Top Story, Features

New England Cowboy: Former BC Defensive End Serves as Mayor of Dallas

Conversation comes easy for the affable and gregarious mayor of Dallas, Texas, Mike Rawlings—whether he’s paying a visit to the destitute and downtrodden camped out under the I-45 overpass, hobnobbing with the kind of high-powered Dallasites immortalized in the hit ’80s TV show Dallas, or taking a few moments to make the day of a young girl heading into a hospital waiting room with her father.

Broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, and checking in at well over 6 feet, the mayor is a towering presence in the room. His gait is slow and unsteady, a remnant of his time as defensive end for Boston College football. He has plenty of brains to go along with the brawn: he graduated from BC magna cum laude and one credit short of a triple major in Philosophy, Communication, and Fine Art.

“He’s a bit of Renaissance man,” his wife, Micki Rawlings, said to WFAA in Dallas, and “a bit of a rockstar.”

In addition to taking classes full-time and playing for the Eagles on scholarship, Rawlings waited tables on Newbury Street to pay his way through school. During this time, he says he really started to learn about leadership and adversity. Originally from Texas, he grew fond of New England and still spends some of his time off there, but the decision to move back to Texas and stay in Dallas for all of his professional life was an easy one.

“Dallas has been so good to me,” he said.

His office—on the fifth floor of City Hall—is near the heart of Dallas proper, hugging the base of the city center’s glitzy, gleaming skyline. It takes patience and contemplation to appreciate Dallas City Hall, which takes the shape of an inverted pyramid and the color of drab cement. For this building, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From one perspective, it could be a brutish bomb shelter. From another, an avant-garde masterpiece.

At the time of groundbreaking, City Hall was part of “Goals for Dallas,” a broad-sweeping campaign of then-Mayor Erik Jonsson to fix the city’s image problem. This, following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and decades of racialized, vitriolic local politics, was a time in which Dallas had earned the ignominious moniker “City of Hate.”

Rawlings takes after Jonsson. “[Jonsson] said something that has always stuck with me … ‘Dream no small dreams,’” Rawlings said.

Rawlings also includes native Texan and former President Lyndon B. Johnson as a politician from whom he draws inspiration. Jonsson, who presided over the revival of the city, and Johnson, who spearheaded the passage of watershed civil rights legislation, were no strangers to dreaming big.

And neither is Rawlings. At a time when politics are deeply divisive and partisanship is at a fever pitch across the country, mayors like Rawlings are in a difficult position.

Now a seasoned politico, Rawlings had no political experience on his resume when he entered the mayoral race in 2011. Following his time at BC, he worked his way up from entry level to chief executive at Tracy-Locke, a prominent advertising agency, before switching over for a six-year stint as CEO of Pizza Hut.

“Business is an inch wide and mile deep and being a mayor is a mile wide and inch deep,” he said. “It’s a different approach but the work ethic, the critical analysis you need, your ability to team with other people, is still an extremely important part of leading a city.”

Leading up to his bid for mayor, he had cut his teeth on various public issues, most notably his initiative as “homeless czar” of Dallas, which gave him a platform to explore what he called “public safety issues, humanitarian issues, mental illness, substance abuse,” and learn from these experiences.

As a Democrat, Rawlings has to deal with a difficult political reality—Texas is a sea of red, and Dallas a small spot of blue. Are there ideological differences between him and his state counterparts? Absolutely, he concedes. In fact, he has made ripples in national news time and time again for his outspoken stances on gun control, immigration, international trade, and Syrian refugees. This puts him at the unpopular end of the spectrum in Texas politics, where the majority has staked out opposing stances on these hot-button issues.

For the most part, though, Rawlings is effective at staying above the fray, cutting deals, and meeting in the middle. After all, he can’t afford to get caught up on ideological snags or partisan bickering—he has potholes to fill, trash to pick up, and a police force to run. For him, fixing things is more important than adhering to abstract party lines or ideological doctrines.

“Look, everybody wants to grow,” he said. “That’s the thing; the key is how we keep this growth going. I’ve been able to find common ground with Republicans on that, and I think that’s good.”

And grown Dallas has. Rawlings has presided over “eye-popping” population growth and explosive economic growth, according to the Dallas Morning News. Dallas was “last in, first out” of the Great Recession, Rawlings said.

Downtown Dallas, teeming with cranes, multinational headquarters, and apartment buildings on the rise, is where the boom manifests itself most. It also splits North and South Dallas down the middle. The divide is more than geographic. To the north is a mostly-white, well-off suburbia of manicured lawns, luxury cars, and private schools. To the south is the city’s beleaguered but rebounding, minority-heavy, and comparatively-poorer neighborhoods.

Throughout his political career, Rawlings has managed to straddle the north-south line well. He lives in Preston Hollow, a plush North Dallas neighborhood, but the marquee issue of his mayoral campaign was revitalizing the southern flank of the city. He cites “getting momentum and growth in Southern Dallas” as his proudest accomplishment to date. He has drawn on support from the city’s elite while also seeking out the problems the city’s people are facing on the ground.

When asked about the most interesting people he has met on the job, his answer was immediate and decisive: a “real neighborhood hero,” Anna Hill, and a prominent philanthropist, Margaret McDermott. Hill is a woman living in one of the roughest parts of South Dallas, who “just on her own, with the help a few people and a few neighbors, has taken back her neighborhood.” Talking about McDermott, who is 105 years old, he said, “what she’s done for the city, the money that she’s given, the grace she’s done it with” has been inestimable.

“I really think the women in Dallas have done a great job and that story has not been told fully,” Rawlings said. This dovetails nicely with another core of his political career, a message central to his public persona—fighting domestic abuse and violence. He is not soft-spoken or empathetic to the macho attitudes or locker room type behavior that accompanies or gives way to abusive relationships. Despite being a serious Dallas Cowboys fan, he wasn’t afraid to call the franchise out when it signed Greg Hardy, a defensive end with serious domestic violence allegations. It was a “shot in the gut,” he told the Dallas Morning News.

His tenure as mayor has not been perfectly successful or entirely optimistic. Homelessness is still a big problem, one that he could not stymie as easily or as quickly as he might have hoped. Certain parts of the city south of the Trinity River—while facing increasing prospects—are in dire straits. With the development and gentrification of South Dallas, affordable housing projects have been shortchanged. And now, the city is struggling with enormous debt for the pension fund for the city’s firefighters and police officers. The city faces what The New York Times has called a “Texas-size threat of bankruptcy.”

Perhaps the worst day of his time in office was July 7, 2016, when tragedy struck in downtown Dallas. Like Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 22, 1963—a delusional ex-military sniper, wielding a rifle and perching above Dallas’s streets—a shooter unleashed a horrific wave of violence, leaving five police officers dead and nine wounded. The site of the 2016 shootings was just blocks away from the “X” on Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, marking where Kennedy was shot.

Many feared the worst—the boiling over of already-frayed racial relations and tensions within the police community. On the contrary, Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief David Brown handled the city’s response in a manner that many around the country hailed as graceful and statesmanlike. Dallas did not need any overhaul. It showed that it couldn’t be more removed from the “City of Hate” that it once was.

“You’re never ready for anything like that,” Rawlings said. “Fortunately we had pretty good relationships and were able to come together. I was very proud of the city for that and my small part in that.” He downplays his role in mending the wounds left by the violence and working to unify and strengthen the city, state, and nation in the face of a devastating, senseless injustice.

Because ultimately, that’s who mayors are. They put the city and its people over all else, and place the premium on progress by whatever means—that’s what mayors do. As the country licks its wounds following the brutal, no-holds-barred presidential campaign of 2016 and the many years before of scorched-earth, tit-for-tat mudslinging between Democrats and Republicans, public servants like Rawlings can’t get caught up in the food fight. They have too much work to do.

On post-mayor plans, he’s genuine in his emphasis to stay in the now: “I’m not even thinking about that … I still have two and a half more years in my term.” When asked about running for statewide positions, he demurs—it seems unlikely at this point. But even if higher office is in his future, he can’t afford to think about a seat in Congress or the governor’s mansion in Austin right now. He has his work cut out for him in the upside-down pyramid and the city surrounding it.

Featured Image by Ryan Duffy / Heights Staff

January 23, 2017