Bad boys

The voters could care less. But someone's gotta win the runoff for the last lowly DISD board seat

A big sign in the Seagoville senior center commands us to "Smile."
Another one--stretched across the back of the stage in stenciled letters--declares that "Life is beautiful when in full bloom."

But the cheery thoughts stay stuck to the walls. There is nothing beautiful or blooming about the handful of locals who've come here this cold Friday night to scowl at their two candidates for the Dallas school board.

The objects of their disdain are seated at tables on the stage. On one side is Don Venable, a pink-faced white guy who's made a career out of suing the Dallas Independent School District for myriad offenses--assailing its board members, administrators, and attorneys for what he calls their "mentality of criminality."

On the other side is Jesse Diaz, a Hispanic activist famous for his clashes at DISD board meetings with members of the New Black Panther Party and assorted other loudmouths.

Both are rank outsiders, rejected by the kingmakers in Dallas' white business community, the usual source of funding for these low-rent races. And mentioning the names of these men elicits expressions of horror from folks at DISD headquarters.

No, the residents of Seagoville, a small, semi-rural town that has the misfortune of falling within the boundaries of DISD's District 4, are not impressed with the choice of flavors presented to them at the candidates' debate on November 14.

Some express it by half-heartedly tossing a few questions at the candidates, questions to which there are no correct answers.

The others just sit and stare.
And it makes me wonder, If there are only two candidates in a runoff election, is it possible for both of them to lose?

Many of the questions that do come up tonight are plants--including the one posed by Rick Finlan, Venable's fellow litigant and former campaign treasurer:

"Has either candidate been involved in a fistfight or shoving match during a school board meeting?"

This prompts nervous whispers among the three debate mediators, who screen all of the questions, until a woman in a sky-blue cowboy hat interrupts from the audience. "We have some terrible censorship here today," she says in a thick drawl.

When the mediators finally give their approval--based on criteria that remain an utter mystery throughout the night--the question lands with a thud before Diaz, who sits meekly, shoulders hunched, hands clasped in front of him, trying to look like anything but the hothead he's reputed to be.

"Yes," he says quietly. "I have been involved in...maybe some shoving and arguing."

Then the question bounces to Venable.
He stands up before the microphone, adjusts his blue suit jacket, and pauses for a tiny, triumphant moment.

"No, I haven't," he says.
But earlier that night, the woman in the cowboy hat--J.R. McConnaughey, who doesn't even live in Seagoville--had popped a good one at Venable, demanding to know why he has sued the district so many times.

This time, Venable wasn't quite so composed. He turned visibly pink--pinker than his usual pink--and seemed on the verge of tears.

He managed to squeeze out a stream of talk nonetheless, jabbering about policies, about "holding individuals accountable," about "all sorts of sins down there" at DISD.

But his words won him no friends in Seagoville.
At the end of the debate, Diaz and his half-dozen supporters quickly make themselves scarce. Venable hangs around a bit longer, courting a lone voter by the coffee pot.

Meanwhile, the men and women of Seagoville glumly munch on chocolate-chip cookies, bickering a little with the outsiders who'd come to torment the candidates, then shuffle off into the dirt parking lot.

It would be an understatement to say that the importance of the Venable-Diaz runoff is lost on the general public.

All you have to do is look at the early voting patterns, if two votes constitute a pattern.

Yes, two votes. That's how many were cast at DISD headquarters last week during the first three days of early voting. At the three other polling sites, all within District 4, which encompasses a big chunk of Pleasant Grove, all of Seagoville, and bits of East Dallas, fewer than 150 people exercised the franchise.

Everyone else, in theory, will go to the polls on December 6. Remember, it's just a theory.

The winner will finish the unexpired term of trustee Lynda McDow, who has held the District 4 seat since 1994 and is planning to move out of state. But more importantly, the winner may determine the Dallas school board's future.

That's because the District 4 trustee could easily serve as the swing vote on a deeply divided board--at least until the next round of elections in May 1998.

Right now, board president Kathleen Leos is barely hanging onto a majority that generally includes herself and trustees Lynda McDow, Jose Plata, Roxan Staff, and Lois Parrott. This is all that remains of the "Slam Dunk Gang," the set of board alliances that has pitted the white and Hispanic trustees--supported by Dallas businessman John Scovell and other white community leaders--against the black trustees for so many excruciating years.

These days, Leos' faction is stumbling along like a dizzied, bleeding beast, barely able to push through motions to keep the district running with any semblance of efficiency.

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