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Sprint To The Finish In Dallas Council Runoff Races

Kent Wang

Voters decide two Dallas City Council seats in Saturday’s runoff election.  In Districts 5 and 14, the runoff rhetoric has swirled around personality and race. 

The new District 5 gives the Pleasant Grove neighborhood a single voice on the council. It had been split into different council districts. It also increases the likelihood of a Hispanic winning the seat. Or, that was the thinking. But, heading into the runoff, longtime community activist Jesse Diaz trails commercial realtor Rick Callahan, who is Anglo.  

Diaz is running hard, knocking on doors and making phone calls.

“The district is 72% Hispanic, so I understand the homeowners in this area," Diaz said. "I have been in the trenches, so I understand my community more than my opponent.”

Rick Callahan, longtime Southeast Dallas Chamber of Commerce executive, says Pleasant Grove is a diverse community that pulls together, and injecting race into the campaign debate was not necessary. 

“Using the race card is divisive and polarizing. It’s just more of the same that’s what we’ve always gotten from this opponent," Callahan said. "People see we’ve got coalitions built with all kinds of people.”

Callahan says he’ll concentrate on what’s good for Pleasant Grove: new retail and residential development, sidewalks, drainage and getting stray animals off the streets.  

“We’ve got bar ditches with standing water and I’m concerned that West Nile mosquitoes could infest the area," Callahan said with an understated sense of urgency in his voice. "We also have a loose animal epidemic.” There’s packs of dogs and cats, anything from chickens to goats traveling in the streets.”

But, Diaz says Pleasant Grove residents put crime and good schools at the top of the list, and he has a 30-year track record on those issues.

“I have met with the superintendent six times since he came. I’ve met with the mayor twice. I have met with Chief Brown and I’m also on his advisory committee, " Diaz emphasized as he listed his most recent efforts. "I’m everywhere. That’s what I’m hoping that the voters look at.”

Both Diaz and Callahan say Pleasant Grove has been ignored for decades, but that’s about to change because it will have its own council member.

The change in District 14 – downtown and East Dallas – may be a bit more subtle. Two lawyers are lobbying to replace outgoing Council member Angela Hunt. Much of the runoff discussion has been about style and loyalties. Philip Kingston’s work on a neighborhood conservation committee brought allegations of heavy-handed tactics when neighbors built or remodeled homes.   

“I reject it categorically," Kingston said without hesitation. "Talk to the 30 members of the committee.”

Bobby Abtahi has been portrayed as the choice of the city’s business elite and therefore beholden. He says not true, and  says he’ll question and collaborate to get things done.  

“It’s one thing to scream about change, it’s another thing to make change happen," Abtahi said. "You not only have to call them out, you have to convince them.”

Both candidates want to get back to the basics. Abtahi says that’s what people care about.

“The doors I’ve knocked on care about making sure their streets are smooth, they have the police protection they need, and that our parks, libraries and rec centers have resources to stay open,” Abtahi said, noting he would work to expand after school programs in libraries and rec centers.

Kingston says it boils down to better budgeting.

“We have grand structures, but crumbling streets.  We have aspirations but a lack of infrastructure to accomplish them. That comes from poor spending priorities,” Kingston said, promising to realign budget priorities at City Hall.

Runoff races traditionally draw low voter turnout, lower than the first go-round.  And the four candidates are working to get their voters to the polls. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.