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.

The point is this: Every once in a while someone does ask them who their members are, and that question provides them with an opportunity to strike the pose of secret power and say, "No comment."

The most recent occasion for Biegler was in an interview by Rusty Cawley of the Dallas Business Journal. When Cawley asked him for a list of the DCC's 245 members, Biegler declined to provide it.

"We've found that, generally, it doesn't help to explain things," Biegler said.

Oh, man. That's so nice. It's that never-explain, never-complain thing. Very Churchillian. And it's just the pose they want to strike: We're big, we're bad, and we don't have to talk to nobody.

But who are they? What are they? Or, perhaps the more interesting question: Who and what are they not? When R.L. ("Uncle Bob") Thornton and the other boys formed the Citizens Council in 1937, the idea was to allow only business CEOs to be members, mainly owners of their own businesses. Thornton specifically did not want any second fiddles in the group who would have to go back to somebody else for approval, and he didn't want doctors or lawyers to be members--who knows why? He probably worried they read too much.

Only the big decision-makers would be allowed to belong. That way they could sit at the table, cut the deal, and make it stick right then and there. No approvals, no reviews: Just do it.

In its heyday, the Citizens Council threw itself vigorously behind the big infrastructure expansions that made growth happen in Dallas, from the freeways to the reservoirs to DFW Airport. In more recent years, through most of the '80s, it spent its energies on more negative battles, resisting strong citywide rezoning, resisting a single-member city council system, resisting minority influence on the school board and city councils.

But where does all of that stand now? What kind of people belong now, and what kind do not? And what do they want from us?

What Biegler and other members have been willing to say publicly in the past is that there are 245 members whose companies pay what has been described as "substantial dues" (amount undisclosed) in order to belong to a club that frequently hits them up for even more money. At the relative snap of a finger early this year, for example, the Citizens Council was able to raise $300,000 in pledges from its members to push for a "yes" vote on the Trinity River bond issue. (It passed, barely.)

A small cadre of as few as two dozen members make up an executive committee, which decides the organization's political agenda. The rest of the members are privileged to attend quarterly meetings where their agenda is presented to them, not for debate.

Especially in the period just before elections, the executive committee holds luncheon "forums" in which outsiders are invited to come before the committee and answer questions about their positions on issues. City council member Steve Salazar describes the process as fairly benign: "They ask you, Where do you stand on this, where do you stand on that?"

He says he is not offended.
A veteran of county politics, who still has to do business with Citizens Council types and who spoke to me on my sworn blood-oath promise not to identify him in any way, told me the following interesting story about being called before the Citizens Council recently for a presentation. The members sat at a long table in a private meeting room at the top of one of the downtown office towers, with nameplates in front of their places. The guests filed one by one to a small podium to state their cases.

"I probably knew 50 percent of the people I saw there at the table," he said. "The first thing you do, you try to figure out who are the real CEOs and who are the stand-ins.

"So, I saw a nameplate for Liz Minyard [Minyard Food Stores co-chairman], but her chair was empty. Herb Kelleher [Southwest Airlines chairman] came late. There was somebody there from American Airlines, but it was a P.R. type. Hicks [Tom, president of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst] was not there. There was a place set for him, but it was empty. Same for Perot [H. Ross, Jr., chairman and owner, Hillwood Development].

"J.C. Penney and Exxon had P.R. people there. That's pretty much the case for all these outlander companies that give you a lot of money in order to not do business in Dallas," he said, explaining that the "foreign" non-Dallas firms are often willing to chip in generously to a noncontroversial "good cause" if it means they won't actually have to get involved in any real local politics.

After giving me this breathtaking peak behind the curtain--a vision mainly of empty seats, a few late-arriving and distracted CEOs, and a lot of public relations persons--my highly confidential informant paused and scanned my face for reaction. He shrugged.

"I know," he said sadly. "It doesn't have quite the panache one would have expected in the old days."

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