Dallas Mayor Aims to Ignite a Republican Urban Renewal after Abandoning Democratic Party

It wasn't one thing that pushed Eric Johnson over the edge to leave the Democratic Party after more than a decade in elected office and to join the Republicans.

It was a convergence of factors over the years that led to the Dallas mayor's political conversion, which he announced with a splash in the Wall Street Journal in September.

There was the Democratic Party's initial support for his corrupt opponent during his first run for the state Legislature that left a bad taste in his mouth. There were his values of personal responsibility and hard work, and his support for lower taxes and law and order that seemed to him to be increasingly out of step with his former party's principles.

And then there was being elected mayor and really understanding that he had a very direct responsibility for ensuring that people in Dallas were safe, that his constituents' tax dollars were spent wisely, and that the infrastructure was in place to support the city's families.

"You have one party that is serious about public safety and law and order, and one that only talks about those issues when it gets so bad that it starts to affect your electability. And I just couldn't take it anymore," Johnson, 48, said of his decision to switch parties.

Johnson recently spoke with National Review about his party change, about why he believes that "America is yearning for Dallas," and about his fledgling effort to elect more Republican mayors in cities across the country. Johnson's party switch put him in the lonely position of being the only Republican mayor of one of the country's ten biggest cities.

Johnson said he believes that "the GOP has the perfect message" for troubled American cities, but "somewhere along the way, [Republicans] decided that they weren't going to compete in our urban areas anymore. They were just going to allow the Democrats to sort of just have complete control."

Johnson seeks to change that.

In October, just weeks after he joined the Republican Party, Johnson formed the Republican Mayors Association, which he hopes can help to recruit good conservative mayoral candidates, raise money to support them, and identify pollsters and consultants who can help them win.

"I really do believe in conservatism," Johnson said. "As a political philosophy, I've come to accept that that's who I am, and I fully embrace that. And I believe there is only one party left that . . . is a home for that philosophy. There was a time when you could be a conservative in the Democratic Party, but that day is gone."

A Rocky Relationship from the Start

Johnson was born and raised in Dallas by parents who attended segregated schools and lived in the West Dallas housing projects.

According to the Texas Tribune, Johnson's first-grade teacher plucked him "Cinderella-style" from the city's rough public schools and helped him to attend a prestigious private school. He ended up attending Harvard, where he studied history, and later earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a master's degree in public affairs from Princeton.

Johnson was first elected to the Texas house of representatives as a Democrat in 2010, defeating incumbent state representative Terri Hodge in the primary. Even though Hodge had technically backed out of the race after pleading guilty in a corruption scandal, her name remained on the ballot. Before she dropped out, many prominent Texas Democrats continued to back Hodge against Johnson, despite her being under a federal indictment.

"That was sort of my entrée to the party, and it was a rocky relationship from that point forward," Johnson said.

Johnson concedes he was never a great fit for the Democratic Party.

Over the years, he butted heads with the party establishment over fiscal issues and ethics, and his willingness to work with his Republican colleagues across the aisle. His concerns about absentee-ballot voter fraud — in 2017, before it became a Republican obsession — "did not earn me any friends in a party where I was already lacking friends," Johnson said.

Johnson said the lessons he learned in his life, even before he got into politics, "always ran contrary" to the "views that the Democratic Party has about the relative health of the American dream and what it means."

"If I look back on my life and I'm honest about it, it was the values of personal responsibility and following the law and working hard and playing by the rules and being willing to outwork and outcompete to get what I wanted that got me to where I am today," he said.

"I really do believe that this country is full of opportunity for people who want to take advantage of it," Johnson said. "And the Democratic Party really wants to sell folks on this idea that the deck is so stacked against African Americans and all kinds of minority groups that you can't get ahead if you want to, the system is rigged, and that's why you need the government to help you."

A New Sense of Responsibility

In 2019, after almost a decade in party politics, Johnson was elected mayor of Dallas, which is technically a nonpartisan office.

As mayor, Johnson said, he really felt the responsibility for governing on his shoulders — he  could no longer "hide in a caucus" and avoid the brunt of his decisions.

"I became responsible for people's well-being in a very direct way," he said, adding that "some things started to become clear. And they hit a breaking point, became crystal clear once this George Floyd tragedy happened and the defund-the-police movement started."

"I got protesters at my house for days on end intentionally trying to scare my wife and children to get me to agree to defund the Dallas Police Department by 60 percent, and to do other outrageous things," he said. "And it made it very, very clear to me that the progressive perspective on safety and the Democratic Party's position on all of these issues related to keeping people safe is just wrong; it's just fundamentally incorrect."

Rather than defund the police, during the 2020 budget season Johnson began pushing to "defund the bureaucracy." The city council rejected his pitch. A year later, he called for adding hundreds of new officers to the police force, which the council approved.

As mayor, Johnson prioritized combatting violent crime. He also advocated reducing the property-tax rate: The tax rate has dropped, but it's still too high, he said. And he has tried to make Dallas into the most pro-business city in the country. The region has become a destination for large corporate relocations and expansions, including for Goldman Sachs, which broke ground on a new 800,000-square-foot campus in October.

People are flooding into the area from places like California, New York, and Illinois. One recent study predicted that Dallas-Fort Worth will be the nation's largest metro area by 2100.

"America is yearning for Dallas," Johnson said in a late-November state of the city address.

"People are coming here because of our politics," Johnson told National Review. "People actually are tired of government in these coastal states and cities just getting further to the left, and frankly regulating their businesses to death, and not taking care of the basics of government in terms of keeping people safe, dealing with crime, dealing with homelessness."

"They are coming to Dallas and they are coming to Texas because of our pro-business orientation; they are coming to Dallas and to Texas because of our culture," he added. "It's actually not something they're having to hold their nose and somehow tolerate."

American Cities Need Republicans

In his Wall Street Journal announcement of his party switch, Johnson wrote that "American cities need Republicans — and Republicans need American cities."

Johnson noted that the vast majority of Americans, more than 80 percent, live in urban areas.

"It's not inconsequential what happens in our cities," he said.

Many of the nation's biggest cities are facing very similar challenges: rising crime, particularly since the pandemic, homelessness, and excessive taxation, Johnson said.

"When I say America's cities need Republicans, what I'm really saying there is, residents have no shot — no shot — of having the type of safety that they deserve in their communities if you have Democratic mayors who have bought hook, line, and sinker the progressive position on public safety," he said. "We've got to get serious about crime in this country and in these cities, and you will never get there with a Democratic mayor."

On the other side of the coin, Johnson said, the math doesn't work for Republicans to continue writing off the country's largest urban areas. By 2050, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas is expected to approach 90 percent.

Johnson believes Republicans have something important to offer to people living in troubled Democratic cities, which is why he launched the Republican Mayors Association.

As mayor, Johnson supports what he calls the "four Ps"—public safety, property taxes, parks, and potholes.

Johnson said his first term in office shows that Republican policies and conservative values can win, even in big cities. While he was technically a Democrat serving in a nonpartisan position, "I governed Dallas for four years with Republican principles or conservative principles," he said, noting that he cleared the field and essentially ran unopposed for reelection in May.

Johnson acknowledges "there is some baggage associated with the national Republican brand," but he believes that Republicans can win in the country's biggest cities if they have credibility, a history of contribution to the community, and a strong message. He points to the 1990s, when Rudy Giuliani and Richard Riordan were elected mayors of New York City and Los Angeles, respectively.

While this year's midterm elections were generally disappointing for Republicans, Johnson sees bright spots on the mayoral front: William Cogswell was the first Republican elected mayor in Charleston, S.C., in almost 150 years; Republican Jay Ruais won in Manchester, N.H.; and Republican mayors won in upstate New York cities like Troy, Saratoga Springs, Utica, and Rome.

"You had candidates who ran good campaigns and had credibility and were able to raise money," he said. "I just want to organize that by bringing together resources, helping identify consultants, and helping to identify pollsters, and helping people that want to do this."

Republicans who want to win in urban areas will likely have a different style and will prioritize different issues than Republicans running for statewide and national offices.

"I think you have to look at your candidates the way a mechanic looks at a tool kit," Johnson said. "A mechanic doesn't say, 'I sure hope I get to use a hammer for everything I have to do today.’ A mechanic says, ‘My goal is to fix whatever is broken today, and I hope I have the right tool in my tool kit to fix whatever I encounter today.’"

For Republicans to win up and down the ballot, including in big cities, the party needs to pick the right candidate for the job. "There's a Republican that is the right candidate for a congressional race in rural Alabama, and there's a Republican that is the right candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, and they are not the same person," he said. "Your desire to want them to be the same person is weird."

Commitment to Republican Politics

Leaders of the Texas GOP have praised Johnson's decision to join the party. Governor Greg Abbott said Johnson's switch "highlights the stark contrast many Democrat-led cities face: out-of-control crime, reckless spending, and a radical leftist agenda."

Texas Democrats, on the other hand, claimed they were happy to see him go.

The state party, in a statement, said Johnson should have switched parties before the May election so Dallas voters knew where he stood. Johnson "will fit right in with Republicans," the party statement said, "and we are grateful that he can no longer tarnish the brand and values of the Texas Democratic Party."

Other Texas political watchers have speculated that by switching parties, Johnson may be setting himself up to run for a statewide office or to be appointed to another position. In Dallas, mayors are limited to two terms in office.

In the Journal, Johnson said that when his "career in elected office ends in 2027 on the inauguration of my successor as mayor, I will leave office as a Republican." Speaking to National Review, he insisted that he has no intention of running for another office.

But that doesn't mean he'll be on the sidelines.

"I plant to be involved and engaged in Republican Party politics for the rest of my career," Johnson said. "I want to help elect Republican mayors. I'm very, very interested in that. I want to help the Republican Party be the best party it can be."

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Dallas Mayor Aims to Ignite a Republican Urban Renewal after Abandoning Democratic Party

Eric Johnson was forced to confront the Democratic Party’s failures when he became responsible for a major ... READ MORE

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