By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
But that was before a brash, go-get-'em superintendent named Yvonne Gonzalez came on the scene.
Now he's become the central character in a convoluted tale involving surveillance devices, an FBI investigation, allegations of sexual harassment--and even a collection of silly, steamy love notes. His story has overtaken the front pages and the nightly news, and Harden has found himself in the position of having his personal life hashed out on talk radio and in the streets.
To hear him tell it, he had no choice but to go public with his startling allegations against Gonzalez.
Last Saturday, just a few days after Gonzalez had announced her resignation, Harden sat at a long, polished-wood conference table in the downtown offices of his lawyers at Bickel and Brewer, a firm renowned for its barracuda tactics. Although he usually dresses impeccably in banker's pinstripes, Harden had gone casual this day, sporting a white, long-sleeved knit shirt and black jeans. He looked especially haggard, wearing the past few days like a mask.
During a seven-hour interview with the Dallas Observer, Harden spoke in detail for the first time about the events that prompted his decision to go public.
He even pondered aloud whether he should have just departed from DISD quietly without putting up a fight--thereby avoiding all the gossip and publicity.
"I'm just tired," he said with a shrug.
Harden's allegations first became public on September 12, when he filed a lawsuit in state district court. Harden, who is black, contended that Gonzalez, a Latina, slandered him, tried to force him to resign, and invaded his privacy by having a tracking device placed on his personal car.
Harden also claims in his suit that Gonzalez--with whom he once shared "a close professional and personal relationship"--ultimately pushed those ties too far. She whispered "lewd comments in his ear during important meetings," the suit claims, and sent him suggestive cards and notes, including one that read: "I've got those mean ol' low-down, wall-climbin', nail-bitin', teeth-gnashin', heart-breakin', mind-bendin', tear-jerkin', Lord I-miss-you-gotta-have-your-body blues!"
Those tawdry details ignited a firestorm on Dallas talk radio. Eagerly awaiting a he-said, she-said affair, radio callers enthusiastically debated whether a strapping 42-year-old man could possibly be the victim of sexual harassment. Women dug deep into the subtexts of the cards and notes Harden claims Gonzalez sent him, wondering just how far their relationship progressed.
Meanwhile, on the pavements in front of the DISD administration building on Ross Avenue, hundreds of racially motivated protesters have turned Harden into a symbol--of supposed attempts by blacks to discredit the popular superintendent.
Many Hispanics believe that Harden--whose own departments, which include management and maintenance, have become the subject of investigations by DISD and the FBI--has engineered a sinister plot to take down their charismatic leader before she uncovers his and other district administrators' misdeeds and illegal acts.
Conversely, some blacks cast Harden as a hero who represents their only opportunity to stop a systematic campaign to remove African-Americans from top positions at DISD.
A quiet man and 19-year veteran district employee who says he has never harbored any ambitions to lead the district, Harden was prepared to drop all of his claims against Gonzalez and turn over his evidence if the superintendent would, in exchange, simply resign.
Harden thought Gonzalez had fulfilled her part of the bargain last Tuesday night when the superintendent delivered a tear-filled statement announcing her resignation. "This day-by-day character assassination must stop," she said in a televised press conference in which she denied all of Harden's allegations. "The school district and the city are suffering for it. And I cannot allow it to continue."
But within hours, Gonzalez had changed her mind. She spoke directly to board members on Wednesday and managed to convince a majority of them to grant her a reprieve. Trustees voted that night in a marathon closed-door meeting to suspend her with pay for 30 days.
Gonzalez's about-face left Harden's agreement with her in tatters. So now Harden, much to his dismay, remains at the center of a vicious political battle that has once again marked Dallas as a race-baiting metropolis. The Washington Post has already assigned a reporter to delve into the story--ready again to tell the country about all that's wrong in the city of hate.
Once, not so long ago, Harden and Gonzalez considered themselves allies.
They started working together in April 1996, when Gonzalez, having hopscotched to three school systems during her career, left the top job in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, schools to serve in DISD as deputy superintendent under Chad Woolery.
In January, after Woolery surprised everyone with his decision to leave for a job in the private sector, DISD trustees tapped Gonzalez for superintendent.
The response to her appointment, however, made clear that she'd assume her position with a set of ready-made allies and enemies. Latinos wildly applauded the appointment of DISD's first Hispanic superintendent. But the district's three black trustees, while not opposing Gonzalez personally, complained loudly that the board had not done its due diligence before ramming her down their throats.