Barrett Brown Takes on Dallas Politics

“The People” Really Do Have Power

Pioneer Plaza, Dallas, cowboy
Cowboy statue in Pioneer Plaza, Dallas, Texas. Photo credit: Brett Chisum / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

How does a progressive, anti-establishment kind of guy keep winning elections in Dallas, Texas, with all of the city’s establishment forces — including the mayor and the powerful Dallas Morning News — against him?

How did Philip Kingston once again get elected to the Dallas City Council?

One big reason may be that, as he explains below, “better communication diminishes the influence of money in public.”

What he communicates on his website clearly appeals to voters: “an urbanist, neighborhood-first agenda.” And if his claims are true, it is easy to see why he continues to attract votes — as well as enemies among the establishment.

Kingston says he has “helped spearhead the rebirth of the entertainment districts… with community safety and walkability in mind… [tried] to help solve the pension crisis for Dallas police and firefighters… brought about a living wage ordinance and rest-break protection for construction workers in Dallas… will continue to fight to protect all citizens of Dallas and residents of District 14 from discrimination of any kind…”

In his latest podcast for WhoWhatWhy, Barrett Brown talks to Kingston about the importance of local civic participation, particularly at a time when many believe that being involved in politics, with an eye toward changing policy at the national level, seems useless.

Brown and Kingston discuss how, on issues ranging from global warming to transportation and housing, effecting change on a local level may be the only way to go.

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Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to resource constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like, and we hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

Barrett Brown: This is Barrett Brown. Thanks for listening to our WhoWhatWhy podcast. Our guest today is Philip Kingston, a city council person out of Dallas, Texas, one of the leaders in a sort of makeshift opposition against Dallas’s history of oligarchical rule, as it’s often depicted. A few months ago, there was an election in Dallas, and Kingston, who had been a vocal critic of the mayor, who himself is very much a defender of a sort of go along to get along establishment in the city of Dallas that’s been used for decades and decades. Mr. Kingston and a few others who have formed an almost technocratic coalition on the council, not only won reelection in a contest in which the mayor’s associates, former political aides, ran unprecedented ads against Kingston … not only won but also saw many of their opposition on the council defeated.
It was an extraordinary upset in Dallas and afterwards The Dallas Morning News, which had been a backer of the mayor and of a certain way of Dallas covenants, wrote an editorial castigating the people of Kingston’s district for reelecting him.
Philip, about a year ago, after the presidential election, Trump suddenly taking power over the world’s most complex society, there was a lot of talk about cities taking some of the burden of governance – about a shift towards city civics – with people having somewhat given up, perhaps, on national civics. How much room do you think there is for cities like Dallas, or Houston, or New York, or Los Angeles, to take on a more central role in how people see their civics and how people conduct their civics?
Philip Kingston: There’s a lot of room there. There are some hard limits and the Trump election, Barrett, I would agree, accelerated people’s desire to find out what the limits are. But the idea that cities were the last place for innovation is not that new. When the French were planning for the last IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the international climate summit, they actually reached out to cities because they anticipated that there would be no state level – meaning national level agreement – that would mean anything in particular. And so they reached out to cities to see what we could do on a local level to try to forestall climate change.
Now, that’s sort of an extreme example. It’s saying that’s a real surrender on a part of people in national level governments to say, this problem – that’s completely getting more and more obvious by the day, that is very clearly an international problem that ought to be solved by international cooperation – it’s most effective opponents, the most effective means of combating it, are at the local level? We live in a very topsy-turvy world, and it’s that way, not just in the United States, but across the globe.
Barrett Brown: With that having occurred recently, and that being, as you said, a sort of unprecedented, or at least very unusual, deferment or de facto deferment by the nation to the cities, and with also some of the challenges that have come to the Trump administration from states which, probably not unprecedented but a bit more rigorous than we’ve seen in prior administrations, this is certainly an acceleration to a decentralized civic mentality, isn’t it?
Philip Kingston: That’s 100 percent right. The problem is that the roles of the state government and our federal system and the federal government have been fought over for 200 years. There are some really hard definitions in there. So, for instance, when we, at the city level, talk about wanting to reform the way we do land use to make it more equitable, we can see that the way we do zoning actually is promoting some of the social ills we see, like segregation. So, we, at the city, being good urbanists think, “Well, if we cut down on parking then we’re going to get more dense end use and it will encourage people to locate jobs closer to housing and a bunch of other good things you get out of that.” The reason we don’t do that is because years ago, the state, not in an analogous situation to what Trump administration is now doing to the states themselves, the state took away cities’ ability to regulate the sale of alcohol. We can do nothing to stop the proliferation of bars in neighborhoods, except, require them to have a lot of parking.
So, we find ourselves shackled in some ways by the higher levels of government where they’ve already taken tools away from us that we could otherwise use to fix our own problems. Without, by the way, asking them for more money. So, we do not live in a well-designed regulatory environment. We live in an ad hoc regulatory environment and we’re just trying to do the best we can.
Barrett Brown: Yeah, that seems to be exactly one of the fundamental problems of our governance, in general. Going back to Dallas, or going back to that victory in Dallas, which was very unprecedented … and I got the chance to kind of watch that drama unfold since I was covering city council in the months right outside of election … Do you think that kind of victory … which I suppose in this case was sort of fueled by a different demographic in the cities and more, obviously, technocratic or pragmatic younger grassroots votership … Do you think that kind of victory, that we’ve seen in Dallas, is that something we’ve seen elsewhere in the country – that we’re unaware of? Is it something we can expect to see? A more adult governance on the civic level in major cities?
Philip Kingston: Yes, I believe it’s a trend. We always love to think of ourselves as special and we never are. I see that basically in the wake of the Trump election, a lot of people that were not engaged in politics or civic life have awakened. We see in San Antonio, they got a new, very progressive mayor, replacing one who was decidedly not. We see the city council in Houston being run totally by progressives even though as a city it is a much more conservative electorate than we have here in Dallas. Austin, of course, has become the target of the state legislature because of its progressive policies. So, I think it’s very much a trend and it’s a trend I’m trying to help organize.
I along with three other city councilmen from other cities have formed a group called Texas Urban Policy Makers where we’re trying to get together around shared goals and maybe do some statewide advocacy on things that we all care about … related to urbanism more than just progressive policy. Transportation for instance, has become a means in which to separate people and these massive, car oriented infrastructure projects simply serve to promote segregation, promote poor air quality. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack there, but those things, when we can organize around that stuff, then what we find is we suddenly have an effective tool with the state government that doesn’t respect our point of view and would like to run roughshod over us.
So, we’ll be meeting, next month, with Victor Vandergriff, who’s a TxDOT commissioner, to work on basically a platform for advocating for urban transportation projects – which almost all are non-automotive.
Barrett Brown: Now, we have in Dallas fine examples, very interesting examples, of the city taking a leadership role – again not unprecedented but perhaps a little bit more amplified than in previous years. For one thing, we had, at the onset of the travel ban, we did have leadership from this mayor, Mayor Rawlings… who, as you and I both know, if our listeners may not, is not Jack Kennedy but who was very vocal in helping to show support to our city’s immigrants. Both in that and the travel ban and also about the immigration things.
Now, more recently, we have another situation in which Dallas has, among other cities, taken the lead in getting rid of, in this case, the Robert E. Lee statue that’s been in a park near where I live for quite a while. First thing I wrote about when I started writing for The Guardian. In the process of getting that statue removed, has there been much opposition from anyone worth worrying about?
Philip Kingston: Not overt. That’s an interesting question because … the way that got started, Barrett, is this group of clergy and historians and artists all came to visit me to see if I could help them with monument removal. I had been thinking about it before that because the New Orleans situation … the Landrieu’s speech, I consider to be one of the best pieces of American oratory in the last ten years and it really convinced me. So, I was thinking about how to do this in Dallas and one of the things I knew I needed was a group of advocates with real credibility and they just showed up on my doorstep. It was a very easy thing to say, “yes, I’ll help you.” But of course, they hadn’t started with me. They started with the mayor who would not help them.
Jim Schutze actually has a great recitation of what happened. We filed our memo, which forces the issue onto the agenda, in early August. The mayor’s first reaction was … well, for one thing he’s never acknowledged that it even existed. And his first reaction was to appoint a task force. Not to answer the question of when or how to take down the monuments, but to answer the question of whether to take down the monuments.
What that tells me is that he had a … and his words about the monument were that they were racist propaganda and he was saying good things in that regard. But what it raises in my mind was the possibility that he had a contributor problem. That he has important supporters who are not thrilled to see these things come down. I don’t know who that is. I don’t want to slander somebody by speculating, that’s just, that seems obvious to me.
Our strategy was an inside- outside strategy. I was working the council. I was surprised that I didn’t get more support, initially, from the African-American council members, but they came around. Part of that is because of the outside strategy – which was to get every important clergy member in town, and every important historian, and their neighbors – the people who vote for them – to call them. And that pressure is what changed everybody. From early August to early September we went from, basically just a few of us on council talking about this and demanding immediate action, to a near unanimous vote this week, to take down the Lee statue immediately. And the only reason it’s still up is we’re having trouble with the rather robust construction of the thing.
Barrett Brown: That brings me to another question. Is the old setup, whereby contributors have an outsized degree of influence over these races, whether it be mayoral or city council, and outsiders influence over what makes the agenda how things run, is that something that can be diminished, or is it something that has been diminished relative to other more grassroots forces? And if so, does that have anything to do with the information age or demographic change, or what would that be?
Philip Kingston: It is undeniable that better communication diminishes the influence of money in public thought. I don’t know to what extent. We always joke in politics that you have to be on social media because it gives you an air of credibility, but the only people who are looking at it are basically reporters. So, you’re not actually getting any votes but you may be getting your message out. I would say technology definitely has something to do with it but until, and unless, the US completely revamps campaign finance and just levels the playing field with a single pool of money that everybody’s allowed to use, then money will always have an outsized influence. And really, even with a system like that, you know money has a way of working its way into power. That’s just the way it works.
But next week, we will be trying to diminish its power somewhat, in that we are going to try to limit the total spending that any political action committee can do in a local race. So, in your very kind introduction earlier, when you’re talking about all of the money that was spent to try and kick me out of office, most of it was spent through the use of a loophole in Texas campaign finance law that says, basically, that political action committees can spend unlimited dollars for or against a candidate, so long as they do not coordinate with that candidate’s campaign. We can set a limit on that at the local level. That’s what I will try to do next Wednesday.
It’s an interesting thing. One of my colleagues immediately had a negative reaction to it and said, “I think that’s unconstitutional.” And then he thought about it a little while and he realized that not only would it eliminate the PAC’s support that he got, but it would severely restrict the three PACs that worked against him. So, I think he may be coming around on it.
Barrett Brown: That’s good. It reminds me of the mayor who during the ethics debate a few months ago … and this is something that, the ethics debate in Dallas vis-a-vis the cities, was replicated and is very similar to the same debates been going on across the country. In fact, we obviously explore what other cities have done to some extent before putting these forward … but the mayor had opposed one kind of restriction on people who have been close to a campaign, working in politics, on the ground that it’s against free speech. And the other one, he supported on the grounds that its practical and helpful. And then sort of confronted himself with the dilemma in real time and he was saying “Well, maybe there’s a contradiction there.” It was an extraordinary performance.
Anyway, my last question for you is … We’ve seen several instances since Trump’s election of really robust confrontations between the Trump administration and cities. With the travel ban, for instance, and now increasing with immigration, regardless what happens with the DACA, given that we can still see other very dramatic immigration crackdowns … it looks like, in fact, that the IS is openly applauding a pretty unprecedented large scale crack-down on immigration right now. Is there … is it possible that we’ll see almost a civil disobedience level reaction from some cities in this nation on immigration and other issues?
Philip Kingston: I drafted a resolution just last week that calls for the city of Dallas to pay lawyers to represent Dreamers for the purpose of trying to keep them in the country.
Barrett Brown: Think that will be a … That might be an uphill battle, you think, in the council?
Philip Kingston: I don’t know. The council is pretty pro-immigration. Now, there’s talk and then there’s backing up talk with a budget. That’s where the rubber’s going to meet the road on that deal, but, yeah! I love civil disobedience. I hate having … I’m just a regular old politician. I do not like another politician taking power away from me. If there’s going to be an opportunity, for instance, with the cite and release package that we passed on low level marijuana possession where we’re not going to arrest people anymore for marijuana.
All that stuff is forms of local civil disobedience on the municipal government level. And I firmly think that if we see really draconian, anti-immigrant moves by the federal government, you’ll see that work its way down to the grassroots level and I think you’ll see people take active steps to hide immigrants or to protect them in some way. Frankly, I’ve got two bedrooms in my house I’m not using.
Barrett Brown: Philip Kingston, thank you very much. Thank you for joining us. Appreciate your insights into our national breakdown.
Philip Kingston: Thank you, Barrett. You’re one of the best chroniclers of it.
Barrett Brown: I’ve been very close to it. Thanks again and thank you for listening to our WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Barrett Brown (courtesy of Barrett Brown) podcast studio (pxhere).

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