The Tyler Loop interview: Don Warren, candidate for city of Tyler mayor

📷 courtesy Don Warren

On the first cool morning of the fall, Claire Wallace met Don Warren, a candidate for mayor, at Bergfeld Park for an interview over his platform for the city. Since his decision to run for mayor two years ago, Warren has been documenting the city’s and its citizens’ greatest needs. But to truly be a great representative, he says, all you have to do is “listen.” 

Warren, a third-term city council member, is a native Tylerite. He’s a “product of TISD,” having attended Bell Elementary, Moore Middle School and Tyler Legacy High School. After Texas Tech University in Lubbock, he spent only a year away in Dallas before returning to Tyler to work in the oil and gas industry. Now, he owns Lomoco, Inc., a small local oil and gas asset management firm he formed in 1994.

Warren has served six years on Tyler City Council as the representatives for District 4, a large swath of Tyler including much of midtown and downtown, as well as the hospital district and Tyler Junior College. He has served on the boards of many local nonprofits, including the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission, Tyler Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Business Alliance and the Smith County Child Welfare Board.

Additionally, Warren has served on the Tyler Economic Development Council, the Behavioral Health Leadership Team, volunteered on Tyler Planning and Zoning Commission and was Co-Chair of the Tyler Arts Center Task Force.

Wallace and Warren’s conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re a third-term city councilman for District 4. What made you decide to run for mayor?

Being on city council for three terms, I determined that you can make things happen. And we did make things happen over the six year period. Because of the ability to do that, I want to continue making things happen. As we sit here today at Bergfeld Park, this is just an example of how you can make things happen. I was asked in 2013 to spearhead the revitalization of Bergfeld Park, and I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” So we started off with a master plan and we’ve raised a million dollars privately to redo the playground, the amphitheater, the splash pad. The city matched it dollar for dollar. When you see something like this happen, where you had a public-private partnership, it works. So there’s more to being on council than just going to meetings — it’s being really involved in developing relationships. Over the course of my lifetime, living in Tyler, I’ve just developed a lot of relationships. My theory is that with relationships you can make things happen.

So you’re a Tyler native?

I’ve lived here all my life. I went to Bell, Moore and Lee, so I’m a product of TISD. I’m married to Chelli. I’ve got two grown daughters, six grandkids. I just found out that I’ve got a seventh on the way.

Congratulations!

I’m excited about that. I left to go to school in Lubbock and graduated from Texas Tech University and lived about a year in Dallas and then came back to Tyler as quick as I could.

Warren shops with kids and peace officers at Blue Santa event, December, 2019.

You’ve served on many boards in Tyler — Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Business Alliance, the Housing Council for East Texas Human Needs Network just to name a few. Have those experiences prepared you for being mayor? 

Well, it’s back to the relationships. When you think of the different nonprofits and boards that I’ve been on or worked with, you get these connections. People call me up and say, “Hey, I need a job,” and I’m able to have the contacts to say, “Well, why don’t you call so-and-so.” The more you get out and about, the bigger you make your pond just by being out in the public.

You know, the nonprofits that I work with are things that I care about. I have served on boards and have felt worthless, but it’s really because it wasn’t a passion. So whatever you say [I’m] involved with is something that I’m passionate about. It’s something that I get fired up about going to meetings, and I like to have  input, and I like to see things occur and not meet just to meet.

Our executive director, Jane Neal, had the opportunity to hear from you, Mayor Heines and Ed Broussard at Leadership Tyler’s governance day last year. Some of the conversation was around the city’s relationship to East Texas nonprofits. She took particular notice when Mayor Heines said, “We (the city) get out of way to let nonprofits do what they do best.” Would you agree with his perspective on the role of the city and its relationship to our residents’ unmet needs, like poverty and access to mental health? How might you imagine the role and responsibility of a city to its people? 

That’s a great question. For the most part, I agree with Mayor Heines. We have 1,100 nonprofits in Smith County. One thing that I’ve really watched and been a part of is to make sure that there’s not duplication in these nonprofits and that also there are not gaps that are not being fulfilled.

The people that live in Tyler, it’s a very giving community, and the people that live here support financially all these nonprofits. So the city, we have low property tax. We are here more as policymakers and to make sure that your trash is picked up and that your sewer works and that you have water, more so than it is for us to get involved in social issues.

I think the people that are in these nonprofits, they’re the experts, whether you’re dealing with homelessness, that’s where Hiway 80 Rescue Mission should come in and be a part of solving and helping address homelessness. Now I serve on that board and they know the rules, they know how it works. I’m there in an advisory capacity, but all these nonprofits that I’ve been involved with, they do their jobs much better than the city government can.

I’m going to push back a little bit on that because I think, especially in an election year, especially amid an economic downturn with high rates of unemployment, I think a lot of people today would argue that local government’s job is to get into social issues and to help policy. What would you say to people who think that?

Well, I guess I would want an example of what do people think that the community should get involved with from a social aspect. I’ll say this, you know, when you see cities that want to defund police or that type of deal, I’m a big proponent of going out and engaging with members of the community. We recently did a radio show that involved the NAACP and some African-American pastors, some white pastors [and] me and we engaged in this conversation of what are we gonna do about race relations after the death of George Floyd? I  think it’s a conversation that we need to have not only with other leaders in the community but also with people that just live in the community so that everybody’s voice is represented.

When you talk about social issues, it’s the conversations like that I want to have, so I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have the conversations, but we aren’t the experts to deal with some of the things you may be talking about.

I sat with the police chief the other day for an hour and a half, and we just talked about, “How are you doing, how are your guys, do they feel the support that they need to feel from the community?” I want to make sure the police are encouraged and they have the tools they need to keep us safe. But if we’re going to talk about mental illness, there’s the behavioral health leadership team. You know, if we want to talk about poverty, we have neighborhood services, but we also have East Texas Human Needs Network that works with poverty. I deal with poverty dealing with Hi-Way 80 Rescue Mission.

So just because we don’t attempt to solve the problems of social issues doesn’t mean that I don’t want to have conversations regarding social issues.

Warren with friends at National Night Out, an event to bring police officers, elected officials and citizens closer together, October, 2019.

On your campaign site, you’ve said you’re dedicated to “protecting our quality of life, ensuring the health and safety of our residents” and “bridging divides” when needed. Walk me through what that will look like through policy.

Well, it goes back to just having a conversation. When I was first elected to city council, I was told by another elected official, “Don’t forget about people on the east side.” Well, what she was telling me was, “Don, get out of your comfort zone and represent the people in North Tyler, East Tyler, South Tyler, West Tyler, represent the entire community.”

So over the past six years as a councilperson, I have reached out to all the different aspects of the community. I’m on the board of the Hispanic Business Alliance and I love it. I work with churches in North Tyler and I love it. But bridging the gap is developing those relationships so that if something does occur and you need to go bridge a gap, you can go straight to the person and bridge that gap.

Now, this may be getting off-topic of your question, but one of the best things about this park is that it’s very diverse. When you come over here, you see whites, African-Americans, you see Hispanics, you see the whole city. That’s probably why I love this park, cause it really represents the population of our community.

These are people that come here and the kids get on the playground. They don’t care what color other kids are, they just want to play and they make friends whether you’re here or in the amphitheater or wherever else, it’s the kids that are developing these friendships, and they don’t care. They just want to have fun.

Warren poses with a Tyler resident at National Night Out, October, 2019.

Let’s focus on the “health and safety of our residents” because I think that’s a particularly topical point that you make on your site when you’re talking about commitments to the city since we’re in the middle of a pandemic. With you as mayor, what would that look like through policy?

Well, I think we’re doing a good job. We can do a better job. This has been going on since March and the first few months everybody was terrified cause nobody knew what to expect. We had the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) meetings daily where the mayor and the (County) judge and the doctors were talking about everything that needed to occur, but nobody knew what was going to happen. I think now we have a better understanding or better idea of what’s going to happen, but it really is going to require people’s participation in doing what the governor has recommended that we do. Whether it’s wearing a mask or washing your hands or putting your head in the crook of your arm when you sneeze, people have got to be responsible. From my viewpoint, it’s gotten better because people are being responsible.

I just came back from Colorado and the town that I was in, everybody wore masks everywhere except for if they were up hiking, and some people were wearing them hiking. They have a very low COVID outbreak. So I’m not saying masks are the answer, but I think it’s something that needs to be done. I wear them to the store, I wear them to the post office, not only for me but out of respect for others in the community. So I would strongly encourage people to play by the rules and just be respectful of one another.

Let’s talk about the biggest needs you see in Tyler that you would address as mayor.

Two years ago when I decided to run for mayor, I started making the list of needs in the community. We’ve got public-private partnerships, we’ve got public safety, we’ve got traffic lights, we’ve got traffic problems, we’ve got infrastructure that’s aging. We’ve got so many issues that we need to address every day. But since the start of COVID, it has shifted somewhat. So what are our immediate needs? The things I just said are still immediate, but we’ve got to come together as a community and embrace each other to get through this pandemic. And while we’ll continue to work on the infrastructure and all that, we do need to have these conversations regarding racial relationships. We need to encourage businesses to start back up.

There are challenges, but the one thing that people don’t realize is that we’ve gone through this pandemic and everybody thinks the city of Tyler is in crisis, and how are we going to make it through this financially? Well, our sales tax this year to date over last year is up 1%.

So while we had a shutdown for two months. Once that let up, people have gone shopping, whether it’s online or going to Home Depot or Lowe’s or wherever, but we have a resilient community and people have really bounced back and they’re out shopping. It hasn’t hit us as hard as it hit other communities.

We’ve talked about these public-private partnerships a lot. For people who wouldn’t know what that is or what function it plays in government, could you explain it to them?

A public-private partnership is a win-win deal. This park is an example of that, where people put in their private money and the city matches it, in this particular case with the half-cent fund. This is how this happened. Another example of a successful public-private partnership is with Hillside Park over on Erwin and Fleishel. As a matter of fact, Hillside Park is going to be winning an award at the Texas Municipal League this next month. Hiland Dairy, who is the dairy up the hill from Hillside Park, I talked to the general manager there about the park. They said, “We’ve got an idea. How about if we donate 5% of our sales for the next two months to go towards Hillside Park,” which they did, and it helped pay for the art wall, so that’s another example of a successful public-private partnership. Now, when you see buildings in the community, whether it’s at TJC or UT Tyler or Texas College, you see buildings that have somebody’s name on them. It’s usually because they gave some money. And so I’m a firm believer in, “don’t let your dreams and your visions be shattered because you don’t have the money to pay for it.” If you don’t have the money to pay for it, go out and raise some money to pay for it. So hopefully over the next few years, you’re going to see things happen in Tyler. And you’re going to see somebody’s name on a building that meant that’s another successful public-private partnership.

Warren at the opening of “Splasher” splash pad, Bergfeld Park, July, 2019.

Do you have any civil projects you’re excited about?

There’s some projects in the pipeline that will be coming up, but we’re always thinking ahead. Personally, I’ve got some things that I want to see happen.

I’m curious about the downtown revitalization. Is that something that you would be looking at as mayor?

That one gave me chill bumps. I love downtown. My office is downtown. I’m a huge proponent of downtown. I have coffee every morning downtown with a group of guys and have for years. I know the traffic, I know the people, I know what’s in people’s heart to see what’s happening downtown, and there’s more happening. As a matter of fact, tomorrow morning, we’re having a groundbreaking for a project that’s 18 townhomes on the old King Chevrolet property. I’ve worked very closely with Mr. Hersey on that project to help him make it happen. There’s other projects downtown that are in the works. Someone just bought the old bus station, someone I’ve heard had bought the unclaimed furniture store. Clint Childs and Martin Heines just finished the 308 building. It’s got five lofts upstairs and retail on the bottom.

There’s a lot of stuff going on downtown that is really setting things off. So in the future, I think it’s really going to be a hotspot.

Let’s take a moment to talk about your platform. You emphasize “safety, community, projects, infrastructure and leadership.” Break those down for me.

Well in the city of Tyler, a citizen survey was conducted several years ago. What are you happy with? What are you not happy with? Well, one of the highest-ranking things that citizens are happy with is public safety. It scored 88.

That’s high. I’m excited about that. So the people that live here, they’re happy with the police and fire. We have community response officers to go out and meet with citizens and connect. You got Ms. Long and Chuck Boyce,  you have several people that go out and they meet people and know people by their names. So public safety is in a good spot. We’re up to 200 officers in the police department so there is no defunding. I mean, we’re actually adding cause we want to make sure that we have a safe community and I feel like we do have a safe community.

What about community?

Community is extremely important. I’ve already said this before, it’s just about bringing the community together. But I really mean it. We have meetings quarterly, or we did before COVID, where we’d have church and community meetings at various churches. And this was a platform that gave people, whether you’re living in that neighborhood, that part of town, whatever, you come and you’re able to and you’re able to express your thoughts or your opinions. You’ve got police there that can respond. You’ve got elected officials there that can respond. So the community is a very important thing.

You’ll notice if you’ve looked at any of my literature that my campaign slogan is “For all of Tyler.” When I say “For all of Tyler,” probably the number one thing I think about is growth that affects the entire community and not just South Tyler. South Tyler is going to grow by itself. So if we need to do things that have helped expand growth in Northwest and East Tyler, I’m going to work on that.

Warren and his family pause to enjoy the Bergfeld Park additions, December, 2018.

South Tyler is booming — it’s huge. But I think there’s been another shift of focus, especially in town to really focus on the northern parts of Tyler, the parts of Tyler that were traditionally segregated and underfunded. So as mayor, would you try to enforce policies that would help growth there?

Yes. Yesterday something occurred at the city council meeting that I have worked on behind the scenes and that’s lowering the number of square feet that you need to have in a house to be able to get assistance from the city. It went from 1,600 square feet to 1,300 square feet. So if this provides more rooftops in North Tyler through these incentives, I think it’s great. You know, one thing I would like to do, and this is going to sound kind of crazy, but if we’ve got a block somewhere that has homes that all need to be torn down, let’s tear them down and let’s get a builder to go in and build an entire block of homes that are affordable. And maybe this will be contagious to the next block. I have talked to builders about doing something like this. Have I talked to the perfect guy? Not yet, but I’m really pushing for more rooftops in North Tyler.

We do have a new development going on just north of Willowbrook Country Club. It’ll be about 120 units and that’s a big deal. That’s a high dollar, big, big deal. I’ve been involved behind the scenes on that, trying to make sure that that does happen and doesn’t fall through the cracks.

While we’re on the subject of building things, let’s talk infrastructure.

Well, the whole infrastructure deal is so big, and let’s just start off with sewer. Over a 10 year period we started three years ago, we’re in the midst of redoing our sewer system at a cost of $250 million. We got in a little trouble with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and as part of the consent decree, we’re required to improve the sewer system, which we’re doing. We’re putting some money, maybe not enough money, into new water lines. Some of our water lines are old. People see the flushing of the fire hydrants and people say, “Well, why are you wasting the water?” Well, we’re not wasting the water as much as we’re trying to keep the water that’s in the lines fresh. If you have an end of a line, the water sits there and becomes stagnant and you don’t want that to be running into your house. So we have to flush the hydrants to keep the water fresh.

So that’s water, you got sewer and you got drainage. I got an email from a guy yesterday about drainage. That’s going to be a huge problem going forward. But if you look at our capital improvement projects over the past couple of years, we are addressing them one by one. Now we’re doing a study, which is a drainage study of the city, and this will be similar to how we conduct studies on our streets and everything will be graded. The projects that are needed the most will be dealt with first. So the first thing you gotta do is to identify where are the major problems, and score them and fix them in the order in which they’re they’re listed.

So drainage, sewer, water. What am I missing? You got the traffic signal.

Traffic is crazy here, but to me, it’s good crazy, because good crazy means people are out shopping. If you drove around in March or April, you didn’t see any traffic, but you didn’t see anybody spending any money either. So now you’ve got traffic again, and that just means people are out spending their money.

One thing that I would encourage residents to do, and I do this myself, is to avoid South Broadway at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If I gotta be on South Broadway when I know it’s going to be crowded, I do like UPS. I make every turn from a business a right turn. I do all my shopping on the east side of Broadway, I get to the bottom and I turn around, I come up the other side of the street. So it’s just, to me, the way to drive. The little secret I have is when I go down Broadway, if I can figure out a way to drive between 37 and 42 miles an hour, I can almost hit the lights just about right where I can go all the way to Cumberland Village without hitting a red light. But sometimes the other people don’t allow you to go at that speed, so it’s hard to deal with it.

But the realistic way to deal with all the traffic is we’ve just conducted a traffic study and we’ve gotten the results. Over the next 10 years, we’ll spend $12.3 million improving the lights and getting it to where the lights speak and talk to one another.

Because if you’re downtown, say 10 on a Sunday morning, and there’s very little traffic and you’re sitting at a red light and there’s no cars anywhere. You’re thinking, “Why am I sitting at a red light?” It’s because that line is not talking to the light at the intersection before or after, saying there’s no cars here. So if there were no cars, the light should be green. So this is what we need, it’s called being a “smart city.” And we need to improve the technology to where we’ve got that infrastructure in place to where we can have that system where the lights do talk to each other.

Tyler is a rapidly growing city and with it, our demographics are changing fast. We’re becoming younger and far more diverse. As mayor, how would you keep in touch with this city’s citizens and their wants and needs? 

One of the most important things I think about being a mayor is being a good listener. I recently read that, of all the things we do, we listen to 65% of the time, we speak 25% of the time and we write 10% of the time. When we go to school, they teach us how to speak and to write, but not to listen.

To hear what the community and the people have to say no matter who they are, you have to be accessible. More people have my cell phone than you’d believe. I answer my cell phone all the time. So I think the number one thing for people that want to reach out to their elected officials, whether you’re a city councilman or a mayor, is to call them up. I meet with people nonstop at coffee shops just to talk to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re mad about an issue or you’re glad about an issue — you can’t run from it and people want to be heard.

The grand opening of Centene Stage at Berfeld Park, which opted for a “jump start” rather than a ribbon cutting.📷 Chelsea Purgahn/Tyler Morning Telegraph

So we talked about coffee twice in this interview. So I’m curious, what is your favorite order coffee?

Well, I like black. It’s just gotta be black. My wife, when she makes coffee at home, it’s a little bit weak. And so when I get coffee, I like it to just almost have a little bit of a bite, but I have a cup at the house and a cup at the coffee shop. As I said, I have a group of guys there every morning and we talk about city issues and over the course of the hour that we speak, people come up that are just part of the community and say, “Hey, Don, do you have a second?” I say sure. So it’s just about being open, going back to what we were talking about a minute ago.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you would want people to know?

The most important thing I think about being mayor is not trying to manage people as much as it is just about your character and talking to your employees and your staff and saying “good job.” There’s nobody on the face of this earth that doesn’t want to be told “good job.” My goal is to be that person that encourages staff, encourages employees, and says “good job.” I want the morale in the community and especially for the people who work for the city of Tyler, I want it to be positive.  Whether you’re picking up the trash at the park or you’re a policeman out keeping people safe, it’s important for everybody to know that they are important and that what they do matters and we appreciate what they do.

Joel Rando, mayoral candidate statement

Rando’s statement has been edited for clarity and length.

I’m so excited to be running again for mayor. Many people have asked for help with their businesses. Many people have been without a voice. I’ve tried to do my best to help our community. I’m excited to become the next volunteer mayor to help people have a voice and better economic outlook.

As mayor, I will stand up for our freedoms and our constitution. I believe in the Second Amendment.

Our city employees are our life line. I promise to listen to them and give them the resources and assistance that they need. Our water lines are old and decaying. We need better waste services. Water, waste water, drainage, smooth roads, streets, low taxes and a more robust economy. We need someone to speak for local mom and pop shops. People are Tyler, not structures and buildings. Permits are higher than ever and tax assessment is up. Some businesses are blocked and shunned. How can we help businesses when we add high hurdles that some can’t reach?

The north side of Tyler will definitely be a huge focus if I’m elected. North Tyler will be improved if elected. We need more rooftops and businesses there. Our crime needs to be lowered every day. I stand with our brave men and women in blue. The police and firefighters will get everything they ask for. We need them to have a safe and productive everyday life. We need a bigger budget. Our roads are really bad in certain spots. They need more than a patch up.

The city placed a homeless shelter called Gateway to Hope/ Hi-way 80 Rescue Mission there on Valentine Street. It was a bad idea. Especially placing it next to a house. Tapatios Grill is across the street from it. That restaurant has suffered economic hardship and loss of safety for almost a decade. They have tried for years to get the city to move it but to no avail. They begged the city not to place it in a residential neighborhood but were ignored. The Mexican families there have countless stories of property damage and crimes. Some are unreported because they are here illegally.

If elected, I will listen to the residents and businesses there and move the homeless shelter to an area less populated and more industrial. Someone has to listen to our citizens.

We all want safe streets and clean drinking water. We want safe schools and good roads. I-20 is on the north side of Tyler and we should beautify this area more. It is the first thing visitors see. I am confident that I can do a great job if I just am given a chance. I never quit and I am clearly the best option for our mayor.

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Claire Wallace, a Loop 2019 summer intern, is a senior in the Mass Communication department at The University of Texas at Tyler; she graduates in December 2019. She attends the university as part of the Honors Program. Wallace is Editor-in-Chief of Patriot Student Media Products, which houses The Patriot, U.T. Tyler's student-run newspaper, as well as other broadcast and multimedia avenues. Wallace has lead the recent revitalization of The Patriot and built it to be a digital-first platform by creating a new website, using social media news-reporting, and adding new aspects such as podcasts. Wallace works at the university as a lab technician in the Mass Communication department and is the social media advisor for the Communications Club. Wallace hopes to one day work as an investigative journalist. She believes to be a journalist, it is important to be curious, passionate, and dedicated, and that journalism is an integral aspect of creating change and informing the public. Wallace looks forward to expanding her abilities with The Tyler Loop.
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