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.

Joppa is an old Freedmen's town, cut off by a bend of the Trinity River on one side, bound up and trussed on all others by highways and a railroad switching yard. It is one of the city's sinfully forgotten and neglected pockets of poverty--a patch of rural East Texas in the shadow of downtown.

"I had two constituents who died in Joppa last year while the ambulances sat on the other side of the tracks waiting for a train to clear," Duncan said.

His constituents in Joppa want a bridge over the rail yard. They want it badly. They have wanted it for years. His district has consistently voted in favor of city bond issues, hoping to get its own narrow wedge of the pie. They knew they couldn't get the whole overpass all at once, so they settled for only the design portion of the project out of the 1995 bond election. They were told the bridge itself would be built with money from the upcoming election.

But Ron Kirk doesn't like Larry Duncan. Duncan, in fact, is part of City Hall's strangest club and alliance--The People Who Aren't With Ron. It's difficult to see any unifying theme in their group other than Kirk's dislike for them. The other founding member of the club, and a very unlikely ally of Duncan's, indeed, is arch-conservative council member Donna Blumer, who represents a North Dallas district.

At her desk in City Hall, Blumer related a lot of ancient City Council history to explain why Kirk is so vindictive toward her and Duncan, as he was toward former councilman Paul Fielding, now in the clink. A lot of it, she says, goes back to Kirk's first few days in office, when he was furious with some of the council for resisting his personal selection for mayor pro tem, Chris Luna. But the end of the story, according to Blumer, is that Kirk whips up on her and Duncan because he needs people to use as an example. He beats them up to keep the others on the council in line.

"He stripped Larry and me of our committee posts," Blumer says. "Then he worked very hard to keep all of our appointees from being put on any significant subcommittees."

Duncan had been chairman of the council's health and human services committee. Blumer had served on the transportation committee and wanted badly to be chairperson or at least vice chair. Her constituents feel hammered by traffic congestion in the LBJ/Tollway region of the city, and the transportation committee is where the key decisions will be made on those issues.

Kirk used his appointive power to bust Duncan from the chairmanship of health and human services and to keep Blumer off the transportation committee entirely.

Maybe that's just politics. But it isn't the way the game was played before Ron Kirk took office.

Former Councilman Jerry Bartos says, "It wasn't like that." He told the story of Pleasant Grove Councilman John Evans, who was caught hammering campaign yard signs for the man who was running against Annette Strauss for mayor.

"That was in the paper," Bartos says. "But after Annette won, she appointed Evans to the chair of the finance committee. She thought he was the best for the job, and all that campaign business was behind them."

Not Kirk. He plays a relentlessly jugular game in which personal slights are never forgotten. No one has been on the dirty end of that stick worse than Larry Duncan.

Duncan spent two years asking his constituents what they wanted to spend their next bond-election budget on. They told him. He drew up his list.

Then Ware informed him that he would be stripping away $4 million of Duncan's $10 million for a new branch library in his district.

Duncan told Ware he had discussed the branch library with his constituents. They didn't want it. Not yet. They were willing to spend part of their money for the land for the library, phasing it in on a time-delayed budget the way they had to do everything else in their part of town.

But not the whole thing. They had other things they wanted more. Like flood-control projects. Like the ambulance bridge at Joppa. They wanted to put off the library building.

Too bad. Ware was taking it all. Now.
At the nasty little briefing in the back of City Hall, Duncan pleaded for his constituents' money back, his voice shaking with emotion. Kirk explained coolly that wealthy patrons like Margaret McDermott might stop kicking in so generously to help the city's library system if the city didn't make the tough choices and kick in some of its own money.

His tough choice? Take all the money from Duncan's district. Now.
Duncan fought it to the last. He proposed an amendment to the bond package taking the branch library out of his budget, so that he could spend his money the way his constituents told him to.

At the briefing, Sandy Greyson, the normally reticent new member from Far North Dallas, made a pointed, compelling speech in Duncan's favor and against the Kirk-Ware attack on a lone council member. "I think this is just going to tear us apart," she said.

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