Mayor Eric Johnson begins with an apology. He’s calling several minutes late; he’s only been on the job for a couple weeks and hasn’t yet gotten the hang of using his phone at Dallas City Hall. The 43-year-old lawyer and former state representative is still trying to assemble his staff, not to mention furnish his office. He’s the 62nd mayor of the nation’s ninth-largest (Texas’s third-largest) city, the first native Dallasite to occupy the office in decades, and only the second African American elected to the job. He grew up in West Dallas and Oak Cliff and went on to earn three Ivy League degrees. For most of the last decade, he represented Dallas as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives. In a field of nine mayoral candidates, Johnson finished first in the May 4 election, with 20 percent of the vote, before handily defeating term-limited city councilman Scott Griggs in a June 8 runoff.
During a sometimes bitterly contentious race, Johnson often depicted himself as a uniter, painting Griggs as a member of a divisive council faction that disrespected those with whom they disagreed. He takes over as mayor just as a spike in violent crime in May had some calling for Chief U. Renee Hall’s job and prompted the governor to dispatch state troopers to assist the city. In a discussion with Texas Monthly last week, Johnson spoke about the crime woes, his intention to make data-driven decisions, plans for ethics reforms, and why Dallas needs to be more selfish in its regional partnerships.
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Texas Monthly: The Dallas mayor doesn’t run the city. It’s a city manager-led government, yet it’s the mayor who usually gets the blame if there are problems. Why were you interested in what feels like such a thankless job?
Eric Johnson: It’s a little bit inaccurate to say that the mayor has no power, or to describe it as a “weak mayor” form of government. I think it’s all relative. I think it depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re coming from New York, or L.A., or Chicago, Houston even, certainly [Dallas is] very weak. Those mayors can do just about anything they want. The mayor of Dallas actually does have the ability to influence things through the power of forming and appointing committees, which is where the bulk of the substantive work in a well-functioning legislative body gets done.
I ran for mayor because I see some things happening in our city that are important and significant long-term problems. If someone doesn’t jump in now, to try to redirect our attention in a certain way toward these problems, we’re going to have a major situation on our hands. In particular, workforce development and education, which is not something that you typically associate with municipal government. It really is a critical issue for Dallas.
TM: What power does the mayor have to influence workforce development?
EJ: There are a lot of people who have their hands on the issue, who work in the space—the community college district being a very important player in that space, the school district, your local workforce board. Then the business community, they care about this issue. The county, the city all have an interest in it. Everyone’s doing a little something. The coordination of those things is where we are lacking, and the accountability is where we are lacking. There’s no one whose job is on the line. I want to own the issue. I want my job to be tied to our success in this area. We’re going to come up with real goals, measurable goals for moving people from unemployment and underemployment to middle-skill employment.
Our near-ring suburbs are doing a really good job of competing with us for corporate relocations and for people moving here who want to be in those cities and near those employers. We need some of those employers to choose Dallas itself.
TM: Your predecessor, Mike Rawlings, once said that he thought of Dallas as “just one neighborhood in a much bigger city called DFW.” There’s no doubt that there are regional issues that Dallas and its suburbs have to work together on, but some critics say that Dallas has been too deferential to regional and state planners, like the North Central Texas Council of Governments, or TxDOT—doing things that might benefit the suburbs but not the city itself. You yourself said during the campaign that “regionalism isn’t flawed, but it does have its limits.” How would you describe those limits?
EJ: Mayor Rawlings and I have a lot in common. We see the world the same way in a lot of respects, but this is one area where there is some disagreement. Mayor Rawlings is about the strongest advocate for regionalism that I’ve ever seen in a person of high position in our city. He really, really bought into the concept—hook, line, and sinker. One hundred percent. Total adherent to it. I believe that regionalism works where it works.
TM: Where is that?
EJ: The best example, I would say, is like DFW Airport. It is a net benefit to our entire region to have an airport that vibrant, with that many routes and that many airlines flying in and out of it. I think that is a clear boon to our region. You wouldn’t want every city in our area trying to compete with each other for air traffic and trying to create their own airport. [But] the city of Dallas has to take a step back and ask whether or not we have to do some things that are just focused on our citizens, our residents. and their individual needs within our city limits. For example, mass transit, bus service. I do feel that there has been less emphasis on how well we move people around the city of Dallas, as opposed to the DART service area overall, then there needs to be. And I think we can say the same thing when it comes to growing our tax base—we have to have a slightly more selfish, individualistic approach than we’ve had.
TM: You’ve resisted calling the recent uptick in crime a crisis in the city. Why is that?
EJ: Crime statistics have to be taken in their context. You have to know how to step out and get a better sense of what you’re looking at than what you might observe in a very short period of time, to be able to contextualize whether or not you are in anything that resembles a trend, a pattern, or a trajectory—or you have a momentary statistical blip.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Someone sees a headline that says, “Dallas has crossed the 100 murder mark for the year.” Well, you have to ask yourself what point in the year are we, and what pace does that put us on for murders in the year? Then you actually have to dig into the murders that you have to figure out if there’s any pattern. You have to ask yourself, “What happened in each one of these cases? Is it part of a resurgence in gang activity? Are these gang-related? Are these drug deals? Is it resurgence in drug violence? Or is it domestic violence? Or is it random violence? What is it?”
TM: Do you disagree, though, that the police are understaffed?
EJ: It would appear in Dallas that we could use some more officers. How many more is a matter of debate. We’re getting a study here soon from KPMG that will tell us, basically, according to their study, if you would like your response times to be within a certain range, this is about how many officers you would need.
TM: You spoke repeatedly during the campaign about your intention to promote civility and respect at City Hall. But “civility” has become something of a loaded word during our recent era, at least on the national stage, where calls for civility seem at times like they’re attempts to shame critics into silence. Do you worry that pushing for civility is similarly promoting a sort of go-along to get-along attitude? I’m thinking of contentious issues like when Mayor Rawlings wanted to hand over management of Fair Park to a private entity without an open bid process. Or pushback against the Trinity Parkway toll road project. Where do you draw the line between being civil and maybe just being too compliant?
EJ: There’s a way you can disagree with people and be just as strong in your beliefs and be just as emphatic about what you believe in, without it ever tipping into the personal, without it ever becoming ad hominem, without ever becoming demeaning or insulting. That’s the issue that we’ve had on the Dallas City Council for the past few years. I had to make that point with my opponent [Griggs] numerous times. Everyone who doesn’t agree with you is not corrupt or stupid. There are people who have well-reasoned, well-intentioned, and honest disagreements in our system.
TM: Another major goal you’ve set for yourself is stamping out public corruption. That issue was highly visible this year, with the bribery convictions of former council members Dwaine Caraway and Carolyn Davis. To what extent do you think that the 14-1 structure of the council—in which you are the only at-large representative, and in which traditionally council members have been somewhat deferential to one another when it comes to how money gets spent in other members’ districts—has contributed to this corruption? What reforms do you have in mind?
EJ: The 14-1 system has been protected by court rulings and is not likely to change anytime soon. Single-member districts are a contributing factor to what you could describe as a certain amount of territorial-ness, or fiefdoms, or whatever, on the council. If you just take that all the way to its logical extreme, it equals one person having an outsized say in what happens or doesn’t happen in their district, which makes them a target for people who want to try to exert influence.
I want to try to work on that culturally, more so than legally. I want to get council members to start thinking more like at-large members, even though they’re not elected at-large. That will be the most difficult part of this to change. I’m going to urge our council, pretty quickly, to consider and hopefully pass an ethics reform ordinance that actually cleans up our city’s code of ethics, that makes it a little clearer as to what’s expected of you, requires more in the way of disclosure, but makes the penalties harsher for violating it. Then I think we really also have to work on—and this is going to take some state help, too—this low-income housing tax credit program that’s been a culprit in so many of these cases.
TM: How do you think Dallas is viewed by outsiders? How does that differ from how you would like it to be viewed?
EJ: I think it’s viewed as a place where you can come, and if you’re willing to put in the work, you can do well. I think that’s accurate. I think Dallas is a very, very open city, a welcoming city, and a place where we will reward hard work and people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and just jump in. We’re not particularly nativists here.
TM: Are there aspects of Dallas’s reputation that you would like to change?
EJ: I’m not sure people know that a quarter of Dallas, a quarter of our population, are immigrants. Dallas is a very, very diverse city. I think that that maybe is lost in the veneer of J.R. Ewing and the Dallas Cowboys and Neiman Marcus.
TM: Dallas sometimes has this reputation of getting caught up in the pursuit of big signature projects, like the Calatrava bridges, or the Arts District, at the expense of basic needs like roads and public safety. Do you think that’s fair?
EJ: You weren’t on the Griggs campaign as a consultant, were you? Because that’s exactly what he said about Dallas. I mean, it’s almost word-for-word.
TM: I’m just asking if you think that’s a fair critique.
EJ: I mean, you did everything but use the word “boondoggle,” or what’s the other word? There was another term [Griggs] used a lot—”vanity projects.” Vanity projects and boondoggles. I think it’s a false choice. You have to be able to simultaneously dream big and have vision for where you want to see your city to go. Some of those things involve major, transformative, culturally significant projects. You have to do that. At the same time, you have to never forget that there are certain things that are just fundamental functions of a city. They’re not optional. We have to be able to do that and also be dreaming of how we can get signature, culturally significant arts and things to our city. Is a first-class symphony a luxury? I guess in some people’s minds it is. Not in mine. Some people would argue that’s not a pothole, so we shouldn’t be doing it. I disagree.
TM: It’s a case of limited resources, though, right?
EJ: We’ve had a pretty good track record of having a very committed and generous philanthropic community here that has carried a lot of the load on a lot of these things too. Generating a million dollars in taxpayer-funded investment and matching that with three million of philanthropic dollars to get something very important done that’s going to generate revenue for your city and is going to be an attraction for tourism and things, those are good financial deals. There is such a thing as a wise expenditure of a public dollar that’s not a pothole.
TM: Does it bother you that in a city of 1.3 million people, it only took a little more than 40,000 votes to get you elected mayor?
EJ: I’m not going to complain about the system that just resulted in my election. <laughs> That was a joke. Yeah, it deeply troubles me that Dallas’s participation rate in municipal elections and bond elections, off-cycle elections, it’s just atrocious. It’s really bad. I don’t know exactly why. There have obviously been proposals and people talking about moving elections to November and doing other things. I’m not sure that that would necessarily help. Putting the city council and mayor races after all the partisan races that would be on the ballot in November—I’m not sure that what you would gain in voters showing up to the polls for the election, you wouldn’t lose in what we call under-vote, meaning people who start the ballot but don’t finish. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we’ve got to try to do something different. I don’t like the idea that so few people are ultimately deciding these very, very important elections.
TM: You seem to have a very analytical approach to all these issues. I know you’ve emphasized a need for greater amounts of data to make decisions. Are you already planning to gather data in new ways in order to help the city make decisions?
EJ: My day job up till now has been being a public finance lawyer, like getting into the actual numbers, the crunching, how you pay for public improvements … A key underpinning to that whole profession, that whole way of viewing the world, is that you can’t do anything without data, without good information. You have to be able to measure things, and you have to be able to compare policies to one another using numbers. If we’re not getting the information, then we’re just comparing feelings, we’re comparing power. Who’s got the power to do something, or who is able to evoke the most feeling and get people behind an idea based on things that are not exactly going to result in people’s lives being improved?
I’m not interested in analyzing the question of whether or not Chief Hall is a good chief based upon her personality, based upon how well we get along, based upon how any individual association feels about her. I’m interested in basing my assessment of her and how well she’s doing her job based on data, crime data, which is why I keep telling everyone, “I want to wait and see how these numbers shake out. I want to see what kind of trajectory we are on.”
TM: But do you worry, as when you were talking about the murder numbers earlier, about people that have been touched personally by that uptick in violent crime? When they hear the mayor say, “This is not a crisis,” maybe it doesn’t sound like you’re understanding the urgency they are feeling? Is there a way to acknowledge that urgency and also wait for the data to actually make decisions?
EJ: I absolutely acknowledge that any, any murder is one murder more than I want—or any caring, feeling person in this role should want. I acknowledge that, and I have. I will continue to say that we want a murder rate of zero, but cities don’t have murder rates of zero. They don’t—not large urban areas. This is not Mayberry. This is Dallas, Texas. We can’t have a zero murder rate, so the question is, Are we within a range that makes us, when we compare ourselves to our peers, one of the worst or one of the more dangerous cities of our size? Are we one of the better cities of our size? Or are we about average? We’ve got to understand where we are to understand what actions need to be taken. Of course we don’t want a single murder, and I feel for anyone who’s lost anyone to violent crime in this city. Of course. To me, some of these things should just go without saying. I’m a decent human being with a wife and children. I want everyone in our city to be safe. I also want to make sure that we’re not making ourselves less safe by contributing to panic or by making a hasty personnel change.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.