It’s rare that a victory party for a Dallas ISD trustee election culminates in a circle of school board members toasting the win with shots.
Then again, Saturday’s runoff election was anything but run-of-the-mill.
The revelers at Mac’s Southside on Lamar knew that Justin Henry’s defeat of eight-year incumbent Bernadette Nutall was not a given. They held their breath until 7 p.m. when early voting results flashed onto the big screen, showing that nearly 63 percent of voters had backed the 36-year-old attorney. His strong lead never wavered as the votes trickled in.
Anyone involved in Dallas ISD politics believes that Henry’s victory represents a seismic shift on the board that will reverberate throughout the school district. It’s the equivalent of one political party taking over both Congress and the Oval Office — it changes the prospects for cohesive governing.
Five DISD trustees showed up at Mac’s to celebrate Henry’s win — Edwin Flores, Dustin Marshall, Dan Micciche, Jaime Resendez and Miguel Solis. With Henry elected, that adds up to six votes — a supermajority of the nine-member board.
It’s not that these six men are aligned in their viewpoints.
“I’ve agreed and disagreed with them adamantly,” Henry says in a post-election interview. “But there’s a mutual understanding that there’s a willingness to focus on academic achievement and equitable opportunities.”
In contentious votes over the past several years, Henry says he would have voted differently than Nutall every time. This alternate approach linked him to some of the major donors and players in Dallas’ education landscape. Over the course of the election, Henry raised $140,504 to Nutall’s $30,200, according to campaign finance documents.
Money itself, however, didn’t win the election. The last time Nutall ran, in 2015, she emerged victorious against a challenger whose campaign coffers were much heftier. The fact that she lost this time around suggests other factors were at play. (Nutall did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
No doubt, a major factor was Henry’s ground game. He and a core group of five supporters started knocking on doors as early as last September. The efforts by volunteers multiplied when combined with this spring’s canvassing efforts, which accounted for more than half of Henry’s campaign expenditures.
Nearly $48,000 paid for his phone bank team, and another $28,000 came from local education PAC Dallas Kids First in the form of “CAMPers,” a team of passionate young people employed to spend thousands of hours knocking on doors over the course of the campaign. The Texas Organizing Project also gave Henry “over 3,000 door knocks and phone calls” during the runoff.
Some campaign battles were waged on Facebook and Twitter. At the end of the day, however, “social media is not a replacement for talking to people in the community at their doors or on the phone,” says John Hill, program director of Dallas Kids First’s CAMP fellowship. What clinched the election, Hill believes, is “the combined efforts of everybody on Justin’s campaign, and the fact that it was rooted in the community.”
One of Henry’s biggest supporters during the runoff was Edward Turner, who lost to Henry in the general election then fully threw his support into his friend’s campaign.
“Sixty-seven percent of the voters on May 5 said they wanted change,” Turner says, referring to their combined vote tallies — his 20 percent plus Henry’s 47 percent. “It was important to me to actually go back out to my supporters, knock on doors, make phone calls. I didn’t think just saying I was going to support Justin or putting it on a mailer would be enough.”
At Henry’s victory party, Turner donned his own campaign T-shirt with the slogan, “It’s time to put trust back in trustee.” The election results reaffirmed to him that “people wanted change,” he says.
If they hadn’t, all the door knocking in the world would have been a lost cause, Hill says.
“People voted for the idea that this can be better,” Hill says. “If you look at student achievement, school quality, facilities, any issue tied to education across the board, they’ve waited long enough for that ‘better’ to come, and they were ready to try something new.”
Though overall voter turnout was low at only 6 percent, Henry’s East Dallas neighborhood of Hollywood-Santa Monica turned out heavily in both the District 9 general election and the runoff — even more than in 2015, when mayoral and City Council race also beckoned them to the polls. Those voters almost unequivocally supported Henry.
“One thing people could say is the numbers were high because that’s where Justin lives, but that is assuming that candidates carry their own neighborhoods,” Hill says. “He did, but Bernadette did not.”
In Buckner Terrace, the engaged neighborhood just south of I-30 where Nutall lives, Henry won almost half of the votes. In fact, he swept several southern Dallas precincts, which comprise the majority of District 9.
Henry was careful throughout the campaign to speak respectfully of Nutall, whom he sought out as a mentor years ago. He repeated his thanks for her almost nine years of service during his acceptance speech at Mac’s.
“This is about a distinction in policy and approach,” Henry says of Nutall. “The community is ready for a different type of advocacy.”
The five board members who toasted Henry’s win are ready not just for different votes but also for a different voice behind the dais.
“There have been some fractured relationships on the board and in the senior administration for quite some time, and having a fresh start with those relationships can only be to the betterment of kids,” says Marshall, whose East Dallas, Preston Hollow and Uptown district borders Henry’s. “A new generation of leadership in south Dallas is emerging, and I think Justin is a harbinger of things to come in that part of town.”
For Dallas Kids First, which provided roughly one-fourth of Henry’s campaign funds, the election was its first successful attempt since 2012 to unseat an incumbent and usher in new leadership for a southern sector board district.
“This is historic,” says Dallas Kids First executive director Camila Correa Bordeau, who will be at Thursday’s board meeting when Henry is sworn in. “This is major shift in the dynamics of the school board, and people are feeling very hopeful.”
For more history and context on Dallas ISD school board politics, read this story.
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