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Money, Mailers, and Messaging: How a PAC Is Trying to Sway North Oak Cliff’s Council Race

More than $1 million has flowed into the Dallas City Council and school board races ahead of Saturday’s election. One of the most interesting storylines doesn’t directly involve the candidates.
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Illustration by Andrea Chavez

The last glimpse into the donor pool for Dallas City Council and school board elections arrived over the weekend. The spending and fundraising ahead of Saturday’s election happened at a rapid clip in nearly every race.

Candidates had a combined nearly $1 million sitting in their coffers. Some raised six digits in campaign donations, while others without a deep contact list struggled to pull in enough for yard signs and campaign literature.

In one race, though, money is being spent by an entity whose name does not appear on the ballot.

Political action committees, or PACs, can mount their own messaging on behalf of a candidate and spend without limit, but they have to operate independently of the candidate they support. That’s the scenario in the District 1 race, in North Oak Cliff, where incumbent Chad West faces challengers Albert Mata and Mariana Griggs.

Early voting began on April 24. Three days earlier, voters in that district found campaign fliers in their mailbox from the New American PAC, which shares an address with the law office of attorney and former Councilman Domingo Garcia. Two of the mailers supported Griggs and Mata. One alleged that West was “a rubber stamp to greedy developers.”

More fliers have landed in mailboxes since, apparently attempting to dilute the incumbent’s vote share. Some are pro-Mata, while another goes negative against West, highlighting donors such as former Lincoln Properties CEO Tim Byrne, hotelier Tim Headington, and Cienda Partners’ Barry Hancock. The flier calls them “Republican Mega Donors” who have “already silenced Chad West.”

The other side of the mailer features headshots of developer Harlan Crow and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, declaring that the billionaire “donated trips to Clarence Thomas and made campaign donations to Chad West.” The flier claims “billionaire Republicans want to buy up District 1 Real Estate and Chad West.”

For Dallas City Council races, individual donors are capped at $1,000 per candidate per election. Political action committees cannot directly contribute more than $2,500 but can spend on mailers, websites, and other messaging materials. Individuals can give a maximum of $5,000 to mayoral candidates while PACs are capped at $10,000. Mayor Eric Johnson is running unopposed. (Donors can also give more than the limit, but city code requires the extra money be placed into an officeholder account that can’t be used for elections—a City Council candidate can only spend $1,000 of donations from a single contributor on campaign expenses.)

New American has also engaged in a text message campaign in support of Mata. West has gone on record as saying the mailers were from a “single dark money special interest group” that is “trying to buy this city council seat.” He also said the claims in the first mailer “are not true.”

Attempts to reach Garcia and attorney Fernando Dubove, who is listed as treasurer of New American, were unsuccessful. Dubove and Garcia are law partners. Garcia has long been an advocate for more Latino representation in the district and has held fundraisers for Mata this cycle. It is unclear how much the PAC has spent in District 1 or how much it will before Saturday’s election.

New American PAC is registered with the state of Texas as a general purpose PAC, which allows it to campaign in support of a candidate that it feels supports its mission, says James Tinley, the general counsel for the Texas Ethics Commission. The TEC does not comment on the actions of PACs during election periods, but, speaking generally, Tinley said that a PAC that participates in the municipal election process would be required to submit both 30-day and eight-day campaign finance reports, just like a candidate would. These filings would indicate who is donating money to the PAC and how that money is being spent. 

There is no record of either report having been filed with the TEC, and it does not appear on the city of Dallas’ PAC finance report archives. The TEC website shows that New American had $1,000 cash on hand as of December 2022, and the first mailers hit District 1 mailboxes on April 21. That timeline indicates that contributions and expenses should have been reported before the eight-day reporting deadline on April 26.

A PAC-led mailer blitz has happened before. In 2017, a PAC called For Our Community targeted former Councilman Philip Kingston with a similar barrage of negative press and mailers in District 14. Its campaign finance reports allowed the public to see who was investing in the effort. It had raised over $189,000, which local political experts said was uncommon in Council races. We don’t have that same transparency around New American.

When reached for comment Tuesday, Mata said he was not running a negative campaign and was not in contact with the PAC.

“I don’t like the narrative that this seat is being bought,” he said. “I quit my job in February to focus on this campaign. My team is working our butts off. I’ve made 1,400 to 1,500 calls to raise money for this campaign. If we win, it’s not going to be because of some mailers. We have worked the hardest.

“A group has decided to send out mailers, and it’s separate,” Mata added. “It has become clear to me that the incumbent’s campaign is trying to weaponize those mailers. We have tried to be as positive as we can be. I didn’t influence that group. They’re truly independent.”

Mata acknowledged that the mailers and text messages so far probably didn’t come cheaply. But he pointed to the gulf between what he has raised, about $41,560 as of last week, and what West reported in his Morning News questionnaire, $220,000.

“He’s raised more than that since, according to his recent filing, so he’s probably at more than $250,000,” he said. “So I’m still at a $200,000 disadvantage to begin with. These mailers are still not going to level the playing field.”

Mailers are often used to introduce a candidate and their platform to voters. Incumbents are ripe targets for more negative fliers, which is what has happened in District 1, as well as in District 11 in North Dallas, where real estate writer and publisher Candy Evans has sent seven mailers to incumbent Jaynie Schultz’s three.

Six of the seven attack Schultz. In turn, two of Schultz’s mailers tout her performance, and a third chastises Evans’ campaign for becoming “a bit more desperate each time, too, and more dishonest.” (Evans has run for the District 11 seat two times previously.)

There is a big difference between these mail campaigns: the literature in District 11 was created and distributed by the candidates themselves, and the money that was spent is tracked. With New American’s fliers in District 1, it’s unclear how they’ve been funded and how much the PAC will end up spending.

The polls are open on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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