A Daily Conversation About Dallas


Texas Monthly Shouts Out Good, Bad, ‘Cockroach’ North Texas Lawmakers on Annual List

| 24 hours ago

Today, Texas Monthly posted its yearly feature on the best and worst legislators in Texas. As always, Dallas-Fort Worth is well-represented, in all kinds of ways.


Bedford Rep. Jonathan Stickland has been on the bad side of TM’s list for two straight years. He’s been dishonored around these parts, as well. He tried to kill a bipartisan mental health bill on a simple technicality just last month. Par for the course. So TM decided to name Sticky their first “cockroach,” because he “accomplishes nothing but always manages to show up in the worst possible way.” On the bad list this year, McKinney Senator Angela Paxton gets a nod after filing legislation that could’ve helped cool the hot water around her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton. And Plano Rep. Jeff Leach shows up for “cozying up to power” and pandering to voters.

There are a couple of high notes. We have Dallas Rep. Victoria Neave earning a spot for pushing Texas to reckon with its rape-kit backlog. Rep. Julie Johnson, also of Dallas, takes home freshman of the year. Johnson helped create the LGBTQ caucus and walked the walk by using a point of order to weaken what became the “Chick-fil-A” bill. Dive into the feature here.

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Teens Turn Trip to the Border Into a Play About Immigration

| 1 day ago

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email with a link to a trailer for “Crossing the Line,” an upcoming documentary play about immigration co-produced by Cry Havoc Theater Company and Kitchen Dog Theater. It’s emotional stuff. (You can watch the trailer below.)

The eight actors are all Dallas-area high school students. Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc founder and artistic director, and Tim Johnson, managing director of Kitchen Dog Theater, took them on a pilgrimage to the Rio Grande Valley over spring break in order to collect first-person interviews. Those interviews will become the dialogue for the play.

This is the first co-production of Cry Havoc and Kitchen Dog, but this is not the first time Cry Havoc has tackled an issue of cultural relevance through documentary-style theater. Last year the theater company produced “Babel,” a play about gun violence derived from interviews with parents of children lost in school shootings, gun control advocates, and elected officials.

Johnson says this year’s show draws from more than twice the material. I sat down to talk with him and two of the student actors, M. Bandy and Leonela Arguello, about what the experience was like. Bandy is a recent graduate of W.T. White High School and will be heading to Bennington College in the fall; Arguello is a junior at Booker T. Washington High School. “Crossing the Line” runs from July 19 to August 4 at the Trinity River Arts Center. You can purchase tickets here.

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Local Government

At His Inauguration, Mayor Eric Johnson Charts His Vision for Dallas’ Next Four Years

| 2 days ago

Dallas met its new mayor and City Council on Monday. At the Winspear, seven new faces and seven returning ones—with one absence—took their oaths and swore to faithfully execute the duties of the office.

Former Mayor Mike Rawlings earned a standing ovation. He told the packed Winspear Opera House that today was a day for thank yous and for welcomes.

“Our city is special. It will face harsh winds at times, but we are made of something unique,” he said, and then referenced the city’s response after literal harsh winds took power from hundreds of thousands of Dallasites over the last two weekends and did much worse to residents of an apartment complex in Old East Dallas.

But more than anything, Monday was about one man, Eric Johnson, who officially became Dallas’ 60th mayor at about 10:40 a.m. Later in the day, Johnson and his colleagues took their seats around the horseshoe for the first time and unanimously selected Adam Medrano as mayor pro tem.

The new Council then voted down a motion to make fourth-term Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates the deputy mayor pro tem. Johnson and Gates voted for it along with Cara Mendelsohn, Chad West, and Carolyn King Arnold. The Council then unanimously selected Adam McGough for the role instead, meaning three men will again occupy the horseshoe’s highest seats. (The mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem titles have traditionally gone to black and Latino council members when there is a white mayor, to ensure diversity among the leadership roles. Johnson is black, Medrano is Latino, and McGough is white. The mayor pro tem assumes the mayor’s duties should the mayor step down, and also runs meetings in his absence.)

But back at the morning’s inauguration, Johnson took the microphone, declared campaign season dead, and delivered his vision for his next four years. That vision carries distinct similarities to his campaign priorities. It also ventures into new territory and digs deeper into areas he’d only touched on during debates. He did not address the shooting outside the Earle Cabell Federal Building about two hours earlier.

Those who closely followed the race won’t be surprised to see the inclusion of Johnson’s goals to bring greater civility to City Hall, eradicate corruption, and develop Dallas’ workforce. He delivered those as three prongs of his five-part agenda.

Often as an indictment of his opponent, the term-limited Councilman Scott Griggs, civility and divisiveness became some of Johnson’s biggest talking points on the campaign trail. During one debate, he went so far as to say the tactics of former Councilman Philip Kingston, a Griggs ally, helped motivate his run for Dallas mayor. On Monday, Johnson said he’d be keeping an open door and an open mind, and asked that Council members treat each other “with a spirit of grace, a tone of civility, and we need to be coming from a posture of friendship.”

He said he’d work with that Council to solve the city’s well-documented ethics problems. And on workforce development, which he called his No. 1 priority while campaigning, he brought into focus his plan. He will create a new City Council committee focused on education and workforce needs and appoint a “czar or czarina” with the same aim.

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Politics & Government

Lorraine Birabil Joins the Race for Eric Johnson’s House Seat

| 1 week ago

Lorraine Birabil will run for the Texas House District 100 seat mayor-elect Eric Johnson will soon vacate. The former aide to U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey has worked on campaigns for Beto O’Rourke, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, and former Texas Sen. Wendy Davis.

She joins a field that could swell to around a dozen candidates, according to the Dallas Morning News’ political wonk Gromer Jeffers. Birabil announced her candidacy yesterday with a list of endorsers highlighted by Jenkins, Veasey, state Rep. Terry Meza, County Commissioner John Wiley Price, and Oak Cliff advocate Edna Pemberton.

Birabil, who has lived in District 100 for the last 20 years, does have the blemish of an arrest on her record, although it’s a bizarre one. During an incident in 2013, police took her in for reportedly approaching an officer who was arresting her father after she’d been told to stay back. Her father was in a confrontation with two people over catering equipment and pay. Birabil would file a use-of-force complaint against the officers.

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Local News

On Election Night, Eric Johnson Becomes Mayor and Scott Griggs Says Goodbye

| 1 week ago

At Eric Johnson’s election night party, the crowd, like the candidate, took its time. Maybe the group was so confident that they were willing to spend a few more minutes at home or pop over to another candidate’s gathering first. From here, the result seemed like a foregone conclusion. Johnson’s campaign had even printed the phrase “VICTORY PARTY” on the staff and media passes. Regardless, it made for a strange moment when early voting results appeared on the county’s election website at 7 p.m. The party had yet to take off, but Eric Johnson had won.

There were a few slow conversations at the sparsely populated tables inside the Fairmont Hotel’s International Ballroom, in downtown. One gentleman at a table was on his phone, maybe checking the results and maybe not. There had been months of buildup to this moment, with nine candidates, dozens of forums, millions of dollars spent. Johnson emerged with what proved to be an insurmountable lead—a full 7,000 votes up, 16 percentage points.

His opponent, North Oak Cliff Councilman Scott Griggs, hadn’t arrived at his own party when those results were published. His campaign had booked the historic Longhorn Ballroom in the Cedars, a 2,500-person venue that attracted maybe 250 to 300 during the peak of the night. At one point, the power even went out—an ominous sign. There had been hope that Griggs’ message resonated with voters in the month before the runoff election. The candidate courted support from the largest police and fire unions and called public safety his top concern. In May, there were 40 homicides in Dallas, the most in a single month in almost three decades. It became the headline-grabbing topic of the many debates—Griggs calling it a “crisis,” Johnson arguing that the mayor should instead keep a cool head about it.

The two had emerged as very different candidates, with Johnson courting support from the city’s business class. Griggs mostly stayed at the neighborhood level, garnering more donations in the runoff but about $500,000 less than his opponent. When there were nine people vying for your vote, it was tough to tell what set them apart. With two, you saw Griggs the policy wonk, a man who took to forums the depth of knowledge that comes with being a councilman for eight years, doing his best to avoid the alphabet soup of acronyms that sustains city policymakers. Johnson, meanwhile, spoke in broad terms about growing the tax base in southern Dallas and reforming the ethics policies at City Hall, a place where multiple council members had admitted to taking bribes in recent years. Johnson tied Griggs to his allies, namely the hawk-eyed but volatile Councilman Philip Kingston, whose bombast Johnson said was partly why he decided to seek the mayor’s seat in the first place.

Johnson argued that he was the man to bring the city together, that Kingston and Griggs had done more to create an unhelpful us-versus-them atmosphere.

Like in any Dallas municipal election, you are speaking to a narrow slice of registered voters. About 10 percent of the registered voters went to the polls. So true or not, Johnson’s pitch was welcomed by far more. By the end of the night, Johnson had vanquished Griggs by 11 percentage points, and Kingston had been defeated by a man whom he had beaten easily in 2013, the mortgage banker and father of seven David Blewett.

“I saw my city at a turning point,” Johnson said. “At a very, very important juncture in its history where we had a choice to make as to whether or not we were going to double down on division and name calling and lack of decorum and lack of unity of purpose and lack of unity of spirit. Or we were going to change direction?”

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Local News

Dallas, Eric Johnson Is Now Your Mayor

| 1 week ago

The mayor’s race was basically over at 7 p.m., when early voting results hit the county’s website.

State Rep. Eric Johnson came out of the gate with an 18-point lead over Councilman Scott Griggs and didn’t look back. He’d end the night with 41,208 votes, almost 10,000 more than his opponent, winning by 11 percent. Only 10 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

Griggs and his closest ally, the downtown-Uptown-East Dallas Councilman Philip Kingston, both cratered in the runoff. Kingston lost by 7 percentage points—745 votes—to the mortgage banker David Blewett, the same guy he easily beat in 2013 when he first ran for the District 14 seat. If you are the type who looks for broader meaning in such things, it would seem a stunning rebuke of the confrontational and theatrical legislating that originated from Kingston’s seat. In the many debates leading up to last night, Johnson tied Griggs to his buddy Philip. It proved to be a winning strategy. They were the “divisive” crew, the two representatives who would set the city back, the “progressive bloc” that didn’t believe in the type of growth that would grow the tax base. True or not, it resonated.

Kingston and Griggs both ran on campaigns touting their customer service—if there’s a pothole near you, we’ll get city staff out to fix it. Griggs fought against what he called vanity projects, such as the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. He put his cell phone number on his campaign literature. But he was still close with Kingston, the councilman who once tore up a colleague’s amendment, threw the paper in the air, and then got in the mayor’s face during a Council meeting.

Johnson even said during a debate that Kingston was almost “singlehandedly” the reason he decided to run. They’d worked together on the tricky redo of the Garland-Grand-Gaston intersection in Lakewood. “For the first time ever I was directly impacted by the tactics that has caused our City Council to become as divided as it currently is,” he said.

Johnson positioned himself as a unifier and collaborator, and he got the city’s business community behind him. Griggs had less money and the support of neighborhoods, as well as the largest unions for the police and fire departments. He made public safety his top issue, calling it “a crisis,” and the month of the runoff there were 40 murders in the city of Dallas—the most since the 1990s. (Johnson described Grigg’s public safety focus as scare tactics, then later ranked it as his number one priority in late-in-the-race political tweets.) Many Dallas politics wonks thought the race would be a tossup. It wasn’t. Kingston, too, had the support of the working class; I ran into a volunteer with the Workers Defense Project who had been sitting outside the Oak Lawn Library in 95-degree heat since 7 a.m., thanking people who voted. None of that moved the dial.

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Local News

Rafael Anchia, Other North Texas Reps Ask Trump to Reconsider Mexico Tariffs

| 2 weeks ago

State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) on Thursday penned a letter to a United States Trade Representative urging the federal government to reconsider tariffs on imported Mexican goods announced by president Donald Trump last week.

Trump says he’ll impose a 5 percent tariff starting this Monday, with increases gradually up to 25 percent by October. That would be “devastating to both the United States and Mexican economies, with particularly harmful implications for the state of Texas,” writes Anchia. The letter was signed by 56 members of the Texas House, including nine from North Texas.

Trump’s threat is an attempt to get Mexico to crack down on the flow of migrants across the border. More from Anchia’s letter:

Texas serves as the biggest exporter of goods and services in the United States—totaling $264.5 billion in 2017. The volume of Texas exports was larger than that of the second-largest exporting state by more than $90 billion. Texas companies maintain well-developed cross-border supply chains, and a mutually-beneficial trade relationship with our state’s number-one trading partner, Mexico. In 2017, our state exported $97.3 billion, and imported $89 billion from Mexico, with an additional 382,000 Texas jobs that depend on trade with Mexico.

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New EarBurner: Eric Celeste Tells You Who Will Be the Next Mayor of Dallas

| 2 weeks ago

There is a runoff election on Saturday.

We’ve written plenty on this in the last few months, and with Election Day now, oh, 40something hours away, it’s time to dive into some highly scientific predictions. To do so, we wrangled our own local political Nostradamus, Eric Celeste (our former city columnist), to the Old Monk to share how he pretty much nailed the general election, when nine candidates were in the running for mayor.

We talk about David Blewett’s challenge to Philip Kingston and whether the former’s impressive general election results (47 percent! So close!) will stick. Will Tiffinni Young return to the horseshoe to represent Fair Park and South Dallas? How will the race between Erin Moore and Paula Blackmon shake out over in District 9, which is down a council member after Mark Clayton decided not to have another go? Will Carolyn King Arnold continue her reign over District 4, a seat she won after it was vacated by the felon Dwaine Caraway? We talk about early voting turnout a bit, which you can read about in more detail right here. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the return of Zac Crain, who found a microphone in his hand for the first time in three months. He brought his son to bear witness. It was fun to be in that spot while it lasted, even if we were never able to get state representative and mayoral hopeful Eric Johnson across from us. At least Mayor Mike Rawlings showed up.

Please go vote. The city’s future depends on you. You don’t want to let your city down, do you?

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Early Turnout Shows Improvement, But at Some Polls It’s Still Crickets

| 2 weeks ago

On Monday afternoon, Reverchon Recreation Center in District 14 was completely deserted. During one 45-minute period, not a single voter went in or out. No campaigners came out either. Despite it being a clear, sunny day—and despite the district’s contentious battle between incumbent Philip Kingston and challenger David Blewett—election officials said it had been slow. Only 68 voters had trickled in by 11:30 a.m.

“For the amount of people registered, we need more voters,” election judge Valerie Hutchins said.

Although early voting turnout outpaced comparable Dallas elections in recent years, the slow morning at Reverchon underscores just how difficult it is to get Dallas, the city with the lowest voter turnout in the country, to the polls.

Early returns this year suggest we’re making progress. So far in the joint runoff election for Dallas mayor and City Council, 50,819 ballots have been cast. About 47,000 of those came via in-person early voting, 17,000 more than were cast that way during the 2011 runoff—the last municipal runoff involving a mayor’s race—and 32,000 more than during the 2017 City Council runoffs, which included battles in West Dallas’ District 6, South Dallas’ District 7, and southern Dallas’ District 8.

Mid-day trips to polling locations told a much different story. During stops by five different polling locations spread across four different Council districts, voters were generally hard to come by.

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Let’s Judge the Aesthetics of Dallas’ Municipal Campaigns

| 2 weeks ago

Of the tens of thousands of words written about our local elections, very few of them have focused on the aesthetics of each campaign. This is a shame. It is the aesthetics—the visual choices, colors, slogans—that can resonate with voters far quicker and longer than any particular policy position or campaign promise. This is perhaps seen most clearly with two of our most recent presidents: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. President Obama’s breakthrough campaign in 2008 introduced the slogan “Yes We Can” and the Shepard Fairey-designed Hope poster. Similarly, it is impossible to imagine President Trump’s 2016 campaign without the slogan “Make America Great Again” and the signature red MAGA hat. For their respective followers, these images, slogans, and merchandise became shorthand for the movement and the candidate’s politics themselves.

Dallas’ municipal elections obviously exist on a smaller stage. The two runoff candidates for Dallas mayor—Councilman Scott Griggs and state Rep. Eric Johnson—do not have the most appealing campaign signage. But this was clearly not a hindrance for them.

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Former U.S. Ambassador Jeanne Phillips: ‘We Did Not Want to See Scott Griggs Elected Mayor’

| 3 weeks ago

Last night, Robert and Maggie Murchison held a fundraiser at their Preston Hollow home for mayoral hopeful and state Rep. Eric Johnson. A surreptitious audio recording of the proceedings was passed along to D Magazine. It shows some interesting — and not altogether truthful — ways in which his opponent, Councilman Scott Griggs, is being depicted to donors.

On the bill was Mayor Mike Rawlings, Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, and Dallas ISD Trustee Dustin Marshall. (All referred to on the flyer as “Hon.,” as to not violate the city’s ethics code that bars sitting elected officials from using their office to endorse another candidate.) They did what you’d expect.

Marshall, who attended the Greenhill School with Johnson, opened the evening talking about his longtime friend and their battles on the football field. Gates spoke next, saying Johnson was the candidate who would work to build coalitions, adding, “I’ve worked with his opponent now for six years. We are friends, we get along. My mom is here. She said not to say anything bad about somebody so I’m going to leave it at that.” Johnson then delivered a more casual version of what you hear during candidate forums, focusing on how to improve workforce training and his desire to grow the tax base in southern Dallas.

Then came former U.S. Ambassador Jeanne Phillips, a senior vice president at Hunt Oil. She delivered the evening’s most interesting remarks. She claimed that Griggs “has voted for every single tax increase since he’s been on the City Council.”

That’s not true. According to the Dallas Central Appraisal District, the city’s property tax rate, as set by the Council when it passes its annual budget, is actually lower now than it was in 2011, Griggs’ first year as a councilman. Peruse them here. I can find no evidence of Griggs voting to raise the property tax rate. It remained the same from 2012 until 2016, and then has dropped each year since 2017. Griggs has voted for cuts to the property tax rates each of the last three years.

Phillips said that a national group called Our Revolution “is actively and aggressively” supporting Griggs, adding, “It’s dangerous for outside groups to come into our hometown and run a national agenda regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on.” Someone in the room interjected that Our Revolution “is the former Bernie Sanders campaign team and platform that celebrates socialism.” This revelation led to audible gasps.

Again, this information isn’t quite accurate. The local chapter of Our Revolution has indeed independently endorsed Griggs; there’s no evidence of outside influence from anyone working on a national level. Griggs today told me, “We have not been endorsed by Bernie Sanders or any national groups.” He said, “We do not coordinate with any other outside groups.” For context, according to an analysis by the Dallas Morning News, about $50,000 of Johnson’s donations—roughly a tenth of his first campaign finance report—came from out-of-state donors.

But I have no doubt about the veracity of the most interesting thing that Phillips said last night. It was a story about how she and Ray Hunt first met with Johnson “about four months ago.” Both Johnson and Phillips confirmed for me today that this meeting took place after Johnson had announced his run for mayor; he says he came to the decision to run “after prayerful consideration with my family.” I’m going to give you the full anecdote transcribed and then the audio itself. Here’s the story Phillips told:

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