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Opinion

Eric Johnson might hold the title mayor but his power vanished Saturday

He must change his whole approach now to salvage the next two years.

It’s one thing to lose in politics, as Mayor Eric Johnson did spectacularly Saturday. Serious politics requires risk, and if you’re going to be in it, you’ve got to roll the dice at some point.

Johnson’s problem, though, is that he took a huge political risk this year with a low-to-nil probability of success.

Anyone with any sense of the Dallas political landscape could see from the outset that Johnson was not going to accomplish what he hoped — to unseat strong incumbent council members and replace them with people more willing to follow his agenda. So with failure all but assured, why did he plow forward?

It’s an interesting question, and we could speculate on the answer all day. Johnson didn’t respond to an email or a message to his office for this column. What seems clear is that he either totally misread the Dallas political dynamic or just decided to throw caution to the wind and take his chances.

What might be more important than why he did it, though, is what’s left for Johnson as mayor at this point. With two years left in his term, he will return to City Hall more isolated and more disempowered than he was before this election. And that’s saying something.

Since he took office, Johnson has struggled to work with the council and with city management. A mayor in Dallas might be able to fight with one or the other. Taking on both is a recipe for failure, another political truism Johnson ignored.

Meanwhile, his style of governing has diminished into either parliamentary wrangling at the council horseshoe or social media pronouncements or selective interviews, often with right-wing media.

Johnson-backed candidates — and candidates who echoed his message that the council had defunded the police — largely failed in this election. Johnson’s endorsements of Donald Parish Jr. in South Dallas/Fair Park and Yolanda Williams in Pleasant Grove appeared to carry no weight. Neither could manage to get into a runoff.

In eastern Dallas’ District 14, the candidate making the defund argument, Elizabeth Viney, was the third place finisher in a three-person race. Instead, former plan commissioner Paul Ridley took incumbent David Blewett to a runoff with a lead. Blewett has at least been willing to work with Johnson, even as he has been critical of the mayor’s style. Ridley, on the other hand, is likely to be more in the model of past District 14 representatives — deeply independent. Johnson might hope runoffs in District 11 and District 13 yield council members who will follow him, but even that leaves him no better off than he was before the election.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s greatest foil at City Hall, Lakewood’s Paula Blackmon, emerged as the most politically potent member of the council. She easily defeated two challengers who mirrored Johnson’s defund message.

Blackmon’s win, with more than 63% of the vote, is evidence that she is secure in her seat for a full eight years if she wants it. Johnson can’t say the same, with potential challengers already holding meetings around the city to test the waters for challenging him if he runs for reelection.

Blackmon confirmed Monday she will seek the role of mayor pro tem when the next council is seated. That makes sense. If there is a single leader at the horseshoe now, it’s Blackmon. She has the ability to gather votes and to move successfully between factions on council. She was a leader in the effort to shift police overtime funds to employing civilians on the force. And she successfully worked to prevent a group of council members who she has sided with from appointing a political consultant to the redistricting commission.

Her understanding of the bureaucracy and council political dynamics mean she could easily emerge as a sort of de facto mayor, the person who can rally eight votes to an agenda.

Johnson appears to have little hope now of preventing that — unless he radically alters his style of governing. That will involve, first and foremost, a dose of humility. He will have to reach out to the council members he opposed and tell them he wants a fresh start.

On that front, he’s started. He sent congratulatory texts to several winning incumbents over the weekend. Blackmon got one Sunday that offered a discussion. Blackmon responded that she looks forward to the conversation and that there is much work to be done.

Council member Chad West, in North Oak Cliff, also got a text, but his response shows just how far Johnson has to go with the council.

“I’m going to go into it with no expectations at all and hope to be pleasantly surprised,” West said of working with Johnson.

Johnson will need to show quickly he is changing his approach. That will mean giving council members greater power over setting the agenda at City Hall, resetting committee appointments to give council members he has differed with chairmanships and changing his governing style to one of constant communication and collaboration.

Even if he does all of those things, Johnson will still be largely disempowered. The council that is coming in is not looking to him for leadership. The best he can hope for is an equal voice.

If he does work with the council, he might spare himself from the fate of being relevant only to parliamentary procedure at council meetings — something that might frustrate the council but can’t stop a determined coalition.

In short, the next two years will be long for Eric Johnson. He should think carefully about how he wants to spend them, what he can accomplish and how he can accomplish it. Because the power he wanted to win Saturday was never going to come.

In This Story

Rudolph Bush, Deputy Editorial Page Editor. Rudy has covered politics, government, crime and all three mixed together for both The Dallas Morning News and The Chicago Tribune.

rbush@dallasnews.com /rudy.bush @dallaspolitics
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