THE GLOVES ARE STAYING ON: Marcos Ronquillo says he won’t attack the mayor personally. Just his position on certain issues.

Can Marcos Ronquillo Win the Dallas Mayor’s Race?

He says he has a puncher’s chance against incumbent Mike Rawlings. Why doesn’t anyone believe him?

Mayor Mike Rawlings wanted to meet with Marcos Ronquillo. This was last fall, when the mayor was still in his Hamlet phase, deciding whether he should run for a second term. Rawlings had already met with other potential challengers—Texas Senator John Carona, Texas Representative Rafael Anchia, former Dallas city councilman Alan Walne—each of whom told him, “Mike, if you’re running, I’m not.” Ronquillo had a different response for the mayor. According to those who’ve spoken to both men, the meeting was cordial and direct. But when Rawlings told him he wasn’t sure if he would run again, Ronquillo said it didn’t matter to him. He was running no matter what. And he planned to win.

In certain North Dallas circles, Ronquillo’s bluntness was seen as disrespectful at best, politically suicidal at worst. Why bother running against a popular mayor sure to carry the day? But the diminutive lawyer who boxed during his years at Notre Dame was simply doing what he’d always done, meeting his adversary face to face, touching gloves, coming out swinging.

“I’m doing this because I think I can make a difference,” Ronquillo says. “I think I’m right on the issues. And I think I can raise enough money and take enough folks off the sidelines who don’t normally vote. I know the mayor is popular, but I think there’s a path to victory.”

Before we examine how difficult that path is to find, let alone travel, let’s look on the positive side. If you were going to dream up the perfect résumé for a Dallas mayoral candidate, it would read like Ronquillo’s. Longtime Dallasite? Been here 36 years. Worldly perspective? A military brat who has lived in Puerto Rico, Cuba, D.C., Miami, and San Francisco. Highly educated? George Washington University Law School graduate. Understands the plight of the disenfranchised? Has worked on many civil rights issues, including important DISD cases. Can hobnob with power brokers? Has served on the boards of DART, the Dallas Museum of Art, and Children’s Medical Center. Keeps it real? He’s the only person to have headed both the Mexican-American Bar Association of Dallas (now the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association) and the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

“They [voters] don’t want toll roads and golf courses. They want local investment and development. They’re tired of the old way of doing things,” Ronquillo says.

As well, Ronquillo wisely stands with this writer, this magazine, and every right-thinking human in opposing the Trinity toll road. He says the city must place a higher priority on addressing infrastructure needs. Example: city staff last year said the Council would need to commit an additional $900 million over the next four years to reach its desired “street satisfaction rate.” “That’s where our money should be going instead of to a toll road nobody wants,” Ronquillo says. 

Finally, Ronquillo’s handlers say he can tap into a large national network of Hispanic advocacy organizations and Notre Dame grads for his fundraising. The candidate himself says he’s confident he can raise enough money to be competitive, which means about $1.5 million. If he raises enough money, he has a team of professionals (including longtime Dallas political handlers Brian Mayes and Merrie Spaeth) who know how to spend wisely and win tough races. 

With all that said, does Ronquillo have a shot? Sure. As Lloyd Christmas says in Dumb & Dumber when he’s told his chances with a woman are one in a million: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

“I love the guy,” says a fellow lawyer who has worked with Ronquillo. “He’s smart and honest. Great lawyer, great guy. But I just don’t see it. One, Rawlings is the best we’ve ever seen at fundraising. He can do it from his couch. And, two, Ronquillo isn’t mean enough. If he won’t hammer him personally, he doesn’t have a chance in hell.”

True, the money could be an issue. Rawlings raised more than $322,000 before Ronquillo had barely cracked his first $50K. But Ronquillo’s camp notes that he didn’t get started until the holidays and that Rawlings had been raising money for six months. Ronquillo promises to tighten the fundraising gap well before the May election. Still, the fact that Rawlings raised more than $1 million four years ago in just two months (from early February to early April) shows the depth of his supporters’ pockets.

Money is crucial for Ronquillo, because he’s going up against a well-liked incumbent. Picture Rawlings at Dealey Plaza in his dark overcoat, looking and sounding very much like a leader in his speech at the commemoration of the Kennedy assassination. The guy has a burger named after him at Rodeo Goat (above the Brad Sham and the Neil Young on the menu). To counter that, Ronquillo must not only get his message out to voters through expensive TV, radio, and mail ads, but he must also change the perception of his opponent—a tough sell, especially because Ronquillo says he will not attack the mayor personally, only the mayor’s stance on the issues.

“The mayor is wrong on big, important issues, and I’m going to tell voters that,” says Ronquillo, who turns 62 in April. “We’re going to touch 80,000 households with our message and try to register 10,000 to 12,000 new voters. I’m going to tell them this election is a referendum on the toll road and how we spend their money on infrastructure, that we won’t ignore basic services. Voters are responding to that message. They don’t want toll roads and golf courses. They want local investment and development. They’re tired of the old way of doing things.”

That message will surely resonate with the already converted. In theory, the numbers can work. Ronquillo figures it’s possible to leverage the contentious toll road issue to get 6,000 to 7,000 voters on his side who traditionally only vote in November. But given that Rawlings won his last runoff against a high-profile ex-police chief by more than 6,000 votes, it still makes one wonder if Ronquillo can really threaten him. “No way,” says a City Hall insider. “If he doesn’t attack Rawlings, he’s toast. He might lose 70-30. There are coalitions out there waiting to be formed who can come together to defeat him. But not if you’re unwilling to fight for it. You’re telling me he won’t call Rawlings out for the dumb things he says and does? Isn’t that politics? This isn’t a coronation.”

Even more concerning to anti-toll road folks is Ronquillo’s intention to make this election a referendum on the toll road. Their nightmare scenario: Ronquillo runs a distinguished campaign focused on killing the toll road. Rawlings whips him. Rawlings et al. then say, “See, the citizens just voted for the toll road a third time. Case closed.”

Ronquillo bristles at any suggestion that his candidacy is doomed, or that just because he won’t sling mud suggests he doesn’t have the stomach for the fight. “I’ll put my credentials up against anybody,” he says, “and I’ll put my determination up against anyone, too.”

He’ll need that confidence for this race. In a fair fight, someone like Ronquillo should have a puncher’s chance. But politics ain’t fair.

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