The vote's in the bag

Labor hall offers the homeless cash and sandwiches to be good citizens

A sudden burst of democratic fervor appears to have gripped the homeless population of Dallas, some of whom felt an urge this past weekend to rush to the polls and cast ballots in the contentious District 2 city council race between businesswoman Brenda Reyes and Dallas lawyer John Loza.

Most of those casting early ballots in the election were voting for pork. Literally. The Bunkhaus--a labor hall at 1818 South Ervay Street--was offering day workers and homeless people pork chop sandwiches or $3 cash to go to the polls and vote.

To make things easier, the Bunkhaus also provided its clients with valid voter registration cards, and arranged free van rides to the nearest polling place.

Even people walking by the building--including two Dallas Observer reporters--were offered $3 if they wanted to get in on the action.

Cynics may wonder if the downtrodden voters were expected to express their gratitude by casting ballots for a particular candidate. Not so, claimed Keith Gray, a Bunkhaus volunteer whom the Observer encountered on Sunday standing outside the Bunkhaus drinking a beer and holding a stack of about 150 voter registration cards.

But, it turns out, several managers and employees affiliated with the Bunkhaus are supporting Brenda Reyes, and have each contributed the legal maximum to her campaign. There used to be a Reyes campaign sign outside the building. And curiously, Reyes' name was the only one that rang a bell among the few men interviewed by the Observer who had any familiarity with the candidates in the District 2 race. One man bluntly stated that he had been told to vote for Reyes in exchange for a pork sandwich.

There were no indications that Reyes was involved in, or aware of, the ambitious get-out-the-vote effort apparently being conducted on her behalf. But Loza supporters charge that the labor hall is being used to churn votes for Reyes. On Friday, the Loza campaign notified Dallas County elections administrator Bruce Sherbet that it was officially challenging all ballots cast by voters who list their address as 1818 South Ervay.

The building is home to the Bunkhaus--a hotel that offers beds for $6 a night and sells beer for $1 a can--and Pacesetters Personnel Service Inc., a day labor service that brokers jobs for workers and takes a cut of the pay. The labor hall has surfaced before in controversies over allegations of vote fraud, specifically during the last District 2 council race.

County records show that at least 183 voters on the rolls list the Bunkhaus as their address. According to Sherbet, 18 votes were cast in the District 2 race just this weekend by people using the 1818 South Ervay address.

Sherbet says he has forwarded Loza's complaint to the Dallas County District Attorney's office for investigation, and said he would monitor voting from the labor hall address.

When reached by telephone Monday, Sherbet said he was intrigued to learn from the Observer that labor hall "volunteer" Gray offered two Observer reporters $3 cash to vote on Sunday, and that one homeless voter was given two different voter registration cards by a Bunkhaus worker.

Sherbet was also surprised to hear that a Reyes campaign contributor--who also happens to be the labor hall's general manager--told the Observer that he gave an employee $1,000 so the employee could contribute it to the Reyes campaign. Current and former employees of the labor hall have contributed at least $4,000 to the Reyes campaign, according to a copy of Reyes' campaign contributions. (Reyes did not return phone calls from the Observer, and has stated in the past that she will not grant interviews to this paper.)

"What you've described to me sounds like some blatant violations of the law and voter fraud," Sherbet says. "I think this definitely needs to be looked into. It sounds to me that you have some hard evidence."

The evidence was not hard to find. In fact, most of it was standing on the sidewalk in front of 1818 South Ervay this past weekend.

The building housing the Bunkhaus and Pacesetters Personnel Services Inc. stands at the corner of Ervay and Hickory Streets, just south of the Farmer's Market. Its parking lot is encircled by a chainlink fence topped with razor wire. On the back of the building, a large white sign with red letters encourages people to "Register to vote right here. Be sure you have friends at city hall."

Shortly after noon on Sunday, a man was toting a blue cooler and several cases of Miller High Life beer into the Bunkhaus. Outside, 16-ounce can of Schlitz Malt Liquor in hand, Keith Gray took his post at the Bunkhaus front door. In his free hand, Gray held about 150 voter registration cards, a clipboard, and a torn paperback copy of Stan Lee's Dunn's Conundrum.

"Are you folks registered to vote? We pay $3 cash for everyone who votes," said Gray, gulping a swig of the Bull.

Gray is the worker bee of the Bunkhaus voting machine. His job is to take the voter registration cards and match them up with the homeless men and day workers who come and go on South Ervay.

Planting the seeds of participatory democracy is hard work, Gray says. Getting these people to vote is like pulling teeth--especially when an NBA playoff game is on, and no one wants to leave the TV room. Still, by early afternoon Sunday, he had six names on his clipboard.

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