Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates

MNP  Sept. 10
MNP Sept. 10

The Dallas Examiner

Monday Night Politics: Meet the Candidates, presented by The Dallas Examiner, returned for a special forum Sept. 10 at the African American Museum, highlighting several candidates running for the District 4 City Council position.

The event began with introductory statements from the 12 candidates who hope to replace former councilman Dwaine Caraway: former councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, KeBran Alexander, Dawn Blair, Corwyn Davis, Lester Houston Jr., Obi Igbokwe, Becky Lewis, Vincent Parker, Joli Angel Robinson, Keyaira Saunders, Brandon Vance and Justina Walford. The 13th candidate, Donald Washington, was not present.

Alexander commenced this portion of the forum by introducing his close connection with the district.

“I am a child of the district that has grown up,” the NAACP Dallas member said. “I have seen the district in its demise, and I want to be a part of the district as it rises from the ashes.”

Arnold followed, re-establishing herself as a prominent community leader with two years experience in the city council.

“It is very critical that we understand that we are running some 120 to 150 possible days without representation behind the horseshoe, and this is a time for an individual who has an experience with handling the business around the horseshoe,” she said.

Blair is a South Dallas native with 20 years of experience working for the city of Dallas in the Aviation department, who expressed her devotion for countering code enforcement and city staff issues.

“I am passionate about our district,” she said. “I am prepared to serve our district, and I will be persistent to make change in our district.”

Davis presented his platform by focusing on public safety and economic development.

“The city of Dallas is moving. So our decision is, are we going to be a part of that movement, or are we going to be a part of that economic development?” the attorney said. “I wanted to let you know as your city councilperson I can do something about those things.”

Vance is an active Oak Cliff native who has played a significant role in the district’s school environment as a college adviser at KIPP charter schools.

“I care about our community,” he said. “I care about our students and our kids, fighting for them day in and day out. Education is a big piece of my platform and I want to continue and grow as we grow District 4.”

Parker then detailed his role as a community leader and liaison at Golden Gate Baptist Church; he’s a drug rehabilitation center worker and has helped reopen several closed schools.

“I’m looking to bring a community-based approach to the challenges that are there,” he expressed.

Igbokwe said he aims to bring stronger leadership to the council and an overall transformation to the district.

“Our district needs somebody with a little more vision than we had in the past,” the former Dallas County school bus driver said.

Walford followed by greeting the crowd and discussing her resume.

“I am an entrepreneur and a nonprofit founder so a lot of my focus will be for the small businesses and with the nonprofits and churches in our neighborhood,” she said.

Saunders is a local activist and has returned to the ballot after running for the same position two years ago.

“I’m running for city council because I can see a movement happening, not only within the community but in the nation and around the world,” she said. “This community I live in – I’m raising my children here, I’m planting seeds and plan on living here for years to come. So if I’m looking forward, I know I have to do the work that it takes now to have the lifestyle I want to see in the future.”

Robinson has worked for the Dallas Police Department’s Office of Community Affairs and the Youth Outreach Unit, and said she strives to bring this experience to the horseshoe.

“In council District 4, there are several pain points,” she said. “There are three that I’ve heard not only in budget town halls but in my lived experiences. Education, health and safety – that’s one bucket. Entrepreneurship and innovation – that’s another bucket; and accountability for all our city services is the third bucket for me. Those are my pain points.”

Houston is a District 4 native and effective neighborhood association leader in his area. His campaign focuses heavily on neighborhood issues such as zoning and economic development.

“I’m excited to be back home and representing this district,” he said.

The introductions ended with Lewis, who demonstrated her well-connected background as a former constituent liaison for U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.

“I am what you need in District 4 because I understand the issues that are there,” she said. “I live them; I see them; I’m around them everyday.”

The audience participated in an extensive questioning session with the nominees, centered around community, job development and integrity.

During the forum, the audience had an opportunity to ask the candidates questions about their platform, past performance and plans as a councilmember.

Question: How will you counter gentrification, especially for those who are retired?

Parker: A couple of things – the city has already upped the homestead exemption $60,000 to $90,000 and that’s not going to be sufficient. In my neighborhood, the homeowners’ association is flipping houses. They were $150,000; now they’re selling for $300,000-$325,000. And that sends the tax rate up on everybody. We’re going to increase the homestead exemption for people like you. I also want to try to see if we can cap the tax rate for certain people at a certain age at a lower rate. So it’s going to be some increase just because the reality that we’re in, but hopefully we can work out something – we can cap for people like you, and there are a lot of people like you in District 4 who are challenged right now.

Vance: As Pastor Parker said, there are some things that are already set in motion. The city has lowered the rate for the last three years, as they have been allowed to do, trying to make things better for the community. But there are some ships that have already [sunk]. What I want to do, as we’re thinking about business and economic development in the area, and as we’re looking at the market value analysis in the opportunity zones, is be very thoughtful in how we plan going forward. Looking at plots of land, looking at places where we can bring in new development that won’t have an immediate impact on property values and pricing people out of their homes: So it’s being very thoughtful, talking with the homeowners’ associations, talking with residents to find out what is going to be best for this area versus this area. So very much listening to what the community needs and fighting for that.

Davis: I think one of the first things you have to realize is that you’re not going to just deal with city taxes. You also work in with county taxes. One of the things I want to follow up on first is working with our local representatives. For instance, Rep. Eric Johnson’s last legislative session tried to pass a bill that would essentially help people and their county taxes and cap them in the West Dallas area. I’d like to lobby and to essentially kind of have a circle effect. So we’re not just looking at city taxes, but your county taxes as well, because the biggest base of our taxes is based on your home values and the county, not necessarily the city. So even if the homestead exemptions are to cap, your taxes are still going to go up. Unless we address it as a holistic approach, you’re still going to see increases. I would work with other legislatures to target that.

Blair: What tends to happen is it’s good on one side, bad on the other. So we have to be committed to working with those jurisdictions, in addition to the city, for some kind of cap in addition to your homestead exemption. It’s just one of these tough items that we have to fight hard for, just to be honest with you, because it is a double-edged sword.

Arnold: When I started and leveled-up in the position of council, I already started the conversation with congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. Rep. Eric Johnson sent out communications to the councilmembers in terms of beginning to dialogue about retaining and returning integrity into the conversations when it comes to development that some see as progress, and others see as gentrification. So we’ve got to begin talking to those who are impacted, and we start off by bringing integrity to the conversation by bringing those individuals who are impacted by development to the table. I already started that initiative before I left office, and I do have records on file to show my work. I am very supportive of opening up dialogue between elected officials and those community stakeholders.

Alexander: Gentrification is about control. Gentrification is about who is providing the direction and under whose terms is that new direction going to follow. If we’re not at the table directing the conversation and leading the conversation, we’re already behind. If we’re going to have the conversation about what are we doing and what are we looking to maintain, I think you need a cap by a fixed dollar amount – not a percentage – for our seniors. A good number of people are over 60 in this district, and they can’t deal with the fluctuation of, “My home value raises $200,000, but you’re giving a two-tenths of a point decrease on the rate.” It’s not adding up, and it is going to hurt their day-to-day pockets from medication, food and so many other things that are absolutely vital for their day-to-day. We’ve got to have a real conversation and not this ‘piecemeal’ stuff. We have to have a real and thorough discussion.

Igbokwe: I will propose a tax increment exemption. If you are already in a gentrified neighborhood and people are moving in and buying houses around you and building much more expensive rooms, that is okay. But those who are already living in the neighborhood should be exempted from the tax increase implications.

Walford: As said before, wheels are in motion, right? Things are happening to help us, and the caps are all great to help you not be in debt. I’m from New York. I lived in New York for six years. I started in Manhattan, got priced out, and was in the Bronx by the time I left. So I understand what being priced out is. Gentrification is not about being kicked out of your home. Gentrification is about being so annoyed by what you are seeing pop up around you because it has nothing to do with why you moved there. That’s what we need to deal with, and that is something I would want to work with the neighborhood association meeting heads on, and talk to them about what they would like to see and the type of developing that match them.

Saunders: When it comes to gentrification, to me it means displacement. When I want progression, and I want buildings and beautiful things to look at, and for my children to see, I understand with new development comes an increase in taxes. So there’s this thing called ‘TIF’ that we could consider where there is a tax increment financing. Right now there is a bulk of money just sitting there. All we have to do is prove we live in a blighted area, which we could all agree. Those are funds that can be allocated to our area to ensure that there is growth by working with investors that are willing to use those incentives.

Robinson: So I had an opportunity to sit with a bunch of developers and community members with Opportunity Dallas, and we really focused on building a comprehensive housing policy. Some of you may know that the city of Dallas is already working on that. As a city employee, I’m not close to 60, but I would be impacted if taxes went up. We want development, but we do not want displacement. You’ve heard about many of the taxes and the safeguards that we could put in place as a city: The comprehensive housing policy is what’s necessary; we can’t just be concerned about freezing taxes. We also have to be concerned about providing housing options for low-to-middle income for people who are city employees as well, so they can afford to live in the city that they work in.

Houston: I agree with a lot of what’s been said. According to the MBA, I live in one of those Emerging Markets, so in my neighborhood association, we’re very concerned. We’ve got homes selling for over $300,000. Three years ago, you could get these homes for $70,000. I share the concern with my colleagues here, and it is a very complex issue that we are going to have to resolve in the district as a whole.

Lewis: Gentrification is nothing new. We’ve all seen it. One thing we can do is capitalize off of what we’ve seen here in the city of Dallas lately. We saw what happened in West Dallas. Those people were caught off guard. They didn’t know it was happening. They didn’t understand about the tax brackets and that all those beautiful buildings were going to negatively affect them.

When you check on the flip side at the Bishop Arts District, they were well prepared. People have homes, and they’ve done what they needed to do to maintain them – use them as rental properties or whatever it is that they’re doing. Sir, I do empathize with you. You are not alone. There are 10,000 people who turn 65 and are eligible for the things you look forward to, like Social Security, and there is nothing in place that gives you something to be able to secure what you already have.

Q: There is a 5.4 percent unemployment rate in District 4 alone. What can you do as a city councilperson to close that gap?

Alexander: One of the things I’d like to do is look at two of the big strengths that our district has. We’ve got youth on our side: Townview, Roosevelt, South Oak Cliff and Bishop Dunne are in the district. We also have engines that are the VA hospital and healthcare needs for our seniors. Why aren’t we looking to do an IT incubator, education and training system in Lancaster-Kiest, Glendale, Cedar Crest where our high school kids and those who have recently finished can go get training and certification in IT? That then allows them to be immediately marketable in their career. Same thing with healthcare. All these nurses and women who are capable of being techs in hospitals. We’ve got to be able to bring training opportunities.

Arnold: We have a lot of moving parts, so it’s hard to give those simple answers in terms of what you’re going to do, but I can tell you, you got to work with the city manager, the mayor and the council. I started working on a conversation with HEB before I got off the council. It takes longer than a year or a month to get some of your economic benefits, but that’s on a high level. I was able to at least negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the [Dallas] Zoo here at District 4 to begin hiring our youth in the community and our seniors right in the community. I was very excited about that because it now forces the zoo to look at job opportunities right here in our community. So the talk: It sounds good and it feels good, but you have to really get behind the desk and the horseshoe to work on economic development.

Blair: I think with regards to unemployment, we’ve got to have cohesive understanding about how every agency is involved and engaged. We’ve got those in the industry, and those who are unemployed, so that is going to take a lot of coordinating with Dallas County and the hospital district and the school district, so that everybody understands what each of these roles is so we can match employees with employers. I think that the resources are there, and we just have to use it to our benefit.

Davis: Tackling the unemployment rate is ultimately a pickle, honestly, because what it really involves is incentivizing people to come to District 4 and to help District 4 in some sense. That means making it attractive for corporations and small businesses to come invest in District 4 – to hire and train our people – and that can come in the sense of tax breaks. There’s plenty of land, but that’s not a problem. There’s plenty of land for people to come, but we have to give them a reason to invest in us. Once they invest in us, we have to actually do these things. We have to actually work for it. We have to actually put in the time and effort for them to stay in rapport. That is something that will help with our employment rate, but understanding that it’s going to be a big job.

Vance: This is one of those things that’s a little bit larger than just the city council. This is going to take efforts from city council, county and elected officials in Austin to make an impact here. There are some things immediately that we can work on, but we’re not changing the structure of business to come down here in District 4 and now offer $15-an-hour jobs. We have land, but how do we say to those businesses… how do we convince them to come and take a chance? Business is about taking a chance on a community.

Parker: There’s two things that come to mind. You’ve got to have jobs available and that means small businesses for neighborhoods like ours. Corporations: That’s not happening in my estimation. Small business incubation and development: Recipe Oak Cliff is a good example; a small business that can hire 2 to 4 people in a neighborhood like ours. The other piece that is really important is job training and workforce training. There are assisting agencies and nonprofit organizations in District 4 that help to equip our young people to have these kind of jobs. So small businesses are always hiring more people – more than anybody else. We just need to focus on what kind of businesses can fit in our neighborhood and promote them.

Igbokwe: It’s easier to build up and create smaller businesses than it is to attract bigger corporations. We can also start with the people who are already here. The VA hospital, for instance. There are a very few number of people working over there. Most of the employees live more than five miles outside of the five-mile radius. The hospital can make a bigger impact in the community by setting up something like a partnership that hires younger people that need skills.

Walford: That’s a very complicated question that has a very complex answer, so I’m just going to think about things that chisel away at that challenge. We have small businesses already here. We don’t need to bring small businesses in. We have restaurants and small businesses. We can empower them to be employers. The Small Business Association can provide loans. The city can provide unification grants so that we can empower these small businesses to grow and become employers. That is probably our best way to start chiseling in, because when they start to succeed more, someone will move in next to them, and they will employ, and as long as we can stick with the living wage, we can really beat this. It’s just that one little thing.

Saunders: I agree with a lot of what my constituents said. There’s a way to encourage business owners to educate on financial literacy, and find ways that we can have personal accountability within ourselves, and we can grow our own community. Instead of looking at the government to help us, we can allow the government to work for us. Instead of us begging, we can create jobs of our own, and I will offer incentives for those who are already applying for themselves.

Robinson: So let’s take it a step further. Yes, there are small business programs and funding. What District 4 also has a wealth of is microbusinesses. These are those who are employing two or three people. There is a gap in programs for microbusinesses. … The first thing I thought about when you asked that question is education. We have to be thinking about education and if we’re working with DISD well enough to educate our kids for these jobs that they have in the future. That takes community members being engaged, whether you want to mentor or tutor to really help our students be prepared for those college and career opportunities that are already out there. In District 4, we also have to deal with the reality of those with a criminal history. Even through the job training programs, the city of Dallas should really set the example – if you go through a job training, we can directly hire you into the 311, 911 or any other city department.

Houston: I took an assessment of my own neighborhood association, which is 5.8 square miles. In less than 40 years since I’ve been gone, we’ve lost over 20 businesses just in that 5.8 square miles. I kind of echo Dr. Parker in terms of business information and creating opportunity zones. One thing I would really like to see the Dallas community do, especially when it comes to real estate, is start accepting housing vouchers in North Dallas where people can have access to.

Lewis: I don’t think we want people to move out of District 4. That defeats the purpose of why we are here tonight. I’m not sure about using the VA as a resource. The VA is a department of the federal government. The VA is experiencing a lot of problems internally, not just at this location, but across the nation. So we can’t depend on that as a resource either. What I do think we should do is emphasize education – not just education for people going to college, but an emphasis on vocational skills that have been lost over the last four years. People talk about STEM and that’s all well and done, but we still need plumbers, bricklayers, people who can pour concrete and take a hammer and nail and do something with it. So I think those are the kinds of educational opportunities we need to look for for our residents.

Q: How would you stand against corruption and for the people even in your own heart?

Lewis: That’s something that is unfortunately running rampant across the board. It’s not just the local officials or the state. It’s everyone. Human beings make mistakes. If you dangle something in front of somebody’s eyes, and they need it right then and now, that’s what they’re going to take. What we need in District 4 right now is redirection. Redirection to focus on the citizens and the people who actually live here. Then we have to take on reaffirmation. That means reclaim what is ours, rebuild it and make it what we need it to be. The last thing is recovery. Education, jobs, incentives for seniors – all those things that bring District 4 back to where we want it to be.

Houston: We all make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes in my life. It just starts with personal integrity, how you live your life, and as an individual, you just have to do what you’ve been taught. I was taught by my parents to be responsible; be a responsible person and do the right thing, and you won’t have to run into those roadblocks.

Robinson: I think you have to remember what you got into public service for. You have to keep that in the forefront. It’s a daily affirmation to remember who we’re serving and the reason why we’re going through this whole process – to serve the citizens that we live alongside each day. So, I think it’s a constant reminder to stay grounded and rooted in the foundation of why we got started to even serve the community that we love and that we live in, and to remind yourself that all those shiny things that glitter aren’t gold. The reason that we are doing the hard work is so that we can serve our community in a way that makes it better once we leave.

Saunders: I am a very very spiritual person. For those who follow me on social media, you would know that I am always that affirming motivational speaker because even though we are here in the flesh, this is a spiritual thing. I want my reward on the other side. I believe in love. I believe in integrity, and it takes those types of people, that are God-fearing, to have accountability to be in these types of positions. That’s what I would do. I would also encourage people like myself, who have integrity, to get out and lead. Get a “like me” in this position and we can change the face of politics and possibly break down corruption.

Walford: I have to actually think about it and pray about it to be able to answer you honestly. That’s the truth because everyone on this stage is a sinner in the same. I have a wonderful group of friends. I have faith in people around me to be my sounding board. I know I will wake up everyday praying to be thankful, grateful and humble, so that when I interact with people I can keep my naivety to a minimum and keep my eyes open to everything. Corruption is strange. You don’t know you’re talking to corruption when you’re talking to it. It will be a lot of meditating and praying and trying to stay present.

Igbokwe: It was my lawsuit that started investigations into corruption of Dallas County Schools. I walked over there as a first-time driver, and I saw a lot of things I didn’t like. So, I started asking questions. My questions didn’t make me friends over there. I was transferred 2 ½ miles from my location. It does still frustrate me. My hours were cut down, and I wasn’t making any money. I worked all day and I didn’t make any money. But, if I had to do it again, I would, because corruption is something you shouldn’t have to deal with.

Parker: When I look at my own heart, I’m not above anything, so I need people to hold me accountable, starting with my wife and my children, because if I can’t stand before them and be honest, then I’ve got a problem. I think the other piece of me is essentially to speak the truth. Wherever it is, whomever it is, no matter the cost. When you speak the truth, you ain’t worried about a lie. You don’t have to make up nothing. You just speak the truth no matter the cost. Then, the third thing for me is transparency. To be transparent in everything I do and say, and I’m counting on the District 4 residents to hold me accountable, because if I said I’m going to do it or try it, and they don’t see it, come get in my face.

Vance: As I’ve thought about getting involved in politics, my greatest fear in getting into politics is pride and getting caught in corruption. Sometimes you don’t know it when it’s in your face. I was asked a couple of weeks ago what would I want my legacy to be if I am elected to this office, and that scared me actually. I looked at it as being prideful thinking about what I am going to leave for the community, and I want to avoid that. The basic answer I’m going to give you is if you’re not in it for the money, you can’t be bought. I know that sounds almost cliché to say but I’m in this because I want to serve the community. I love District 4. I love all of these people, and they’re all in this district, and I want to fight for them day in and day out.

Davis: You have to start off just knowing that whenever you do something that people aren’t going to like, you’re always going to be disliked. When you stand up against change, you’re always going to be targeted. And I say that to say, each one of us has our own cross to bear. With that being said, we have to know what we can and can’t do, and we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to hold the people who hold us accountable. That means family support. That means friends and community support. I would do my best if I was elected for city councilperson to make sure I am accountable to you.

Blair: Accountability is major. My professional career has required me to do so. As a licensed real estate agent in the state of Texas, I have a judiciary responsibility to do what’s right, otherwise I lose my livelihood. I have to eat y’all, so I’m not going to jeopardize that.

Arnold: I want to emphasize the fact that I have a track record. It is one of experience. It is one of fighting for transparency behind that horseshoe as well as integrity, and those of you who have watched me on the network know I had a couple of favorite statements. One is, “Help me to understand,” and the other is, “I want it on the record.” As long as it is on the record you can ensure that you will have a place of reference to go back to if anything of conflict ever comes before the public. So, again, I’m going to ask you to believe me and trust me that my experience has given me an opportunity to work with a number of communities, businesses and grassroots, and it’s all about the trust that they have in me that I stand on the record of integrity and transparency behind the horseshoe and in the community as well.

Alexander: I can’t be corrupt if I’m taking my orders from you. Nothing I do can be corrupt if you’re giving me my orders to act on. There’s going to be no conversation that I have with anybody around the council that I won’t be proud to have with my parents, my pastor, my sister or the morning news, right there in the room documenting every last word, comma and period. The people in this room that know me know that I am a straight shooter. There’s not an issue I feel I need to hide about how I operate. So when we talk about how we’re going to deal with corruption in the heart, I am not faultless, but what I can say is that I am a hard worker and do what I know is right. As long as you help keep me accountable, we don’t have an issue because our relationship is stronger than anything I’m going to get out there.

Oct. 9 is the last day for Dallas County residents to register to vote in the General and Joint Election on Election Day, Nov. 6. Early voting will begin Oct. 22 and end Nov. 2 at select voting locations in recreation centers, schools and libraries throughout the county.

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