A long-simmering feud between two of the city’s rising political stars became heated again last week when City Council member Philip Kingston blasted Park Board President Bobby Abtahi as a “divisive force.”
During Abtahi’s reappointment vote, Kingston called Abtahi “anti-neighborhood.” He said Abtahi was responsible for a “gamut of bad outcomes,” and that Abtahi had an “abominable” record on the City Plan Commission. On the park board, Kingston said, several board members asked that Abtahi not be reappointed because of “rancor and disorganization” that he caused.
While the diatribe might appear to be an internal squabble over a volunteer board position, it was a proxy fight over the city’s political future. And Abtahi and Kingston represent two sides of the closest thing the nonpartisan council has to political parties: the business-focused establishment and progressive insurgents. It’s a political narrative that Abtahi, appointed by the mayor, believes is unnecessarily divisive, and one that Kingston exploits regularly.
Kingston declined comment for this story. Abtahi said Kingston’s criticisms are false, but added he doesn’t think much about his old rival.
“If he wants to throw punches, I’ll throw them right back,” Abtahi said. “But to me, he’s largely irrelevant.”
But the two lawyers — who first squared off in a 2013 council race — have been and are likely to remain linked in the years ahead as both promise to remain fixtures in city politics.
The feud’s latest iteration ended Wednesday after Kingston’s broadside — which was followed by mocking hand gestures directed at Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway — was quickly rebuked by other council members, who said the attack was unnecessary and unfounded. And three of Kingston’s usual allies — Omar Narvaez, Mark Clayton and Adam Medrano — did not back him up on the final vote.
Caraway, who was already angry with Kingston’s intimations that he is the mayor’s puppet, was particularly miffed at Kingston’s criticism of Abtahi. Caraway and Abtahi became friends when the latter, as a 27-year-old community prosecutor in southern Dallas, successfully fought against a night club opening on Lancaster Corridor.
Caraway said he’ll move on from his issues with Kingston. But he wishes Kingston would do the same with Abtahi.
“It was not the right thing to do to malign any public servant unjustly,” Caraway said. “What went on in that charade was very disrespectful.”
Throughout the council’s discussion Wednesday, Kingston turned to colleague Adam McGough to continue to make his case.
McGough was unmoved. As chief of community prosecution, he had hired Abtahi, “a passionate guy full of energy” and put him to work in southern Dallas.
McGough said he found Kingston’s mocking of Caraway “childish and unnecessary.”
Kingston’s criticisms of Abtahi aren’t new. He made similar arguments when the two squared off on the campaign trail in 2013 and during Abtahi’s various board appointments.
Rawlings said he has never heard anyone complain about Abtahi. In fact, Rawlings said, it’s “just the contrary.” He said “there has not been one complaint” about Abtahi to his office.
If Park Board members ever have criticized Abtahi, they weren’t saying so after Thursday’s Park Board meeting. Barbara Barbee, appointed by Kingston ally Scott Griggs, said she had no complaints about Abtahi. Medrano and Kingston’s appointees didn’t want to comment.
And Clayton’s appointee Becky Rader, for whatever political differences she has had with Abtahi, said he was a good advocate for the Park Board during the recent bond package discussion. The parks department scored a major proposition for the November ballot.
Park and Recreation Director Willis Winters said Abtahi has proven to be a good listener, facilitator and meeting manager in his three months on the Park Board.
“If there is rancor at the board, it’s member to member,” Winters said. “It certainly doesn’t emanate from the president’s chair … He’s quick to close down any kind of negative energy that might come out.”
City Plan Commission Chair Gloria Tarpley said she never heard any complaints about Abtahi when they overlapped on that board, and neither did Griggs appointee Mike Anglin.
Abtahi said he didn’t decide to come back to City Hall and serve on the Park Board to play politics.
But Abtahi has been a constant political foil for Kingston. It often seems that whatever Abtahi is for, Kingston is against. That goes for the long-debated Trinity toll road, which Kingston helped kill this month, a new governance structure to oversee the Trinity River park development and the mayor’s failed plan to turn over Fair Park operations to a nonprofit former Hunt Oil executive and civic leader Walt Humann.
And during the spring campaign, Abtahi was also often at the side of Kingston’s ill-fated opponent Matt Wood, who was backed by much of the city’s political establishment.
Kingston defeated Wood and added to his coalition at the council. But Abtahi, who has never been far removed from City Hall, is still well-positioned, too. Rawlings was also the Park Board’s president before he ran for mayor.
Abtahi, who has also long been critical of Kingston’s combative “brand of politics,” said he is only focused on his Park Board duties. He said he wasn’t sure if Kingston’s motivation behind the attack was to try to force him out of the city’s political scene.
“If that’s his goal, he’s doing a bad job of it,” Abtahi said. “His opinion is just his opinion. I was born here. I was raised here. I’m not going anywhere.”