Sunday, May 26, 2024 May 26, 2024
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Local Government

On Election Night, Eric Johnson Becomes Mayor and Scott Griggs Says Goodbye

Saturday night was an evening of change in Dallas politics.
At Eric Johnson’s election night party, the crowd, like the candidate, took its time. Maybe the group was so confident that they were willing to spend a few more minutes at home or pop over to another candidate’s gathering first. From here, the result seemed like a foregone conclusion. Johnson’s campaign had even printed the phrase “VICTORY PARTY” on the staff and media passes. Regardless, it made for a strange moment when early voting results appeared on the county’s election website at 7 p.m. The party had yet to take off, but Eric Johnson had won.

There were a few slow conversations at the sparsely populated tables inside the Fairmont Hotel’s International Ballroom, in downtown. One gentleman at a table was on his phone, maybe checking the results and maybe not. There had been months of buildup to this moment, with nine candidates, dozens of forums, millions of dollars spent. Johnson emerged with what proved to be an insurmountable lead—a full 7,000 votes up, 16 percentage points.

His opponent, North Oak Cliff Councilman Scott Griggs, hadn’t arrived at his own party when those results were published. His campaign had booked the historic Longhorn Ballroom in the Cedars, a 2,500-person venue that attracted maybe 250 to 300 during the peak of the night. At one point, the power even went out—an ominous sign. There had been hope that Griggs’ message resonated with voters in the month before the runoff election. The candidate courted support from the largest police and fire unions and called public safety his top concern. In May, there were 40 homicides in Dallas, the most in a single month in almost three decades. It became the headline-grabbing topic of the many debates—Griggs calling it a “crisis,” Johnson arguing that the mayor should instead keep a cool head about it.

The two had emerged as very different candidates, with Johnson courting support from the city’s business class. Griggs mostly stayed at the neighborhood level, garnering more donations in the runoff but about $500,000 less than his opponent. When there were nine people vying for your vote, it was tough to tell what set them apart. With two, you saw Griggs the policy wonk, a man who took to forums the depth of knowledge that comes with being a councilman for eight years, doing his best to avoid the alphabet soup of acronyms that sustains city policymakers. Johnson, meanwhile, spoke in broad terms about growing the tax base in southern Dallas and reforming the ethics policies at City Hall, a place where multiple council members had admitted to taking bribes in recent years. Johnson tied Griggs to his allies, namely the hawk-eyed but volatile Councilman Philip Kingston, whose bombast Johnson said was partly why he decided to seek the mayor’s seat in the first place.

Johnson argued that he was the man to bring the city together, that Kingston and Griggs had done more to create an unhelpful us-versus-them atmosphere.

Like in any Dallas municipal election, you are speaking to a narrow slice of registered voters. About 10 percent of the registered voters went to the polls. So true or not, Johnson’s pitch was welcomed by far more. By the end of the night, Johnson had vanquished Griggs by 11 percentage points, and Kingston had been defeated by a man whom he had beaten easily in 2013, the mortgage banker and father of seven David Blewett.

“I saw my city at a turning point,” Johnson said. “At a very, very important juncture in its history where we had a choice to make as to whether or not we were going to double down on division and name calling and lack of decorum and lack of unity of purpose and lack of unity of spirit. Or we were going to change direction?”

Eric Johnson greets supporters at the Fairmont Hotel after winning the mayor’s race over Councilman Scott Griggs. (Photo by Bret Redman)

Johnson promised there would be time for broader discussions about the city’s future at his June 17 inauguration at the Winspear. He dedicated much of his election night speech to giving thanks. He thanked his wife, Nikita, who was standing to his left, calling her “wonder woman.” He stared at his mother in the front row: “All the football uniforms you washed on your hands and knees; we didn’t have a washer and dryer. All the running back and forth between Greenhill and Oak Cliff and West Dallas. Momma, I’m so thankful to you for all of it.”

He thanked his dad. He mentioned the past mayors and current council members who publicly took his side. He called out grade-school teachers; one had gotten delayed during her travel to Dallas and another was given the honor of introducing the mayor-elect for the first time. He commended Griggs on his vigorous campaign and thanked him for his eight years of service to the city. On Sunday morning, he would tell WFAA’s Jason Whitely that he had not received a phone call from his opponent.

And still he distanced himself from another Dallas faction to which few could deny he owes gratitude, the rich and politically connected cohort whose feelings were revealed in a secret recording just nine days before the election. Johnson himself raised nearly $850,000 in the month after he made the runoff, bringing his total to more than $1.55 million since announcing his candidacy. Onstage, Johnson declared he was not anyone’s “tool” nor anyone’s “fool,” smiling for a second at the rhyme.

Johnson instead angled the narrative toward what they did with that money, the campaign’s grassroots approach. He called his campaign’s avoidance of TV ads unheard of for one of the largest cities in the United States and noted its decision to do away with billboard ads, save for a few digital ones toward the end. He put the credit squarely with his campaign manager, Mary Elbanna, whom he called “easily the best combination of brains and work ethic that I have ever been blessed enough to work with.”

“This campaign was largely her baby. She was the architect of it,” he said. “There was tremendous pressure to make our campaign look like the other successful mayoral campaigns that came before it. I will have to give her credit; she was strong enough to resist all of it.”

“I’m not anybody’s tool. I’m not anybody’s fool. I’m a person who loves Dallas.”

Mayor-elect Eric Johnson

His diverse audience was filled with high-profile members of the community as well as politicians. U.S. Rep. Colin Allred was in the building, as was state Sen. Royce West, and state Reps. Rafael Anchia and Victoria Neave. Also present were council members Tennell Atkins, Jennifer Staubach Gates, and Adam McGough. Edna Pemberton, Red Bird’s biggest advocate, echoed Johnson’s sentiment.

“I wasn’t going to support anybody who wouldn’t continue the support of Mayor Rawlings on GrowSouth and really rebuilding Dallas,” she said, referring to the mayor’s two-term effort to increase investment in southern Dallas. “He’s been a unifier, and that’s what we need in Dallas right now.”

Johnson’s party was kept more private than you might expect on election night. In the days leading up the event, the campaign did not answer emails to several local print reporters, including D Magazine, about where it would take place. Upon arrival, media were told not to conduct interviews inside the party, a consequence, a spokesperson said, of partygoers who’d complained about media questions after Johnson’s event in May.

Before the party ended and as Johnson continued to talk with people, our photographer was ushered out of the party by staff who remarked that “rules were rules,” although the photographer had not been told about any rules. It’s not clear whether these were top-down commands from the mayor-elect or strategic decisions by the campaign. But at one point before Johnson took the stage, a group of staff and volunteers were instructed to crowd toward the ropes so that they could be recognized, which pushed a few reporters back. “Eric is dictating how he wants this,” a woman said as she coordinated the group.

Councilman Scott Griggs embraces a supporter at the Longhorn Ballroom during his mayoral watch party. (Photo by Bret Redman)

Griggs’ party was far more casual. There were tacos and free Miller Lite, not carving stations like at Johnson’s. Griggs arrived at the Longhorn a little before 9 p.m., three hours after the doors opened. His supporters clapped and whistled and reached out to him. He corralled the media in a corner and then gave his full attention to the attendees. Some of the crowd seemed uncomfortable when asked to speak on the record. Councilman Adam Medrano said flatly “no” when asked if he wanted to comment. Chad West, the councilman who was elected to succeed Griggs in District 1, spoke of how inspired he was by the candidate, how Griggs is “the hardest worker and smartest person in the room.”

“That will be missed at City Hall,” he said, before leaving to attend Kingston’s party at the Statler.

The night at the Longhorn was subdued, all sympathetic smiles and back pats, like everyone was watching a movie despite knowing the ending. While the polls were open, there was more nervous excitement. Volunteers Olga Pope and Elliott Navarro spent most of the 95-degree day baking under a tree in a parking lot outside the Oak Lawn Library polling location. They were there on behalf of Kingston, and both spoke of his advocacy for paid sick leave and pay raises for workers at Love Field. Pope noted Kingston’s advocacy for the LGBTQ community, and Navarro reiterated that the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based nonprofit that represents low-income workers, had endorsed Kingston and Griggs.

“For this neighborhood specifically, I live here and look at Philip as the protector of the neighborhood,” Pope said.

A total of 596 cast ballots at that location, and Kingston won by about 100. Pope and Navarro thought the turnout bode well for their candidate. Even Warren Johnson, who was defeated by Blewett and Kingston in the general election and spent most of his funding on mailers attacking Kingston, stopped by to check on the turnout. He’d come from Reverchon, which had just 115 voters two hours before the polls closed. Warren Johnson said Kingston was “a really weird dude,” and that his attitude and his push to remove Confederate statues prompted him to join the race.

“I would drive by that Lee statue every day. It was like that tree,” he said, pointing across the parking lot. “It was just there.”

The thinking was that Kingston would get out enough Oak Lawn voters to nullify Blewett’s support from the east. That didn’t happen. Ironically, Warren Johnson’s 10 percent of the vote probably was the reason Kingston even made the runoff. The incumbent softened his touch in May, touting his customer service and reliability, but it didn’t work. Kingston fell and so did Griggs, and just like that, the two most prominent progressive leaders on the Council—the men who helped kill the Trinity toll road, who brought to light the mayor’s plan to hand over Fair Park to a friend, who discovered that the pricy pedestrian bridge over the Trinity wasn’t safe to traverse—were out.

“I encourage you to keep up the fight at City Hall. Please do it,” Griggs said to about 60 people a little after 10:30 p.m., after many of his supporters had cleared out. “We’ve got to make sure we have accountability and transparency in our government and safe, strong neighborhoods. So please, each and every one of you, continue the fight.”

Griggs did not mention his opponent during the speech. Meanwhile, his supporters began to accept that it was over. They turned their attention to Eric Johnson and the hope that he would take some of what Griggs advocated for and apply it at City Hall.

“Small projects, community representation, all of those issues that are very important and oftentimes, when you talk about black and brown voters, they’re often neglected because they don’t make up the stronghold of the vote,” said Venton Hill-Jones, a Griggs volunteer and the CEO of the Southern Black Policy and Advocacy Network. “Scott listened to those voices. Scott took those voices. Scott went so far as to put his own cell phone number to be connected to those voices. And now, Eric Johnson will have to make sure that he follows through on his campaign to hold those voices dear.”

Griggs didn’t speak to the media after his wife, Mariana, addressed the audience. We don’t know what he thinks about how his loss will affect his policy priorities around the horseshoe. He took a photo of the dance floor while the DJ blared the “Cupid Shuffle” then walked out the back with his wife. They got in a white truck and pointed it back toward Oak Cliff.