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Politics & Government

Overlooked: Dallas Council Weighs Changing Race-Based Voting For Mayor Pro Tems

The election of Chad West and Jaime Resendez didn’t get a lot of ink. But the motion to reduce their terms to one-year from two signals more changes to come.
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Kelsey Shoemaker

After the new Dallas City Council was sworn in at the Meyerson Symphony Center earlier this month, the 15 members made their way to City Hall to elect a mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem.

This process happens every two years and is rarely the stuff of news. But on this day, an event worthy of notice went down.

Since 1990 the election of mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem has been based on what the city parliamentarian calls a “custom.” The custom as practiced provides for the top three positions to be elected along racial lines: one Black member, one Hispanic, one White. The selection process takes place behind closed doors; the decision is often made by the time the matter is made public.

Mayor Eric Johnson is Black. Employing racial protocol, the council elected Councilman Chad West, a White man who represents North Oak Cliff’s District 1, mayor pro tem. Councilman Jaime Resendez, a Latino man who represents southeast Dallas’ District 5, was elected deputy mayor pro tem. Both have served single terms on council.

But before the pro forma election was held, Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas and Fair Park in District 7, lobbed a parliamentary grenade. He motioned to modify the terms of the appointments from two years to one. He proposed an annual election to be held in the final agenda meeting of June before the council breaks for summer. He also wants a more formal process, where would-be pro tems would have to make their case publicly instead of privately.

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of District 12 in Far North Dallas, backed Bazaldua, arguing that “the system of selecting council leadership is broken.” She wants hopefuls to fill out surveys that show the work they’ve done beyond their districts and incorporate tenure and other qualifying elements.

“As some of these discussions have unfolded, this innovative idea to change the term of service from two years to one year looks like it could provide more opportunities for leadership and a more inclusive selection of candidates,” Mendelsohn said.

Bazaldua’s motion passed. He said he felt it was time the council considered a new way forward that would be more inclusive for women, non-binary individuals, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and any other demographic that doesn’t neatly fit in the council’s box.

The “custom” at City Hall—unwritten, not in the charter, not on paper anywhere—began in 1990 after the Dallas City Council transformed itself under court order to a 14-1 system, eliminating at-large council districts. The objective was to ensure that representation in council leadership would be distributed equitably, especially among people of color. Mayor Steve Bartlett was the first mayor under the 14-1 system. He was White, soft-spoken, and conservative. His mayor pro tem was Al Lipscomb, who was Black and one of the most vocal and visible activists of his day.

Bartlett in a recent conversation recalled Lipscomb as a solid mayor pro tem, and says they worked well together. When the custom works, you get a mind like Bartlett’s alongside one like Lipscomb’s, increasing the chance of new insight among policymakers that may have otherwise not been present at the leadership table.

But Bazaldua’s motion challenged whether the custom after all these years remains an equitable arrangement. After all, having a Black mayor means City council member Carolyn King Arnold, a Black woman, would not be considered to serve in either position. Which in and of itself poses a question of fairness.

“We have not had an African American woman to serve in either of those two positions since the honorable Diane Ragsdale,” Arnold said. Ragsdale once served as deputy mayor pro tem during her time on the council through the 1980s and early 1990s.

The horse-trading behind the scenes is just as fraught. To pre-select nominees for the second and third leadership posts, depending on the race of the mayor, the Black members caucus, the White members caucus, and the Hispanic members caucus. Each race-based caucus selects its candidate. Council members who are multi-racial have to declare at the outset which caucus they identify with. That modification creates political gamesmanship that has no bearing on an individual’s qualifications for the job.

Bazaldua and Mendelsohn both addressed this in their speeches defending the motion. (Another interesting fold: former Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates said that since the White council members had not caucused while Mike Rawlings was serving as mayor, she got a late start when she tried her own run at a pro tem position under Mayor Johnson. Only five members of council voted for her two years ago.)

At the same time, Dallas is buzzing with rumors of numerous sitting council members exploring mayoral runs in two years. God bless you all. It’s an impossible job. But that makes for a lot of jockeying for position at a time when our city is facing a mountain of stressors.

And there’s another point to consider for this discussion.

In his comments on Bazaldua’s motion, Mayor Johnson described the positions of mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem as largely ceremonial. (They also get larger offices than their colleagues, for what it’s worth.) And in recent years that’s been the case—a glorified substitute teacher, proxy ribbon cutter. But Councilwoman Arnold, who spoke quite eloquently during this month’s session, reminded the mayor that it is up to him to decide how to work with his secondary and tertiary leadership.

These two positions do not have to be merely ceremonial. They can be power positions if the mayor is willing to delegate and use them to advance his agenda; the mayor pro tem can whip votes. Build consensus. And the standing custom may be leaving the best person behind.

Former Councilwoman Mary Poss was the mayor pro tem under Mayor Ron Kirk, who is Black. She spoke candidly about the role when she was in it. “My job was not just ‘mayor for a day,’” she said. “Mayor Kirk set his agenda and identified core issues and votes and during the budget process he deployed me to each of our council members’ homes to get input, learn their district’s specific needs, where they were willing to compromise, where they stood on the initiatives we were trying to accomplish.

“We did our homework on behalf of the whole city. We mobilized the council around the needs of Dallas as a whole. The mayor pro tem is a full-time job so if you are a council member and mayor pro tem, that’s two jobs. So the criteria should be, who has the experience, and the service ethic, and the perseverance to work harder than they ever have in their lives — and most important — the time to do it right.”

In his inauguration speech for this new city council, Mayor Johnson stuck to the basics: picking up bulk trash on time, staffing the 911 call center so it can answer emergencies on time, fixing the city’s broken permitting office. Sources said the mayor’s back-to-basics speech was partly because of all the caucus infighting that happened ahead of the mayor pro tem vote.

(The mayor also made an interesting point about selecting new members every year—it risks triggering a new campaign season six or seven months after the initial selection, which is a distraction the city cannot afford.)

But will one-year terms preserve the racial equity intent at the core of the old custom? The suit may no longer fit, but how do we go forward, expand our capacity for fair representation and, I would add, elect true mayoral partners?

Councilman Omar Narvaez, the third-term member from West Dallas, took umbrage with the rule change and said he was not consulted ahead of the discussion.

“Colleagues, I want you to know that institutionalized racism is why we’re here today. When 14-1 became the way we do things in the city of Dallas, Blacks and Latinos had to pick up the scraps because there had never been an African American mayor,” he said. “I’m not gonna be stuck into a box of check marks to say whether I am worthy to be elected in order to help lead this body. For me, it’s offensive to check boxes.”

The mayor and the three Black council members–Arnold, Casey Thomas, and Tennell Atkins—all voted against the motion, as did Narvaez. They voiced concern with annual jockeying for leadership positions that previously were selected every two years. But they all seemed eager to discuss the underlying intent of Bazaldua’s change: the old way of ensuring equity among the council’s leadership has left out people who are qualified to do the job, particularly women. And when that happens, the city loses.

UPDATE: Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn shares that before the vote was held a women’s caucus was held. All five female council members participated.

Matt Goodman contributed reporting. 

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