Like a fortune teller studying tea leaves, I’ve been poring over the results of the May 9 city council election, trying to divine a pattern among the data and detritus. I feel certain that if I look hard enough, I’ll glean some insight into Dallas’ future by studying voter turnout, or find a philosophical thread among the races’ winners that will elucidate the will of the people. I can’t say I’ve been successful, but here’s what I’ve learned.
I’ll begin with the bad news: Dallas voters are not participating in municipal elections. Shocking, I know, but stick with me. It’s not just that we’re not voting in city elections, it’s that we’re actually voting less than we were eight years ago or even 20 years ago.
Let’s look at the council races in Lakewood and Lake Highlands. In District 9 — currently represented by Sheffie Kadane — 6,301 people voted in the recent election. That is 20 percent fewer people than in 2007 (the year Kadane was elected) and 41 percent fewer than in 1995 (the year Ron Kirk was elected mayor).
In Lake Highlands’ District 10 race, now represented by Jerry Allen, 38 percent fewer people voted this year than in 2003, the most recent competitive race.
The mayor’s race has fared the worst, though. Sixty-two percent fewer voters turned out in this year’s mayoral election than when Ron Kirk ran for mayor 20 years ago — roughly 42,000 voters versus 111,000.
Perhaps the turnout was lower this year because people knew Rawlings was a shoe-in? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain the relatively paltry 70,000 voters who turned out for his first race four years ago — a hotly contested mayoral election that included several prominent and well-funded candidates.
I’m not sure what to make of this. Maybe voters don’t think it much matters whom they vote for, the machine rolls on. Maybe city issues are too complicated. Or too boring. Maybe the candidates are too boring. I don’t know. But I’m fairly certain it’s not because people are incredibly satisfied with their city government.
Despite the low voter turnout, there is also some very good news from May’s election. Vocal Trinity toll road foe Mark Clayton secured 58 percent of the vote in District 9, sailing him into office without a run-off, a rare feat. Clayton was up against three serious contenders, one of whom was very well-funded, and another of whom was both very well-funded and endorsed by the Dallas Citizens Council and The Dallas Morning News.
In its post-election analysis, the daily paper misattributed Clayton’s landslide to “his message of walkable urbanism.” That had little to do with his remarkable victory. A core tenet of Clayton’s platform was his opposition to the toll road.
It’s a little known fact, but District 9 had the highest percentage of voters against the toll road in the 2007 referendum, with a strong majority opposing the massive, high-speed road. So for the last eight years, the district’s representation and voter opinion have been significantly misaligned.
Clayton’s definitive anti-toll road stance, combined with his focus on neighborhood self-determination and a healthy skepticism of Dallas City Hall, resulted in an overwhelming victory.
District 10’s results were no less interesting. With little name ID, half the funding of his competitors, and a late start, anti-toll road candidate James White earned 22 percent of the vote.
Adam McGough and Paul Reyes now head into a run-off in District 10. Based on their financial reports, we know that both are backed by prominent toll road supporters. What we don’t know is whether they have the independence to stand up to their financial backers and represent the 64 percent of District 10 voters who oppose the toll road, according to a recent survey.
I’ve read the tea leaves, I’ve divined the stars, and I have a vision: Few people will vote in the June 13 runoff, and we will get the Dallas City Council we deserve.
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