Political style, not policy, takes center stage in first Dallas mayoral runoff debate
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Political style took precedence over policy in the first of a handful of one-on-one debates and forums between mayoral candidates Scott Griggs and Eric Johnson.
Both appeared relaxed and convivial at Monday’s debate, held in downtown’s Belo Mansion and moderated by Dallas Morning News political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr. The two candidates in the June runoff had previously worked together on policies in the past and expressed few major differences on public safety, infrastructure, affordable housing and VisitDallas, the beleaguered convention and visitors bureau.
But Johnson, a state representative, tried his best to differentiate himself from his opponent in one key area: tone.
While Griggs said public safety was the city’s No. 1 issue, Johnson argued that tone at City Hall is the biggest challenge. He said Griggs was incapable of becoming a uniting force after years as an opposition leader during four terms on the City Council.
“If you can’t build consensus and you engage in the politics of personal destruction, and you are a divisive person, you cannot effectively lead our city,” Johnson said. “I’ve found a way throughout my career to bring people together, and my support base in this race reflects that ability.
“The snark has got to stop.”
Johnson, a Democrat, said he was the only candidate still standing after the May election with a track record of working across political divides. Johnson has received major endorsements and donations from Republicans as well as Democrats in the nonpartisan mayoral race.
Johnson also went on the offensive, attacking Griggs campaign tactics and his past campaign donations from school-aged children of wealthy contributors.
Throughout the debate, Griggs used his council experience to counter Johnson’s claims that he couldn’t work well with others. He said he got a majority of the council to support his plan to increase starting police pay to $60,000. The city needs to further increase starting pay to $72,000, he said.
Griggs highlighted that Dallas was hovering around 3,000 police officers — hundreds fewer than a few years ago — and that response times across the city were suffering as a result.
“That is why we are in a public safety crisis, and we have to do something about it,” Griggs said.
When asked how the city was going to hire and retain officers at higher salaries, Griggs said he had experience with the budget and knew where to make cuts. He also said development in southern Dallas couldn’t happen if neighborhoods there aren’t safe.
Johnson said new development, particularly in southern Dallas, was critical to grow the tax base — thereby increasing the tax revenue to pay for more officers.
Griggs, who has run against "boondoggle" projects created by the city government, said the city needed to embrace “the power of small projects," such as better sidewalks and landscaping. In turn, he said, those street-level improvements will empower local business owners.
Griggs, who represents north Oak Cliff, said other parts of the city could learn from the “magic of the Bishop Arts District.”
“Look at what we’ve achieved in north Oak Cliff,” Griggs said. “North Oak Cliff is the biggest success story in this city in terms of development over the last eight years, and I’ve been shepherding that development along.”
The two candidates found some common ground, even if it was couched in criticism. When Griggs mentioned workforce development as part of his southern Dallas strategy, Johnson replied that he was “the first in this campaign to point out the importance of workforce development and to point out the importance of what to do in the southern part of our city to enhance our tax base.”
Johnson praised Griggs’ watchdog role on VisitDallas — which saw its top two leaders’ resignations announced last week — but did so with a caveat, asking why in the past eight years Griggs hadn’t build support from other council members to demand change.
Griggs offered a brisk response, saying he built a consensus on efforts to save the Dallas Police and Fire Pension, bidding out the Fair Park management contract and on other audits.
“I have a track record of getting that done,” he said.
In his closing statement, Johnson circled back to his criticisms of Griggs’ tone, saying the current challenges require a different type of leadership.
“Critics are important, but critics can’t be in charge,” Johnson said. “Because what you have in that role is someone who has a positive vision for where we want to go and is not engaged in the exercise of pointing out what other people are doing wrong all the time.”
Griggs stuck to his stump speech in closing, saying he would be ready “from Day One” to demand better from Dallas Area Rapid Transit and provide an economic development policy that would work citywide.
“We can do all of these things together, because I’ve got a record of bringing people together and getting things done,” Griggs said.