Is Nice What Dallas Needs On City Council?

In What Looks Like Dallas’ Most Contentious City Council Race In 2017, Everything Appears To Be Boiling Down To Niceness. How Ironic!

On Sunday night, on the eve of the kickoff to the early voting period for Dallas’ upcoming local election in May, Old East Dallas’ Garden Cafe was nice enough to host a very nice event in which it welcomed incumbent District 14 city council member Philip Kingston and Matt Wood, the leading challenger for his seat, for a nice debate hosted by the Dallas Morning News‘ Tristan Hallman.

There was a nice turnout of the district’s constituents — maybe 200 or so people, and even one very nice dog. Everyone seemed to have a nice time. Hallman did a nice job of moderating a discussion of the issues. And, as is the basis for seemingly his entire reputation, challenger Matt Wood was very nice in the way he answered Hallman’s questions. Heck, even Philip Kingston, who has been on the receiving end of some attack ads that argue that he’s so not-nice that nobody can work with him and nothing can get done for his district or until the city until someone nicer gets into his office, actually came off pretty nice in this setting.

Yes, most everything about this event was nice. Which is fitting and also a little ironic, because everything about this, seemingly the most contentious city council race in this year’s elections, is all about niceness — at least on its surface. The general idea is that Wood has it in spades, and Kingston sorely lacks it.

But niceness — despite the claims of For Our Community, the insipidly-named anti-Kingston super PAC with which Wood has repeatedly claimed no association, even though such claims elicited some nice belly-laughs over the course of this event, forcing even said challenger to flash some nice, just-bear-with-me-here smiles — isn’t really what this election is about, now is it?

If it were, would the front couple rows of seats, which were reserved for city officials, have been as full of current, former and possibly future council members wearing shirts in support of Kingston? That visual seemed to fly right in the face of Wood and the totally unrelated FOC’s argument, which is that Kingston is so really, really, really not nice that nobody wants to work with him. But several of those people have somehow managed to hold their noses long enough to work with Kingston at least on a few topics. If he’s really impossibly not-nice, and even if you don’t agree with any or many of Kingston’s accomplishments, how has anything at all gotten done over these past few years since he took over this District 14 post from Angela Hunt?

Say what you will about his tactics — and the FOC super PAC certainly is — but Kingston and his pals on the council have managed to come down on what would appear to be the right (although not always winning) side on any number of issues of import to the city in recent memory: flood control, red light cameras, marijuana cite-and-release, pension fund transparency, Fair Park, the bond program vote delay, auditing city departments, removing the Trinity rapids, fracking, Dallas Animal Services, the captive Park Board, the Breakfast Club, federal and local housing accountability, housing voucher discrimination, Costco subsidies, the Ron Kirk bridge, no-bid contracts, food deserts, the Exxotica suit, racially biased drug enforcement and sentencing, CityMAP shenanigans, the plastic bag ban, works breaks for construction workers, the DART D2 alignment, and so on and so on.

So, no, niceness isn’t what this city council race is about at all. Here’s the real truth: It’s about The Establishment versus the New Guard, which is interesting in that the incumbent in this case represents the latter whereas the challenger represents the former. Sure, Wood may be the newcomer, but he’s got endorsements from Mayor Mike Rawlings, former mayor Ron Kirk, former Dallas Police chief David Brown and the Dallas Morning News. Kingston, meanwhile, has the endorsement of his fellow young council members Scott Griggs and Adam Medrano, and of the Dallas Police Association.

Really, this race is only about being nice if you equate it to playing nice — specifically in regards to the Trinity Tollway, and following the lead of the big-money team of Rawlings, the Dallas Citizens Council and sell-out council members (plus, one presumes, a couple of decent folk) who want to put a pay-road where one doesn’t currently exists, right along a floodplain, for no clear reason other than it seems primed to fill some coffers. Not only is Kingston not nice by that standard, but he also has the not-nice nerve to demand transparency from the play-nice people who are. And, you see, those people don’t like that, because they have a documented record of misdirection, bait-and-switchery, skullduggery, bullying and outright lying on the topic.

Credit it where it’s due: Over the course of this debate, plenty of ground was covered and Wood came across as both well-informed and well-aware of what not to say to this audience. He valiantly agreed with Kingston where he could, valiantly dodged any Old Guard talking points wherever he could, and valiantly gave himself narrow rhetorical exit hatches should he win this election and be called out by quibbling, literalistic accountabilists. He did a nice job, without a doubt. It was a nice showing. He came off as a nice man.

Kingston, on the other hand, was less nice. He held his ground when it came to a command of the nitty-gritty details. He had tough language and shared tough policy positions on tough problems like homelessness, affordable housing, the police and fire pension, the deferred bond package vote, street repair and southern sector development. He even gave himself a little tough love, apologizing for having supported an economic development package that he says went deeply awry. No, he didn’t seem as nice as Wood did, but — again flying in the face of the super PAC ads — he also managed not to murder anyone with funny zingers or brutal insults, and he did manage to say some stuff that seemed, to the untrained eye, at least a little compassionate. Given the nefarious colors in which the super PAC is painting him, that was enough for him to come off near-saintly in this setting.

So who won the debate? That’s tough to say. After it ended, I asked around the crowd some for their thoughts. Many seemed to think that the event simply reinforced some long-entrenched positions.

But then there was this one friend of mine — by all accounts, a very nice guy. He’d arrived unsure about his choice, but fully ready to hate Kingston. He said this debate swung him into the Kingston camp. His reasoning? He said that the issues Dallas, and District 14 specifically, face are not nice problems.

Niceness, turns out, ain’t the end-all-be-all. Or, well, maybe it shouldn’t be, anyway.

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