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Politics

It Is Time for Dallas to Adopt Ranked-Choice Voting

| 5 days ago

Amid all the postgame analysis that has been flying about in the aftermath of last Saturday’s municipal elections, one simple and striking fact bears mentioning: up until a few election cycles ago, sitting council members were rarely challenged. That has changed – big time. Last Saturday’s elections saw competitive races in nearly every district, and three incumbents—David Blewett, Adam Bazaldua, and Carolyn King Arnold—have been forced into runoffs. In general, that’s a good thing. More candidates mean more ideas are brought to the table, more citizens are engaged in the electoral process, and council members are more responsive to the constituents who put them in office.

But this new era of Dallas politics has also created a situation in which runoff elections are almost inevitable, particularly in crowded races where there is no incumbent. This means the city’s general election basically functions like a primary. We saw this in the 2019 mayoral election and in the 2017 mayoral election. When 9 or 10 candidates are running for a single office there is virtually no way one of those candidates is going to secure 50.01 percent of the votes. The first election narrows down the field; the real decision is made in the runoff. That’s a problem. Municipal voter turnout is already very low, and it is even lower in the runoffs. They’re also expensive. But there’s a simple solution: ranked-choice voting.

Ranked choice voting — which we’ve mentioned before — is an electoral process that is gaining popularity throughout the country, particularly in local elections, precisely because it remedies some of these problems. According to FairVote.org, 22 municipalities and states have adopted ranked-choice voting, including some large cities like New York, Oakland, and San Francisco. Ten additional cities and states, including Alaska, are considering or have adopted ranked-choice voting for future use. Austin just adopted it over the weekend.

So, what is ranked-choice voting and how does it work?

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Local Government

How Much Does a Dallas City Council Vote Cost?

| 1 week ago

As the results of the city council election were coming in Saturday night, a familiar storyline took shape. There were plenty of intriguing political subplots building up to the election. And now we have weeks of limbo as we await a staggering six runoff races that will determine the make up of the next council. But the big takeaway was low turnout.

Every election cycle we are reminded that the city’s government is determined by precious few voters. This year, 67,788 people voted in the council elections, which is about 14 percent fewer than who voted in 2019 (when the mayor was also on the ballot). This year’s turnout was up around 46 percent from the last council-only election in 2017, but turnout was still fewer than 10 percent of the total number of registered voters.

Per usual, northern council districts drew more voters than southern council districts, another depressingly familiar statistic. But what was different about this year was that, in the weeks leading up to the election, Mayor Eric Johnson attempted to influence some of these southern Dallas council races. His influence drove more dollars into the campaigns in an effort to unseat two of his rivals on the city council. It didn’t work, but it got me thinking. There was a lot of money spent on this year’s council election but that money did not translate into huge voter turnouts. It seems like council candidates spend a ton of money each election cycle to win very few votes. But how much?

How much money do council candidates have to spend to turn out a single vote in their favor?

I spent yesterday crunching the numbers, tallying up the 2021 expenditures for the top finishing council candidates in all 14 districts. In some close races, I analyzed the top two or three candidates. In races in which incumbents didn’t face serious opposition, I tallied the expenditure totals for all the candidates. Most new candidates did not report spending in 2020, so I didn’t include incumbent spending in 2020 (there wasn’t a ton save a few candidates, such as Chad West) because it was too difficult to determine if 2020 spending was directly related to the 2021 campaign. These numbers also reflect the latest publicly available figure filed, so they may miss the last week-and-a-half or so of last minute fundraising. In other words, these numbers may be imperfect, but they are pretty close.

The results offer an imperfect metric for determining the effectiveness of council campaigns, but they also reveal several fascinating disparities in how campaign spending drives election results. Here’s one glaring example: District 13 candidate Leland Burk spent about $61.41 for every vote he received in Saturday’s election. His opponent in the runoff, Gay Donnell Willis, spent just $10.31 per vote. So what does this tell us about that race?

I break down the rest of the data and offer some interpretations after the jump:

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Politics & Government

What Is Behind Mayor Eric Johnson’s City Council Endorsements?

| 3 weeks ago

Although he isn’t on the ballot, there is a lot at stake for Mayor Eric L. Johnson in the upcoming Dallas city election. During his first two years in office, Johnson has struggled to establish a clear mayoral directive. This is partly to do to the fact that his term has been dominated by crises, beginning with the North Dallas tornados in 2019 and continuing through COVID-19, the George Floyd protests last summer, and February’s winter storm. Johnson has also butted heads with many top officials at City Hall, and his occasionally combative approach has alienated a Council that has been unwilling to line up behind his policy agenda.

It makes sense, then, that Johnson is publicly backing a few council candidates that are running against incumbents the mayor perceives as obstacles. In the race for District 7, he has come out in support of Donald Parish Jr., the son of a South Dallas preacher, against Adam Bazaldua, one of the loudest progressive voices on the Council. In District 5, Johnson backs perennial candidate Yolanda Faye Williams against Jaime Resendez in a race that has become framed by Resendez’s vote last fall to reduce the police department’s overtime budget. He did so against the mayor’s objections and has raised around $20,000 since Johnson endorsed his opponent. Behind the scenes, there are whispers that Johnson has also stuck his nose into the races to unseat East Dallas council member Paula Blackmon and Oak Cliff representative Carolyn King Arnold.

But on another level, Johnson’s endorsements don’t make any sense at all. I have spoken with a lot of people who have worked with Johnson over the years or have been following his political career since he first ran for the Texas Lege, in 2009. One thing they say is that Johnson doesn’t endorse candidates. Period. They say he sees it as too risky. Why hitch your political fortunes on someone else’s talents and ideas? Perhaps, then, Johnson’s willingness to come out in support of candidates in this year’s city council election suggests an appreciation of just how isolated he has become at City Hall, or a willingness to adapt to the demands of its unique political culture. Regardless, it represents yet another behavioral shift that has baffled many of Johnson’s former colleagues, friends, and associates who confess that they don’t often recognize the mayor as the man they once knew.

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Politics & Government

Dallas Council Candidate Jesse Moreno Returns $11,000 in Campaign Contributions

| 4 weeks ago

Dallas City Council candidate Jesse Moreno recently found himself in an interesting predicament. He is running to represent District 2, an oddly shaped swath of the city that sweeps from Love Field, the Medical District, south of downtown, and into the Cedars and Deep Ellum. From January 1 through March 22, he raised more than $36,000 in contributions, but a D Magazine analysis revealed that nearly a third of the money appeared to come from limited partnerships that were governed by a single person. Election law limits contributions in Dallas municipal races to just $1,000 per individual and certain businesses.

When asked last week about the origins of the money, Moreno pointed out—correctly—that everything was aboveboard. This week, though, he has returned all $11,000, saying that he wants to avoid even the whiff of funny business. The episode illustrates an interesting gray area in election law that it appears few local campaigns have taken advantage of, particularly during this cycle.

The contributions, each in the amount of $1,000, were made by 11 limited partnerships all registered to the developer Scott Rohrman, whose purchase of many buildings in Deep Ellum almost a decade ago helped begin the neighborhood’s latest resurgence. Rohrman says each limited partnership has varying interests “in or near” the district and wanted to support Moreno. And that is, without question, legal. The state’s election code allows individuals and certain businesses (e.g., limited partnerships, limited liability corporations) to give to political candidates; the city’s election code limits each to a maximum $1,000. But what happens when one individual controls multiple partnerships?

“Is this the sign of someone who’s putting his toe right on the ethical line, or, alternatively, is this the sign of a shrewd businessperson who knows how to get things done?” asked Dallas appellate attorney Chad Ruback, who has experience with election law. He was speaking generally about the situation after hearing a description of it. “I think two different voters can interpret it two different ways.”

Rohrman says even raising that question was enough for him.

“We determined that everything is aboveboard, but I did not want anyone questioning my intent,” he said. “The donations have been sent back.”

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Politics & Government

Calling All Lawyers: Can You Sort Out The HB 19 Trucking Bill in the Texas Lege For Us?

| 2 months ago

This morning, criminally early, I stumbled across a piece of legislation, House Bill 19, which caught my attention because I had insomnia and there’s this rabbit hole called YouTube that, well, anyway… I had no idea that Texas had such an abysmal record in trucking fatalities on our roads and highways. According to Ware Wendall of Texas Watch, a consumer group, Texas led the country with 685 trucking fatalities last year alone, which was more than Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Colorado, and Mississippi combined.

I thought reckless trucking was just a Pennsylvania Turnpike thing, where my parents narrowly escaped death by truck years ago. So I am sensitive. But here’s how I read this bill: it would eliminate the right in a civil case to hold responsible the company that put the commercial vehicle on the road, no matter that they hired a bad driver, or had maintenance or repair problems. Only the driver would be responsible.

First, know that the bill is still in committee. It will morph. Our Texas House representative from Collin County, Jeff Leach, R-Plano, chairs the committee and sponsored the bill. Still my mind flashed through a number of scenarios, and I’d love to know from the legal world—not just personal liability lawyers but including personal liability lawyers—what this could mean.

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Politics & Government

New Maps Detail Neighborhoods’ Political Divides

| 2 months ago

We’re used to talking about red and blue states, and about neighborhood divides centered around income inequality and the lingering legacy of racial segregation. But to what extent do these two things overlap? Do social economic and demographic factors create red and blue neighborhoods? According to a new study by two Harvard researchers, the answers is they do.

Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos sorted information on 180 million U.S. voters and attempted to map their political divisions on a neighborhood scale, publishing the results in Nature. The researchers don’t know, of course, how people voted in the recent election, but they crunched the data by analyzing public data like demographic information, voter registration, and whether voters participated in party primaries. What they found is that the country’s political divides extend into neighborhoods, and, in some case, even manifest on a block-by-block basis.

In some ways, the broad outlines of the maps aren’t anything new. Hand a red and blue crayon to anyone who pays close attention to local politics and ask her to color in the the political affiliations of the neighborhoods, and you might end up with a map like the one of DFW pictured above. But this data drills gets so granular that it manages to quantify some eyebrow-raising results. For example, as  the New York Times reports:

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Police

The Former Mesquite Cop Behind the Power of the Dallas Police Union

| 2 months ago

Ron DeLord has been the Dallas Police Association’s strategic enforcer for years. A new profile in the New York Times shows how DeLord has pioneered a simple and direct approach to ensuring that the police unions he represents get the benefits and protections they seek: “He has likened a police union going after an elected official to a cheetah devouring a wildebeest, and suggested that taking down just one would make others fall in line.”

In practice, this looks like the attack DeLord launched against Council member Lee Kleinman during his 2017 race, when North Dallas residents received a mailer, highlighted in the Times piece, that called the council member “a menacing threat to the security of North Dallas families.” Over time, the approach has proven extremely effective.

“We took weak, underpaid organizations and built them into what everyone today says are powerful police unions,” Mr. DeLord said in a recent interview. “You may say we went too far. I say you don’t know how far you’ve gone until you’re at the edge of the envelope.”

The New York Times piece details how DeLord helped transform policing in the United States. His philosophy and influence are encapsulated in a 1997 book he coauthored called Police Association Power, Politics, and Confrontation: A Guide for the Successful Police Labor Leader that has shaped union strategies over the past two decades:

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Politics & Government

Watch Dallas State Rep. Grill the Chair of Texas’ Public Utilities Commission

| 2 months ago

If you are looking for a little more insight into what went wrong with Texas’ electrical power grid a couple of weeks ago, I suggest taking the time to watch the video (after the jump) that shows Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchia grilling DeAnn Walker, the chair of the Public Utility Commission, during Friday’s Joint Commission Hearing. Walker resigned on Monday afternoon.

If you don’t have the full 36 minutes to devote to it, click ahead to about 22:00 mark. Up to that point, Anchia spends time walking through the scope of the PUC’s regulatory responsibilities, particularly as they relate to legislation passed after the 2011 winter storm – and further refined in 2013 – that was precisely designed to avoid what happened two weeks ago.

The legislation the state passed, Anchia argues, didn’t merely suggest that the PUC monitor ERCOT, the private entity that manages the state’s grid, in order to prepare for extreme summer and winter weather. Reading from a house document that laid out the full details of the 2013 bill, Anchia recites details of the legislation that gave the PUC cease and desist authority over ERCOT, instructed the PUC to come up with performance measures to evaluate ERCOT, and required the commission to prepare annual reports on ERCOT’s performance. Walker admits that after a 2012 report, the PUC did not submit another annual report on ERCOT’s preparedness to the legislature.

“We told you to report to us if you thought we were unprepared,” Anchia says. “Because we had promised our constituents that this was not going to happen again, and we told the PUC to take care of it, and we gave you power – we gave you rulemaking authority to take care of it.”

Walker was appointed directly by Gov. Abbott, and prior to serving as the chair of the PUC, she worked as a senior policy advisor to the governor and as Associate General Counsel and Director of Regulatory Affairs at CenterPoint Energy, a Fortune 500 electric and natural gas utility.

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Policy

Four Key Questions that Could Determine the Future of Texas’ Failed Electrical Grid

| 3 months ago

The Texas Legislature is conducting hearings today to determine what led to last week’s massive power outages. We’ve all learned a lot about how Texas’ energy infrastructure works in week since the historic winter storm, and the story of the failures of the deregulated marketplace has remained at the top of the nation’s headlines.

What is now clear is that last week’s event was brought about by a confluence of factors, ranging from physical challenges in natural gas distribution and power plant operation to market-related issues with how plants are incentivized to prepare for catastrophic weather events. There have also been a lot of potential fixes tossed about, ranging from reconsidering the independence of Texas’ grid from the rest of the nation’s infrastructure to taking to task the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates and manages the state’s electrical grid.

The legislative sessions hope to bring some additional clarity as to what went wrong, as well as identify ways the state’s leadership can ensure that such a cataclysmal event – which has resulted in the deaths of a still un-certain number of Texans – never happens again. But as the legislature deliberates, keep an ear out for any answers to these four key questions that must be at the heart of any attempt to repair Texas’ broken electricity system.

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Politics & Government

Could Dallas Reform Its Government Without Going Full Strong Mayor?

| 3 months ago

Last week I suggested that Dallas should (again) consider adopting a strong mayor form of government. If you want to read the full argument, head here, but here are the main points. Under the current council-manager system, there is no way for voters to hold the city manager accountable. Council members and the mayor end up running work-arounds to enact their agendas. And there are conflicting incentives with regards to forming council coalitions, making it difficult to set and maintain momentum on policy.

Since then, I’ve heard from a lot people who hate the idea of a strong mayor and thought my argument was garbage, as well as others who love the idea and think we should go ahead and set a referendum for 2023, the year when Mayor Eric Johnson is up for reelection. I’ve also heard a handful of intriguing theories that offer additional insight into what works and doesn’t work about the city’s system.

Here are few of them:

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Politics & Government

State Legislatures Are Trying to Run America’s Cities

| 3 months ago

Perhaps this whole conversation about what kind of government Dallas should have will soon be irrelevant. According to a new report in Governing, over the past decades, state governments have become increasingly aggressive in stepping in to exert influence over local policy matters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as emergency orders have given state officials more control over local jurisdictions than usual, this trend has only accelerated.

This is not news for Texans. Dallas officials and Texas legislators have been butting heads for years over local control on issues ranging from cellphone regulations to sanctuary cities. The most recent confrontation has come over policing. Last year, the city of Austin repurposed funds from its public safety budget to convert two downtown hotels into housing for the homeless. That prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to suggest the state take over the policing of the center of Austin. The governor also supports legislation that would prohibit local governments from cutting their police budgets.

Talk about a nanny state – but Texas is not alone:

A 2018 survey found that 70 percent of local health officials and 60 percent of mayors had abandoned or delayed policies due to the threat of state preemption. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated health preemption efforts. Bills have been introduced in roughly half the states to put new limits on public health authority, including their ability to shut businesses or impose mask mandates.

So, what gives?

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Politics

The Most Detailed 2020 Dallas Election Results You Will Ever See

| 3 months ago

The New York Times published a nifty little map that allows you to drill down into last November’s presidential election results on a precinct-by-precinct level. The tool offers the most detailed election results I’ve seen to date, and there is some interesting new insight that can be gleaned from it.

Unsurprisingly, the city largely went for Biden. What is more interesting, however, is the data on margins. Southern Dallas voted most heavily for the new president, with Biden topping Trump by margins of around 90 percent. Perhaps more significantly, North Dallas precincts that voted for Trump did not do so by very large margins. Scrolling across some Far North Dallas precincts, and you can see that Biden managed to pick up 40-45 percent of the vote in predominantly conservative districts. The districts that went most heavily for Trump were in the Park Cities, but there are also pockets of Trumplandia around town, most notably in Northwest Dallas.

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