Show Me The Calendar For March

“The Real Heart of the Democratic Party Is With the Criminals”

When Eric Johnson made headlines last September for leaving the Democratic Party for the Republican Party, I sent him a text asking if he’d talk. Johnson, a Dallas native who served six terms in the Texas House before first getting elected mayor, in 2019, didn’t put me on his calendar then, and he later explained that he preferred to speak to national media rather than local and statewide outlets. But when I contacted him again this spring, he was eager to talk—and he didn’t hold back.

March  Calendar  Templates for Word, Excel and PDF
March Calendar Templates for Word, Excel and PDF

Texas Monthly: What’s on your schedule today? 

Eric Johnson: I dropped my youngest, who’s two, at daycare and my eldest, who’s ten, off at school. My six-year-old didn’t have school today, so we’re hanging. I actually took him to the playground so that I could do this interview. As soon as we’re done, we’re going to the International Guitar Festival, at the Dallas Market Hall. Then we’ll pick up the other two kids and have a great weekend—my eldest has a football game. 

Show Me The Calendar For March
Show Me The Calendar For March

TM: Speaking of football, you’ve said that the Kansas City Chiefs—formerly the Dallas Texans—should return to the Dallas area. Why does North Texas need two NFL teams? 

EJ: Clark Hunt [the CEO of the Kansas City Chiefs] is someone I consider a friend and we talk pretty regularly—he’s a Dallas resident. I think there’s a great connectivity between the Chiefs’ organization and this city that goes back to its founding. Truth is, I’ve been talking about the NFL’s expansion being inevitable. And I’ve been making the argument for why a second team in Dallas makes more sense than in any other city the NFL would consider adding an expansion team to. The bottom line is: this is the fastest-growing metro area in the United States and will be the third largest within the next decade or so. New York and L.A. both support two football teams. Florida has three, and Texas has two. It makes no sense. We absolutely could sustain two NFL franchises in North Texas, an area of over eight million people, and probably the most football-crazy metro area in the United States. It would be an amazing opportunity to turn this area into the undisputed epicenter of professional football.

Show Me The Calendar For March
Show Me The Calendar For March

TM: Might part of the calculation be that if Jerry Jones can’t create a Super Bowl champion, then Dallas should just import one? 

EJ: I’ve heard that joke a lot. You know, I’m a lifelong Cowboys fan and I’ll always cheer for the Cowboys. It’s my birthright as a native Dallasite. But the Cowboys have become bigger than just the city of Dallas’s football team. The Cowboys are the biggest deal in all of professional sports globally. So, the idea that a second football team that plays in North Texas would diminish the value of that franchise is just asinine. The Cowboys do not have a problem selling season tickets, individual tickets, filling the stadium, selling merchandise, or anything else. This is about something that’s bigger than football. This is about a city in a metro area that is undeniably the hottest thing in America right now. So, no, I’m not trying to import another Super Bowl champion. I think Jerry Jones has got his hands full working on that.

TM: Has Jones had any reaction to this idea?

EJ: He’s reacted in prior conversations about a second NFL team, and it’s always been a little, you know, flippant and impassive. But this time he hasn’t said anything about it. I wouldn’t make too much of it, but I think it’s interesting. I’ve made this argument many times, but I’ve never made it in this concrete way, so I’ll say it to you, and hopefully this is shared: I know Jerry Jones and have gotten the chance to get to know him better since I’ve become mayor. He’s not someone who, in my opinion, is afraid of competition. He’s not a coward, and he’s a good businessman. I think Jerry Jones, at this point in his life and his career, can look at this situation and realize that there’s a way to make this deal financially attractive to him and his family and to the NFL and to the ownership group that brings in the second NFL team, and to the municipalities that would benefit from this activity—i.e. Dallas. This is a rare and unique opportunity, and I hope that Jerry Jones is noodling on this. This is something he should be thinking about if he isn’t already. 

TM: You helped move the WNBA’s Dallas Wings from Arlington to Dallas’s downtown convention center. I know you’ve touched on this in your previous answers, but are you trying to turn the city into an even bigger professional sports hub?

EJ: The short answer is yes. The WNBA is the hottest commodity in all of professional sports right now. It’s the fastest-growing sport in America, maybe not in terms of participation, but in terms of eyeballs on television and fan interest. The sport has gotten leaps and bounds better every year since it started. The quality of play is incredible, the athletes are incredible, and the fan interest is reflecting that. You have more people watching the women’s NCAA basketball championship than the men’s. There’s been a real seismic shift in demand for this sport, and for us to successfully land the franchise for this area in the city of Dallas, to play in a dedicated arena, is rare for their league. And that arena has so much history. It’s where the Jackson 5 and Elvis Presley and the Beatles played. This is going to catapult the Wings into the very top echelon and make them the premiere team in the WNBA.

TM: Dallas’s population has declined in the last year, even as North Texas continues to grow rapidly. What do you think is going on there?

EJ: The only source I trust on population data is the U.S. Census, and I have not looked at the numbers recently because I don’t necessarily think that the change from year to year matters that much. I look at Dallas’s population every ten years, like the Census does, to see general trends. And here’s the general trend: North Texas, which Dallas anchors, is growing like crazy, faster than any place in the United States. The data also shows this: the city of Dallas is growing too, just not at the same rate as the surrounding municipalities. That’s not a shocking phenomenon, because the percentage growth rate is larger for things that start with a smaller baseline. It’s harder for the city of Dallas to grow at 10 percent, when 1.5 million people live here, than it is for a city that only has a population of 100,000. The rate of growth is going to be faster for our surrounding municipalities because they’re smaller. So, Dallas is growing and growing faster than most large cities in America. Dallas is what’s driving the growth in Frisco and Plano and all the surrounding municipalities. If there were no Dallas, those places wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t be what they are.

TM: So the year-to-year population trends for Dallas don’t worry you?

EJ: Talk to me when we do the 2030 Census, and let me know if our population declines in Dallas. Then I’ll worry about that. But right now, I’m not worried at all. The region is growing, the metro area is growing, and Dallas is growing—even if we’re not moving as fast as our suburban competitors. Plus, the economic growth here is undeniable. The city itself is becoming more vibrant. It’s becoming more valuable in terms of the property in it. People are investing in it more. The city of Dallas has more Fortune 500 companies than Philadelphia, which is a larger city. How do you complain about that?

TM: You’ve said that the city could cut some of its welfare programs. What programs would you like to see axed and why?

EJ: Over time, the city has deviated from its mission of providing public safety, water infrastructure, and parks and recreation and has gotten into some things that it shouldn’t. Here’s an example—and there are dozens of these. We’ve decided that elderly residents who are having trouble accessing dental care can have dental care. So we’re paying for that in the municipal budget. Dental care for seniors is a very worthwhile thing, but it is not a critical function of city government. We have numerous entities that, if we weren’t doing that, would and should. For example, any number of nonprofit organizations can or would step up to the plate. How about some dentists and nonprofits get together and say they want to donate those services? Or the county government, which is actually our contracted health authority, could do it. Even a federal program could be charged with doing this. I’m not saying this service should not be done, but why is it falling on the city of Dallas? 

We should go through our entire budget and literally only tax people the amount of money it takes to run the best parks and recreation department, the best water and sewage department, the best public safety department, and the best infrastructure. Everything else should get shifted to the level of government that’s actually responsible for it. That’s all I’m saying. This has nothing to do with not wanting to help people or being heartless or not caring. We’ve just gotten confused about what municipal government is designed and best suited to do.

TM: In a 2019 interview with Texas Monthly you resisted calling Dallas’s uptick in crime a “crisis.” You’ve more recently claimed that this is the third consecutive year of overall crime falling in the city of Dallas. How do you think the city did that, and what’s changed under your leadership? 

EJ: Under my leadership, we actually identified what the challenges were. I prefer the word “challenge” to “crisis.” Messaging is important. I wouldn’t have ever labeled crime in Dallas a “crisis” because that language isn’t helpful. My style is to identify a problem and say, “Here’s the nature of that problem, and here’s how we’re going to solve it.”

When I became mayor, I discovered quickly that we had a police chief at the time who didn’t fully appreciate the problems we had and certainly had no plans to address it. So we got both of those things fixed: we got a new police chief, and we got a plan in place. We’re actually in our fourth year of overall violent-crime reduction. That is the product of our violent-crime reduction plan, which involves solutions that are both law enforcement–based and community-based, such as summer safety, where we push our kids to get involved in our schools and libraries and stay out of trouble.  

TM: Okay, I want to get to the elephant—so to speak—in the room. 

EJ: I am that elephant. But go ahead. 

TM: Last year you announced that you were switching your party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. I know you’ve talked about this a lot already, but for our readers’ sake, give me an executive summary of your motivations. 

EJ: The Democratic Party today is not the same party it was when I joined it thirty years ago—it has ticked considerably to the left, while I have moved to the right. So, we moved in opposite directions, but I think the party has moved faster and farther than I have. There was a time when you could be a conservative Democrat, and I fancied myself one of them. But that faction of the party is gone.

The Democratic Party now ranges from true European-style socialist to liberal. That’s it. That’s the range now. There are no more Democrats who want to fully fund police departments or who want to always lower your taxes. They’ve adopted ideas that are very pro-offender and indifferent to or hostile toward victims of crime. During the defund-the-police, post–George Floyd era, I learned that the real heart of the Democratic Party is with the criminals and that it feels more sympathy toward the offenders. The Democratic Party does not take public safety seriously. Eventually I just said, “enough,” and realized I couldn’t be part of that. I can’t look my own kids in the eye as their father, who withstood protestors at our house, and say that I went with what the protestors wanted and defunded the police. I just couldn’t do that. So, I joined the party that’s right on public safety. That’s the most important issue to me, both as the mayor and as a father. 

TM: I don’t know if that’s a completely fair characterization of the Democratic Party, especially considering its standard-bearer, Joe Biden, has long opposed calls to defund the police. Other large municipalities, too, like New York City (Eric Adams) and San Francisco (London Breed), have Democratic pro–law enforcement mayors. Do you think you’re painting Democrats’ law enforcement policies with too broad a brush?

EJ: Not really, no. You have to pay attention to what these lawmakers and Democratic mayors actually do while in office. They all know how to campaign on a law-and-order platform when they get polling showing that their voters want to live in a safe city. The problem is that the residents of these cities want a conservative-minded mayor on the issue of public safety, but they don’t often get one. Look at the largest cities in the country, most of which are run by Democrats. They will campaign on a law-and-order platform, but once they get into office, they don’t do much when it comes to criminal justice reform. There’s a general attitude that law enforcement is the problem. 

If you listen to these people talk between elections, they’ll say things that cater to the activists and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Then, when elections come around, and they see that crime in their city has reached levels where the voters are now ready to do something at the ballot box, they change their tune. That’s London Breed, for sure. Breed was never a pro–law enforcement or pro–public safety mayor until she started to feel electoral heat. The Democratic Party does not care about victims or supporting law enforcement. The party is, in a lot of ways, on the side of the perpetrators, and I just don’t believe in that and am not going to pretend like I do. 

TM: When did you first start thinking about making this move?

EJ: Not a day went by in my adult life when I didn’t ask myself, “Am I in the right political party?” I’ve probably been asking myself that question since I was eighteen. In fact, I’ve been challenged before by friends who were Republicans on some of the liberal orthodoxy I espoused, probably starting from the time I was in eighth-grade debate. What people asked me back then was, given my life story and what I’ve been able to do with the opportunities I’ve been given, how could I espouse certain Democratic beliefs? 

The Democratic Party will tell someone like me that the deck is so stacked against me that I need the government to come in and save me. And then I would get the question from friends: “Did the government come in and save you, Eric?” I started hearing these questions at a young age. But the truth is, our country is full of opportunities for people to take—and that’s what I’ve done. Opportunity creates more opportunity. Because I did well, literally, in the first grade, I got the opportunity to go to a good school for second grade. And because I did great in high school, I got the opportunity to go to a great college and law school. At no point did anyone say that because I was a poor kid from West Dallas that I couldn’t be in these spaces. That’s how this country operates.

So, I probably first started thinking about this when I was getting challenged as a kid. And, at some point, you get older and experience more, and can say, “This is a country of opportunity. If you follow the rules and work hard, there’s almost nothing you can’t do.” That’s not the Democratic Party’s belief. It’s the Republican Party’s. The Republican Party wants to give people the tools they need and then let them do what they need to. I am a natural conservative, and there’s only one party in the two-party system we have where a conservative can be happy at all. 

TM: Your party shift prompted a lot of disparagement from journalists and Democratic politicians in Dallas. Have you had much experience in your life of people harshly criticizing you? 

EJ: I’ve never said this to anyone in a public forum, but I’ll say it to you: I grew up very poor, in a racially segregated part of Dallas, with no advantages anyone could identify. From birth until I got to college, I could feel the world cheering me on. Everyone was pulling for the poor, disadvantaged Black kid to make it. But when I started getting college acceptance letters, I learned that not everyone was team E.J. My senior year of high school was the first time I noticed that some folks saw me as their competition and wanted me to fail. It was one thing when they thought success for me might mean going to the University of Texas. But it started to feel a little different when I started talking about going to Harvard. There were people who thought I was punching above my weight somehow.

That dynamic reached a fever pitch when I became mayor. Being the mayor of Dallas, in some people’s minds, was me taking something that I wasn’t entitled to. I started getting all kinds of hate, and it was coming, disproportionately, from people on the left. From a lot of white liberals. They would tell me that I shouldn’t run for mayor because I’m doing “so well” as a state representative. It felt like people were telling me to stay in my place. There are people out there who have a problem with what I’ve been able to accomplish but can’t really explain why. Clearly this isn’t a performance-based thing, because I was reelected by an overwhelming margin in 2023. But I do believe that some folks, primarily white liberals, have a problem with a strong-willed, competent, self-assured, highly educated Black man leading their city. Period. I said it. You got me to say it. 

Johnson with Governor Greg Abbott during a news conference following severe flooding in North Texas in August 2022. Shelby Tauber/Bloomberg via Getty

TM: Wait—which people are you talking about? Legislators? Activists? Journalists? This feels pretty vague to me.

EJ: It’s hard for me to say it’s one subgroup of what you just named more than others. It’s been a smattering of folks who primarily identify with the left. Throughout my life, I have noticed that conservative-minded folks seem to be more supportive of me and what I’m trying to do in my role as mayor than more liberal-minded folks. I’ve had to give that some thought to better understand why that’s been the case. I really think it comes down to this: it’s an ideological problem. I pose a very unhelpful data point for people who come from the liberal political philosophy and who espouse that philosophy, because I’m evidence that the system works. A critical point of the left’s ideology is that the system doesn’t work for people like you, meaning Black people or other people of color. 

It’s not helpful for them to have someone like me show them that the system actually works. If you work hard and go to school and go to college and are honest and follow the law, then this country works just fine. We don’t need another program in place, and that is anathema to the liberal ideology. People like me are often forgotten, overlooked, or aggressively dismissed. Liberals need to be needed and I just come across to liberals as a Black man who doesn’t need them. I think that’s troubling to them.

With conservatives, it’s almost the opposite. To them, I come across as someone who has done all of the things that the conservative ideology suggests a person can do—focus on your family and community and doing things the right way. I think that’s why conservatives have always been okay with me. At some point you have to ask yourself, “Who’s not happy when they see this Black man, who came from the roughest part of Dallas, become the city’s mayor?” When you look across the board and see who’s not happy, it starts to paint a picture that shouldn’t be ignored. And I’m not ignoring it anymore.  

TM: You went out of your way to tell people that you voted for Donald Trump in the March primary. Given that many of the people who voted for you hate Trump—Dallas County voted for Biden over Trump by 2-to-1 in 2020—that must have felt like rubbing salt in the wounds for them. Why go public about who you supported? 

EJ: I was asked a question by a reporter, and I told the truth. I didn’t issue a press release like some people might be claiming. This is another spin job. I’ve never endorsed anyone for any partisan office since 2019 when I became the mayor because I promised I wouldn’t and I did not break that promise for President Trump. I didn’t endorse President Trump. I didn’t endorse President Biden in 2020, either. I’ve never endorsed anyone. But I was asked by a reporter who I planned on voting for in 2024, and I didn’t lie. 

TM: Even by the lights of many Republicans, the state GOP leadership is pretty extreme, ideologically. Are there any differences you have with the current party leaders and platform? 

EJ: I have not read the entire platform from the Texas Republican Party, but I also never read the Texas Democrats’ platform. I’m not a “sit here and pore over the platform” type of guy. I believe in the value of conservatism, particularly fiscal conservatism, and I believe that law and order is the number one responsibility of a mayor. I also believe in safety—whether we’re talking about national security and border security or physical security in terms of police protection at the local level. Those are the values and beliefs that I hold dear and that I know the Republican Party of Texas and the national Republican Party hold dear. 

TM: How do you respond to the skeptics who say, “Well, Johnson was term-limited as mayor, and he’s already been in the Legislature, so his next move would be to seek statewide office, which is a suicide mission if you’re a Democrat. So he became a Republican to realize his ambitions.” 

EJ: I’ve said definitively that I am not running for office anymore. When I’m done being mayor, I’m going to retire from office, and I have no intention of running for anything else. This is not a tee-up to run for anything.

TM: So, what’s next for you? 

EJ: I haven’t given much thought at all to what I’ll do after I’m mayor. I’ve always believed that if I do a really good job at the thing that’s right in front of me, then the next opportunity will emerge on its own. People who are always looking ten steps ahead trip on what’s right in front of them. But I’ll never be that person, because I’ll always be focused on what’s right in front of me. And you know what’s right in front of me right now? Being the best mayor for the city of Dallas. I assume that in 2027 my next opportunity will become clear. But right now I’m not really focused on that at all.

TM: Has switching parties affected your ability to build consensus on the city council?

EJ: I am governing Dallas in a way that is completely indistinguishable from how I ran Dallas before I switched parties. There’s no change in my policy positions, which is why any consternation about my party switch is ludicrous. Adhering to traditional Republican values is how I’ve governed Dallas for the past five years. Maybe we didn’t call it that explicitly, but what do you call lowering people’s tax rates every year for the past five consecutive years I’ve been in office? What do you call resisting the defund-the-police movement? Here’s the big surprise, America: Dallas has been succeeding during the five years I’ve been mayor because I’ve always run the city like a Republican mayor would run the city.  

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.