Peep-hole power

It's a scary world out there, but someone's gotta keep it under control. Jim Schutze uncovers the secret agony of the Dallas Citizens Council.

Every community in the world has some small subset of busy bees who work behind the scenes to make things happen, but in Dallas it's always been much more than that, almost as if the delicious, exciting, vaguely sleazy appeal of secret power is the city's dark and fatal flaw--the one craving it cannot control.

At the center of the municipal mystery, there has always been the Dallas Citizens Council. If Dallas really is Oz, then, for better or for worse, the Citizens Council is its wizard.

Sometimes its role is easier to grasp if you think of Dallas as Boring Oz. Typically, instead of one wizard, it has a wizard committee. And in place of courage, it offers the Cowardly Lion counseling and a cash settlement. It's for-profit Oz.

But it's really the secrecy that counts, maybe more even than the power or the profit. The reason we even know about it is that--thank goodness--it doesn't work. The powers that be in Dallas are like un-bright kids with a chemistry set: Every decade or so, something goes boom. The walls come down. And there they are, sitting around the table with sheepish grins and charred pompadours.

Whoever is on the Wizards Council at any given moment, they always deny any and all connection with similar organizations of the recent past. And they can probably make that stick, at least organizationally, at least technically. The history of secret power in Dallas, which extends back to pre-Civil War days, is a series of small groups vying for dominance in the funky domain of the inner sanctum, doing battle with each other, trading members back and forth, forging alliances, succeeding one another at the throne.

While there are several groups and shadow-groups in Dallas today (one insider said, "The stealth Citizens Council now is the Dallas Father of the Year committee"), the real and actual Citizens Council clearly reigns at the top of the heap. It alone has the ability not just to set the city's municipal agenda, but to yank it around 180 degrees on short notice:

In his August 5 State of the City address, Mayor Ron Kirk vowed he was swearing off big-glitz projects in order to concentrate on the city's $3.2 billion backlog of deferred basic maintenance to streets, sewers, and other infrastructure. Barely a month later, when the Citizens Council decided it wanted Dallas to go for the 2012 Olympics, Kirk obediently announced he had changed his mind and it was Big Glitz Forever!

Kirk himself is almost entirely a creation of the cadre of people who swirl around the Citizens Council, sometimes overtly as members, sometimes as members of groups with overlapping membership rolls, such as the Dallas Crime Commission, the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Breakfast Group or, who knows, the Father of the Year committee.

Kirk's campaign finance chairman was Bill Solomon, CEO of Austin Industries and a former Citizens Council chairman. Kirk is their mayor. He received legal maximum campaign contributions of $1,000 apiece from a host of the group's most prominent members, including John M. Stemmons (CEO of Industrial Properties, Inc.), Roger Enrico (CEO of Pepsico), Ray Hunt (CEO of Hunt Oil and Woodbine Development), Herb Kelleher (CEO of Southwest Airlines), Erle Nye (CEO of Texas Utilities), and Tom Hicks (president of Hicks, Muse investments).

The Citizens Council does not allow non-members to attend any of its meetings, does not disclose its membership, and, even though it is in the business of recruiting and running candidates for office, never leaves tracks by endorsing them in its own name.

Its penchant for secrecy, taken alone, may not make it that much different from the Order of the Moose. The unique thing is the notion, their notion, that it is perfectly legitimate for them to be secretive and at the same time aggressively involve themselves in local public politics.

As it happens, that idea has a long history in Dallas. In this century, the first organization of powerful secretive white men to take over Dallas City Hall was the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Dallas begins at the bone.

In that period, Dallas was the scene of the Klan's greatest local political successes anywhere, ever. Nowhere else in the country, even across the expanse of Old Dixie, did the Ku Klux Klan ever take over a major city the way it did Dallas in the '20s.

It's an intriguing era to look back on now, because so much of the modern structure of behind-the-scenes power in Dallas grew out of it, and because the picture of who was in and who was out gets so much cloudier the closer you look.

In Darwin Payne's 1994 book, Big D, Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century, he points out that the Klan's "steering committee" in 1922 included the Dallas police commissioner, the general manager of the Dallas Street Railway Company, the superintendent of the local Ford plant, the Democratic Party county chairman, the county tax collector, a district judge, the district attorney, and several bankers.

One of those Ku Klux bankers, R.L. Thornton Sr., later became the founder of the Dallas Citizens Council.

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