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Is John Wiley Price At Risk In Dallas County Commissioner's Race?

Bill Zeeble
A Young Democrats gathering in Oak Lawn attracted two of the four County Commission candidates in District 3. John Wiley Price, the incumbent, has held the office since 1985

John Wiley Price is facing the two biggest challenges of his three decades as a Dallas County commissioner.

One is a corruption trial this fall. The other’s coming much sooner. Price is being challenged in the March 1 primary by a well-known foe: former Dallas City Council member Dwaine Caraway, who’s one of three candidates trying to dethrone Price, the only African-American commissioner.

In office since 1985, Price, a Democrat, has breezed through past primaries. They count because Republicans almost never win in southern Dallas come fall.

Four years ago, when the FBI was only investigating Price, he took 76 percent of the vote. Now with a 109-page, 11-count indictment against Price, opponents hope their odds are better. Caraway, who served eight years on the City Council, says it’s time for a change on the county commissioners' court.

“I bring to the table, with results, eight years versus his 30 years,” Caraway says.  

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Dwaine Caraway talking to young Democrats at their gathering in Oak Lawn. The former Dallas City Council member is one of three trying to defeat incumbent Commissioner John Wiley Price.

At a recent meeting of Young Democrats, Caraway said those “results” include the city demolishing hundreds of drug houses, a gun buy-back program and economic projects.

For his part, Price points to a new jail hospital, the new state-of-the-art Parkland Hospital, and management of the county budget.

Caraway is best known for the plastic bag restrictions the council approved and then rescinded, and his campaign against teens wearing sagging pants. 

Price calls those gimmicks.

“That’s been my campaign slogan from day one,” Price says. “You know, bags, pull up your pants, you know. Gimmicks. I dare him to show me one gimmick with regards to me.” 

Caraway counters: “It takes a real man to stand up and tell young boys to respect themselves and to respect ladies. It takes a person with gimmicks that will only encourage a young man to wear his pants down.”

Caraway and Price often go back and forth like that in a relationship of mutual disrespect. Caraway doesn’t hesitate to bring up Price’s pending trial. 

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
District 3 Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says his opponents have no clue about County governance. Despite many federal indictments, he says he's done nothing wrong. He predicts he'll win the primary outright, meaning no runoff.

“Should he, and I think that he will, be convicted in September or October, we’ll have then a convicted felon on or our Democratic ticket for November,” Caraway says. “These are things we need to take a look at and understand.”

Caraway says Price should quit the race before November to save the party embarrassment. Price says he’s done nothing wrong and dismisses the recent guilty verdict in Austin of Helena Tantillo. Authorities argue that money passed from her to a lover in Dallas and ended up as a bribe to Price.

“The trial in Austin was about somebody lying to an agent," Price says. "I don’t know anything about that.”

Price began decades ago as an in-your-face civil rights fighter and built a reputation as a fiscal conservative with a penchant for controversy. Supporters know him as their man downtown.

The incumbent says his opponents know nothing about county governance.

“They’re totally unprepared. They have no clue about the county,” Price says. “They don’t know about  appraisal caps, they don’t understand that ad valorem taxes are basically our revenue stream. They don’t understand how a county operates. You know, they think it’s a personality contest.”

One of those challengers is Micah Phillips, a former Dallas firefighter and current developer who’s back for a rematch after getting routed in Price’s last race.

Micah Phillips has run for this office before, and pulled 10% of the vote. Even if he does no better this time, he says he may run yet again, because he's committed.

“I’m tired of seeing my community that I grew up in not getting its fair share of corporations where we can live, work and play in our community instead of driving north of the Trinity River to go to work,” Phillips says. “With the unemployment rate as high in our community, something’s not being done from the commissioner’s standpoint.”  

The other candidate, college instructor Cedric Davis, also feels let down. The southern Dallas native says he’s dedicated most of his life to public service, either in elected office or the military.

“After 31 years, it’s time to pass the torch on to a new generation,” Davis says. “I truly feel my record is the most sound one. Not a lot of baggage. I’ve been successful as the mayor of Balch Springs. I was successful as the first police chief of the Wilmer-Hutchins School District. So I believe I have the experience and the credentials and my record shows that.”  

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Cedric Davis has been a mayor, school district police chief, served in the military overseas, and now teaches. He says his whole life's been about service to others, and this is the next step.

The goal all three challengers share: Keep Price below 50 percent of the primary vote on March 1.

If that happens, it would trigger a runoff on May 24.

That’s something Price has faced just once, in his very first election.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.