy-in from across the spectrum, Johnson said, referencing City Hall, businesses, neighborhood and community organizations, and everything from local school districts to community colleges. “Let’s work together to improve our public schools and let’s work together to develop a more skilled workforce to lift our fellow Dallasites out of poverty and make our city more prosperous and equitable.”
New to his agenda was a focus on improving access to data, a topic that escaped much chatter from any candidate during debate season. During these times of state-imposed tax rate caps on cities, “we simply can’t afford to fund programs or initiatives whose effectiveness is not or cannot be supported by data.” He said he wants more data to be readily available to the public. “We must provide a higher level of customer service, transparency, and accountability to our residents if we truly want to be a 21st century city,” he said.
Last came public safety. During the campaign, Johnson was criticized for a tepid response to Dallas’ recent spat of violent crime, where the city saw more murders during the month leading up to the runoff—May—than in any single month since the 1990s. Griggs called it a crisis. Johnson initially categorized that response as fear mongering, but strengthened his rhetoric closer to Election Day. With the election behind him, Johnson says he’s encouraging Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall to involve federal, state, and county authorities. He said he’s spoken with the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety—Steve McCraw—and was told the department “stands ready” to assist in the same way it did last year during a spike in San Antonio.
But there also appears to be a tweak in his approach to police pay. During debates, Griggs had said he could find the money in the budget to increase officer salaries to combat the police force’s workforce shortage. Johnson said he’d pay for new officers through his larger plans to attract business and increase the tax base, bringing more money to the city’s coffers. But the mayor now puts pay on his agenda. “I will also work with our new City Council, our city manager, and our police chief to address in a sustainable way our police officer shortage by tackling the issue of officer salaries and benefits and also the issue of low morale within our police department,” he said. (Despite how most debate questions were framed, it is important to note that the mayor’s vote on such matters carries equal weight to anyone else on the Council.)
As he closed, Johnson took a couple glances back at his new colleagues around the horseshoe. The new faces: District 1’s West, District 5’s Jaime Resendez, District 7’s Adam Bazaldua, District 9’s Paula Blackmon, District 12’s Mendelsohn, and District 14’s David Blewett. The returning: District 2’s Medrano, District 3’s Casey Thomas, District 4’s Arnold, District 6’s Omar Narvaez, District 8’s Tennell Atkins, District 10’s McGough, District 11’s Lee Kleinman (who was absent due to a family issue), and District 13’s Gates. He asked Dallas to get involved and help them out.
“It is indeed a new day in Dallas,” he said. “Together, we can be one Dallas with one vision. We can be one people, with one incredibly bright future. That’s our mission.”