Meet the Man’s-Man Mayor Who’s Trying to End Domestic Abuse

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Photo: LM Otero/AP/Corbis

You don’t need a Y chromosome to know Mike Rawlings is a man’s man. Before he became mayor of Dallas in 2011, he was the top executive at Pizza Hut and, before that, an athlete. He has a full of head of gray hair and a voice like Jeff Daniels. When he talks, he relies heavily on sports metaphors. None of this should make his anti-domestic-violence activism surprising, but it might make him the movement’s most refreshing new spokesman.

Last month, Rawlings firmly requested the presence of 10,000 Dallas men — Boy Scouts welcome, too — at City Hall on March 23, to show their solidarity for his just-announced Men Against Abuse campaign. “I decided to call out the men of Dallas,” Rawlings told the Cut. “I said, this is not a women’s issue, this is a men’s issue. Eighty-five, 90 percent of domestic violence is men on women.” 

When we met in New York, Rawlings was drinking orange juice at the Plaza Hotel, where he stayed while in town for the United Nation’s Council on the Status of Women. He was the keynote speaker at an International Women’s Day event put on by celebrity-studded anti-abuse campaign Ring the Bell, which reached out after it got wind of his Dallas rally. It was his first time attending the conference.

“I’m Johnny-come-lately to this issue,” Rawlings said, adding that he probably wouldn’t be in New York if not for his “puppeteers” at two prominent Dallas shelters, the Family Place and Genesis Women’s Shelter. “I said, 'I've got other things I need to do,' and they said, 'You need to make this speech, we’ve got momentum going.'”

Since then, Rawlings has enlisted former Dallas Cowboys Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Roger Staubach in the campaign and honed his critique of men’s complacency in the so-called “culture of violence.” “We all laugh at the jokes in locker rooms; we wear ‘wife-beaters’ and we listen to the music. It’s just part of our culture and it snuck up on us,” he said. “Men, it is time for us to say no mas.”

The Cut had Rawlings talk us through his sudden-onset activism.

How did domestic violence become an important issue to you?
It started at the end of last year, after Newtown. The tragedy started with a son killing his mother — a terrible act of domestic violence. I think we were all devastated by that. At the same time, my mother was going through cancer and she died in the first part of December. She was my rock, North Star, any analogy you want. I think I was just a little raw. This whole issue of violence was getting at me, knowing that the first job of a mayor is to keep people safe.

I heard one morning of a lady who was shot by her estranged husband, in the back, twice, rolled over, and shot in one eye and shot in the other eye. It happened at the same parking lot where my mother went to get cancer treatments. The victim was an assistant of a doctor over there. I said, “How brutal.” I started looking into and I realized that while our crime rate has been going down for nine years in a row, we had 13,000 cases of domestic violence in 2012. Homicides caused by domestic violence increased from 11 in 2011 to 26. I just said, “This is crazy. The world is somehow coming apart, with this culture of violence.”

Often politicians use domestic violence statistics in the opposite way. They say, “Oh, it looks like rape has gone up but, don’t worry, those were people who knew each other.” As if those crimes counted less.
That’s the worst kind! I’m reading a book about this. Do you know what domestic abusers are? What they are is in their own house, terrorizing the other person. These are terrorists. That is their whole mentality. If I can terrorize you enough, I can control you. We think of terrorism as a political action, when the lion’s share of terrorism is with intimate partners.

What did you make of the congressional scuffle over the Violence Against Women Act?
I’m a big supporter of it and there’s no question that it’s the right thing to do. It’s been a bipartisan thing for forever and suddenly it gets politicized. I’m trying to focus on the cultural aspect of domestic violence. There's plenty of people arguing about the legal aspect. I’m more concerned about us as men and what we can do at the school level and with our next-door neighbors.

Too often leaders focus on issues that divide versus issues that we can agree on. Across the board, forgetting your political aspirations, people go, “Yes, we have lost our way here. We need to reset this.” I’ve got Republican legislators in Austin trying to pass legislation that would strengthen domestic violence laws.


What role does gun control play in combating domestic violence?
Gun control is a huge part of this discussion of the culture of violence. There’s no question, it can facilitate it. I had a working associate whose brother was involved in a murder-suicide with a gun that was just heartbreaking. But by focusing on guns, you let people off the hook. Right after that woman was shot — the next day — a man stabbed his wife in front of his kids. And then another one strangled his wife. So it’s not just by guns. I’ve come out supporting the president’s initiatives, but that’s less important to me on this issue than the cultural aspects.

What do you mean when you say “culture of violence” or that you're focused on the “cultural aspects” of domestic violence?
I am not a pop-culture specialist, but I’ve got no time for this chest-bumping attitude that males have these days. I just think it’s so out of date. It’s like basketball players wearing really short shorts. You see those old things and say, “Those look weird.”

Domestic abuse is a much more serious issue than littering, but when I was growing up, if you had an empty Coke can, you just threw it out the window. There was a movement in the late sixties and seventies that was like, “That’s just bad.” Now you couldn’t even believe someone would do that. There’s a huge stigma now. That stigma can be placed, I think, on this issue, but it takes a little while and it takes these conversations.

We’re doing a PSA campaign with all these athletes about "what it takes to be a man." I just got the rough cut of mine. We also did newspaper ads that said “Blank Around Town,” “The Family Blank.” We use this term all the time, “man,” but you don’t get to qualify if you hit somebody. You don’t make the traveling squad.

I’m asking men to promise four or five things. One, never to hit a woman, okay? Basic stuff. Second, speak out against hitting women. Three, if you ever see a woman that’s in that situation, stick your nose in the middle of it. Do not look the other way and say, “That’s a private matter.” Fourth, teach your daughter that once is too many times. If you ever get hit, you get the hell out. Fifth, teach your sons that that’s unacceptable. That’s what my mother taught me.

You make it sound common sense. Any ideas, then, as to why domestic violence persists?
I was just kind of mad and suddenly people, at least in Dallas, were saying "Oh my God, thank God, he’s taking this point of view." It’s like, really? This one’s easy. In basketball parlance, this is a layup. All you have to do is stand there, throw it against the backboard, and it goes in. It’s real simple: Do not hit a woman.

I think a little bit of it is that this has always been couched as a women’s issue. So when you say it’s a women’s issue, guess what, as a man, I think, “I don’t have to care about this.” It’s like, okay, good luck on that issue. But when you say it’s a men’s issue, then it happens. We have not dealt with this issue culturally, we have not stuck our nose in others’ business. We’re afraid of shame. Shame is a dirty word. We need to shame people for the really bad things, and this is one of them.

As you learn more about the issue, have you run into any unforeseen challenges?
We have a strong faith-based community in Dallas. The very interesting nuance I discovered is that I’m not sure our clergy are well-schooled in this. We all want the strong family, especially if you’re in the clergy. The two of you come to me, and she says "my husband’s hit me." You’ve got to figure out how to bring this family together, that’s your mission. I’m not throwing stones at any specific situations but I do think there is a dialogue that needs to take place in the faith-based community about this.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the U.N.'s International Women’s Day?
I’m looking forward to meeting Don McPherson. He was a very famous, All-American quarterback for Syracuse, which is near where I went to high school. He took this issue on about ten years ago.

I’m also interested to see how we deal with this as an international and a national issue. We are fascinated when this happens in India or Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa — the cruelty that happens to women. Putting the mirror back on us is a fascinating discussion. Because I think we shouldn’t be ... what’s the Bible verse? Don’t talk about the speck in someone else’s eye when you have a plank in your own? We say, “Oh look at how they treat women over there.” Meanwhile, we’re killing women right and left. The key word in that is we. People don’t take accountability. They say, “Oh, he’s crazy” or “Well, he doesn’t have any money.” By the way, domestic abuse occurs across all demographics.