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How Philip Kingston Helped Eric Johnson Become Mayor

A tale of enmity, cash, politics, and the pairing that did Scott Griggs in.
By Eric Celeste |
Eric Johnson Dallas mayor race
Michael Witte
It was early 2017, and the progressive slate of Dallas City Council candidates was gathered at Philip Kingston’s Lower Greenville house for a campaign kickoff confab. Novice candidates Omar Narvaez, Dominique Torres, and Candy Evans talked policy and strategy with incumbents Mark Clayton and Adam Medrano (on speakerphone). Evans asked many questions: “What’s a clawback?” “So, what is the deal with the homeless thing?”

No surprise, but incumbent Scott Griggs offered the most detailed answers. He tried to keep his explanations simple: the city of Dallas pension crisis can be blamed on Richard Tettamant; the solution to the coming public safety crisis is more cops on the street. Inevitably, though, he would hop down a lawyerly rabbit hole and find himself explaining the Flynn compromise, the annuitization of DROP, unfunded accrued liabilities, how COLA is tied to CPI, and so forth.

If one wanted to fix the problems at hand, Griggs had the right tools, but his lengthy explanations didn’t translate easily to a campaign placard. A deep-dive discussion of DART’s budgetary woes, for example, didn’t exactly electrify the newcomers in the room, who just wanted a compelling narrative they could sell to voters.

Fortunately for the candidates, Kingston has always been a live wire. “I don’t say this lightly,” he began. “Mike Rawlings is a corrupt person. He has used the office for personal gain, and there is no f’ing doubt about it. Now, the good news about Mike Rawlings is, he’s the least competent mayor we’ve had. Otherwise, we’d be in real fucking trouble.”

That’s a verbatim quote from a recording of the meeting. The room’s pulse quickened.

“So, when people try to tell you that, ‘Oh, there’s too much contention at City Hall and Philip is just mean’… . There is real corruption out there,” he continued. “And if people tell you that City Hall is about compromise—yes, it’s a legislative body, and you must be willing to compromise. Here’s how people compromise in the real world. Dom wants something; I want something.”

Former Councilwoman Angela Hunt weighed in: “You give up something; she gives up something.”

“No,” Kingston cut her off. “If I have a gun, I win. If she has a gun, she wins. … There is no compromise between two sides if one side has all the power, and that has been the case in this city for decades.”

Thus was the progressive narrative crystallized: good versus evil.

The meeting would prove mildly interesting in light of the 2017 results—the incumbents and Narvaez won; Torres and Evans lost—but it becomes a nearly perfect prism through which to view this year’s municipal election. In runoffs in June, Kingston and Griggs both lost. And it wasn’t close. Each candidate lost handily to an opponent who really did nothing more than distinguish himself by saying, “I’m not that jerk.” New District 14 councilman David Blewett based his campaign on the idea that he was a nicer guy than Kingston. Eric Johnson differed from Griggs only by refusing to say that Dallas had a public safety crisis. The largest gap between the two finalists for mayor was in personal style. Publicly Johnson is affable and warm, with an easy smile and confident manner; Griggs, by contrast, comes off as an earnest A student who has borrowed his father’s suit.

What happened to the progressive promise? Dallas is still a blue city, one that votes reliably for Democratic and progressive policymakers. But this wasn’t about politics. It was about personalities. Kingston would prove to be a monkey on Griggs’ back—even though Kingston was the one progressive who could most connect with voters on a gut level. Why was he such a detriment to Griggs? To put it simply, Kingston allowed his ego to overshadow his work. He crossed the line that separates firebrand from jerk. No matter how talented a candidate, Dallas voters will eventually tire of someone who comes off like a schoolyard bully.

In looking at how the Griggs-Kingston duo—so often were they linked on the Council that they were called “Griggston”—fell out of favor, it’s important to understand how their Council careers started off so well. That tale should hold special importance to our new mayor, lest he make the same mistakes.

In 2013, when 40-year-old Kingston won his District 14 runoff election 54 to 46 percent, he wasn’t well-known outside of organizations devoted to young lawyers or neighborhood conservationists. The law school class of ’99 Baylor Bear, who essentially inherited the seat of term-limited Hunt, an East Dallas idol, quickly made himself known as a sharp-witted agitator. A month after his election, he was already using Facebook to call out the interim city manager, A.C. Gonzalez, for not addressing scandals of the previous regime. A month later, he teamed with second-year councilman Griggs and scorched Gonzalez for working with Yellow Cab to craft an ordinance that would have punished the company’s ride-share competition. Mayor Rawlings named Kingston vice chair of the committee that dealt with the city’s budget and the only freshman council member to chair any committee (judicial).

Although some of the issues he addressed early on grabbed headlines, much of his good work was unsexy but substantive: studying comprehensive arts funding, protecting parkland and urban areas from gas drilling. In that same vein, he and former councilman Dwaine Caraway modeled a reentry program for ex-offender sanitation workers. And Kingston, along with his new political running buddy Griggs, advocated for living-wage pay for city contractors. Even more than his popular predecessor Hunt, Kingston was a progressive policy machine.

“Philip was fantastic early on,” says a City Hall insider who worked with the councilman all six years he held office. “He was on the right side of issues, and he was calling people out on things that should have been brought to light, like the Uber debacle. He was acerbic, though. He rubbed people the wrong way. At first, I told people, ‘Well, that’s just Philip. He’s really a good guy.’ Eventually, though, they stopped listening to me. And eventually I stopped believing it.”

Kingston’s transformation from a politician who spoke truth to power to one regarded by even his friends as a self-harming asshole was immediate or took many years, depending on whom you ask.

Looking back, the signs were there that Kingston’s ego was a problem, but those of us who agreed with his politics tolerated—encouraged?—his behavior because it made for great theater. When he came on my podcast and called the city manager sneaky, I gleefully put it in the headline. When I passed him in a stairwell at a restaurant and asked if he could, on background, summarize a confidential email for me, he took out his phone and said, “Hell, I’ll forward it to you.” I may be overestimating, but I believe one-fifth to one-sixth of all Jim Schutze’s Dallas Observer columns from the past six years could be filed under “You can’t handle Kingston’s truth!”

Kingston’s transformation from a politician who spoke truth to power to one regarded by even his friends as a self-harming asshole was immediate or took many years, depending on whom you ask. Bobby Abtahi, the outgoing Dallas Park and Recreation board president who ran for Council against Kingston in 2013, told friends that he tried many times post-election to meet with Kingston to work with him on city issues but was ignored.

By 2016, restaurant owners in his district with whom I’ve spoken came to believe he ignored their concerns about how special use permits were strangling their businesses. Multiple developers wanting to work in District 14 have told me that Kingston all but threatened them with delay or death of their projects if they didn’t support him and his preferred political candidates. Even supportive politicians would often find themselves in Kingston’s crosshairs, the victims of his ever-changing idea of what constituted fealty to his seat of power.

I heard about a great deal of such behavior off the record, and I experienced some of it firsthand. That’s partly because I allowed myself to be used by Kingston. I liked and admired him, and, frankly, he made my job as D Magazine city columnist easier because he shared insight on everything. He would call me on Saturday mornings just to talk through an idea on what might make a worthy investigation. We’d occasionally meet for drinks and gossip, about matters political, media, and personal. (It was at one such meeting that Kingston told me he planned to run for mayor. “What if Rafael Anchia runs?” I asked, referring to the state representative. “I’ll beat him,” Kingston said. (Full disclosure: I now work with Anchia, as a communications director for Civitas Capital.))

I was complicit in over-relying on Kingston during his first three years in office, as were many of my media colleagues. In 2015, he and a young political star, State Rep. Eric Johnson, would hold invite-only “book club” meetings at bars every other month or so. At these off-the-record sessions, the pair would banter with all manner of like-minded politicos—judges, county commissioners, council members, DISD trustees, and sometimes one friendly journalist. I have no idea if other journalists were ever invited, but I went twice. As a columnist, my job was to know the inside story and develop opinions accordingly. In retrospect, my opinions were defensible and still relatively spot-on, but those first two to three years, they certainly relied too much on Kingston.

“He’s like journo crack,” a media member told me during this time. “But look out for the day he no longer has what I need. Because I’m tired of putting up with his bullshit.”

For me, that moment came in April 2016, with the publication of a blog post chastising Kingston for getting involved in a DISD race in Oak Cliff, far from his district. The post recounted how a person I would not at the time name had called me to warn that I shouldn’t be writing nice things about DISD trustee candidate Isaac Faz because he’d had a baby with a school principal. It was much ado about nothing, especially since Faz and the principal still had an amicable relationship. I took the entire smear campaign to task, but I really unloaded on Kingston, who had taken to Facebook to attack Faz. Griggs, Kingston, and others were supporting a candidate who proved to be as bad for kids as we’d suspected she’d be; the “progressive bloc’s” record on supporting terrible status quo school trustees is as inexcusable as it was dumb.

I spoke with Kingston several times, trying to get his side, before I posted the story. Since then, other than a late-night text to me the evening the post ran—“HAR!” it read—he has not spoken to me. Then and now, it was his inability to see anything wrong with such bullying behavior that made me realize he was going to continue to be his own worst enemy.

For the record, the person who called me off the record to plant the information about Faz was not Kingston. It was Scott Griggs. There is an idea shared among political junkies that Kingston was the bad cop, Griggs the good cop. There is some truth to that, of course. But Griggs was always complicit in Kingston’s antics. He was just smarter about things that seem obvious in retrospect: talk off the record, don’t berate people publicly or on social media, let others carry dirty water for you when it’s advisable.

“I like Griggs. I liked working with him one-on-one on just about any project,” says a council member who served with him. “But he sold himself out to align himself with Philip. That was his undoing.”

It’s hard to blame Griggs, given the success he and Kingston and other progressives had in gutting the Trinity tollway and getting issues passed like living wages and mandatory breaks for city workers, cite and release, and more. As recently as this past municipal election, people were writing that Griggston could lead a progressive majority into the next decade.

They were ready to take on the city’s old guard and continue their quest to install an eight-vote bloc on the Council. That bloc would coalesce even quicker, they thought at the time, if former mayor Laura Miller could beat Jennifer Staubach Gates for her North Dallas seat. And just imagine if Mayor Griggs were appointing committee chairs and controlling the Council agenda.

What they didn’t anticipate was an East Dallas dad with seven kids and their old book-club cohort Eric Johnson.

Separate Ways: Johnson told one audience that he got into the mayoral race because working on a city issue with Kingston was so aggravating. A few years ago, Johnson and Kingston hosted invite-only “book club” meetings at bars every month or so, off-the-record sessions where they would chat with judges, county commissioners, DISD trustees, and others.

Mike Ablon was fuming. It was mid-February 2019, less than two months from Election Day, and the North Dallas developer and mayoral candidate had just learned that several high-profile Republican business leaders—oilman Ray Hunt, AT&T chairman/CEO Randall Stephenson—were supporting Johnson’s campaign. Ablon couldn’t believe it, and he was letting his campaign staff hear his displeasure. Those folks supporting Johnson were supposed to be his backers. Why the hell were they supporting a progressive Democrat?

Similar shock spread throughout the seven other mayoral campaigns, because Johnson’s late entry was such a surprise and because he’d outflanked everyone in securing those influential money men. Miguel Solis, Lynn McBee, Ablon, fellow Republican Jason Villalba were all confident they could convince the Preston Hollow and Park Cities suits to support them. Once the field narrowed to two people for a runoff, the thinking went, the conservative pockets and purses would spill for the candidate with whom they felt most comfortable—and that would certainly not be Griggs.

“It really doesn’t matter who it is,” one centimillionaire told me the day before the election. “If he or she is going against Scott Griggs, the money will come in like a flood.”

The fact is most of those ready to pour money toward a Griggs opponent were not against Griggs himself. They were against Kingston. The two politicians had joined themselves at the hip for six years; there was no way Griggs could pull away from his meaner half.

Not that either of them appeared early in the campaign to regard their association, and the low estimation in which many moderate voters held Kingston, as a concern. Kingston had been burning bridges for six years, even as the water rose. No matter. The duo, on their side, seemed oblivious.

One telling example of Griggston’s election-season arrogance was their reaction to the news broken by D Magazine that Kingston, Griggs, and colleague Narvaez had each received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the four children, ages 5 to 11, of attorney James Stanton. (All four gave to Griggs and Narvaez; three gave to Kingston.) Such donations, it might be argued, are not technically illegal, but they are, as D noted, “unethical and gross.” Griggston’s response? The pair posted to Facebook a Cheshire-cat-grin photo with Narvaez and all four children wearing campaign t-shirts and holding placards. (Griggs and Narvaez eventually gave back the $4,000 each.) It was a politically tone deaf move.

Meanwhile, Kingston’s opponent, Blewett, was running a campaign that had one overriding message: I’m not that asshole. Many feel that the turning point for Kingston supporters who eventually switched for Blewett was the “rip it up” incident, when Councilman Adam McGough had distributed an amendment on a sick leave policy being discussed by the Council. As McGough calmly discussed the amendment, Kingston leaned over melodramatically and tore it up in front of his face.

“Person after person told me, ‘That’s when I was done with him,’ ” says someone who knocked on doors for multiple campaigns in District 14 during the race and the runoff. “Those who knew David told me they were ready for a decent guy to represent them. Those who didn’t said, ‘At least he’s not Philip Kingston.’ ”

Griggs, it must be noted, after those early missteps, ran on an issues-oriented, meat-and-potatoes campaign. At forum after forum, he stuck to his message about funding public safety and opposing big projects (like the Trinity tollway he helped kill in 2017) in favor of needed nuts-and-bolts infrastructure. His talking points were so rote that during one forum, when he had to stop midsentence because his throat was dry, McBee finished the sentence for him, to the delight of Griggs and the crowd.

Johnson, though, hammered Griggs for being part of a divisive Council core, a swipe everyone knew was aimed at Griggston. This conflating of Griggs’ and Kingston’s styles was at once unfair and wholly Griggs’ fault. The entire “progressive slate” of candidates, Griggs included, knew how toxic Kingston could be. But several of them who would roll their eyes at Kingston in private refused to chastise him in public, allowing Kingston to erode the group’s voter approval. “Our polling over and over showed that people saw Scott as one and the same with Kingston,” said one political consultant. “But he needed Kingston’s core in East Dallas to have a chance. He was in a real tight spot.”

Election Day was a mixed bag for Griggston. In the mayoral race, Griggs’ West Dallas base, as well as that like-minded stretch of East Dallas in Kingston’s district, voted in strong numbers, pushing him to second place and the runoff. In Kingston’s District 14 race, however, Blewett shockingly beat him by 7 points. Kingston nearly lost outright. In the runoff, he would have to concentrate on his race and not spend as much time campaigning for Griggs—which could actually help Griggs. But Johnson looked to have an advantage. One poll showed him with a 10-point lead, and the traditional path to mayoral victory—win big in North and southern Dallas, where voter turnout is often high—seemed laid out for a well-qualified black candidate running against a person despised by North Dallas businessmen.

Still, the next few weeks seemed to break just right for Griggston. I talked to more than one Johnson supporter and campaign person who worried that the candidate was killing his chances because he couldn’t stop blasting people on social media (long a problem for him), and he was foolishly downplaying public safety concerns even as murders led the news nearly every day. Also, Schutze had written in the Observer two years earlier that a fundraising lead like Johnson’s could actually hurt him.

“We can predict future local elections,” Schutze wrote. “Based on the outcomes in the just-concluded [2017] Dallas City Council elections, we have a reliable yardstick by which to know in advance who’s going to lose, who’s going to win, and what the real issue is.

Councilman Scott Griggs embraces a supporter at the Longhorn Ballroom during his mayoral runoff watch party. (Photo by Bret Redman)

“To know who’s going to lose, look for candidates who have received large amounts of money from oilman Ray Hunt; Hunt’s man Friday, John Scovell; … construction contractor and do-or-die Trinity tollroad booster Peter Beck; and [other developers and philanthropists]. If they’re pouring the money in, the recipient is going to get shellacked, as their candidates did in this latest go-round.”

Most all those names and others like them—Doug Deason, Jeanne Phillips, dozens of other big-money types—came out for Johnson. Maybe Schutze was right. Perhaps the old guard would again get shellacked.

Quite the opposite. Come the June runoff, Kingston got more than 500 more votes than the number of people who had cast ballots on both sides of the 2013 runoff between him and Abtahi—and he still finished 7 percentage points behind Blewett. Griggs, meanwhile, was walloped by more than 11 percent and 8,000 votes.

The fact is, there was probably little Griggs could have done to beat Johnson. His mayoral victory would have given Kingston immense power, and Kingston was hated by a swath of monied interests (and, apparently, voters). Privately, developers I’ve talked to over the years have had no problems with Griggs. They found him fair and easy to work with. The same people, though, despised Kingston. Griggs might have had a chance without that association; with it, he was sure to lose.

Hope filled the Winspear Opera House in June on the morning the new mayor and city council members were sworn in. The crowd was diverse and beaming. Latecomers filled the top balcony of the grand hall. Mayor Johnson and council members spoke of moving forward and putting an end to the divisiveness of days past.

Reality was to be ignored that day. Yes, a shooter had terrorized part of downtown earlier, but he’d been killed and that was so many blocks away. Sure, a council member confided to me that the new “Kumbaya Council,” as some were calling it, was “still broken and no one trusts anyone.” OK, fine, but trust takes time, right? For a day, the future seemed bright.

I genuinely hope that attitude continues. But I’m worried that the biggest speed bump on the road to Council Nirvana could be Mayor Eric Johnson.

My concern is not the one expressed by the trolls who griped that Ray Hunt and others had backed his campaign, suggesting he was now a yes-man for the monied class of Dallas. That’s naive in two ways. One, as someone who works daily with developers and rich people, I can tell you that seeing them as a monolithic force is silly. There are good and bad rich people, good and bad developers. We need the good ones to continue to invest in our city. To reduce them to caricature is to make the same fatal mistake that Kingston made.

Two, Johnson isn’t built to be compliant. The problem is not that he will do whatever his campaign backers command. In fact, he’s much more likely to tell them to go to hell or ignore them entirely. It’s a part of his personality that is entertaining, even endearing, when he’s unleashing it on people you don’t like.

The real problem is when that go-to-hell mentality becomes a default response; when a voracious ego makes civility, and therefore compromise, impossible; when every conversation is seen as a gunfight. That was Kingston. And Johnson—who told one audience he got into the race because working with Kingston on a city issue was so aggravating—is too often unaware of how dangerously close he walks that same line.

I’ve known Johnson since 2015, when I profiled him and his efforts to fund full-day pre-K in Texas. I admired him and his policies, and I liked hanging out with him for a drink to gossip and talk politics. This might sound familiar.

I was told he was quick to anger. I saw that almost immediately. One day we met for happy hour, and he told me about a beef he was having behind the scenes with the local Democratic party (a group I’ve slammed more than once in a column). I suggested he ignore it and not take the gripe public. He agreed. That night, he published a screed against the party leaders.

I laughed it off. I was entertained. He doesn’t back down from a fight! Again, this might sound familiar.

Over the years, we kept in touch. I worked with him once when he was trying to decide how best to alert watchdog groups to something unethical he’d seen at the State Capitol. He talked to me about voter fraud. His ethical streak runs strong, and, again, I admire that. I think it’s genuine.

But behind the scenes, he can be his own worst enemy. Dallas Morning News reporter Gromer Jeffers covered some of this when he talked about tales of political colleagues getting strings of angry texts from Johnson. Johnson said he has matured.

I would like to believe that’s true. He wouldn’t talk to me for this story, I think because he’s mad at D Magazine editor Tim Rogers. (Long story.) It’s the sort of grudge Kingston would—did—hold. Others I’ve talked to say he hasn’t responded to well-wishers trying to help him acclimate to the political fishbowl he now finds himself in. He has been brusque, or dismissive, or arrogant—generally unwelcoming and thin-skinned.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s just gossip and scuttlebutt. Maybe I and others just can’t handle his truth. Maybe he’ll avoid the social media beefs. Maybe he’ll nail the big issues like affordable housing, public safety, and workforce improvement. Maybe he’ll lead an effective, unified Council. Maybe he won’t repeat old mistakes, and enemies made along the way won’t return to seek revenge. I sure hope so. The city is counting on it.