It wasn’t the solemn ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the tourist event held daily at Buckingham Palace in London. They weren’t selling tickets on the web and there was no one there to watch, but sometime late on a Saturday night in May, when all the precincts had reported and the votes were tallied, there was a changing of the guard in East Dallas. Mark Clayton, not much more than half the age of our current councilman and from a different part of the neighborhood, won a clear and convincing victory over four opponents, including several who had longer East Dallas residencies, endorsements from previous city councilmen and community service résumés arguably stronger than his. This was a 32-point victory with Clayton receiving 57 percent of the vote and his nearest opponent earning 25 percent. It’s a remarkable generational and geographic shift for the community.
How did it happen?
Angela Hunt, eight years a councilwoman (2005-2013) from neighboring District 14 and a Clayton supporter, made a comment early in the campaign that now seems clairvoyant. “In recent years, we’ve had a fairly equitable representation of women and men on the city council, as well as racial diversity” Hunt said. And with some premonition she added, “What we’ve lacked are younger councilmembers. Families with small children, as well as younger urban residents, offer a critical — and often, missing — perspectives on important issues like parks and transportation planning.”
In District 9, Hunt’s generational prediction proved correct. Mary Poss, Gary Griffith and Sheffie Kadane, the three representatives of District 9 since 1995, were all Baby Boomers whose children were older or out of the nest during their time in office. Clayton is a GenXer with school-age children and wasn’t the only one in the race fitting that description. As the Baby Boomers of East Dallas downsize and sell their homes to GenX and GenY families looking for close-in urban living, these new residents will be voting for the candidates who don’t just support walkability, trails and green space around the council horseshoe, but also the ones who still jog in the morning, cycle around the lake in the evening and coach soccer games on the weekends.
A generational change with candidates mirroring the electorate seemed inevitable. What didn’t was an emergence of political strength and activism on the east side of White Rock Lake. The Advocate took a look back at the last 50-plus years of East Dallas representation on the Dallas City Council and found a group of local leaders diverse in gender but not in geography, with each one hailing from the lake’s west side.
Elizabeth Blessing, 1961-65; Willie Cothrum, 1965-1969; Sheffield Kadane, 1969-1975; Willie Cothrum, 1975-80; Lee Simpson, 1980-83; Craig Holcomb, 1983-89; Glenn Box, 1989-1995; Mary Poss, 1995-2003; Gary Griffith, 2003-2007; Sheffie Kadane, 2007-2015.
Let’s get a little wonky. Using data from the Dallas City Secretary’s website, District 9 has eight precincts on the west side of the lake with a population total of 22,171, and 23 precincts on the east side of the lake with a population of 73,734. So why the historic dominance of the west side in East Dallas city council leadership?
That’s where the votes are, that’s why. In May’s election, citywide turnout was a mere 6.76 percent of registered voters. In contrast, seven of the eight precincts west of the lake had voter turnout ranging from 14 percent to 21 percent, with three of them over 20 percent. Alternatively, of the east side’s 23 precincts, 13 had turnout in the single digits, including the four precincts adjacent to Gus Thomasson-Ferguson and three of the four that touch Garland-Jupiter.
The total population of the 13 low-turnout precincts on the east side is 21,664, nearly the population of the entire west side of District 9, yet voter turnout is only one quarter as much. No doubt the majority Hispanic neighborhoods, especially in Far East Dallas, experience the same dilemma as many Hispanic neighborhoods in Texas: Stable communities but low voter interest. What about East Dallas wallets? Generally speaking, they are thicker west of the lake than east, and economic status also affects turnout. Over the decades, council candidates have emerged from the west side because they can attract voters from the neighborhoods where they live. And those people go to the polls.
What is changing, and what is missing from the prior analysis, are the in-between precincts — the neighborhoods of Old Lake Highlands, the Peninsula, Little Forest Hills, Lochwood and Casa Linda. The turnout from these neighborhoods roughly matched, and in some cases surpassed, turnout on the west side.
District 9 City Council election by the numbers
Number of precincts, out of 31, won by councilman-elect Mark Clayton (One precinct in Lakewood and one in Wilshire Heights went for Darren Boruff, and the district’s northwesternmost precinct, bound by Skillman, Abrams and Northwest Highway, went for Sam Merten.)
Number of votes cast for Clayton, out of 6,301 district-wide
Percentage of registered voters from the Peninsula neighborhood who cast ballots in the election, the precinct with the highest percentage of voter turnout in District 9
Source: Dallas City Secretary’s website
On top of that, four of the five District 9 candidates came from those precincts — from the ’tweener neighborhoods where turnout and neighborhood activism is growing — and the winner lives in Casa Linda, marking the first time in more than 50 years that East Dallas will be represented by someone other than a Lakewood resident.Many current east side leaders suggest the rise of activism and candidates can be traced to a younger demographic moving in. Scott Robson, currently serving his 12th year as president of the Lochwood Neighborhood Association, organized a recent Movies at the Park event that attracted 250 people. Barbara Arredondo, the new president of the Old Lake Highlands Neighborhood Association, says her neighborhood’s Facebook page receives five new likes a day. Both attribute this to the recent arrival of younger families who want to connect, and are social media conscious and internet savvy.
One early effort to bring together “forgotten Far East Dallas” was Mike Nurre, Lee Barron and others’ work in 2009 to form the Greater Casa View Alliance, composed of 10 neighborhood leaders from the 17 neighborhoods stretching along Ferguson from Oates to LBJ.
“We have felt we have had no representation at all,” Nurre says. “No one carried Far East Dallas’ banner. No councilpersons really knew our area and its specific challenges. Just note the emphasis and proclamations about Grow South and even West Dallas as glaring examples. ‘Forgotten Far East Dallas no more’ has been a mantra.”
A recent outgrowth or catalyst, or both, of this new activism is the White Rock East Coalition of Area Neighborhoods (WRECAN), an informal group organized by former Dallas ISD trustee Leigh Ann Ellis. The coalition encompasses Eastwood, Lake Park Estates, Lochwood, Old Lake Highlands and Peninsula, as well as members of the Greater Casa View Alliance, such as Alger Park, Ash Creek, Braeburn Glenn and Casa View Oaks. Ellis was a vocal opponent of the restaurant proposal for White Rock Lake’s Boy Scout Hill and felt that “the west side of the lake wasn’t with us on this issue.” After the restaurant’s developers waved the white flag, Ellis began meeting periodically with these neighborhood associations under the WRECAN banner to “groom new leadership” and “establish awareness” for east side issues.
New residents, young families, social media consciousness, a rise in self-awareness as east-siders, an inclination to register and vote, fresh leadership and mentorship from current leadership have been the contributing factors to the changing of the guard that happened late into the night on May 9.
So what about the new sheriff in town? Well, for one thing, Clayton was as shocked as anyone at his overwhelming victory. Like everyone else, he expected a runoff and was hoping for 36-38 percent. Although he felt good about voter feedback from his day at the polls, when his campaign manager looked at the early returns at 7:01 p.m. and said, “You’ve won!” he didn’t let himself think so. When competitor Darren Boruff called him mere minutes later to extend congratulations (a “class act,” Clayton says), he was reluctant to accept them, knowing the night was young.
Only when half the precincts had reported election results did it start to sink in. At about 8:30, calls came from Mayor Mike Rawlings and County Judge Clay Jenkins. Sheffie Kadane, current District 9 councilman, called Sunday to congratulate Clayton and vouch for the quality of his district staff.
What paved the way for such a surprising and impressive victory? Clayton, now a councilman-elect and not a campaigner, says, “This was not a referendum on east versus west.” He’s right about that in one respect: Of the 31 precincts in District 9, he won 28. Two west side precincts were won by Boruff (including one in Lakewood, where he lives) and Sam Merten won Precinct 1000. (Precinct 1000 had one person vote early. He or she casted it for Merten. Nobody from Precinct 1000 voted on election day. Poll workers did their best imitation of the Maytag repairman.)
Still, even if the election wasn’t east vs. west, the east-side constituents’ mentality of being forgotten and ignored no doubt played into Clayton’s “you matter” campaign theme, to which he ultimately credits his big win. He also thinks his children’s enrollment in Sanger Elementary School drew support from some voters and that the “litmus test” of his anti-Trinity toll road stance was a difference maker. In the end, though, Clayton believes his consistent message of “I will listen to you” — a variation on “listening to the customer” cut to fit government service — was the primary difference.
“One other thing,” Clayton says, “I knocked on 4,000 doors!”
For 50 years, residents on the east side of White Rock Lake have been represented in city hall by someone on the west side. It’s been the same 50 years since Bob Dylan wrote and sang these words:
“The slow one now / Will later be fast /
As the present now / Will later be past /
The order is rapidly fadin’ /
And the first one now / Will later be last /
For the times they are a-changin’ ”
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