The two candidates running for Dallas mayor finally met up for their first debate, in anticipation of a run-off election taking place on June 8.
Current Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs and State Rep. Eric Johnson met for a one-hour debate on May 13 at the Belo Mansion, co-sponsored by Dallas Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, and the Dallas Friday Group and moderated by Gromer Jeffers, writer at the Dallas Morning News.
Jeffers posed questions and gave each candidate three minutes to answer, with opportunities for follow-up.
The debate was long anticipated by local politics junkies because Johnson had been absent from the majority of forums that took place during the run-up to the first election. His absence became a theme on social media — a topic Jeffers was so eager to get into, he prematurely asked the question of Griggs before the candidates were allowed to give their opening statements.
Here are highlights, with quotes transcribed from the debate:
Jeffers: What is the No. 1 issue for Dallas?
Johnson: Above all other issues, the tone at City Hall. You need to work together and build consensus get things done. If you can’t build consensus, if you engage in destruction, and you are a malicious person, you cannot effectively lead our city. The most important thing is not any one particular issue. This is the fact we have to confront. I have a track record of bringing people together. It's the most important characteristic of any mayor. There's so much fighting, and personal attacks, and demonization of our opponent. The snark has to stop. Reduce the snarkiness.
Griggs: Public safety is the most important issue facing the city of Dallas. Before the pension crisis, we had 3,600 police officers. We now have 2,900 police officers. What does that mean? When you're making the most important call you make in your life, when you call 911? Only 50 percent of the time, there's an officer ready to respond. Police officer wages used to be $48,000. We had the lowest paid police officers in North Texas. We need to raise that up to $70,000-$80,000. I know how to find that money, and I’m ready to take care of it.
Johnson: I agree that having more law enforcement officers is a high priority, but what we have to be aware of is what the reality is of the city budget. It is a fact that 100 percent of your property taxes is going to public safety right now, and 30 percent of all your sales taxes are going to public safety right now. There's not a ton of room under current budgetary restraints. What we have to do is grow our tax base and increase the amount of tax revenue we generate with the same level of taxation or a lower level of taxation because we actually add more value to taxes.
I don’t want to get into too deep a discussion of this, but what this basically means is, if we can be successful — and I have a way and a plan to do this — in developing southern Dallas more by investing in the people in southern Dallas so the jobs will want to come to them, then we can be successful in enhancing the tax base. Then we'll have to lower our tax rate, so that increased tax revenue is the only way we'll be able to pay for additional officers over the long run. We will not be able to hire 500 to 1,000 — pick your number — new officers overnight. It’s going to take a while to get back to where we need to be, because it took us a while to get to this point. Not going to promise it’s going to be easy or it’s gonna be fun. Do we develop southern Dallas and generate more tax revenue with a lower tax rate and a higher base? That's the way we pay for it.
Griggs: We got to this point in a very short period of time, after the pension crisis. We went from 3,600 officers down to 2,900 officers. I have experience finding pockets of money in the budget we can use — $10 (million) to $20 (million) to $30 million in budget cuts we can dedicate to public safety. We must do this because we want to grow the tax base in southern Dallas, and we're not going to be able to do that unless we're a safe city. That's why I've been endorsed by the Dallas Police Association and Dallas Retired Police Officers.
It starts with the power of small projects. You fix streets, you change out the sidewalks, you empower locally owned businesses, you start a little economy going. It worked in the Bishop Arts District, which then crossed over to Jefferson Boulevard.
Let's not forget about adjacent neighborhoods. We spent $180 million on the Calatrava bridge, so let's put a few million dollars into adjacent neighborhoods to stabilize them, with pocket parks, street lamps, and other things they need so much. Using the power of small investments, we can turn around city.
And we can continue our partnerships with DISD — bringing about universal pre-K because education is so important — and efforts with our community college system to bring about more training for jobs. If we have large companies that come to southern Dallas, we give them tax abatements, but with that, they need to partner up with the college district and initiate workforce training, and rebuild southern Dallas in a pro-business fashion.
Jeffers: How do you feel about tax breaks for businesses?
Johnson: Let’s talk about exactly what we’re talking about here. There are programs I just voted for that give cities tools like taxpayers use so they are available in situations where that is what it’s going to take to win getting companies to relocate their facilities or operations to our city. They become less necessary when your workforce become more attractive. So we actually wean ourselves off the need of tax incentives by having an enhanced workforce. That’s what my campaign has been hammering on for the past several months.
However there is a role played in some deals, but we need to make sure they’re well thought through. If I’m mayor, we have to sit down on a case-by-case basis and look at these proposed relocations and make sure we are not overspending. You can give away money that you don’t need to give away. They’re going to come anyway. We have to stop doing that. That’s one of those things where it’s a matter of having someone that’s paying attention as mayor to these transactions and not just greenlighting them all. You can’t fall in love with this tool, but it has a role, it plays a role.
Griggs: We need to use these tools on a case-by-case basis to make sure the decisions are sound. I'll give you some examples. The Costco off of 75 – I voted no to give them a $2 million check for that store, because they didn’t need our money. Giving ESPN $300,000 to have a football game the day after Christmas, a game nobody was going to watch? Don't do it. But Amazon in West Dallas – the opportunity to bring so many jobs to West Dallas at a great wage, I said yes. We have to look at community benefit and what’s worth investment on a case-by case basis.
Jeffers asked Griggs about a Facebook post by former reporter Brett Shipp that showed someone in the Texas legislature voting for an absent Johnson, and asked if he had a problem with the way Johnson was running his campaign.
Griggs: We're running a strong campaign. I'm attending forums, I get on the phone, I visit with neighbors and churches all over Dallas. I have a record on the City Council for being there for the city of Dallas. I'm running a campaign based on transparency and accountability, and that is what I will continue to deliver.
Jeffers asked Johnson if the rumors were true that he plans to run for U.S. Congress to replace Eddie Bernice Johnson.
Johnson: That is a fake-news question. I’ve never actually said I wanted to do that. I have never said my intention or my goal is to run for Congress in any media source.
Johnson: I don’t believe the city is going downhill and going to hell in a hand basket, but it has challenges. It requires leadership. The job of mayor is different than the other seats on the council. It really is. When you're the chair of something, you're the person who’s supposed to exercise the leadership. You don’t have the luxury of engaging in personal politics and engaging in differences. You have to be someone who is committed to driving agreement and trying to move an agenda forward. I’ve used this before on New Year's Day. It is one thing to write a scathing review of Gone With the Wind. It is another to write Gone With the Wind. It's a different thing to criticize constantly, and, you know what, we need critics, critics are important, but critics can't be in charge, 'cause what you have to have in that role is someone who has a positive vision for where we want to go and is not engaged entirely in the exercise of criticizing what other people are doing wrong all the time. This litany of endorsements I'm getting is not because I’m so handsome or witty or so smart, but 10 years of actually working with people who have no reason to agree with me because they understand that I’m being earnest and sincere, it’s always done, I show people respect.
Griggs: I have a record of getting things done at City Hall and building coalitions to make it happen. I’ve been on the Dallas City Council for eight years, and before that, I worked on commissions for six years. I can tell you, Dallas City Hall is not like any other place. I understand how to be a council member. I understand how to be a mayor. How to set an agenda and get things done. I recognize that here in the city of Dallas, we do so many things right. This is a fantastic city, and I'm so proud of the progress we’ve made over the last eight years.
But now it's time for a new kind of mayor. We need to have a renewed focus on public safety. It's time we hire more police officers and firefighters. We need to renew the emphasis on getting taxes down. We have to be a pro-neighborhood and pro-business environment with lower taxes. We also have to deal with transportation. On Day One, I’m ready ready to take on the challenges of DART, to make sure DART serves everyone in the city. I’m also ready to make sure we fix our streets right the first time. On Day One, I’m ready to put an economic development policy in place that will work not only for southern Dallas but all of the city, following the model of District 1 that for the last eight years has been the biggest success story of our economic development.
We can do all these things together, because I’ve got a record of bringing people together and getting things done. The kind of council member I’ve been for the last eight years is that I give out my personal cell phone, because I believe that if you’re a council member or mayor, it’s not just special interests who have access to you, it’s every single person.