Clueless

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

Three weeks ago, Lipscomb gave me all the records he had in his possession from Lipscomb Industries--several boxes that contained business contracts, lease agreements, bank-loan documents, checking-account records, and revealing personal correspondence between himself and some of his benefactors in the business community.

"I want everything out in the open," he said magnanimously. "I have nothing to hide. I don't even know what's in here, but I want you to see it all."

Which is awfully endearing, downright disarming--and absolutely depressing once you've seen what's in there.

Al Lipscomb was sitting at his desk, screaming at his telephone. It was was September 14, 1993. "Hello!" Lipscomb yelled at the phone, moments after jabbing the button that activated the speaker. "Hello! Who's there?"

"Yes, Mr. Solomon's office," a polite, female voice responded.
"Mrs. Woods? I was trying to reach Mr. Solomon," Lipscomb said with a certain gravity in his booming, gravelly voice. "I hear he's out of the city."

"I'd be happy to have him call you," Mrs. Woods responded.
"Yes, please," Lipscomb said. "We're having a little problem filling some orders. We went out and made a pitch and nothing happened. We've had meetings and meetings, but we haven't been able to get any orders."

Lipscomb Industries was three months old. And to the enormous surprise of its president, business was not so hot. The phone was not ringing. The orders for chemicals weren't coming in. But everybody had promised him--many of the big CEOs in town had promised to buy chemicals from him.

Bill Solomon, for example. Solomon was the chairman of the board of Austin Industries, a giant, Dallas-based construction company. Solomon was one of the biggest power brokers in Dallas. He was an influential member of both the Dallas Citizens Council and the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce and, most importantly to Lipscomb, the co-chair of Dallas Together, a consortium of large Dallas companies that had made a very public commitment to hire and promote more minorities--a commitment that also included doing more subcontracting business with black- and Hispanic-owned businesses.

Lipscomb Industries was a new, black-owned business, Lipscomb pointed out to me that afternoon, after he had tried in vain to get Solomon on the phone. Solomon had made a personal commitment, Lipscomb said, to give Lipscomb some business. But the guys who worked for Solomon were giving Lipscomb Industries the runaround. And that was happening with other companies, too.

"It's always something," Lipscomb said, shaking his head. "Something comes up. They did it with Texas Utilities. The Morning News. And Southwest Airlines."

In fact, a few days earlier he had called Mike McKinney, manager of community relations for Texas Utilities--a man who had lobbied Lipscomb many times on TU issues when Lipscomb was a council member serving on the council's business and commerce committee. Lipscomb said he had always been good to McKinney--good to TU, too. "If something was coming up pertaining to their company, and it would come through to the business and commerce committee, and we would get briefed on it. I wouldn't take any negative side on it. Business is business. I'm talking about jobs."

And now, Lipscomb was relying on McKinney to give him a job--in the form of a lucrative chemical contract.

"I said, 'Something has happened here. It didn't come off like it was supposed to,'" Lipscomb said, bitterly describing his conversation with McKinney. "He said, 'I'll get on top of it.' Well, that was last week. And this is Thursday." And Lipscomb hadn't heard back.

The nerve of these people, Lipscomb said, after all he'd done for them during nine years on the city council. "I was there for them--for the chamber of commerce at all times," Lipscomb said ruefully, sitting in his easy chair in his nicely appointed living room on a weekday afternoon, the sounds of a ball game emanating from another room. "I was there for the chamber of commerce. I was there for the business and commerce aspect of this city. I don't think I ever had a negative vote."

That may seem hard for people to believe, Lipscomb said, considering his reputation in the city as a political bomb-thrower in the '60s and '70s. "I'm sure people thought I would be anti-business because I was always using the word 'racism' until it lost its meaning," he said. "But I was pro-business. My record will reflect that. And today--I'm not whining or crying--but I know it is unfair for the business sector to allow this business, Lipscomb Industries, to flounder. I'm not asking for anything special--no special dispensation. But hell, I'm out there also. I was at their beck and call for the chamber of commerce: the black chamber, the Greater Dallas chamber, the Asian chamber, the Hispanic chamber--I was there."

Ask Lipscomb to recall the last time he did something that really angered the Anglo business community, and he'll have to think a minute. Then he'll cite the vicious charter-amendment battle back in 1988 when he and other minority leaders wanted to eliminate all of the at-large seats on the Dallas City Council. The business community supported a less radical change--a 10-4-1 setup, which would have kept four of the council seats at-large. In the end, with the two sides deeply entrenched, a federal judge ruled in the minority community's favor.

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