These Big-City Mayoral Runoffs Are Civil, Too Civil

The Texas Tribune
These Big-City Mayoral Runoffs Are Civil, Too Civil
Stuart Palley for The Texas Tribune

David Kunkle spoke at a Dallas mayoral debate in April flanked by Mike Rawlings, left, now his runoff opponent, and Ron Natinsky.
Published: June 11, 2011

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Joe Nick Patoski wrote this column for The Texas Tribune.
The Texas Tribune

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It would be nice if the two largest cities in Texas’ largest metropolitan area were fired up about the June 18 runoffs that will determine their next mayors. But about the only thing voters in Dallas and Fort Worth have been engaged in is a collective yawn.

Actually, maybe that’s not so bad.

In Dallas’s first-round elections in May, Mike Rawlings, a former Pizza Hut chief executive, finished first with 41 percent of the vote; David Kunkle, a former Dallas police chief, came in second with 32 percent. But fewer than 70,000 votes were cast, representing only about 14 percent of the city’s eligible voters. Thirty miles west, Betsy Price, the Tarrant County tax assessor-collector for the past 10 years, took 43 percent and Jim Lane, the former city councilman, got 26 percent in the closest mayor’s race in Fort Worth in 30 years. Yet only 33,860 of 326,623 registered voters participated.

Why the apathy? Blame both cities’ weak mayor systems, in which the real power lies with their city managers. Blame the absence of a pitchfork-brandishing Tea Party candidate in either race. All four candidates have been exceptionally civil, keeping mudslinging to a minimum.

Most important, while both cities face infrastructure problems and budget challenges, the North Texas economy has led the nation in job growth over the past year, at 2.9 percent compared with 1.1 percent nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Times are relatively good.

In Dallas, the prevailing narrative pits Mr. Rawlings’s promise to do big things to put the Big back in Big D and run the city like a business — a mantra that has been gospel for nearly a century there — against Mr. Kunkle’s pledge to focus on repairing city streets, fighting crime and improving quality of life in neighborhoods.

In Fort Worth, Ms. Price’s fiscal conservatism is being contrasted with Mr. Lane’s experience on the council and in his current position on the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District.

There are twists to each race. Mr. Rawlings, who has served as Dallas’s homeless czar and as the director of the Dallas Parks Board, has spent more than $2 million on his campaign so far — at least 10 times as much as Mr. Kunkle spent in the general election. Mr. Rawlings, despite being tagged as the candidate of North Dallas, has logged considerable time campaigning in underserved South Dallas, calling it the city’s “greatest untapped resource.”

Historically, Mr. Kunkle has stronger ties to South Dallas, where he patrolled as a Dallas beat officer 40 years ago and worked his way up to the chief’s office. On his watch, Dallas’s crime rate dropped 36 percent to its lowest rate since 1970. His campaign manager is former State Representative Steve Wolens, the husband of former Mayor Laura Miller, who appointed Mr. Rawlings as homeless czar.

In Fort Worth, the Seventh Street Gang, a group of business leaders, hand-picked Ms. Price, a long-distance cyclist and avid hunter, to run. Mr. Lane, who was endorsed by police and firefighter associations, is a good old boy who favors western hats and is responsible for creating the Herd, the longhorns that parade on red-brick Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards daily for the benefit of tourists. Both candidates attended Arlington Heights High School on the city’s west side.

“From my perspective, the interest in the two elections is about the same — which is not very much,” said Tammye Nash, a senior editor at Dallas Voice. But Ms. Nash acknowledged that the comity between candidates in both races had been refreshing. “It seems they’re all moderates, and they’re moving towards the middle,” she said.

Indeed, if state politics have taken a hard-right turn, city politics are a different animal, as both runoffs demonstrate. Annise Parker of Houston is the first openly gay mayor of a major American city. Austin is, as ever, proudly liberal. Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio is being touted as the great brown hope of the state’s Democratic Party. Dallas, Harris and Travis counties all voted for President Obama in 2008, the first such hat trick in a presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson ran in 1964.

While Dallas turned blue a few years back, Fort Worth remains staunchly Republican. But both cities maintain tolerant, welcoming and inclusive visions. If this keeps up, by next election, they’ll be singing “Kumbaya” and joining hands across Interstate 30.

Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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