In a Dallas council race, police politics are dividing the Jewish community
Two Orthodox Jewish candidates face off in a Dallas City Council run-off next week, in a race that is about much more than roads and potholes
Jaynie Schultz and Barry Wernick belong to the same Orthodox synagogue in Dallas, Texas. A few years ago, Schultz cheered Wernick on as he produced a horror film. Their kids go to the same Jewish day school.
Now, they are running against each other for Dallas City Council in an unexpectedly contentious race that will be decided in a run-off election on June 5. In the first round of voting earlier this month, Wernick won 38% of the vote to Schultz’s 36%.
The race is nonpartisan, focused on local issues like property taxes and zoning. But one of the most potent issues in Dallas is public safety, and the race has turned into a full-fledged battle over the movement to defund the police, with the theatrics and mud-slinging that have become commonplace in national politics in recent years.
“Safety and security is by far the biggest issue in our neighborhood, and Barry has done a very good job of pressing on that issue,” said Bruce Wilke, the president of the Hillcrest-Forest Neighborhood Association, where both Schultz and Wernick live. Wilke has endorsed Schultz in a personal capacity, not in his role at the nonprofit. “It is a pretty evenly matched and heated race, more so than I’ve seen in the past.”
While the race is exceedingly local, it demonstrates how some of the national political dynamics that have flared in the past year can trickle down to elections at other levels. Misinformation about both campaigns has been spread by surrogates, supporters and dark money groups; a conservative is trying to paint his more liberal opponent as anti-police; and partisanship has erupted in a surprisingly fierce way.
But because both candidates are members of the tight-knit Dallas Jewish community, the campaign feels more personal than most. One local rabbi called the race a “touchy subject in our community,” and told Jewish Insider that he was “taking a hard pass on talking to the media about it.”
Wernick, a lawyer, has successfully positioned himself as the ‘pro-police’ candidate, earning him the endorsement of the Dallas Police Association. He told JI he got into the race after watching Black Lives Matter protests devolve into riots last summer, noting that his wife said to him: “‘Look, you’ve either got to run, because you can win, or we’re going to have to move to the country. Dallas isn’t the same,’” he recalled.
Although Wernick was the last contender to enter the four-candidate race, Schultz has spent recent months playing catch-up and countering the law enforcement-focused narrative being driven by Wernick. “I think Jaynie probably would have been a runaway [victor] if Barry hadn’t entered the race when he did,” said Wilke.
But Schultz said that had their roles been reversed, she wouldn’t have entered the race. “Had Barry already filed to run months before, as I did, I don’t think I would have run against him. I wouldn’t have done that to my community,” Schultz claimed in an interview with JI.
This race marks the first time either candidate has run for public office, although both have been active in civic life for a long time — and for both of them, a connection to Judaism and to Israel has guided their work.
When Wernick was growing up in Dallas, his father was a rabbi at a large Conservative synagogue, but he abandoned his family and his congregation when Wernick was young. “Although my father was a rabbi when he left, he didn’t take our religion with him. My mother always instilled strong faith in us,” said Wernick.
During college at the University of Texas at Austin, he studied in Russia, having learned some Russian from his grandmother as a child. Coming of age during the Cold War, Wernick felt that “learning the language or something of our enemy was something that I thought would be useful,” he said. He later spent time in Israel, working with Russian and Ethiopian immigrants to help them acclimate to Israeli society. When he returned to Texas, he got involved with the Zionist Organization of America.
Now Wernick is a practicing attorney, but earlier in his career he gave acting a try. He filmed some commercials in New York, and for two-and-a-half seasons he served as a stand-in for the Mr. Big character on Sex and the City. “It’s an actor who’s actually on the crew side,” Wernick explained. “You are blocking each scene for the actual actor who comes in later to shoot the scene because they need to get the lighting right. They want to see where their cameras are moving.”
Throughout his life, Wernick has dabbled in filmmaking. He produced a 2007 documentary called “Kosher Chili Cook-Off,” about Jewish identity in Texas, and a 2012 fantasy-horror movie called “Bad Kids Go to Hell,” based on a comic book he authored. (Schultz and her family wanted to support the project, “but it was so violent that I couldn’t watch it,” she said. “We tried to help at the beginning, because here’s someone trying to do something interesting and find a career. And once I saw a little piece of it, I couldn’t watch anymore.”)
Texas eventually called Wernick home. “It was bucolic. Dallas had everything,” he said. “That’s why I moved back here 13 years ago, to find my Texas girl.” He is currently producing a film about the unsolved murder of his wife’s sister, who was 28 when she was killed 19 years ago.
Schultz’s family has deep philanthropic roots in the Dallas community. Her father Howard Schultz — no relation to the Starbucks founder — was a financial entrepreneur who founded the first global audit recovery business, and who has been a prominent donor to Jewish causes.
Schultz inherited an interest in civic life from her parents. “I’ve been interested in and involved with municipal politics and municipal issues since I was 15 years old,” Schultz said. “Through [my] public high school, I got an internship at City Hall.”
After graduating from UT Austin (like Wernick) and then earning a master’s degree in urban studies at the school’s Arlington campus, she worked with her mother to create a retreat center for small businesses to host conferences and events. At the same time, “I also got very involved in the national — rather than the local — Jewish community; I got involved with the early creation of the whole day school movement,” Schultz said. She was an inaugural board member for Moishe House, a national organization that creates communal spaces for Jews in their 20s around the country.
Her connection to the Dallas Jewish community came naturally. “My family, which has been a very prominent philanthropic family here in Dallas, has been investing in the local community, through the day schools, through the creation of programs,” she explained. “One’s called Schultz Fellows, that takes local Jewish educators and religious schools and day schools — and now this newest cohort will be youth leaders — to Israel.”
Schultz’s involvement with the Dallas Jewish community has included some challenging moments. About 20 years ago, during her time as the board chair of the Akiba Academy, the day school both she and Wernick attended, “there was the split in our community between the Modern and ultra-Orthodox, and I was the board chair,” she recalled. “I saw the pain that that caused, [and] I was determined at that point that everything that I do would be about bringing people together.”
Around the same time, she got a call from an Ethiopian doctor who said that two Ethiopian boys would be coming to Dallas for surgery, and asked if Schultz would host them. She agreed. “We had four other kids, so we ended up with six kids between the ages of 2 and 9. It was the best thing that ever happened to our family. The boys helped us see the world in a different way,” she said. “It helped my kids really understand who true heroes are because those kids who didn’t speak a word of English came to this totally foreign country. They were living on the streets [in Ethiopia], and they got to be part of our family.”
One of the boys eventually came back to live with Schultz’s family when he was in high school, and he recently sent her a video — the now-27-year-old works at a travel company in Ethiopia — saying why people should vote for her in the race. “I was actually sitting at the polling place, and he messaged me on Facebook and said, ‘Ima, are you okay with me posting this?’ and I just started sobbing,” Schultz noted, using the Hebrew word for mother. “All the other candidates are like, ‘What is wrong with you?’”
The race has not been easy for the Jewish community.
A self-described conservative, Wernick said he views the race as pure politics, and not a knock on Schultz, whom he has known for most of his life. “This is not something personal, and it shouldn’t be,” said Wernick. “It shouldn’t divide the community.”
Yet the race already has. Residents of the North Dallas neighborhood at the heart of District 11 received mailers last month from a dark money group called Keep Dallas Safe that called Schultz a “Radical Leftist committed to DEFUNDING the Police … Stands With RIOTS, LOOTERS and GANG MEMBERS.”
Wernick denied any connection to Keep Dallas Safe, but he also did not condemn the mailers. His campaign has also sent mailers criticizing Schultz, using similar language and imagery that she says misrepresents her beliefs. “When rioters burned down cities in America, and some looters destroyed small businesses in Dallas, some ‘leaders’ justified the violence,” said one Wernick campaign mailer, which featured an image of a convenience store on fire. It included a screenshot of a post on Schultz’s Facebook page that said “No justice, no peace.”
She said the image was photoshopped to exclude the rest of the post, which she had shared from Moishe House. Schultz has not yet sent any mailers mentioning Wernick by name, but told JI that she plans to before election day.
“These mailers are making people feel like they ought to be scared, and there’s no reason for them to be scared,” Schultz said. Overall crime in the district remained about even from 2019 to 2020, according to Dallas Police Department data, but the category of “crimes against person” — including assault and rape — increased by 10%.
Schultz is well-known in the area for her involvement with both local and national Jewish organizations, including area day schools, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America. This race is her first time running for public office. “I am a nonpartisan centrist,” said Schultz, “which honestly hasn’t helped my campaign in that sense, because it’s gone very partisan.”
Some conservatives are skeptical of that claim, because she has donated money to Democratic candidates in the past, including $2,550 last year. “Jaynie is sort of hiding her liberalism, because she knows this is a mostly Republican, conservative district, and she wants to win. So she’s trying to come across as a moderate,” claimed Candy Evans, a local real estate agent and blogger who also ran in District 11 but was eliminated after receiving the fewest votes. She has endorsed Wernick in the run-off, while a fourth candidate who also ran for the seat — Hosanna Yemiru, a 23-year-old progressive — has endorsed Schultz.
But Evans’s claim isn’t quite true, either: The area has moved markedly left in recent years. In 2018, Democratic Rep. Colin Allred beat incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who had represented the area in Congress for 22 years. (Sessions was elected to Congress again in 2020 in a different district, now representing Waco and College Station.) Allred’s congressional district, which includes much of the council district that Schultz and Wernick want to represent, narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016; last year, Biden won the district in a 10-point landslide. The shifting politics might work in Schultz’s favor if she were to declare herself a liberal, but she has avoided labels.
“She’s really tried to run in a nonpartisan race that talks about the needs of the city of Dallas, and it’s been sad to watch Barry try to nationalize it and really talk about things that the city council doesn’t even do but that rile up a partisan feeling,” said Betsy Kleinman, a local Democratic activist who grew up with Wernick’s brother and who is supporting Schultz in the race.
Wernick doesn’t deny that he has brought partisanship into the race. “I’m obviously conservative. I’ve never hid from that,” said Wernick.
“I think he figured out very astutely, by the way, that there’s an appetite for [the politics], even within portions of the Jewish community, which he is seeking to represent,” said Bradley Laye, who served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas until 2019. He is supporting Schultz in the race.
With her recent stint on the City Plan Commission, Schultz is not new to urban issues. Wernick, though, has focused on national politics. “I never really paid that much attention to the local level, but last summer, it hit me, like, wow, you’ve got rioters burning down cities across the country. You’ve got looters destroying small businesses in my own hometown here in Dallas,” Wernick said. Rather than infrastructure, property taxes, or any other issues, “the number one thing that should be taken care of is our public safety,” he said.
Both candidates agree on this. “Neither of us is interested in cutting that public safety budget,” said Schultz. But Wernick insists — without evidence — that she is being disingenuous. “How strong is her conviction toward making public safety a number one priority issue? Or is she doing it simply to get the votes because she knows that’s what she needs to do?” Wernick asked.
“My [opponent] has consistently lied about my stance on public safety,” Schultz claimed. One challenge for Schultz is that the district’s current council member, Lee Kleinman, has endorsed her. (Kleinman is the brother-in-law of Betsy Kleinman.) Kleinman voted not only to cut funding for police overtime in the fall, he also voted against the overall city budget that increased police spending. “In some way she may be paying the price for that endorsement,” said Evans.
Schultz has tried to make the case that she and Kleinman are not the same. “I would not have voted to reduce overtime as my predecessor did last spring,” she said. In fact, Schultz added, “I would support what the new chief requests,” suggesting that she would want to increase police spending.
Still, her detractors continue to paint her as an opponent of the police. “[Wernick] is the pro-police candidate and the other candidate is not,” said Benji Gershon, president and founder of Dallas Jewish Conservatives, a political organization that is supporting Wernick.
Policy positions are not the only matters subject to manipulation and falsehoods in this campaign. Both candidates have accused the other’s campaign of stealing their respective yard signs. Schultz said she heard from a rabbi that someone had spread the rumor that she supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel — which both she and Wernick acknowledge is outlandish and untrue. These conversations have played out in conversations on the hyperlocal, neighborhood-focused social media app NextDoor and in Facebook groups both public and private.
“The Jewish community, I would say, 20 years ago was really very united for the most part,” said Betsy Kleinman. “With the election of Obama, things started fracturing more. Then with the election of Trump, they started polarizing more, so I think there’s been a realignment. People have sort of gone with the people they’re more like-minded with politically in the Jewish community.” This is not unique to the Jewish community: A poll released by Pew in September 2020 showed that about 40% of both Trump and Biden supporters had no close friends who supported the other candidate.
Still, both Wernick and Schultz told JI that they don’t expect the results of this race to entrench some permanent divide in the community.
“I would never ever hold it against anyone who voted against me, ever, and so I hope that when this election is over, there won’t be any further division,” noted Schultz.
Wernick echoed those sentiments. “This is a political race. Whoever wins, wins; whoever loses, loses. We won’t stop davening together,” he said.
Sharon Wisch-Ray, the longtime publisher and editor of the Texas Jewish Press, said the Dallas Jewish community is unique in its ability to overcome political boundaries.
“I’ve heard over and over from people that have come from outside of Dallas and gotten involved with the Dallas Jewish community, who are always amazed that people from both sides of the aisle and different streams of Judaism come together and work collaboratively with one another to get things done,” said Wisch-Ray.