DALLAS — On a recent stormy morning, Mike Rawlings took the podium at his final annual police memorial event as Dallas mayor to again pay respect to the memories of two more cops who died in the line of duty.
The Dallas Morning News reports Rawlings told the hundreds of police officers and their families, a group that had grown over the years to see him as their foe, that it’s important to “always carry the pain of loss inside of us to remind us of the sacrifices that you make for us.”
The mayor said he’s carried that pain for some time. Rawlings, who drew national attention for his speech on the 50th anniversary of the President John F. Kennedy assassination and his commanding presence during the Ebola crisis, will forever be linked to a dark tragedy: the July 7, 2016, ambush on police. The day is never far from his mind.
Such moments in the spotlight will come to an end this month after eight years. And as the 64-year-old mayor — whose imposing physical stature, booming personality and hitched gait reflect the college football player and business executive he once was — looks back on those significant moments and long hours at events and presiding over council meetings, he is shying away from grading his tenure.
But Rawlings wants to be remembered “as a learning leader” who wasn’t afraid to take on thorny issues.
“I stuck my nose in a lot of places where people didn’t want me to be,” he said.
In Rawlings’ two terms, Dallas, especially around the city’s core, boomed, although others had planted some of those seeds before he took office — the Wright Amendment’s expiration that led to Love Field’s boom, for example — and the city remained divided by great wealth and dreadful poverty.
Rawlings’ political opponents, often led by City Council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs, who is now a mayoral candidate, grew their power over the years and defeated some of the mayor’s plans. Those included the construction of the long-debated Trinity River toll road, the reorganization of the Dallas Independent School District and the turnover of Fair Park’s management to a group of his choosing.
Sometimes Rawlings managed to eke out victories in those defeats. With help, he wrested a compromise on the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System’s overhaul after a bare-knuckles political brawl that strained his relationship with first responders. He paired the Trinity toll road’s death with the birth of a new entity to build a park between the levees. He won plaudits for his education boosterism, which coincided with Dallas ISD’s academic gains. And the council still turned over Fair Park’s operations to a private group.
In addition, as marketer-in-chief for Dallas — former aide Sam Merten said Rawlings always saw that as the mayor’s main role, “whether or not you agreed” — and in the bright lights of big moments and crises, Rawlings often shined, say both supporters and some of his fiercest critics.
City Council member Adam McGough, Rawlings’ former chief of staff, said the mayor “didn’t always say and do the right thing, and he didn’t come through unscathed.”
“But he led the city through some of these tough issues and helped put the city on a course to do bigger and better things,” McGough said.
Rawlings — a former Park Board president, city homelessness czar, advertising executive and CEO of Pizza Hut — won his first mayoral term in 2011 with the business establishment’s support. In a runoff, he defeated former Police Chief David Kunkle with nearly 56% of the vote.
Rawlings quickly went to work on his GrowSouth effort. He scored some symbolic wins for southern Dallas, such as the creation of the Trinity Forest Golf Club and the AT&T Byron Nelson Tournament’s arrival there.
He also grew skeptical of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System’s investment strategy and began to battle its leadership. And the 2012 murder of Deanna Cook by her ex-husband — and subsequent focus on whether police could have prevented it –helped prompt his launch of another signature effort: his campaign against domestic violence.
Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, who chaired Rawlings’ domestic violence task force, said the mayor’s advocacy “made a difference.”
“That is one of the roles of the mayor — to take a topic you feel strongly about and use the bullhorn. And that’s something he felt strongly about,” she said.
In 2014, Rawlings also commanded statewide attention as he pushed to make Dallas ISD a “home-rule” district, which would’ve effectively freed it from some state regulations. But the effort collapsed under fears of the unknown and perceptions that it was a power grab.
But Rawlings’ first big moment in the national spotlight happened a year earlier, during the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The tragedy that had tarnished Dallas as the “city of hate” still cast a long shadow.
As news organizations across the globe planned to mark the occasion, the mayor struggled with how best to demonstrate that Dallas had changed.
To prepare for his speech, Rawlings read former Mayor J. Erik Jonsson’s “Goals for Dallas,” written the year after the 1963 assassination. He also read the sermons of the late Rabbi Levi Olan, known as the “conscience of Dallas,” who after JFK’s murder had posed the question, “What should Dallas do now?”
Rawlings wrestled with his speech for nearly a year. “He understood that was likely going to be the biggest speech he was going to give,” Merten said. “And that he could help turn the page for the city.”
On Nov. 22, 2013, a freezing, overcast morning, thousands gathered in Dealey Plaza holding umbrellas and wearing ponchos and overcoats. (Rawlings resisted pressure to move the event indoors). The Navy Academy Men’s Glee Club sang “America the Beautiful.” Historian David McCullough spoke of how Kennedy’s vitality inspired the president’s New Frontier program.
When Rawlings finally took the stage, he recalled the “nightmarish reality” of that day and how the city’s defects and failings were “laid bare before the entire world.”
“Today, because of the hard work of many people, Dallas is a different city,” he said. “I believe the New Frontier did not end that day on our Texas frontier. And I hope that President Kennedy would be pleased with our humble efforts towards fulfilling our country’s highest calling, that of providing the opportunity for all citizens to exercise those inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Minutes after his speech, Rawlings sounded relieved and grateful, even for the rain. “It was poetically perfect,” he said to a reporter. “It seemed like the skies were weeping.”
Less than a year later, Dallas was again in the spotlight, and Rawlings had no time to prepare.
On Sept. 25, 2014, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visiting family in Dallas, went to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital with fever, nausea and abdominal pain. Two days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicly confirmed that Duncan was the first person in the U.S. diagnosed with the Ebola virus.
Terror struck the city and the country. Rawlings said the announcement was “the most scared” he ever was as mayor. He had read “The Hot Zone,” a best-selling 1994 nonfiction thriller about the deadly virus, one of the most frightening and nasty of all known pathogens.
Rawlings, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and other officials primarily feared an outbreak, but also worked to help Duncan’s family. “The saying ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’ is a very important matrix for anybody to have at such a time,” Rawlings said in a recent interview.
With Jenkins and the county ultimately in charge, Rawlings saw his job as chief communicator in the crisis, in which confusion ran amok about the first case of Ebola. The second and third cases — two nurses who treated Duncan — added to the panic. The mayor held a daily 7 a.m. news conference to keep people informed.
“He wanted people to have the latest update of what we knew while they were drinking their coffee and turning on the news in the morning,” said McGough, Rawlings’ aide at the time.
Rawlings and the Dallas County commissioners debated issuing an emergency declaration, which would have permitted the county judge or mayor to control the movement of persons and the occupancy of premises in the disaster area.
Ultimately, Rawlings felt it was more important to show a sense of normalcy and routine.
“Dallas is safe and Dallas is calm,” he said Oct. 5, 2014, on ABC’s “This Week” as the State Fair of Texas continued in Ebola’s shadow.
Going on little sleep and putting in long hours full of fear and frustration, Jenkins and Rawlings picked each other up when nerves frayed. Rawlings, who can get short with people who don’t cut to the chase, and the at-times loquacious county judge forged “a hand-in-glove relationship,” Jenkins said.
The Ebola outbreak came to an official end on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, as the clock ran out on the last of the 171 people being monitored for exposure to the virus. Duncan had died while the nurses survived.
McGough said the Ebola crisis was one of Rawlings’ “finest moments as mayor.”
“He instilled confidence even when a lot of us behind the scenes weren’t confident,” McGough said.
Rawlings decided that year to seek a second term and cruised to re-election. But the anti-Trinity toll road faction also picked up council seats.
The mayor continued to push his priorities, such as GrowSouth, anti-poverty efforts and an initiative to pursue landlords of low-income rental homes, which opponents cast as a land-grab for wealthy developers.
Tennell Atkins, a longtime City Council member, said Rawlings deserves credit for the revitalization of Red Bird Mall, new growth around the University of North Texas at Dallas campus and many other small initiatives that put “the eye on southern Dallas.”
But Peter Johnson, a longtime civil rights activist who works out of an Oak Cliff office, said initiatives such as GrowSouth ignored the long-term, structural economic disadvantages that communities south of Interstate 30 face.
“You could drop $10 million from a helicopter on South Dallas in the morning and all that money will end up in North Dallas by the end of the day,” Johnson said.
Rawlings also pushed to move Fair Park’s management out of City Hall — similar to the successful Farmers Market privatization downtown. But his hand-selected pick, a group headed by Walt Humann, a businessman and longtime civic leader, faced scathing opposition and was cast as a handout to Dallas’ wealthy elite and the State Fair.
With a push from Kingston and developer Monte Anderson, City Attorney Larry Casto ruled that the city had to have a competitive bid.
Humann’s group eventually lost that competition to a group led by a firm with experience managing other venues across the country.
In July 2016, Rawlings was in Colorado for a family reunion when his mother-in-law, who had stayed behind in Dallas with a caretaker, suddenly died. Rawlings and his family rushed home and attended her funeral on July 7.
Afterward, Rawlings had just settled down at home to watch the Texas Rangers game when his assistant called and told him to look at the news. Unfolding on live TV that evening, after a peaceful protest, was one of Dallas’ darkest days: A gunman had opened fire on officers.
Rawlings said the next 24 hours were a blur of questions: Was there a lone gunman or multiple shooters? Were the marchers who were carrying long rifles involved in the shootings? Were witnesses who wouldn’t talk to police covering up for shooters?
“There was so much of the fog of war,” Rawlings recalled.
The mayor said he tried to stay out of Police Chief David Brown’s way, and the chief ultimately decided to send in a robot armed with explosives to kill the barricaded gunman. The mayor backed Brown and didn’t question the decision.
Leading up to that late-night decision and afterward, Rawlings provided media updates regularly.
“This was not one of those things where we say we’ll handle it and report on everything tomorrow,” Rawlings recalled. “If we don’t give people some information now, the stories are going to go wild.”
The tragedy, which left five police officers dead and nine people injured, offered an opportunity to bring the country together, Rawlings said. At the memorial, former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama shared the same stage with city and state leaders of both parties, singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“I wanted it to be bipartisan,” Rawlings said of the ceremony. “I wanted to show America that there are better angels in all of us.”
Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata said that in the beginning, officers “felt the response was very heartfelt.” But he and other officers became “very disturbed” about how they thought the event seemed to “turn into a political pulpit” for Rawlings, which “truly rubbed a lot of police the wrong way.”
Only a few months later, police and firefighters became wary of proposed changes to their pension fund, which was deteriorating over its lucrative benefits and poor investments. Retirees collectively yanked hundreds of millions of dollars out of their Deferred Retirement Option Plan accounts — an unusual perk that allowed large lump sums that grew with guaranteed interest rates and had few restrictions on withdrawals. Dozens began to retire, hoping to avoid the changes.
Rawlings galvanized the local political and business establishment behind him and became the city’s point man on the issue. In December 2016, he filed a lawsuit — as an individual citizen to prevent a countersuit against the city — against the pension system to halt those withdrawals. In the face of the lawsuit, the board closed them off.
Rawlings worried that the city’s financial future was at risk because of the pension system’s troubles and long-running police and fire back-pay lawsuits in which the city would owe billions if it lost.
But police and firefighters, who sought unity in their ranks during the crisis, cast Rawlings as the bogeyman, a wealthy bully who told them they had been greedy. Mata said Rawlings used strong-arm tactics “to force us into an agreement. So he started screaming bankruptcy.”
Sam Friar, the pension board chairman at the time, said Rawlings’ rhetoric shook confidence in the fund. “Some people would have taken their money out anyway, but I don’t think it would have been to that extent,” Friar said.
The battle went to the Legislature, where the House passed a version of an overhaul that Rawlings blasted. But in the Senate, with the help of Sens. Royce West and Don Huffines, Rawlings, police and firefighter groups and pension officials accepted a compromise that cut benefits, increased the city’s contribution to the fund and gave the mayor the power to appoint the majority of the board.
Rawlings said the pension fight was the “hardest thing” he did as mayor.
With the immediate pension crisis averted, the City Council later agreed to settle the back-pay lawsuits for $235 million — closure that had eluded past mayors and councils.
Rawlings said through the years that his wife, Micki, often said to him when he took on issues — Why is this your problem?
“And I’d say, ‘I don’t know. It’s just, it’s got to be dealt with,'” he said.
He likened it to his pet peeve: “I hate trash sitting on the floor,” he said. “People walk by and they step over trash in City Hall and it’s like, ‘Stop, pick up the trash, put it in the garbage can.'”
As potential successors campaigned for his job, Rawlings has taken some victory laps in recent months. Groups have lauded him for his support of the arts, business and education and his fight against domestic violence. Dallas ISD trustees declared Rawlings “The Education Mayor,” saying the district “has found no greater partner in government committed to its success.”
State Rep. Eric Johnson is now Rawlings’ choice for a successor in Saturday’s runoff. Griggs, meanwhile, has tried to run as a referendum on the status quo, promising to be “a new kind of mayor.” Griggs said he gives Rawlings’ tenure “a gentleman’s C.”
He said Rawlings was “exceptional” at representing Dallas to the nation and the world. And Griggs also praised Rawlings for recognizing the problems with the police and fire pension and then “having the confidence” to appoint him and Kingston to the board to spar with the previous leadership there.
But on other issues, such as GrowSouth, Griggs believes Rawlings missed opportunities.
“We can’t be one-dimensional and only build very large projects in southern Dallas,” Griggs said. “We need many small projects in neighborhood after neighborhood.”
Griggs and Kingston led the anti-toll-road forces in 2017 to kill the project, which Rawlings paired with a new measure to create a separate entity tasked with building a long-promised park between the levees.
That year, Rawlings and the council also passed a $1.05 billion bond package, which voters approved, for pent-up needs. And they voted to take down the Robert E. Lee statue in Oak Lawn after violence at a white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The mayor delayed decisions on the Confederate War Memorial, but the council this year voted to remove it, shooting down Rawlings’ push to recontextualize it.
One of Rawlings’ last major fights as mayor was for council approval of zoning to allow the Salvation Army to build a $95 million, 20-acre campus in northwest Dallas. Surrounding property owners had fought against the shelter, worrying it would hurt property values and attract crime.
Rawlings said the zoning case underscored how much of his job as mayor has been to deflect “crazy things.” It would’ve been “crazy,” he said, to not approve the privately funded project.
After the new mayor of Dallas is sworn in later this month, Rawlings wants to take a road trip with Micki through the Midwest and visit friends and family.
The longest-serving Dallas mayor in six decades will go back to work at CIC Partners, the private equity firm he helped found in 2004. He said he has deflected calls about seeking a statewide office as a Democrat.
Rawlings said he could’ve done other things with his life during the past eight years, but he remembers his friend Roger Enrico, the late former PepsiCo chief, telling him that he’d have richer life experiences as mayor.
“I have regretted at times being mayor because I felt like I was treading water,” Rawlings said. “But it was the right thing for me to do.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News