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Politics & Government

Dallas County Legislators Face Their Freshman Year in Austin

| 2 weeks ago

Mental health funding. School finance reform. Teacher pay raises. Property tax reform. School safety.

Those are Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency priorities for the 86th Texas Legislature, which convened in January and ends in May. The emergency declaration allows the legislature to bypass the normal 60 day restriction on debating and passing bills. It also means lawmakers must pass those items or are forced to return for special sessions until these issues are solved. There are only 110 days left.

There are a total of 28 new freshmen, including two returning members, from both parties in the state House. Six are from Dallas County. (Two special elections for unfilled seats are expected to easily stay in Democratic hands.) The Texas Senate swore in six freshmen, including two representing parts of Dallas County.

The freshman class includes a mix of familiar and new faces, such as Rep. Rhetta Bowers, a Democrat who ran for the southeast Dallas County seat in 2016 as well. Fellow Democratic Rep. Terry Meza ran three times—first in a primary then two times in a general election—before winning her seat, representing Grand Prairie and Irving.

Another Democrat, Rep. Carl Sherman, Jr. of DeSoto, succeeded longtime representative Helen Giddings. Sherman was the former mayor of that city. But most of his freshmen colleagues have never held public office. Rep. John Turner may be the most familiar name. He flipped the seat held by the Republican Jason Villalba, a current mayoral candidate who lost his primary to Lisa Luby Ryan.

But he may be the best known newcomer for two other reasons: he is the son of a former congressman who successfully represented multiple school districts in a 2014 school finance lawsuit against the state.

Bowers and Turner flipped open seats that have historically been friendly to Republicans. Others did, too. Like many of her freshman colleagues, Meza defeated an incumbent, Rodney Anderson. Sen. Nathan Johnson of Dallas knocked off Don Huffines. Democrat Rep. Julie Johnson of Carrollton defeated incumbent bomb-thrower Matt Rinaldi of Irving. In one of the biggest election night surprises, Rep. Ana Maria Ramos knocked off Linda Koop.

Rep. Jessica Gonzalez defeated longtime incumbent Roberto Alonzo in the primary. They join two new congressmen—Democrat Colin Allred and Republican Lance Gooden—as well as Republican freshman Sen. Angela Paxton.

Dallas County saw one of the highest number of legislative pickups in the state, all benefitting Texas Democrats. In total, the party flipped two senate seats, 11 house seats, and seized control of the U.S. House. The Dallas delegation includes 10 women and seven men, 11 of whom are people of color. Two are lesbians.

If the Texas Democratic caucus is emboldened, it has Dallas County to thank.

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Politics

Is It Time to Introduce Partisan Politics Into Municipal Elections?

| 2 months ago

Given the way this May’s mayoral election is shaping up, perhaps it’s time for Dallas to ditch its non-partisan (but actually quite partisan) approach to municipal elections. That was my takeaway from this Gromer Jeffers, Jr. piece from last week about the early, behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the many candidates vying for the city’s top job.

There are currently eight-to-ten announced or presumed mayoral candidates. They include Miguel Solis, Dallas ISD trustee; Mike Ablon, a real estate developer; Larry Casto, former Dallas city attorney; Albert Black, businessman and first African American head of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce; Regina Montoya, the former senior vice president of Children’s Medical Center; and Lynn McBee, a philanthropist and recent Highland Park transplant.

Everyone assumes Oak Cliff council member Scott Griggs will announce his bid soon, and watchers also believe outgoing State Rep. Jason Villalba will run. Jeffers also throws Dallas Park Board President Bobby Abtahi and State Rep. Helen Giddings names in the might-runs hat for good measure.

With this kind of slate, we can predict a few things about the race.

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Style

Are These Billboard Boots on Scott Griggs’ Feet? A D Magazine Guess-Tigation

| 2 months ago

In the past few days, council members Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano, and Omar Narvaez have all tweeted a photo of an electronic billboard along Interstate 35 that features some boots and a date. Former Councilwoman Angela Hunt has, too. Even Kingston’s wife, Melissa, has gotten in on the fun. Scott Griggs, the term-limited North Oak Cliff council member who is widely rumored to be running for mayor, has not tweeted out this photo of billboard boots. Maybe that’s because he sees them every day.

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Media

Protesters Take On the DMN’s Handling of District 4 Recommendation

| 2 months ago

On Thursday, the place that usually covers the protests became the subject of one. About 20 people formed a loose semi-circle outside the glass walls of the Dallas Morning News’ downtown headquarters and, in the wake of activist and former City Council candidate Keyaira Saunders’ loss in a District 4 runoff earlier this month, expressed their displeasure with the city’s newspaper of record. An enormous banner proclaimed it the “Dallas Bigotry News.” The event’s organizer, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, ripped a newspaper in half. Current Council member Philip Kingston, who represents downtown, was there.

At issue for protesters is what they consider a conflation of Saunders’ personal financial history with her character and ability to lead. In its recommendation of eventual winner Carolyn King Arnold, the News’ editorial board revealed that Saunders has previously come close to eviction in Collin and Denton counties. The editorial noted she was a mother of three who had fallen on tough times but concluded: “Nonetheless, we find this troubling.”

Saunders is 29 years old, from battle-tested Flint, Michigan. She says she is representative of the people living in the Oak Cliff district in which she ran. “We expect people that can’t relate to lead us,” she said before the election. “That doesn’t make sense.” That point is further driven home by the response from her community after the editorial was published, which she called, “a little overwhelming.”

On Thursday, activist Olinka Green hit on why the News’ sentiment touched such a nerve. Speaking into a microphone projected by a speaker perched on a stand, Green told the gathering that she has struggled herself. She has slept at the bus station with her two kids. “When you smear her character,” she said, “you smear mine.” Tamara O’Neil called out what she called “selective news” when it comes to reporting on leaders, saying: “The classism has to stop.”

Saunders spoke briefly about her humble beginnings. She said that she knows how to lead, “because I’ve been there.”

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Politics

Design District Developer Mike Ablon Makes His Mayoral Run Official

| 2 months ago

Wave goodbye to the worst-kept secret in local city politics: developer Mike Ablon is indeed running for mayor.

The man who many know for his work in the Design District had filed paperwork with the city secretary just before Thanksgiving to appoint a treasurer and begin raising and spending money on his campaign. But he didn’t indicate which position he was running for. Plenty of folks would say on background that he wanted to be mayor, and Ablon was easy to spot in rooms with other candidates. But he didn’t address it publicly until Wednesday, when his campaign sent out a press release announcing his run.

“I’m the lucky one that’s a fifth generation Dallas person,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “My family came to Dallas in the 1880s. They walked here from Galveston and raised a family. … When you work here, train here, raise your family here, and start your businesses here in Dallas-Fort Worth, you start accruing some skills to put to the benefit of the community that nurtured you.”

Ablon joins a race that has added three others since he filed his paperwork. Former City Attorney Larry Casto is in, as is former Children’s Health general counsel and Hillary Clinton aide Regina Montoya. The well-known volunteer and ever-present nonprofit board member Lynn McBee has also filed to run. Oak Cliff businessman Albert Black filed way back in July.

Ablon became involved in politics just this year after a career as a real estate developer, with his firm PegasusAblon. The mayor appointed him to head the local government corporation that oversees what gets built within the 20,000-acre Trinity River floodway. Ablon said he stepped down on December 7, as the city charter bars mayoral candidates from occupying appointed positions. (Black also resigned from chairing the Dallas Housing Authority.)

Expect to hear a lot from Ablon about the importance of neighborhoods.

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Urbanism

If Dallas Wants to Retain Its Competitive Edge, It Needs to Rethink Parking, Zoning

| 2 months ago

If Dallas is serious about addressing the issue of affordable housing, it should have an eye on how Minneapolis is approaching the problem. Typically, cities try to encourage developers to build affordable housing by offering incentives and subsidies. Minneapolis has found a different approach works: rethinking parking requirements and urban zoning.

Let’s look at parking first. Minneapolis used to require that new construction provide a single parking space per new unit. Three years ago, as rents continued to rise, the city decided to see if loosening parking requirements could help dampen those increases. They passed a law that allowed developers to add only a half-space per unit or, in the case of developments near public transit centers, no spaces at all. What happened? According to planning.org, Rents went down:

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Good Public Transit

The Federal Grants That Built the Dallas Streetcar Are Now Funding Roads

| 2 months ago

To explain the significance of a wonky shift in policy transpiring in the Trump administration, it is worth briefly revisiting how Dallas got into the streetcar game. It began in the 1980s, when some trolley enthusiasts created a nonprofit that helped get the historic McKinney Avenue Trolley restored. They raised the money, part of it through a local taxing jurisdiction known as a PID, and managed to get it built. Then, in the 2000s, a more modern-minded crew of trolley enthusiasts thought it would be cool if Dallas restored the streetcar line in Oak Cliff. Local officials were less than enthusiastic.

All the typical transportation powers-that-be — the North Central Council of Governments, the city, DART — thought this new generation of streetcar nuts were hapless hipster dreamers. Nonetheless, the Oak Cliff streetcar nerds applied for a TIGER grant from the federal government and won it. That essentially twisted the arms of the city and region to start thinking about streetcars. Now there’s a plan on the table to connect the McKinney line to the Oak Cliff line that was constructed after the TIGER grant award, and even more conversation about how to utilize that connection as a springboard for building out an entire network.

That’s the power of a federal grant: it can serve as a catalyst, a way to circumvent entrenched local thinking and shift attitudes around transportation policy. The TIGER grant program was founded by the Obama administration as a way to help push a more broad-based approach to funding mobility projects of all sorts. Sadly, the new administration has taken the hatchet to the TIGER grant program, reworking it into a program that generates more federal funding for road projects. They’ve also renamed the thing, from TIGER to BUILD.

How surprising is that? Well, not at all, of course. 

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Politics & Government

City Council Extends the State Fair’s Contract Through 2038

| 2 months ago

The State Fair of Texas will be at Fair Park for another 10 years. The City Council approved an amendment today that extends the fair’s contract another decade, from 2028 to 2038. The deal includes protections for minimum wage payments for hourly employees, who are guaranteed to receive a base of at least $11.15 per hour through 2020. Afterward, the minimum will scale up each year based on the city’s cost of living calculator.

The amendment also requires the State Fair and the Dallas Police Department to agree upon a set amount of on-duty and off-duty officers that will be needed for security. They’ll begin meeting six months before the fair opens its doors each year. The contract calls for DPD to invoice the State Fair for “services provided, including full cost recovery of both on-duty and overtime assignments based on actual hours worked.”

“Within thirty (30) days of receipt, State Fair shall pay the full invoice amount,” reads the contract.

This has been a point of controversy around the horseshoe at least since 2016, when the short-staffed and cash-strapped DPD revealed that the fair had rung up more than $1 million in staffing costs that year alone. Last year’s fair also exceeded $1 million. Fair officials had previously vowed to pay $550,000 for security annually. On Monday, the Quality of Life committee voted 4-3 against recommending the Council approve the amendment. And on Wednesday, councilwoman Sandy Greyson, of North Dallas, immediately requested a motion to defer the vote until 2019. And then the familiar arguments for and against the fair reared their head.

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Politics

Turnout Has Been Low, but There’s Plenty at Stake in Today’s City Council Runoff

| 2 months ago

As of Friday, with Election Day happening today, just 804 people have voted in the special election runoff to determine District 4’s next City Council member. This is the Oak Cliff slot vacated by Dwaine Caraway, who stepped down in August as he pled guilty to felony corruption charges.

The lackluster numbers come after a whopping 14,297 people cast votes in the District 4 special election in November. At that point, 13 candidates were involved. Previous Council member Carolyn King Arnold and activist Keyaira Saunders received the most votes, but neither won a majority, so the decider became this mid-December runoff.

In 2017, Caraway edged Arnold by taking 1,760 votes compared to her 1,553. District 4 did not require a runoff that year, but the ones associated with that election—Districts 6, 7, and 8—yielded between 2,000 and 2,500 votes, give or take. It would require an unlikely final push to reach those numbers this year; during those runoffs—which were in June—only about 18 percent of the total vote came on election day.

But despite the poor turnout, there is plenty at stake here for the slice of Oak Cliff covered by District 4, and for the rest of Dallas. The winner holds influence during a crucial five-month stretch for the city, leading up to the election of a new mayor, while grabbing an inside track to their own re-election for a full two-year term in May.

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Trinity River

It’s Time to Bury the Old Trinity River Hatchets

| 2 months ago

As Matt and I wrote last Friday, we were rather impressed with a big new plan for the Trinity River that was unveiled last week by the Trinity Park Conservancy. Unlike so many of the Trinity River plans that have been pushed over the years, the Harold Simmons Park plan appeared to represent a change in direction around some of the fundamental thinking that has dictated official efforts to chart out the future of the river. Past plans proposed transforming the river all sorts of crazy ways, but this new plan appears to have the fundamental nature of the Trinity River as its starting point.

I say “appears” because, as the plan’s authors readily admit, it is still very early in the planning process. If the history of the Trinity has taught us anything it is that politics, bureaucracy, philanthropy, engineering, general incompetence, and other forces that swirl around the Trinity often manage to get into the designers’ plans and muck them up. But at least at the unveiling, the designers were keen on making the appearance that the nature of the river was fundamental to their design.

Let’s highlight the significance of this. It means that after decades of debate over the Trinity, public resistance to the official Trinity narratives has helped reshape the city’s thinking around what we do within its levees.

There was a time not that long ago when everyone spoke about the river like it was an object that needed to be transformed—redeveloped as a road to boost a regional transportation agenda, harnessed to target economic development in areas of downtown, or dug-up and rebuilt as a park. Only in recent years—months, really—did some of the people closest to the project start to recognize that the Trinity was a floodway, and not a river like the kind that exists in east coast or European cities or in the mountains of Colorado. This park project, as pitched, has a core principle of restoring natural ecology in the floodplain.

The designers behind the new plan talked about making “strategic moves” to harness the river’s aquatic physics in a way that can help rehabilitate the ecosystem and open low-impact recreational access.

These ideas are coming from the Trinity Park Conservancy—the recently renamed Trinity Trust—the same organization that once hired the people that drew the jugglers under the overpass and commissioned the doomed whitewater rapid course. The shift in language and attitude should overjoy the old Trinity warriors—their friction and resistance has helped to sharpen Dallas’ understanding of the river and its future.

But this is the Trinity River, Dallas’ oldest punching bag, and old polemical habits die hard.

The two main responses to the new plan—one from the Dallas Morning News’ Mark Lamster and another from the Dallas Observer‘s Jim Schutze—both miss the mark in their reaction to last week’s unveil.

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Politics

Philanthropist Lynn McBee Files to Run For Mayor

| 3 months ago

Philanthropist Lynn McBee is running for mayor. She filed her treasurer appointment report with the city secretary’s office and announced her run in an email to media at 5:31 p.m. on Friday.

McBee, the CEO of the Young Women’s Preparatory Network, is a former biochemist researcher who is known for her fundraising acumen for the city’s nonprofits. She has served as the chair of the boards of organizations as diverse as the Dallas International Film Festival to the Family Place Foundation, which supports victims of domestic violence. She currently is the board chair of The Bridge homeless shelter and is a member of more than a dozen other boards throughout the city. The Dallas Morning News last year called her a “super-fundraiser” when she won the Texas Trailblazer Award, which is given out by the Family Place. The nonprofit’s CEO, Paige Fink, said she was instrumental in helping it receive “almost $17 million in under two years.”

I’ll be chatting with McBee on Monday to discuss her platform. County appraisal records show she owns a home in Highland Park, although Shawn Williams—a spokesman with Allyn Media, which is handling at least communications for the campaign—says she recently moved downtown and put the Highland Park home for sale.

Her press release announcer comes with a list of endorsements that include Lucy Billingsley, the CEO of Billingsley Co.; Clay and Lisa Cooley, he of Cooley Auto Group, she a board member of the Callier Center at UT Dallas and McBee’s Young Women’s Prep Network; Richard Rogers, the former CEO of Mary Kay; and about a half dozen others that I’ll list below.

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Politics

Hometown Kid Called Very Dumb by D.C. Bigwig

| 3 months ago

We have more shots fired—oh so many shots—in the feud between ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—also the ex-ExxonMobil Corp. CEO—and excitable Twitter user and current President Donald Trump. It seems ex-Exxon exec Rex has made the president angry.

Let’s recap before we give you the goods, which you’ve probably already seen elsewhere and rolled your eyes at by now, but it’s Friday and it’s slow and so here we are.

Things started with a report from NBC News, back in October 2017, that Tillerson had dropped a “moron” accusation on his boss.

DT figured it was fake news, although did he? Because he curiously offered a retort just in case: take an IQ test against me you cowardly coward. He said that in an interview, not on Twitter, which I will note I was surprised to find out during the reporting of this story.

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