Falling is the crown

Where have Dallas’ kingmakers gone?

While there were many lessons to be gleaned from last month’s Dallas City Council elections — District 14 can’t be bought, debates matter and voters are more engaged than we give them credit for — the one that’s fascinated me the last few weeks is the embarrassing lack of influence of big-name endorsers.

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Dallas has historically been a city in which well-connected business people and influential politicians have played outsized roles in determining the outcome of our local elections. Their anointing and decreeing of chosen local leaders has fundamentally shaped and molded our city, for better or worse, rippling through policy decisions, budget priorities and massive civic projects.

For decades, the Dallas Citizens Council has played a central role in selecting our city’s mayor (with a few notable exceptions). The Dallas Morning News editorial board’s endorsement has for years influenced voters. Dallas notables, particularly former mayors and business leaders, have significantly impacted local electoral outcomes.

But something remarkably refreshing happened this May. None of that seemed to matter. The billboards, the endorsements, the sterling name ID of those administering proclamations from on high: It just didn’t seem to make much of a difference to voters. They made up their own minds

District 14 was the most glaring example of what physicists are calling the Kingmaker-Shrug Effect. A well-funded political action committee called For Our Community (ironically funded by rich people who don’t live in the community) did its utmost to unseat the incumbent, Philip Kingston, and install another candidate of their choosing. Without contribution or spending limits, the PAC spared no expense, blanketing residents’ mailboxes with slick mailers day after day, touting the endorsement of former mayor Ron Kirk, putting up huge billboards with former police chief David Brown. The daily paper got into the act, too, coming out strongly against Kingston in multiple editorials.

But the effect on voters was minimal. In the final tally, Kingston handily defeated the kingmakers’ chosen candidate. Now, you’re thinking, “Sure, it’s East Dallas. Those hippies love sticking it to The Man.” And no doubt there was a good helping of, “If The Establishment says vote for that guy, I’m voting for this guy.”

But it wasn’t just a backlash against the Dallas elite or a fierce pride in sticking it to the powers-that-be that determined the election results. Voters just didn’t seem as interested or impressed with a candidate’s backers as they were with getting to know the candidates themselves. And that’s what ultimately won the race for Kingston.

This phenomenon wasn’t limited to District 14. For Our Community backed five City Council incumbents, yet voters in three of the five races weren’t impressed: the incumbents in Districts 6, 7 and 8 failed to secure a majority of the vote and are headed to run-offs. The Dallas Morning News’ endorsements likewise failed to tip the scales in several races.

It may be too soon to pronounce the death of kingmakering in Dallas, but it sure looks like its impact has been significantly lessened. Social media has played a large part in democratizing information. Instead of accepting second-hand opinions about candidates, voters can now independently investigate them and draw their own conclusions. There is also a growing skepticism about endorsements — a healthy “trust but verify” philosophy that requires more engagement from voters, but ultimately makes the decision in the voting booth more meaningful and personal.

If there are no more real kingmakers in Dallas, or, at the very least, if Dallas’ kingmakers don’t wield the influence they have enjoyed in past elections, I’m curious to see what our next mayoral election will look like. It’s two years away. Will the Dallas Citizens Council once again anoint their candidate? How will the Dallas electorate respond? What role will For Our Community or some other super PAC play in the next mayoral race?

Or try this existential shirt on for size: What if Dallas kingmakers aren’t really dead at all, it’s just that, now we’re all the kingmakers? The downside is, we wouldn’t have Dallas oligarchs to kick anymore when things went sideways. The upside is, we could finally claim Dallas as our own. Imagine that.

Angela Hunt is a former Dallas city councilwoman. She writes a monthly opinion column about neighborhood issues. Her opinions are not necessarily those of the Advocate or its management. Send comments and ideas to her ahunt@advocatemag.com.