Dallas, TX – Sam Baker, Host, On The Record: Hi, I'm Sam Baker. It's down to the wire now, for candidates in the race for Dallas mayor and for the four people vying to represent Oak Cliff on the Dallas City Council. A third matter on the January 19th ballot also has Dallas school officials crossing their fingers over a nearly $1.4 billion bond package. First up in our program, though, the mayor's race. In the final days before voters go to the polls, Laura Miller's campaign has released what they're calling a positive television ad. It comes in response to Tom Dunning's attempt to go negative.
Excerpt from Tom Dunning campaign ad: There is a clear choice in the candidates for mayor. Tom Dunning - an effective leader, successful businessman. Laura Miller. As a council member, she called the mayor "petty and mean-spirited." She opposed a veteran's parade saying, "I don't want to throw any more parties." A Morning News editorial said Laura Miller was "so strident in her remarks, she brought tears to the eyes of several mothers of veterans."
Excerpt from Laura Miller campaign ad: Have you seen my opponent's negative ads? The thing is, negative ads won't fill a single pothole, put one child in a decent classroom, or pay our police officers to keep us safe. So I'm gonna stay positive and focus on the basics: roads, schools, parks, police. That's how we passed a new code of ethics to bring honesty to city hall. You stand up for what's right, bring people together on the high ground, and you don't take no for an answer.
Baker: Colleen McCain Nelson, Laura's basically saying this is a positive ad. Isn't it sort of a veiled negative ad, though, in a way?
Colleen McCain Nelson, City Hall Reporter, Dallas Morning News: Well, she's saying it's a response ad. And I think she's just drawing some attention to Dunning's - what Dunning's calling a contrast ad and what she's calling a negative ad and trying to say, "Look, I'm not going to do this." She keeps referring to a handshake agreement they had at the beginning of the campaign not to go negative. And she wants to point out she believes Dunning has gone negative.
Gromer Jeffers, Jr., political reporter, Dallas Morning News: You know, I think what she's also saying is, "Look, Dunning's ad won't fill a pothole, but I will. I'll do the things you want me to do to take care of basic services." I think everybody who knows Laura Miller knows that she has a streak, but they still like her. I think what she's saying in that ad is, "So what, I?m going to get the job done."
Baker: She has a streak? You mean a mean streak?
Jeffers: Well, you know - She, I mean - it's not uncommon for Laura Miller to - you know, to be, I guess, kind of rough.
Jaime Ruiz, Reporter/Anchor, Univision: And I believe the punch line is really to remain positive - remain positive in this campaign. And this ad really worked out, you know. It's really - you mentioned it is a negative ad; it's a positive ad. I will say it is both.
Bob Ray Sanders, Editorial Columnist, Fort Worth Star Telegram: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. The fact you are referring to a negative ad makes that a negative ad. But she does it so well and in the positive manner. I mean, talking about - she's done a good job during this campaign of putting that streak behind her.
Jeffers: Right. Notice how calm he is.
Sanders: Which is why Tom Dunning had to come back with a negative ad. I mean, that was working. He had to try to remind people, "Hey, that was Laura Miller -"
Baker: But isn't it odd that he had to do that in the first place? Because in the beginning, wasn't Tom Dunning considered the person to beat?
Jeffers: Among insiders. With insiders. But, I mean, the general population had no idea who Tom Dunning - you know, they don't know Tom Dunning. So he had to build name recognition for the first few weeks of the campaign. And when you're talking about a two-month campaign, you don't have the luxury to, you know, to have the ebb and flow of a normal campaign, so he had to go negative right after the holiday, because the election is a week from Saturday.
Baker: Okay, so maybe he's built some name recognition. Has he been any more clear about what his issues are or what his stand on the issues are, Colleen?
Nelson: Well, I think he's laid out some more specific plans in recent days. But in the early stages of the campaign, he was criticized for being very general. I mean, he emphasized he didn't want to promise things that he couldn't deliver. He's tried to say that the other candidates are making too many promises that are going to cost too much money. And he says, "I want to take it slow, study what we can really do realistically." But that's resulted in some criticism that he's just speaking in generalities and hasn't given people a reason to vote for him.
Ruiz: And actually the fact that, okay, Tom Dunning has all the money to create this campaign image, or his image. And what I'm thinking is, where is Domingo Garcia at, for example, with no budget to do something like that probably. And you know, for a television ad. And I will think that Tom Dunning - people are really sitting down and have to respond to that fact.
Sanders: Well, Tom is actually running what I think the traditional Dallas businessman has run.
Sanders: His appeal is, "Hey, I'm a leader." That should be enough for to - you know - and that "I'm going to protect business. And I'm going to deal with some issues downtown, but I'm going to be a mayor for all the people, but I know that there is this business group out there that expects me to perform for them." And, of course, Laura at one time was featured as anti-business. And I think she's done a good job of trying to overcome that image as well. Domingo - as well as Domingo Garcia, is saying, "Hey, listen, I'm still - I was a poor guy, I'm still out there representing the under-represented, but I can deal with you big guys too on the business level."
Baker: Well, one issue that's been in the forefront of this race is power, giving more of it to the mayor.
Excerpt of mayoral candidate Laura Miller from KERA debate: It's possible that we have outgrown the city manager form of government. You know, the problem I see now with the system is that the city manager has all the power. He hires and fires all 13,000 employees. He makes the day-to-day decisions and the city council is supposed to set broad public policy. But while he has all the power, the city council and the mayor are held accountable by the voters. And I think there is a tension there.
Excerpt of mayoral candidate Tom Dunning from KERA debate: Well, first of all, I think it's worked very, very well for us. But it also is something that we need to review every eight to ten years. And quite frankly, the city manager form of government, I think, gives every council member much more say-so than they will if we had a strong mayor form of government. As Dallas's future mayor, I would like to have more power. I mean, I think it would be great to be able to pick the department heads and to really have the total responsibility come back to the mayor.
Excerpt of mayoral candidate Domingo Garcia from KERA debate: I think we set up a city charter review committee made up of civic and community leaders. Have them evaluate every part of the city manager's role, the city council's role and the mayor's role, and have a balance. And that's where I think it should be decided as a community-wide effort, not by one person.
Baker: Before we get into the pros and cons of this, I'm very curious - how did this issue come up in the first place?
Jeffers: Well, it's an offshoot of council pay, in a way. In May, voters approved paying the mayor $60,000 and city council members $37,500. The next step was viewed as being looking at changing the form of government, and accountability is the question. If you look at the campaign, the city manager has taken a lot of abuse because, when you talk about issues of code enforcement, basic services, filling potholes, it's the job of the city manager. It's ironic that they've been blaming him basically on the campaign trail but saying, "Well, we have to be held accountable to council and mayor." Actually, that hasn't been occurring during the campaign. It's been the city manager blamed for everything that goes wrong at city hall.
Baker: Which brings up the question, is this really about needed changes in city government, or is this about what some people suspect is Laura Miller's desire to get rid of Ted Benavides and police chief Terrell Bolton? I?ll just throw it out. It's been said, it's been suspected.
Jeffers: I'll say this, Ron Kirk, the former mayor, had the ability to put together a coalition and therefore control the city manager. And that's what you have to do in this form of government. You have to be able to count to eight. And if you can get eight votes, then you can control the flow of things at city hall. If you can't build a coalition, if you can't get control of the city council, then you won't be able to influence the city manager. She's right, the city manager hires all the department directors, every employee in city hall. And if she can't control the city council and get them to be able to help her control the city manager, then yeah, she'll need a changing of government, she'll need more power.
Ruiz: And also, yeah, the issue of more power to the mayor and more responsibilities, more accountable also it's with the issue of ethics. You remember, the ethics code they approved, from my point of view, is weak, very weak. You can get sued by the city of Dallas if you are - you sue the city in a bogus lawsuit for example. I mean, this is really ridiculous that city council passed this code of ethics like that. So, it is a change of mind that probably could be positive in a way, that we have a real mayor not a PR person.
Jeffers: Yeah, not a cheerleader.
Nelson: And they raised some valid points when they say, "You know, Dallas is one of the largest cities in the country that has this form of government." And I mean, it hasn't been studied for a long time, as they pointed out. So if nothing else, it probably bears looking at and studying whether this system is antiquated, regardless of who the mayor is.
Sanders: Well, actually as you say - and in fact Dallas is the largest city with this form of government. And for them to say - all three of these candidates to say they're willing to look at it, tells me that in just a short while you will have a strong mayor form of government here in Dallas. I think the vote to raise the pay of the city council and the mayor said the voters finally realized that this is a job. Being mayor of Dallas is a job. Being a city council member is a job. It takes lots of hours to do this job, and we need to recognize that we're a big city and we have to operate like a big city. But back to your point, there is no love lost, of course, between Laura Miller and the police chief and the city manager. And she'd love to see them gone. They have spoke on the issue of the drug busts - the fake drug busts - and she was still on the police chief for not standing out there taking the heat on this.
Baker: Well, another issue they all seem to agree on - well, two really - one is education; they're all for more education. And they all seem to back the school bond issue. And the fact of this point seemingly - most people seem to back the school bond issue. Is it odd that there is seemingly no organized opposition to this?
Jeffers: It appears to be a done deal, doesn't it? It appears we are going through the formality of approving it. I think the mayor's race has taken a lot of attention from the school bond proposal. And I also think there is a feeling or a notion that DISD is in trouble and it's needed, the measures are needed.
Baker: So it's more about the needed renovations as opposed to whether we trust the school board or not.
Sanders: Well, they trust the superintendent.
Sanders: I mean, there is a lot of faith in the superintendent for the first time in a long time in Dallas. There is that. But don't be so quick to say it's a done deal, though. We found, at least in Fort Worth, that in school bond elections - now this happens to be the same day as school bond elections - the biggest voting block are old people who have no children in school and who see bonds as taxes. Whether it means taxes or not, they see more taxes, property taxes. And those people tend to vote against school bond elections. So it depends on what the old people do.
Baker: I mean, does the school bond election - having it on the same day as the mayoral race, does that help Domingo Garcia at all?
Ruiz: Oh, definitely. It's going to bring a lot of - you have to take in consideration that 60% of the students at the DISD are Hispanics. And priority number one for those families is education. And the quality of education is something that can bring people to vote. And from the way that I see this election probably - people seeing the ballots, they are going to see Domingo Garcia and the bond election and probably they're going to go up front and vote for both.
Jeffers: And Garcia tried to link his campaign to a voter registration drive before he filed. That was geared toward, you know, the Hispanic electorate.
[Because of space limitations, this transcript is continued. Please click on "On The Record Looks at Crenshaw, Hollins" on the left side of this page for part 2.]