Clueless

For city Councilman Al Lipscomb, taking handouts from power brokers has become a way of life. Is there a problem?

But in retrospect, it's easy to understand why there's so little press scrutiny of Lipscomb.

It's not just that Dallas is a city cowed by the incessant play of the race card--a city whose leaders learned long ago that it's far easier to placate individual activists than to tackle the city's substantive problems. These so-called leaders on both sides of the color line have gotten away with this deceitful behavior in large part because the Dallas media have long been reluctant to publicize the misdeeds of high-profile minorities for fear of getting picketed or criticized or both. And matters are made worse when--in the case of the Belo Corp. twins, the Morning News and WFAA-Channel 8--the media are the city leaders.

In fact, The Dallas Morning News has been one of Lipscomb Industries' blue-ribbon clients, buying mineral spirits in 1,350-gallon shipments to clean its printing presses. Lipscomb obtained the contract after appealing directly to newspaper owner Robert Decherd, president and CEO of A.H. Belo Corp.

In the first five months of 1995, Decherd's newspaper paid $23,664 to Lipscomb's company. Five weeks after the last check was deposited, Lipscomb attended his first city council meeting since being re-elected--and promptly voted to renew the newspaper's license to operate hundreds of news racks on the city's right-of-way at a pittance of $5 per box. He was absent for a February 14 vote that awarded the newspaper a $673,000 annual contract to publish the city's official notes. But on April 10, he voted to give the newspaper a whopping $4.5 million tax abatement, over 10 years, on its property.

True, the Morning News never placed another order with Lipscomb Industries after he was sworn in as a councilman. But it's not for lack of trying on Lipscomb's part. When the newspaper put the mineral spirits out to bid last summer--around the time that Lipscomb was voting to renew the newspaper's news-rack license--Lipscomb Industries had its bid in. Though it didn't get it, Lipscomb's son-in-law has been wooing the company for months since then.

Last June 14, the day of the news-rack license vote, several minority members of the council wondered aloud whether the newspaper's $5-per-box fee was too low--especially since the newspaper was making a ton of money in a city that was short on funds. After the comments were made, the council agreed to instruct the city staff to review the fee--a move that prompted Lipscomb, who had not participated in the discussion thus far, to speak out.

"I want to go on record to let the [Dallas Morning News] editorial board know I don't want to get in the crossfires with them," Lipscomb announced. "These aren't any actions of mine...I might want to run for re-election again, and I want to be on the good side of the editorial board...Let the record reflect that please."

For too long now, Al Lipscomb, Dallas' icon of racial progress--he has an annual football game, the Al Lipscomb State Fair Classic named in his honor--has been allowed, if not downright encouraged, to blur the line between personal gain and public service. For too long now, Lipscomb, the people who cynically control him, and the media who overlook it all, have made a complete mockery of our local political system.

What is perhaps most remarkable--and most tragic--about the real story of Al Lipscomb is that he truly appears not to see the problem with his behavior. He seems oblivious to how he has been used--at times in a manner that is completely contrary, if not downright hurtful, to the best interests of his own community, which he fought for decades to be able to represent.

Three months ago, for example, Lipscomb threatened to delay a vote to give a $34 million tax abatement to Texas Instruments because it had selected North Dallas over South Dallas to build a new $2 billion computer-chip factory. Lipscomb's criticisms were on point, seeing as how TI had been given a $21 million tax break just two years earlier based on a promise to create hundreds of jobs in southern Dallas. TI never did it. Instead, it agreed to give a partly tax-deductible contribution to a South Dallas nonprofit organization that agreed to create the jobs.

Lipscomb's anger was short-lived. Three days later, he voted in favor of the tax abatement. "My point has been made," he was quoted as saying. "...I don't want to get into a fight with an 800-pound gorilla."

It's a gorilla that Lipscomb had wooed three years ago in the hopes it would buy chemicals from him. It didn't.

Seemingly befuddled and without a clue most of the time--unable to intelligently discuss his chemical business, his personal financial affairs, his bankruptcy case--he nonetheless freely discusses the most explosive aspect of his political life, his benefactors. He describes in detail how he's taken care of them, and how they've taken care of him--a relationship of mutual convenience with which he is utterly comfortable. He speaks lovingly, in fact, about his favorite people--Pete Schenkel and the late grocery store magnate Buddy Minyard and his daughters Liz and Gretchen--and all they have done for him and his family. Tears come to his eyes.

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