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Commentary: Dallas Mayoral Race

By Jennifer Nagorka

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kera/local-kera-965908.mp3

Dallas, TX –

With four candidates vying to become the next mayor of Dallas, it's hard for any one person to stand out. But commentator Jennifer Nagorka likes what she's seeing so far.

There's an unwritten rule in Dallas that every mayor's race must include two stock characters: the corporate CEO/business establishment candidate and the outsider/champion-of-the-little guy. We had Tom Dunning vs. Laura Miller. Tom Leppert vs. Ed Oakley. Now it's Mike Rawlings as the CEO candidate vs. David Kunkle as the regular-neighborhood-little-guy.

I know candidates need to clearly and quickly distinguish themselves from one another and that's where this stereotyping starts. But I'm ready to rewrite the script. It diminishes candidates' real accomplishments. It's obsolete, because no single sector drives the Dallas economy anymore, just as no one ethnic or racial group has a majority. It overshadows the fact that there are actually four men competing for the job - and they're all credible candidates.

Start with the idea of the CEO mayor. Running a company isn't the same as running a city. In a democracy, every voter is a shareholder and a customer in equal measure. That means each voter has a set of mostly mutually exclusive desires: for lower taxes and for better services. Effective elected officials must find a way to lead despite voters' internal conflicts.

The little-guy/outsider role has its limits, too. The "us vs. them" mentality can alienate people you're going to need if you win. It sets up governing as a zero-sum game, when few policy decisions are so simple. And outsiders can take too long to learn the system and build alliances to be effective. That last point is especially important now, as the city deals with a smorgasbord of problems.

Consider what the next mayor will face: yet another year of budget cuts. Local revenue money from things like property taxes and franchise fees could decline by as much as $44 million in the next fiscal year. Dallas also will lose funding as the state and federal governments slash their spending.

Census figures offer another challenge. Recently released data show that Dallas, unlike the region that surrounds it, barely grew between 2000 and 2010. We could become the hole in the donut, like Detroit, like St. Louis, like Cleveland.

The happy surprise is that this mayoral campaign isn't a two-way race of dueling stereotypes. It's a four-way contest, and all the competitors are interesting and, compared to some past races, qualified.

Mike Rawlings is a wealthy Preston Hollow CEO - but he's also the guy who got the controversial - and successful - homeless assistance center built in downtown Dallas.

David Kunkle does know neighborhood issues on an almost block-by-block level, but he's hardly a little guy or an outsider. He's the former police chief of Dallas, who managed a department of more than 4,000 sworn and civilian employees.

Candidate Ron Natinsky is the only man who's served in elected office. He currently represents District 12 on the city council, has deep roots in Dallas, but clearly understands the city must compete for jobs and residents on a global scale.

And although Edward Okpa is close to becoming a perennial candidate - this is his third attempt at mayor - he's a thoughtful man with significant experience on local nonprofit and city boards.

There's not a stock character or a stereotype in the group - a fact that makes this Dallas voter feel lucky and proud.

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.

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