Accountability time

Grassroots political group demands straight answers

Darrell Jordan is having second thoughts.
The Dallas mayoral candidate had promised to join his two top rivals, Ron Kirk and Domingo Garcia, at an April 23 political event at Roosevelt High School in Dallas. The event is an "accountability session"--the first such mayoral-election event organized by Dallas Area Interfaith (DAI), a community organization that 60 area churches and synagogues have sponsored.

The one-hour afternoon program will provide ordinary citizens--at least 1,500, DAI leaders hope--an opportunity to extract unwavering commitments from candidates on a wish list of projects and programs, including city-funded after-school and jobs programs. DAI leaders will give the candidates a list of proposals. Then they will ask the politicians to stand up individually before the crowd and provide a simple "yes" or "no" answer to each request.

Reached at his downtown law office last week, Jordan, a former Texas State Bar president, initially told the Observer he planned to attend the event. But when he learned that he would be expected to utter only a monosyllabic answer on whether, for example, he would commit to spending $2 million in city funds for a jobs program, he began to equivocate. "I appreciate you telling me these things," said Jordan, a partner at Hughes & Luce. "I'd better do a little more research."

When he heard that the same yes or no would be required on an after-school program that would cost the city about $1 million, Jordan became even less certain. "I'm not sure from your description that it sounds like my crowd too much," said Jordan.

DAI's full-time lead organizer, Sister Christine Stephens, insists that the point of an accountability session is not intimidation. But, like Jordan, political candidates across the state have expressed trepidation about such events.

DAI is affiliated with similar grass-roots organizations in other Texas cities, which have been conducting accountability sessions for more than a decade. The most prominent of the Texas groups is San Antonio's COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), which draws its membership heavily from Catholic churches in low-income Hispanic neighborhoods. At COPS events in past years, candidates who tried to offer more than a yes or no answer have been shouted into silence.

Former COPS organizers came to Dallas three years ago to lay the groundwork for DAI. Since then, DAI has attracted the backing of 60 local congregations, including New Mount Mariah Baptist Church, King of Glory Lutheran Church, and Cathedral Guadalupe Church.

Sister Christine Stephens says the ambience at a DAI accountability session differs from the days when COPS first began holding such events. "When COPS first started, the battles they had to fight were mainly battles of recognition. For the things we are trying to do, we don't have to be as boisterous."

The group has held accountability nights in Dallas, and they were relatively calm affairs. In October, DAI attracted a crowd of 1,500 and more than a dozen candidates for statewide office, including Governor Ann Richards, to an East Dallas church. (The new governor, George W. Bush, was a no-show for that event; his absence was prominently noted on a large board placed on stage with the candidates.) Sunday's event represents the first time that DAI has scheduled a citywide session involving mayoral candidates. The group has also invited candidates for the city council and the school board.

At the session, the DAI organizers intend to ask the candidates whether they will back two pet projects. DAI has already generated community support and financial backing for both from private industry and the federal government.

DAI wants the city and school board to help fund after-school programs through the parks and recreation department at some 50 DISD institutions. Since 1993, DAI has established after-school programs in five DISD elementary schools. The in-school programs, DAI leaders contend, keep kids off the streets and away from gang activity. They cost about $20,000 annually per school.

DAI leaders also are seeking $2 million in city dollars over a two-year period for what they call a "living wage" jobs program. The DAI leaders want to create 600 positions with area companies that pay at least $9 an hour, offer health benefits, and a career track for qualified graduates. DAI leaders have already established a private-industry oversight board for the program, led by Roger Enrico, chairman and CEO of Pepsico Worldwide Restaurants. The group has received federal funds for the program and support from the Greater Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce.

Although the employers would pay the salaries of the participants in the program DAI is proposing, city and federal funds would provide for any day care, transportation, and emergency needs of trainees.

The DAI leaders are also seeking to bolster what they call the "lip service" that the Dallas police department has paid to the concept of community policing, the notion of returning cops to regular beats.

DAI will not endorse candidates, but it will conduct get-out-the-vote efforts and highlight whether candidates support the group's platform.

This year's DAI accountability session--even before taking place--has set out some differences among the candidates in the city mayoral race.

Jordan is so put off by the DAI proposals and accountability-session format that he is considering not showing up.

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