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.

In a quietly intense speech, Don Hicks, a long-standing leader in the black community who usually tries not to get cross-wise with Kirk and Ware, also took on the slam-dunk duo.

Hicks said, "This district stuff is important. I don't expect the mayor to have any respect for that, because he's at-large. He's the 1 in 14-1. But I don't think that most of us want to encroach upon the deference that we've traditionally shown each district. We've said that that's the form of government closest to the people.

"With all of us out here scrounging for money for our districts, what we generally get is a more meaningful and robust spending plan. That's the genius of the system."

Hicks said he thought allowing the city manager and the mayor to soak up a single council member's budget by loading large city-wide projects into it was an assault on the single-member system equivalent to "changing the charter by fiat."

Al Lipscomb, the aging black councilman who is hip-deep in his own legal problems, seemed especially distressed by what was going on, flailing his arms as he spoke like a man caught in ropes. He clearly thought the assault on Duncan was wrong, but he as much as said he was not free to come to his aid.

Kirk lectured them against their parochial views, reminding them that they were elected to the Dallas City Council, "not the Oak Cliff City Council or the Pleasant Grove City Council."

It was exactly the kind of condescending speech that advocates for single-member districts used to have to endure from the downtown oligarchy back in the 1980s.

Part of the enormous irony of what's going on at City Hall now is the way the race card has been played. Kirk and Ware are black. Both men have an ability to express themselves and deal with controversial issues in ways that tend to put white people at ease. Kirk especially has a personal charm and intelligence that can quickly disarm even the prickliest of white skeptics.

But Kirk is also enormously popular in the rank-and-file black community, where his appeal sometimes verges on the magical, in spite of the fact that he comes from nowhere politically in the city, was hand-picked by the white business establishment, and is maintained on a generous salary by a major downtown law firm.

Nowhere is there greater frustration over the racial puzzle at City Hall than among the longtime veteran community organizers of the black community--not the accommodationists but the tough grassroots political opinion-makers who have always fought for African-American self-determination.

"The black community in Dallas never believed that a black man could be mayor," said Peter Johnson, who was a civil rights organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. "Then Ron Kirk was chosen and given to the black community by the white business leadership. The trick that white people must understand is that this has to do with racism. The only reason black people voted for him was because of the color of his skin."

That he is the city's first black mayor, with a magnetic appeal to the rank and file, makes most black leaders loath to criticize Kirk publicly. White political leaders have to walk a careful line for similar reasons. In a city that is still decades short of anything resembling racial poise, both sides pull back nervously from certain levels of criticism, leaving between them a vacuum that has become Kirk and Ware's political base of operation.

Johnson, like many of the veterans in the city's community organizing wars, can't help expressing a certain admiration for the sheer cleverness of the establishment in coming up with the Kirk-Ware mechanism.

"I tell people I have a lot of admiration and respect for the people who run this city," he said. "Not only do they play hardball, but they're slick as most pimps I know."

The tendency at City Hall to move major public policy issues off the council table isn't limited to the bond election. A number of City Hall watchers believe, for example, that the whole Love Field lawsuit business between Kirk and Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr is a sham in which the state court judge handling the case is playing the role of either dupe or co-conspirator.

Nothing may express this skepticism better than the fact that former Dallas City Councilman Jerry Bartos--champion for decades of the effort to get the Wright Amendment flight restrictions lifted from Dallas' Love Field--doesn't like what's going on. That's in spite of the fact that the Wright Amendment restrictions probably are going to be partly lifted at last, as part of a settlement in the dueling lawsuits between the two cities.

Bartos ought to be dancing on his desk. But he's not. Simply put, Bartos thinks the settlement in the lawsuit will be a backroom slam-dunk deal to guarantee the monopolies of American Airlines at D/FW and Southwest at Love Field.

"I don't know how it works exactly, but I think it's a game," Bartos says.
By agreeing to sue each other and then treating the thing like a football rivalry, the two mayors have put the matter safely off the public agenda and into the hands of lawyers, Bartos and others believe. The deal, when it is done, will be presented as a fait accompli to the two hapless city councils.

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