Like many North Texans, I am amazed — and frustrated and angry — at the craziness we’re witnessing in Washington D.C. and many parts of the country. The extremes on both ends of the political spectrum have produced paralysis and division, leaving sanity in the dust.
I see a political system working wonderfully for both national political parties. The extreme positions and casting the other as the “enemy” are great for raising money. But that system and those parties are not working for you and me.
Revered institutions that we once trusted and still need have been reduced to little more than political machinations. In many places in the country, we see business leaders melt in the face of political pressure, and schools, at every level, becoming little more than social experiments run by political activists.
Against this backdrop, I am pretty happy with where I live and have raised my family. While being far from perfect or totally inoculated from the extremes we see in other parts of the country, we seem to be more the exception than the rule today.
So, I want to share some observations, and a hope, about our part of the world.
Soon, the Dallas region will be the third largest in the nation. Even though we don’t have a lot of mountains or an ocean or other geographic reasons for existing, people and businesses are moving here in big numbers. According to data from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, more than 8 million people now live in our area.
And with as much diversity as any place in the nation — more than 230 languages are spoken here — it seems we focus better on the worth of a person than the group they represent. We value each other. People still count more than politics.
We have gotten to this point because people and businesses take a pragmatic and balanced approach. We aren’t a city of extremes. Right here in the middle of the continent, we are a city of common ground. Instead of gridlock, you see a “can do” spirit.
As an example of this pragmatic approach, there is an interesting comparison with our current mayor, Eric Johnson, and me. We come from different parties, but in the most fundamental responsibility of local government, there are amazing parallels.
Across the country, we are seeing politics and extreme agendas trump responsibility. Let’s be honest, “defund the police” and all that goes with it is political posturing, not a serious policy approach.
When I was mayor (back in the “dark ages”), we substantially increased police resources, expanding the force by 20%, the largest increase by a city of any size in decades. We saw the largest drop in crime in the nation, and we saw our city radically improve relative to other major U.S. cities.
Today, Johnson is similarly increasing police resources. At a time when many cities led by extreme policies are seeing dramatic increases in crime, particularly violent crime, we stand nearly alone in witnessing declining crime.
I took great pride in watching our current police chief, Eddie García, testify recently in Washington D.C. with other large-city chiefs. While those other chiefs were dancing on eggshells, trying to be politically correct, he was no-nonsense. To paraphrase him: We are going to do our job, do it well with the highest standards and focus on reducing crime in Dallas, period.
I’m passionate about education. Schools across the country, from elementary to those of higher learning, seem more interested in promoting social agendas than educating our kids. Meanwhile, other countries (read China) are reinforcing the fundamentals of a future world: math, communications, science, technology.
Losing focus on the real function of schools cannot end well.
Except for a few isolated suburbs, the divisions between parents and schools seem to be much less dramatic here. Educators seem to be much more interested in improving education rather than conducting social experiments.
While there is always a natural friction between the public and private sector, they actually work pretty well together in North Texas.
Think of the impact of Klyde Warren Park, an infrastructure project made possible by significant private donations. Think of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, substantially funded by private donations. Think of the city and private sector working together to change the operations of the Dallas Zoo, and the difference that has made. And think of the convention center hotel, which needed public impetus but has put our hospitality industry back on top, with private sector jobs and an explosion of private hotel business, in spite of the naysayers at the time.
It is amusing to see business leaders across the country myopically following extreme political agendas. Many sway back and forth, reacting to small, extreme constituencies.
Here, by contrast, I know a CEO that runs a high-profile Fortune 500 company. He makes decisions based on real economics and a future perspective devoid of politics and a Wall Street crowd ignorant of the importance of long-term capital investment.
He takes a reasonable, but rare, approach to the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) movement. ESG is a corporate philosophy that focuses companies on environmental and sustainability issues. It’s a viewpoint that has merit, but has been overtaken by politics and special-interest agendas. This CEO ignores all that and uses common sense, making real improvements but tying them to the needs and performance of his business and its people. His company is a leader in diversity too, not because there are television cameras around but because it’s the right thing to do and it makes sense. And he is investing locally because he knows that makes the most sense for our country and his business.
My sense is that he is pretty representative of our business leaders here. They don’t knee-jerk to the political extremes, different from what we see of many business leaders on the coasts.
And while we can easily criticize the local media, I think it’s different here. Think of a large East Coast newspaper that penalizes its staff for even thinking of opposing views. Here, we still have folks who will actually engage and encourage real, thoughtful debate. (They may even publish this!) In office, I often disagreed with journalists, but there was never a time the local press didn’t thoughtfully hear me out.
I play golf with a retired surgeon. Politically, we agree on almost nothing. In the close confines of a golf cart, we can spend four hours discussing, debating and arguing many issues, and laughing about the crazies on both our sides. At the end, though, we have enormous respect for each other, both wanting a great country and city that actually work, and we know we need to work together to accomplish that.
And this brings me to the hope I’d like to offer.
My hope is that we, here in North Texas, will continue to be pragmatic, figure out what works and actually put the interest of our neighbors ahead of political goals and personal agendas. That will be very different than we see elsewhere.
Tom Leppert was mayor of Dallas from 2007-2011 and former chairman/ CEO of The Turner Corporation, a general building company, and Kaplan Inc., an education provider. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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