Stephen Young notes that being Mayor of Dallas has not been particularly helpful to others’ ambitions.
If he’s anything, Dallas mayor-elect Eric Johnson is an ambitious guy. He’s got degrees from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and took his seat in the Texas House of Representatives before turning 40. In the legislature, he’s sought out high-profile fights, sparring over things like criminal justice reform, gentrification and corruption in municipal politics. The resume that Johnson’s put together is almost too perfect for someone who aspires to hold higher state or federal office.
That’s what makes his current position so interesting. Saturday night, Johnson won the keys to one of the most useless big-deal jobs in the United States. Dallas’ mayor is, essentially, just an at-large member of the City Council. He or she gets to run the council’s meetings and can place an item on the council agenda if he or she wishes to do so, but the city manager draws up the city’s budget and has all the real power. Johnson has long been at the top of the list whenever people talk about potential replacements for longtime Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but one has to wonder if that’s changed, given the mayor’s office’s challenges and history.
To find a former Dallas mayor who sought and won higher office after leaving city hall, one has to look at the way back to Earle Cabell, who resigned as mayor in February 1964 to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Bruce Alger. Since Cabell’s successful campaign, former mayors Wes Wise, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert have all run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House or Senate. Laura Miller, Kirk’s successor, couldn’t even win a Dallas City Council race 12 years after leaving office, getting trounced by incumbent Jennifer Staubach Gates in May.
I noted when Mayor-elect Johnson won the runoff that he was a politician with ambitions. Does this mean those ambitions are doomed? I don’t think so. I can’t speak to Wes Wise’s experience, but Ron Kirk ran for Senate as a Democrat in 2002, while Tom Leppert joined a primary that already had David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from that.
I’d say three things will matter. One, does a good opportunity come along at a good time? I’d suggested Johnson might want to run statewide, but Young notes he has had his eye on Rep. Eddie Berniece Johnson’s CD30 seat. Maybe the timing will work for one of those options, and maybe it won’t. Two, does he build up his fundraising network enough to be a force in a more expensive race? And three, does he does a good enough job to make him look like an appealing candidate for whatever comes next? It’s not rocket science. This is one of those times where past history isn’t a great guide, but the basic fundamentals still apply.