Attack of the Killer Gadflies (Part I)

You don't take Rick Finlan and Don Venable seriously? That could be a mistake you live to regret.

Martha found work as a sales administrator with a manufacturing firm. Don helped out when he could between classes, working part-time as a legal assistant for his brother David, a bankruptcy attorney.

By then, he had become uncertain about his plans to become a minister. He was a man divided, split between his spiritual and civic selves. It took the Farrakhan situation, he says, to harmonize that conflict.

Venable believes, as do many evangelicals, that government is necessary "to confine man's sinful nature and create social order from chaos." But since government is run by men tempted by power and money, government itself also needs to be limited, scrutinized, held in check.

After the Farrakhan flap, Venable began scrupulously watching the school board trustees. "I grew interested in the personalities down there. I was trying to understand the nature of the beast." For more than a year, he immersed himself in the self-directed study of municipal and school law. Then he went after the woman who had scorned him--trustee Kathlyn Gilliam.

Through his research, Venable decided that Gilliam had used her influence to benefit a community group called The Political Congress for African-American Women. He felt the group was effectively a political action committee, which, through Gilliam's help, was using facilities at Lincoln High School at a reduced fee.

In August 1991, he filed a complaint with the district attorney's office, alleging official misconduct. Gilliam denied the charges and the DA declined to prosecute, calling the case an administrative matter, not a criminal one.

Called a racist for his troubles, Venable got nowhere with his complaint. But he did make some local headlines and received several phone calls of support. One came from a man who called himself a government watchdog. He appreciated Venable's efforts and just wanted to introduce himself.

"I just thought he was another kook," recalls Venable.
The man's name was Rick Finlan.

During the 1980s, fighting City Hall had become a contact sport for Rick Finlan. He had gone after Diane Ragsdale, Al Lipscomb, and Annette Strauss. He had spoken out against Starplex and Reunion Arena--and in favor of the Dallas Police Department.

Finlan demonstrated in the streets, wrote letters to the editor, and vented his spleen at city council meetings. One way or another, he made it into the newspapers. He was Don Quixote as played by Rush Limbaugh, media-smart and politically savvy. He got boundless joy out of making life a living hell for wayward public officials.

Suspicious by nature, this hard-boiled son of an IRS agent must have got the message early on that everybody cheats. He was groomed to be a lone wolf, a self-made man--even as a boy. "I told him from the time he was old enough to push a lawn mower that he would have to make it on his own," recalls his father, Owen Finlan.

By the time he was a high school senior at Woodrow Wilson, Finlan was already making a decent living. His Tiger Lawn Care had three trucks and several employees. He was "Mr. Tiger" in college at Baylor, where he made money instead of grades, building his business rather than his resume. Despite a powerful intellectual curiosity, he never managed to graduate.

Always his own boss, Finlan went from landscaper to nurseryman to home remodeler to home builder. Catering to the urban pioneer of the early '80s, he built reproductions of historic homes--English Tudor, Prairie-style, Victorian--all with no formal training in architecture. Somehow, he gleaned the design know-how out of old architectural books. "If he sees a style that strikes his interest, he goes after it like a bulldog," says Tom McDowell, a consultant on historic architecture who worked with Finlan. "He learns as much as he can, then proceeds to get real opinionated about it."

Finlan's opinions weren't limited to architectural motifs. Even as a builder, he always had a cause, a crusade--railing against a building inspector who had done him wrong, a zoning change that seemed to infringe on his property rights. In his many disputes, whether private or public, he carried a hidden tape recorder, hoping to make liars of those who might later claim Finlan was mistaken. "I am wired all the time," he admits proudly. "Most people aren't going to remember what they say."

Underlying Finlan's seeming paranoia is his fundamental mistrust of big government. "Rick would rather be in a position of controlling government than having government control him," says Don Venable. Finlan's conservative Republican credentials have a decidedly libertarian bent. "He believes that too much government ruins everything," says former city council candidate Sharon Boyd, a Finlan ally. "He wants government off his back and out of his life."

He also possesses a general distrust of things he can't control. When first approached about this article, Finlan said: "Iforbid you to do this story." After hours of discussion, he eventually relented, but later refused to pose for an Observer photographer.

As a populist, Finlan demands that public officials act like servants of the people--not masters drunk with power. "I was saying these things before Ross Perot grew ears," he says.

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