City Hall's Slam-Dunk Gang

Quick--someone take a pulse. The Dallas City Council hasn't peeped in months. And John Ware and Ron Kirk are looking awfully well-fed.

There's enormous irony in this moment in the city's history. Neighborhood leaders, civil rights activists, yuppie re-doers, preservationists, all kinds of people who believed in the power of communities fought for the 14-1 single-member council system that is now in its seventh year. They won. We've got it. And now these very people are weaker and less welcome at City Hall than ever before. "Slam-Dunk Gang" is the epithet with which frustrated black leaders have described the white and Hispanic majority on recent Dallas school boards. The term is a little rusty, especially now that the downtown business establishment's Ultimate Slam-Dunk Secret Weapon, former superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, has been trotted off to the federal pokey with her hands behind her back.

But it applies perfectly at City Hall, allowing for multiple layers of irony and a good deal of game-playing genius. There, the new and much more cleverly constructed Slam-Dunk Gang is made up of two men who seem to function almost as one.

City Manager John Ware, the hireling of the pair, is an ex-military man with a martial bearing. He draws some predictable darts for being too tough on subordinates and sometimes using naughty words when he bawls them out. But he's a paid boss. That's his style. They hired him.

It's the mayor who draws a more bitter and emotional brand of complaint from critics, including members of his own City Council--even some who appear to be his staunchest allies in their public remarks.

One member, generally thought of as a right-hand man to the mayor, extracted a blood vow of off-the-record anonymity, closed his office door, then said in whispers, "The mayor is very, very arrogant. He doesn't listen to anyone. He has the answer before you ask the question."

But why are we talking in whispers?
We are talking in whispers because the council member doing the talking is seriously afraid of Ron Kirk. In Kirk's three years of elective office, he has acquired a behind-the-scenes reputation for brass-knuckled vindictiveness, in sharp contrast with his public persona as a glib, quick-witted, back-slapping, jokey kind of guy.

You might argue that the current Dallas City Council often needs a little kick-start in order to achieve a fully wakeful state. But in truth, not all of the council is composed of space debris. There are still a few in there who are a lot sharper than what Dallas deserves for not paying them to serve.

Larry Duncan, for example, represents one of the city's most racially and economically diverse districts, in southwest Dallas. He probably comes closest of any council member to having a coherent, reliable, predictable political organization in his district. (Donna Blumer, who represents a much more conservative, whiter district in North Dallas, is also very organized politically.)

Duncan is also controversial. He's a white man who consistently gets elected in what was supposed to have been a safe black district. But he gets elected with lots of black votes, as well as white.

Some people like him a lot. There are people who don't like him a lot. But almost everyone thinks he's good at the difficult process of consensus--staying in touch with the wishes of his constituents.

Larry Duncan ought to be good at it. He was one of the early architects of the 14-1 system, and, before that, when he was president of the Dallas Homeowners League, he helped create the movement that made 14-1 happen.

The single-member-district idea was always simple. And big. The idea was to let people rule their own communities. The old system included two at-large members, in addition to the mayor, who was also elected city-wide. The other eight council members ran from districts in their own parts of town.

You could win a district by trudging door-to-door, going to crime-watch meetings, speaking at Rotary Clubs and garden parties, calling people up one by one at dinner time and not letting them off the phone until they promised you their votes. You could be poor or middle-class and win without going into somebody's pocket.

But to win the city-wide seats, you had to be able to afford a lot of TV advertising--very expensive, especially for an unpaid job. So whoever had the biggest bucks always won the at-large seats. The money they used was almost always raised money. And it almost never failed to do the trick.

A certain portion of the business establishment that had an interest in city business--especially real estate developers, airline companies, road and bridge builders, that ilk--always made sure their people got the most money. That way, the old system gave three guaranteed seats on the council to people who had a business reason for dominating city decisions. All they needed were two more votes out of the remaining five, and they ruled.

So they ruled.
The shortcomings of the old system were usually viewed in strictly racial terms. The system was replaced in 1991 after a federal judge ruled that the old system of three at-large seats gave control to the white community. But the trick was that it wasn't really about race. Race was, if anything, a diversion to keep people from seeing that everybody's political power had been usurped.

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