DALLAS — Wherever Dwaine Caraway goes, people tend to follow. It's just how it's always been.
It was the case for the decade when he was on Dallas City Council -- and for the four-month stint he served as interim mayor of the city, too.
It was the case when his citywide campaign against sagging pants in the youth community landed him a nationally aired guest appearance on "Dr. Phil."
It was certainly the case when his political career blew up in scandal, and he pleaded guilty to accepting more than $450,000 in bribes from the promoters of a school bus stop-arm camera system in exchange for advocating that system’s widespread adoption throughout the area. That impropriety landed him more than four years in federal prison -- a stint he wrapped in August of last year when he was released five months early from his sentence for cooperation in another case in which he was involved.
And so it was also the case again around noon on Wednesday at Sankofa Kitchen in the Redbird neighborhood of Dallas, as Caraway sat with down with Jason Whitely for a special episode of the Y'all-itics podcast: Caraway's first in-depth, on-camera interview since being released from his incarceration.
"Folks know me no matter where I go," he said on Wednesday, laughing as he explained to Whitely -- and the dozen or so community leaders that somehow found their way to his audience at Sankofa during the podcast's recording -- that it's the reason he keeps multiple cell phones on him at all times.
No surprise then: He said people tended to follow him in prison, too.
People just like to talk with Caraway. And he likes to talk back.
At one time, Caraway was among the most powerful politicians at Dallas City Hall. Could he one day be again? Well, not officially: Part of his sentencing prohibits him from being elected to City Council ever again.
Still, he's working on and plotting his comeback -- because he believes the City of Dallas still needs him. But in what capacity? That part's still a bit up in the air.
Over the course of his 45-minute Y'all-itics discussion, Caraway hit on a number of topics -- his time in prison, his thoughts on how to rectify issues of corruption like his at City Hall, even plans to write a memoir he's thinking he'll call "Circles of Deception" -- but he was clear on one thing: In the time he was gone and serving time at the Big Spring Federal Correction Institution near Midland, he believes Dallas has regressed.
He's quick to pull out one of those cell phones he keeps on him for proof. There, he keeps a number of photos he's been taking of trash piled up along the sides of the roads in the old district he used to represent in Oak Cliff. But that's just the start.
Caraway isn't pleased about what he describes as a surge in crime across the city while he was gone. (Crime stats from the Dallas Police Department actually argue the opposite, but let's not let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.)
Same as ever, Caraway is also still fed up about the lack of investment in minority neighborhoods south of Interstate 30 -- and the lip service he said he's heard his whole life about how that's soon going to change.
For what it's worth, he's also not exactly thrilled the Dallas Cowboys recently traded wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns. ("I thought he was a nice young man and a good player," Caraway said.)
So how will he work to fix all that if he can't be elected to public office? Would you be surprised to hear Caraway has an answer there, too?
"I may run for president of the NAACP the way it looks," he said Wednesday. "I'm going to remain involved. Because if the work you're doing is sincere -- if I'm sincere in representing this community and my community and this city -- that doesn't disappear when you come back if you were serious from the beginning. So I'll stay involved, somehow... but I don’t want to be a one-man show. I want to be a unified show and get people to be involved. So we can, as a community, clean up our community. It's not just me."
Of course, big visions and projects take time to complete. Baby steps can get you there -- or at least started along the path.
Take, for instance, the more than $565,000 he owes in restitution for his crimes. The courts say he is paying that down -- $25 a month -- with $300 paid in total so far.
It's a start, maybe.
Perhaps more important to Caraway is not stopping. Or, really, just not getting distracted by his own past misdeeds.
"Association will tie you up," he said in the podcast interview, reminiscing about how he got wrapped up in scandal and sent to prison. "I encourage folks to be careful, because you don't have to know people to be able to get into trouble. But I should have known better. Let me say that."
So: Does he have any regrets about his school bus dealings? He said he's "not happy" about it. He regrets letting people down. He apologizes for that.
"Listen, the entire city council voted for that," he said of the bus program that was his undoing, remarking that how -- despite his wrongdoings -- the program was ultimately aimed at improving safety for schoolchildren. "It was such a great idea. And so why would we not do that and implement that? I wasn’t doing anything wrong... What did I do? I have a right to work. For somebody to say that a consultant fee for something that is not against the law... at the end of the day, it had nothing to do with what was said, but it had all to do with why I went and did what I did. So I'm going to take that."
In prison, Caraway took it by making what he figured was the best of a bad situation. With his warden's approval, he taught classes to other inmates on recidivism, among other topics.
Pressed on it, he doesn't seem to really mind having served his time very much at all.
"That was one of the greatest experiences of my life," Caraway said of seeing how the other half lives. "To [not] just be able to see how policy is set, but to then go on the inside and see if it's being followed."
So, again: What will follow prison for Caraway? What's next? How will he he stay relevant?
"I'm not determined to stay relevant," he said. "I am going to continue -- the word is continue -- to stay relevant. [I'm going to] continue to look out for the kids, continue to educate, continue to open up doors, continue to help people."
Sure, but how will that manifest?
Give him a little more time.
"I'm back, and I'm here," Caraway said on Wednesday. "I will continue to do the things that I’m so proud to do, and that’s looking after the City of Dallas. I love the City of Dallas."