Honor Role: If Rawlings wins a second term, expect him to take a more active stance on public education.

Mike Rawlings, Mayor Softie

He might look like a teamster-union boss, but when it’s time to play politics in Dallas, he avoids contact.

When I wonder whether I’d like to see Mayor Mike Rawlings run for re-election next year—he says he’ll declare his intentions this summer—I keep coming back to one question. Do we want an honorable mayor or an effective one? Because while I think a big-city mayor can be both (Ron Kirk, to use a fairly recent example), I don’t think this mayor can. 

Which one is he? He’s an honorable mayor. Rawlings’ achievements, in fact, are all of the honorable, upright, honest sort. He promotes South Dallas revitalization with a signature 10-point program (GrowSouth) and a top-tier golf course. He’s manly enough to ask men to speak out against domestic violence. On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, his speech did our city proud. And his recent backing of public-education reform has not only given DISD’s embattled superintendent a shoulder to lean on, but it so impressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors that they asked him to head up a national effort to document best education practices in major cities. These are worthy causes, championed by an honorable man.

Most days, that is enough. Some days, though, I think it is fair to ask for more of your mayor. (Or ask for less, depending on your worldview.) I think it’s perfectly reasonable, in fact, to ask that our honorable mayor on occasion be an effective mayor. In other words, that he act like a politician who isn’t afraid of politics.

I just don’t think Rawlings is organized enough, ruthless enough, and hard enough to do what it takes on the days when we don’t need a good man in office.

That day was Sunday, January 19, two days before the City Council voted to hire a new city manager. Recall, there had been much public gnashing of teeth (i.e., a never-ending series of essays in the Dallas Morning News) over the prospect of yet another City Hall insider becoming city manager. Dallas hasn’t had an injection of new blood at that spot for four decades. Hiring another insider, the thinking went, would continue to reward a culture at City Hall that has long given the rich and well-connected unfettered access to city staff while keeping the masses at bay through the kabuki theater known as City Council.

Whether Rawlings believed this, I don’t know. Several people close to him, though, say that, for whatever reason, he thought an outside hire was best for the city. Why that is and who that person should have been are unimportant to this discussion. The fact is, Rawlings thought that A.C. Gonzalez, the assistant city manager who wound up getting the job, was part of the problem, not the solution.

Reasonable people can argue that point. Gonzalez has been described to me by people who have worked with him as a “good man,” “very smart,” and “loyal.” Those all seem like desirable qualities to have in a person who runs a large city. But none of that matters if the mayor came to the conclusion that the benefits of having an outsider—fresh ideas, no local baggage, won’t play favorites, the usual—overrode Gonzalez’s qualifications. That’s exactly the conclusion I’m told the mayor reached.

If you believe that Rawlings is an honorable man, then you believe he came to this conclusion for all the right reasons. I’m going to assume that is the case. He wasn’t bribed by some developer or blackmailed with pics of him gamboling through the water jets in the children’s area of Klyde Warren Park after one too many Michelob Ultras. He simply thought change was needed.

Two days earlier, on January 17, after a full day of interviewing the three city-manager finalists, a straw vote was taken. Ten of the 15 votes fell for Gonzalez. The mayor went to work to convince enough votes to swing toward another candidate.

This was the mayor’s first mistake, one that his predecessor, Tom Leppert—a notoriously effective mayor—would never make. You don’t allow a decision get to a vote before you’ve already counted those votes. That’s why Leppert, who failed to keep his word whenever it was politically expedient, was effective. He got the support of black council members before he ever put one of his initiatives to a vote, so much so that Dwaine Caraway once said he would “take a bullet” for Leppert.

In picking a city manager, all the black council members stood firmly behind Gonzalez, and they were putting pressure on Hispanic members to do the same. Rawlings had that to work against. Plus, months earlier, he had infuriated two council members, Sheffie Kadane and Jerry Allen, when he yanked them off the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System board. Rawlings had his work cut out for him. 

This is where a mayor is graded on a pass-fail system. There is no try, only do. 

The mayor’s grade: fail. Rawlings’ associates say he tried to persuade council members that picking an outside candidate was the right thing to do, but the swing votes refused to go in the same direction. The negotiations went through Sunday, but by Monday morning, Rawlings let everyone know that he was done trying, that he’d done everything he could do.

But some very angry council members say that is just weak-kneed spin. They say that if the backroom arm-twisting seemed ultimately doomed, it’s because the mayor didn’t use any of the arrows in his quiver. For example: offering Jerry Allen his spot back on the pension board in exchange for his vote—which, of course, would have compromised the Nasher Sculpture Center’s position in its fight with the pension-owned Museum Tower. “Mike would never do something like that,” says a Rawlings associate. “He doesn’t play political games like that.”

To which I say: games? What games? That is everyday politics, so bland a backroom deal that it would barely elicit a yawn from someone like Kirk or Leppert. And that is the primary problem Rawlings’ critics (and I) have with the prospect of him seeking a second term. It’s all well and good to be put off by the demands of the job. Politics is a dirty game. You’re a good man. We get it.

But making tough choices, finding a way to impose your will on a recalcitrant council and a distracted citizenry, that is called being a leader. If you can’t do the wheeling and dealing to affect the most important vote of your tenure, then what good are you?

That’s why I’m not sold that Rawlings should run again. There are other “good men” waiting to run, but they understand the rough-and-tumble nature of the arena. Of those exploring their options, former council member Alan Walne doesn’t exactly fit the bill, but State Representative Rafael Anchia does. Neither of them will run against Rawlings, though, because they both like and respect him. Hell, I like and respect him. I just don’t think he’s organized enough, ruthless enough, and hard enough to do what it takes on the days when we don’t need a good man in office. 

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the theory of frequent online commenter Wylie H. is correct. Wylie, a person some have pegged as a City Hall insider, suggested on D Magazine’s blog that the mayor has us all fooled, that he is really a Machiavellian genius. In Wylie’s scenario, Rawlings always wanted the status-quo city manager, only pretended to be befuddled and outmaneuvered, and once Gonzalez was in place, Rawlings retreated to his evil lair, lit a victory cigar, and cackled atop a throne fashioned from the skulls of his enemies.

Now that’s a mayor I could get behind.


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