Though the mayor’s position in Dallas is technically nonpartisan, Johnson joins Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker as one of two Republican mayors to lead a major Texas city.
By Joshua Fechter And Brian Lopez
Sept. 22, 2023
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a longtime Democrat, is now a Republican—turning Dallas into the largest city in the country with a GOP mayor.
“Today I am changing my party affiliation,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed published Friday in The Wall Street Journal. “Next spring, I will be voting in the Republican primary. When my career in elected office ends in 2027 on the inauguration of my successor as mayor, I will leave office as a Republican.”
Johnson served in the Texas Legislature for nine years as a Democrat before he was elected as Dallas mayor in 2019. Though the mayor’s position is technically nonpartisan, Johnson joins Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker as one of two Republican mayors to lead a major Texas city.
Johnson did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Johnson’s switch came as little shock to Dallas political observers, who said he has been signaling for some time his leaning toward the GOP—and his distancing from Democrats.
"This is one of the worst kept secrets in the world of politics," said Vinny Minchillo, a Dallas-area Republican consultant. "This has been coming down for a long time."
State Rep. John Bryant, a Dallas Democrat, took to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to quip about Johnson's announcement.
“Switching parties? I didn’t know he was a Democrat,” Bryant wrote.
In his op-ed, Johnson made the case for how his vision for Dallas aligns with the GOP, noting his support for law enforcement, low property taxes, and fostering a business-friendly environment.
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Over the course of his mayoral tenure, Johnson has enthusiastically backed anti-crime initiatives and developed a strong bond with Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia. He won reelection without opposition in May after sewing up the city’s business donor class, who often lean Republican, as well as the Dallas Police Association, the city’s police union.
“Mayors and other local elected officials have failed to make public safety a priority or to exercise fiscal restraint,” Johnson wrote in the op-ed. “Most of these local leaders are proud Democrats who view cities as laboratories for liberalism rather than as havens for opportunity and free enterprise.”
After his reelection this year, Johnson invited Texas’ two Republican U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, to attend his inauguration—which some observers complained improperly injected partisanship into a nonpartisan space.
Earlier this week, Johnson, along with four other Dallas council members, voted against the city’s $4.8 billion budget because he believed it did not sufficiently cut the city’s property tax rate. Cutting property taxes is a darling issue for the state’s top Republicans.
“Too often, local tax dollars are spent on policies that exacerbate homelessness, coddle criminals, and make it harder for ordinary people to make a living,” Johnson wrote in the op-ed. “And too many local Democrats insist on virtue signaling—proposing half-baked government programs that aim to solve every single societal ill—and on finding new ways to thumb their noses at Republicans at the state or federal level. Enough. This makes for good headlines, but not for safer, stronger, more vibrant cities.”
Johnson’s party switch immediately makes him one of the most prominent Black Republicans in the country, a list that also includes South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Black voters still vote overwhelmingly Democratic, though the GOP has made gains among Black men in recent years.
Dallas is solidly Democratic, however. Dallas County went heavily for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, with Biden carrying the county by more than 30 percentage points. Some local politicians said Johnson's decision puts him out of step with the city's voters.
“I don't believe that it sets the tone for where the priorities are,” Dallas City Council Member Adam Bazaldua said. “In fact, that's why I believe it would have been nice for voters to have the opportunity of knowing that party affiliation prior to going to the ballot box in May.”
Politicos interpreted Johnson's switch as a precursor to a potential bid for statewide office—which Democrats have been locked out of for decades.
"You've got to be a Democrat to win in Dallas," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "You've got to be a Republican to win in Texas."
Johnson's party switch is a further indictment of the state of the Democratic Party in Texas, said Minchillo, the GOP strategist.
"This is certainly a smart move for his career," Minchillo said. "If you want to stay in Texas politics, you want to have the 'R' by your name."
Johnson didn’t mention his party switch as he spoke for about an hour during a Texas Tribune panel event Friday morning in Austin. Johnson noted the nonpartisan nature of his office and said he wants to see a more conservative approach to how Dallas spends its money, arguing that it's currently inefficient and the city could cut plenty of welfare programs that he believes only a minuscule amount of people use. Polling shows that most Dallasites want lower taxes, he said.
“I don't even know what these services are that some people are referring to that they're just so essential to poor people in the city,” he said. “I don't know what they're using.”
Texas Republicans were quick to embrace Johnson as one of their own.
"Texas is getting more Red every day," Gov. Greg Abbott wrote on X. "He’s pro law enforcement & won’t tolerate leftist agendas."
“To my friend and former colleague, welcome to the Republican Party!” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said on X. “Mayor [Johnson] is absolutely right. Conservative policies are the key to safe, thriving, and successful cities. His leadership is a shining example of that. Great news.”
The Texas Democratic Party's top officials, meanwhile, responded to the news with pure venom.
"In a city that deserves dedicated leadership, Mayor Johnson has been an ineffective and truant mayor, not only disconnected from Democratic values, but unable to even be an effective messenger for conservative local policy," Gilberto Hinojosa and Shay Wyrick Cathey, Texas Democratic Party chair and vice-chair, wrote in a joint statement. "This feeble excuse for democratic representation will fit right in with Republicans—and we are grateful that he can no longer tarnish the brand and values of the Texas Democratic Party."
Democrats took Johnson’s announcement as a betrayal—though perhaps not an unexpected one.
“It's really unfortunate to see Mayor Johnson switch parties but also to turn his back on the electorate that's gotten him this far in his political career,” said Kardal Coleman, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party. “This is no surprise to us. It’s the worst kept secret in Texas politics, but he's choosing his personal ambitions over the good of the whole of Texas.”
In an interview with Tribune co-founder Evan Smith on Friday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he was “disappointed that Eric feels as though he has to leave a thriving ship to get on a sinking one.”
“But sometimes people make decisions for various reasons. So I respect his personal decision,” he said. “But I will tell you when we look at San Antonio, and Austin, and Houston, all across the state of Texas, I think you will find that mayors and Democratic mayors are doing an exceptional job across this country.”
Emily Foxhall contributed to this story.