Story by Corbett Smith, Staff Writer
Dallas Morning News
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The nine-person — or maybe 10-person — scramble to become Dallas’ next mayor is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in the city’s history.
But with no clear favorite in the race to replace outgoing Mayor Mike Rawlings, donors haven’t coalesced behind a single favorite and more or less spread the money among the wide field.
The nine mayoral candidates on the ballot recorded $2.38 million in donations over the first three months of the year, according to campaign finance filings submitted 30 days away from the May 4 election. And the records show they spent nearly $2 million — with developer Mike Ablon paying out more than one-third of that total.
Despite being the last official candidate to enter the mayor’s race, state Rep. Eric Johnson took in $524,134 — the most in campaign donations of any candidate. The Democrat got to that total with the help of dozens of maximum $5,000 contributions from Dallas’ moneyed elite — including some prominent Republican donors.
“Dallas is coming together behind our campaign,” Johnson said in a news release. “The diversity of our support shows the power of our message — that this is a unifying campaign drawing support from literally every part of our city. These resources will help us continue bringing people together to do what is best for Dallas.”
Johnson’s contributions included donations from private equity president Robert Murchison, wealth management president Doug Deason, Hunt Consolidated executive chairman Ray Hunt, Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller, engineering and construction CEO David Seaton and Omni Hotels and Gold’s Gym magnate Bob Rowling.
Johnson also received a $500 donation from former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
His campaign filings, however, showed a much larger cash-on-hand balance, following the guidance from Texas Ethics Commission general counsel Ian Steusloff. In a letter, Steusloff advised that Johnson should combine his mayoral efforts and his legislative expenses and cash balance on a single form.
Johnson’s campaign reported that he had $432,552 in cash on hand specifically for the mayoral race.
Dallas ISD trustee Miguel Solis was second in the field among donations over the three-month period, receiving $415,663 during that span.
Among Solis’ biggest donors were Container Store co-founder Garrett Boone, Lincoln Property CEO Tim Byrne, oil and gas company founder Lawrence Dale, XTO Energy president Vaughn Vennerberg II and real estate developers George Billingsley and John Matthews.
“I am proud of the over $400,000 we have raised for our grassroots campaign,” Solis said. “Our message of fresh new ideas for the city of Dallas has clearly resonated with the community.”
After a torrid start to her fundraising at the end of 2018, donations for nonprofit CEO and philanthropist Lynn McBee slowed down a bit. McBee was third in contributions over the three-month period, taking in $375,760. After McBee entered the race in early December, she raised nearly $258,000 in a matter of weeks, according to an earlier campaign finance report.
With that fundraising, combined with a personal loan to her campaign of $350,000, McBee has a clear advantage in the final month of the campaign when it comes to cash on hand: $680,041. Only Johnson’s total comes within $400,000 of that amount.
“Citizens are hungry for leadership that puts public safety, basics and quality of life first, and we’re seeing this in our donations,” McBee said in a release. “From larger checks to the envelopes that contain a few dollar bills, everyone wants the same thing: a safe city with smooth roads, solid basics, great schools and honest leadership.”
Ablon, the developer, and lawyer Regina Montoya were not far from McBee’s contribution totals, raising $340,831 and $332,383 respectively.
However, Ablon — who had raised $104,450 and loaned himself $100,000 in the previous reporting period — easily outspent all other candidates, racking up $421,816 in political expenditures and another $286,000 in unpaid obligations. Most of that spending went to his strategist and communications firm, Mayes Media Group.
That means Ablon — who has blanketed Dallas with ads, mailers, billboards and yard signs — spent more than Johnson, Solis, Albert Black, Scott Griggs and Jason Villalba combined.
“We’re equally excited about our fundraising and the response we are getting at doors,” said Brian Mayes, Ablon’s strategist.
Montoya said that she was pleased with her financial support so far and that she felt “a great obligation to spend donors’ contributions wisely.”
“My manager is running a very tight ship, with at least 75 percent of funds going to direct voter contact,” she said. “We feel good going into the home stretch.”
Four-term Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs raised $224,855 and spent nearly half that amount. Griggs’ donations included maximum contributions from former Trammell Crow Co. executive Don Williams, former Texas Secretary of State David Dean and real estate agent Brian Bleeker.
After leading fundraising among the six candidates in the race at the turn of the year, businessman Albert Black couldn’t keep his momentum. Black, the first candidate to enter the race, raised $112,018 from the beginning of January to the end of March.
The former Dallas Housing Authority chairman had initially had the lead in fundraising after he pulled in $277,643 in 2018 after he announced his candidacy over the summer.
“Our army of more than 140 volunteers have knocked on more than 30,000 doors,” Black said, “and they are talking to more voters every day.”
Jason Villalba, a former Republican representative in the Texas House, struggled to find traction in the large field, gathering $55,426 in contributions — including large donations from Waste Control Specialists CEO William Lindquist, developer Leland Burk and former Republican state Sen. John Carona.
Villalba said his campaign was confident that they would have the resources to win.
“I have the benefit of having a six-year and $2 million head start on cultivating the region of Dallas where we expect the highest turnout and where we will compete most effectively,” he said.
Alyson Kennedy, a Socialist candidate on the U.S. Presidential ballot in 2016, did not file a campaign report by the deadline, 5 p.m. Thursday.
One candidate who missed the ballot, Steve Smith, loaned himself $144,435.76 to keep his mayoral dream alive. Smith, the founder and CEO of a $3.5 billion asset management firm and active Dallas environmentalist, is a write-in candidate. He spent thousands on consulting and advertising.
If donations and spending ramp up in the campaign’s final month — and if a June runoff election is necessary — the 2019 race could go down as one of Dallas’ most expensive political races.
In 2007, an 11-candidate field — headlined by businessman Tom Leppert and City Council member Ed Oakley — spent $8 million combined between May and June runoff elections. Leppert spent $3.2 million, while Oakley spent $1.8 million — the same amount that Laura Miller had used during her successful 2002 mayoral win over Tom Dunning.
In 1987, a quartet of candidates — Jim Buerger, Jim Collins, Fred Meyer and eventual winner Annette Strauss — from a nine-person field accounted for more than $3 million in spending, the most expensive race at the time.
The candidates are due to file their next campaign finance reports April 26, four days after early voting has begun.