Although he isn’t on the ballot, there is a lot at stake for Mayor Eric L. Johnson in the upcoming Dallas city election. During his first two years in office, Johnson has struggled to establish a clear mayoral directive. This is partly to do to the fact that his term has been dominated by crises, beginning with the North Dallas tornados in 2019 and continuing through COVID-19, the George Floyd protests last summer, and February’s winter storm. Johnson has also butted heads with many top officials at City Hall, and his occasionally combative approach has alienated a Council that has been unwilling to line up behind his policy agenda.
It makes sense, then, that Johnson is publicly backing a few council candidates that are running against incumbents the mayor perceives as obstacles. In the race for District 7, he has come out in support of Donald Parish Jr., the son of a South Dallas preacher, against Adam Bazaldua, one of the loudest progressive voices on the Council. In District 5, Johnson backs perennial candidate Yolanda Faye Williams against Jaime Resendez in a race that has become framed by Resendez’s vote last fall to reduce the police department’s overtime budget. He did so against the mayor’s objections and has raised around $20,000 since Johnson endorsed his opponent. Behind the scenes, there are whispers that Johnson has also stuck his nose into the races to unseat East Dallas council member Paula Blackmon and Oak Cliff representative Carolyn King Arnold.
But on another level, Johnson’s endorsements don’t make any sense at all. I have spoken with a lot of people who have worked with Johnson over the years or have been following his political career since he first ran for the Texas Lege, in 2009. One thing they say is that Johnson doesn’t endorse candidates. Period. They say he sees it as too risky. Why hitch your political fortunes on someone else’s talents and ideas? Perhaps, then, Johnson’s willingness to come out in support of candidates in this year’s city council election suggests an appreciation of just how isolated he has become at City Hall, or a willingness to adapt to the demands of its unique political culture. Regardless, it represents yet another behavioral shift that has baffled many of Johnson’s former colleagues, friends, and associates who confess that they don’t often recognize the mayor as the man they once knew.
I have been speaking with a lot of people about Eric Johnson, trying as best I can to understand the mayor. That hasn’t been easy. Since he was elected mayor, Johnson has refused to speak to D Magazine. He has not given many interviews to print journalists during his first two years in office (and few interviews of much depth to any outlet). And yet, this carefully managed media strategy — contrasted with the high-profile blow-ups at City Hall and relentless chattering and gossip among political insiders about the mayor — has only helped to transform Johnson into one of the most intriguing and confounding figures in Texas politics.
Trying to understand a person who won’t speak with you is difficult. I relied on conversations with dozens of people who have known or worked with the mayor over the years, from childhood friends to professional and political mentors to scorned supporters. Sometimes who was willing to speak — and who was too afraid to talk or would only do so under the condition of anonymity — said more than what they shared.
The result of that reporting is a profile in the May edition of the magazine, which appears online today. My hope is that it will offer a little nuance and depth to our understanding of the individual who is the current mayor of Dallas — a man whose personal story, in many ways, can be viewed as a stand-in for the complicated, conflicted story of our city at this moment in its history.