By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
At very least, Finlan and Venable have succeeded in another of their goals: rattling public officials.
Dallas' killer gadflies have struck again.
Rick Finlan and Don Venable see themselves in exalted terms--as public tribunes, striking a blow for the little guy against the behemoth of intractable bureaucracy. They claim to have no agenda--other than seeing that government remains accountable to the people. "We do it for fun and to live as free men," quips Finlan.
In truth, their impact is no joke.
A lawsuit they filed exposed illegal secret meetings of a city council committee--and brought arena negotiations to a virtual standstill. Their crusade against a school trustee revealed campaign-reporting violations--and reduced a grown man to tears. "They have made me very, very uncomfortable on several occasions," recalls Councilman Al Lipscomb, a past target. "Very uncomfortable."
But nothing compares to their holy war against the Dallas school district--a siege fought in front of eight judges that has helped keep six DISD attorneys employed and cost taxpayers nearly a million dollars--so far. Says school board president Sandy Kress: "I have come to the conclusion, sadly, that there isn't a constructive bone in their bodies."
But those who see Finlan and Venable merely as ineffective gadflies, irritating for the sake of irritation, seriously misjudge them. Their motivations are too complex, their indignation too righteous, their sting far too venomous. Although Finlan and Venable defy easy description, it is perilous to dismiss them. After all, they have been known to sue for less.
Don Venable recalls, with--of course--considerable outrage his first experience as a government watchdog.
It was September of 1990. He was a 36-year-old seminary student, sitting in his Far East Dallas home, taking a break from his studies. Aimlessly, he flipped between TV channels until he hit upon minister Louis Farrakhan giving a speech, he remembers, "about the white man being the devil's race."
Venable taped the program, thinking he might discuss it in class at the Dallas Theological Seminary. But his fascination quickly turned to anger when he realized that the program was being broadcast on the DISD public-access channel. "I said to myself, 'not with my tax dollars, you don't!'"
This was the first time he took action against the district--and the last time it would happen by accident. Venable convinced an assistant superintendent to end the broadcasts. But he had no idea what he had stepped into.
The school board was fiercely split along racial lines. "Tirades about institutional racism were daily fare," says former trustee Ed Grant, sitting on the Anglo side of the divide. So when the Farrakhan matter came up at a school board meeting, irate students flooded the auditorium, complaining that the district was denying them Farrakhan's message of black self-reliance.
Don Venable was permitted his three minutes to address the board. He had photocopied pages of Farrakhan's speeches and presented them to the board as evidence that the station had become "a propaganda tool for the Nation of Islam." Venable says that black trustee Kathlyn Gilliam threw the exhibit back at him in disgust. "She told me to get out and never come back."
Venable felt humiliated. He had exercised his First Amendment rights and had been met with...governmental arrogance! Though he was studying for the ministry, his amiable spirit belied an Old Testament vengeance. "The school board was out of control," he concluded. "It needed to be brought down."
For Venable, the offense was intensely personal, an insult to the political process he had worshipped since childhood.
Even at age six, Don Venable sat glued to the TV, watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of both the Democratic and the Republican 1960 presidential conventions. He didn't fall in love with politics, he says, as much as he fell in love with government. He grew up in Houston as a Kennedy Democrat, working on the Hubert Humphrey campaign at age 14. But he cried when George Wallace was shot--saw it as an attack upon "the Republic" that he took personally. He became so involved in the McGovern campaign during 1972 that he eventually dropped out of the University of Houston.
Venable spent the next four years in the Air Force, gathering intelligence on reconnaissance flights in the Pacific. By 1979 he was back in Houston waiting to pursue his "childhood dream" of running for the state legislature. Meanwhile, he worked as a carpenter, became an elder in his church--and a Republican.
Venable says he felt betrayed by Jimmy Carter, upset by his ambivalence. Ronald Reagan became the new object of his political affection. In 1982, Venable ran for the Texas House, receiving strong financial backing from a prominent Christian businessman. Unfortunately, Venable was running in Meyerland, a heavily Jewish Houston suburb. Its Jewish Democratic incumbent cast him as the next coming of Jerry Falwell.
All things considered, Venable made a respectable showing, with nearly 40 percent of the vote. He also endeared himself to the Christian Right. He began speaking at churches, teaching grass-roots political activism to fundamentalists.
Venable, who lacked a college degree, used his evangelical contacts to win special dispensation to pursue a master's degree from the Dallas Theological Seminary. In 1987, he moved his wife Martha and three school-age children to Dallas, with no money, no car, and no job.