Do Dallas City Candidates Matter?

In most elections, they don’t. But this May could produce a council that will revolutionize Dallas.

Dallas City Hall is characterized by a lot of things, but vision is not one of them. If there is one trait that stands out, it is passivity. A strong mayor sometimes breaks the pattern. Ron Kirk did. He forged a majority on the City Council and wielded it like a nightstick to run the city. But most of our mayors and councils come and go without any major lasting effect on City Hall’s culture or performance. 

I’ve tried to figure out why this is so. Then I read a blog post the same day I had lunch with a council member, and for some reason the two things linked up, and a light bulb went off. I think I get the picture. 

The blog post was by Will Wilkinson at Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish site. Wilkinson made a distinction between the elected and the permanent government. The elected government is not there to govern the people; it is there to govern the permanent government. Given the nature of the two, that’s not easy. When the elected government gives an order, the permanent salutes smartly (because the elected approves its budget). But then it often hems and haws, stutters and procrastinates. Always it buries its mistakes and hides its misdeeds.  

In Dallas, with a 14-1 City Council and a city manager, the permanent government barely even bothers with the salute. That’s because the city staff is less dependent on the good graces of the City Council than the City Council is dependent on the good graces of the city staff.

At the lunch, the council member inadvertently illustrated how this works. He was very happy, because he had just gotten funding for a small project in his district. “How did you get it?” I asked. “I begged for it,” he answered with a smile. “I figured out I had to go to so-and-so, and I literally begged him. And he took it to the city manager.” Now the council member owes the staffer who did him a favor.

One may wonder how Michael Morris, the transportation director at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, with all his blunders and fabrications, keeps his job. It’s because he is adept at this sort of intergovernmental bribery. If a Dallas council member or a Colleyville mayor needs a little juice, Morris is always willing to supply it. The numbers may be penny ante—$100,000 here, $50,000 there—but they are enough for a middling Arlington bureaucrat to store up a lot of favors. Even better, it’s done with federal dollars.

In a system where the permanent government flourishes by doing favors for the elected government, there will be tactical competence and strategic incompetence. The permanent government will perform exceedingly well on little things that satisfy the particular immediate needs of an officeholder. But it will not perform well on big tasks. It will have no vision and no plan, because it has no incentive to develop one. Big plans entail big risks. A system of small favors creates a culture of small ambitions. 

In the meantime, jobs flee, growth stalls, the commercial tax base weakens, residential property taxes rise, educated young people leave—all of which has happened to Dallas in the last 10 years—while City Hall watches passively, seemingly uninvolved. The two governments, elected and permanent, are instead engaged in getting a streetlight installed at a council member’s neighborhood intersection. And they’re both proud when they achieve that. 

In May, Dallas voters face a rare opportunity to break the hold of permanent government on City Hall. Because of term limits, six seats are open, the largest number in one election in memory. The ones giving up their seats are among the worst council members in the city’s history (Dwaine Caraway excepted). Luckily, the remaining council members are among the brightest and most thoughtful ever to serve. It would take only a few new members of the same caliber to tip the balance. 

So this time the candidates do matter. Beware the guy who promises to fix the pothole on your street. That’s another go-along, get-along sort who will be easily co-opted by the city staff. Embrace instead the candidate who talks about growing the tax base as a whole so we can fix all the potholes and reduce your tax burden at the same time. Those kinds of candidates could make the next City Council the strongest since the legendary days of Erik Jonsson, Bob Folsom, and Starke Taylor, when Dallas dominated the region instead of kowtowed to it. 

A City Council that puts Dallas first, that is fully committed to restoring the city’s economic fortunes, to reknitting its neighborhoods, to reshaping our infrastructure to benefit Dallas and not the hinterlands, to growing downtown as a true urban center, to bringing companies and jobs back to the city’s core, to removing the interstate highways that block progress in our southern sector—that would be a revolution in the true sense of the word. It would mean turning the comfortable arrangement between the elected and the permanent government upside down. 

After we turn it upside down, we should give City Hall a good hard shake to see what falls out. 

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