First openly gay member of Dallas City Council in a decade elected in run-off

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Medrano, Omar Narvaez and Hunt

 

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

Omar Narvaez is one of the four newly-elected members of the Dallas City Council, making him the first openly-gay Dallas City Council member in more than a decade. Narvaez defeated incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo in a June 10 runoff to become the representative for District 6, which includes West Dallas and the Design District as well as a few neighborhoods in North Dallas along Loop 12 and LBJ Freeway.

Narvaez’s win makes him the first openly-gay person on the council since Ed Oakley left the council in 2007, and the first openly-gay person to represent District 6.

The election was unprecedented in another way: It was the first time incumbents — other than in District 3 — have lost re-election since the city was divided into 14 single-member districts in the early 1990s.

Of the four new council members, two are former councilmen returning to their previous positions — Dwaine Carraway in District 4 and Tennell

Atkins in District 8 — and two are newcomers — Narvaez and Kevin Felder in District 7.

Dallas allows a council member to serve four consecutive terms. Caraway and Atkins return to their seats after serving four terms and then sitting out an election. Felder replaces one-term incumbent Tiffinni Young.

Narvaez said he ran a non-traditional race, finding solutions, not making promises. As he knocked on doors across the district and attended town hall meetings, he said he quickly learned to act as an incumbent, working with city hall and fixing problems.

Narvaez said he had three priorities in his campaign and will maintain those priorities as city councilman — housing, streets and public safety.

Housing is becoming a problem across the city but presents a special challenge in District 6, especially in West Dallas neighborhoods closest to downtown.

Housing
After the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opened, development exploded at the foot of the Trinity River crossing on the West Dallas side. Restaurant incubator Trinity Groves brought traffic from across the region to an area that had been neglected for decades. And as people discovered its convenience to downtown, developers raced to build expensive mid-rise apartments.

As undeveloped land grew more scarce, developers offered homeowners buyouts. And renters were being forced out of their homes after the city condemned hundreds of properties owned by landlord Khraish Khraish, who hadn’t maintained the homes to city code.

Incumbent Alonzo encouraged development in her district and welcomed the new jobs in the area. Candidate Narvaez said he listened to the residents who were losing their homes and were given no reasonable alternatives. He said he spoke to hundreds of people facing homelessness and intervened.

During the runoff election, Narvaez was seen brokering the deal that would allow 130 to 150 renters become homeowners. As of this week, Narvaez said, 70 families had already brokered their deals with Khraish.

Still, Narvaez said, “Some of the houses in the area will be razed because they’re not in good condition.”

So, the new councilman said, he spoke to the local Habitat for Humanity, which has agreed to step in and build about 75 houses in the area. That will help some of the other families about to lose their homes.

While these properties are for lower income families, developers have been building more expensive homes.

“This will make West Dallas the first truly mixed income area in the city,” Narvaez said, adding that that will make the area strong and stabilize neighborhoods.

Narvaez said he’ll continue to encourage development in West Dallas but prefers apartments like those going up along Fort Worth Avenue that aren’t displacing families who have lived in their homes for generations.

Streets and public safety
Because of his work to find a solution to the housing crisis in West Dallas before coming into office, Narvaez said he found himself in an odd position.

“Residents were already calling me before the election to help find solutions,” he said.

In a crowded race that began with six candidates, including an incumbent who had risen to the position of mayor pro tem, Narvaez distinguished himself by running as if he were an incumbent. He said one voter told him he’d been registered for 10 years, but this was the first time he felt motivated to vote.

In addition to housing, Narvaez said he is concerned with streets and public safety.

“Our streets are deteriorating,” he said. “Some need to be completely replaced.”

He said in his district, as well as in some other areas around the city, streets have been left untended for so long that resurfacing won’t fix the problem. Some need to be completely ripped up and replaced.

Sidewalks and alleyways also need work, he said, and streetlights need to be updated and replaced.

Lighting also factors into the question of public safety, Narvaez said, adding that inadequate staffing for the Dallas Police Department and Dallas Fire and Rescue is problematic.

As the city’s population has grown, Narvaez said, staffing levels at DPD and DFR have decreased, because the city trains officers, firefighters and EMTs who then flee to the suburbs where departments pay better and offer less-challenging positions.

In addition to new officers, Narvaez said, the city needs to improve equipment and upgrade a number of the city’s fire stations.

“911 needs to be looked at,” he said, “as well as the antiquated emergency sirens.”

Business as usual — for now
For now, Narvaez plans to continue his day job working at Lambda Legal, an organization providing legal aid and advice to those in the LGBT community, where he recently changed positions and now serves as Texas policy advocate. Before, he was community educator, covering an eight-state area. The new position means he travels less.

How do they feel about having a co-worker on city council?

“Lambda Legal didn’t endorse me, but my coworkers are very excited to have someone like me at the horseshoe in Dallas,” he said.

Lambda Legal’s interim regional director Chuck Marlett agreed: “We’re excited and thrilled.”

He said it was great to see someone from his organization advance to a key leadership role in the public arena, adding that Narvaez “will be a great asset to the city council.”

Marlett said Narvaez’s role as a policy advocate would translate well to city government, adding that his skills in consensus building, persuasion and teamwork are assets that will make him a leader on the Dallas City Council.

As for Narvaez’s continued role at Lambda Legal, Marlett said, “We’re still working it out,” emphasizing that he meant nothing negative by that. The discussion, he said, only began after Narvaez’s election victory.

Marlett said there’s no inherent conflict between Narvaez’s two roles, but “it just happened Sunday and we’re still digesting it.”

But, he stressed, “We’re excited, and this is solid evidence of achievement for the LGBT community and the city of Dallas. It’s all good news.”

Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance President Patti Fink said it’s important to have an openly LGBT person on council.

“He’ll be a voice for all of us,” she said.

She said it makes a difference when other council members know they’re sitting next to a gay person and said not having an openly-LGBT person is like having an all-white council.

And that, Fink said, simply isn’t representative of who we are as a city.

“Omar brings a unique perspective as a minority in multiple ways,” Fink said. “He comes with the perspective of being a minority you can’t teach somebody.”

She said his experience with Lambda Legal should benefit everybody because his current job takes him out into the community speaking to people.

“He has his ears to the ground in District 6,” Fink said. “That area is getting gentrified by the minute, displacing people just as [has happened] in Oak Lawn and Uptown.”

Fink’s one reservation about the incoming council is that three women were defeated in their re-election bids, leaving only two female members — Sandy Greyson and Jennifer Gates. She called that “disturbing.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 16, 2017.

CORRECTION:

In the story, we said the only council defeats have been in District 3. Since the beginning of the 14-1 election system in Dallas (14 single member districts and 1 mayor), there have been three additional incumbent defeats:

Barbara Mallory Caraway defeated incumbent Mattie Nash in 1993.
Al Lipscomb defeated incumbent Sandra Crenshaw in the mid-90s.
Elba Garcia defeated incumbent Steve Salazar in 2001.

Thank you to former City Councilman and Dallas County School trustee Larry Duncan for the information.