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.

At the end of the Yellow Brick Toll Road, public relations people. If this were the movie, Dorothy would tell Toto, "Maybe we're still in Kansas after all."

The Citizens Council, to be fair, is far from the only business-political club in town, and almost all of the other ones have suffered a similar dilution of raw power in recent years since the collapse of the local real estate market in the late 1980s. The Breakfast Group, founded in 1986 by the late lawyer and political fixer Johnny Johnson, has always had one of those deliciously two-faced personalities that power-lovers find thrilling. From the beginning, the Breakfast Group has put forward a lot of pompous eyewash about how it serves only as an informational service to the community and does not take positions, make endorsements, or give money to candidates in any way that could possibly be interpreted as making it a player.

Then, of course, they have the Breakfast Group Political Action Committee, under a separate charter, which dumps money into city council races like Boss Tweed. See, if you couldn't have that--mask-on, mask-off--then it wouldn't be any fun.

Johnny Johnson was a transitional figure in local politics whose role was to convince the old Thornton-style bid'ness types that lawyers were good for something. From a nominally Democratic background, Johnson and his hench-persons (including two baby lawyers named Sandy Kress and Ron Kirk) ran around town arm-twisting people to do what the Citizens Council types wanted.

He set up the Breakfast Group as a kind of cattle call for local candidates: The people with checkbooks sat and listened while people who wanted to run for office auditioned their stuff. Then, afterward, the individual check-writers could decide to whom they would give money, and then they could all talk about who should get contributions from the PAC.

Earlier this year the Breakfast Group put its longtime executive director, Harry Tanner, on half-time. Tanner wouldn't talk to me about why, but a source who is very familiar with the Breakfast Group's inner workings told me a story that was eerily similar to the one about the Citizens Council and the empty chairs. He said the Breakfast Group has actually been surviving on some pretty thin gruel for more than a decade.

"The membership is just way down," he said. "When the real estate market collapsed in the '80s, and when the banks all went down, there was almost no one left standing who really gave a damn about Dallas politics.

"You have these major national and international companies that have come to town, most of them out on the corporate campuses in Plano and Frisco, and they're involved, but it's strictly in a public-service sense."

Oh, no. Public service! They really do it? That was supposed to be the eyewash. But don't they just say they're interested in public service, and what they really want to do is secretly manipulate the city council and stuff like that?

"No," he said. "Why would they?"
This is starting to feel awful. Unwanted by power. Now we have public relations people and actual public service. ("Toto, I'm getting kind of bored.")

But several people warned me not to get bored. "There are still players," my Breakfast Group informant said. "It's just that there are far fewer than there used to be.

"The only ones left standing from the old days," he said, "are Ray Hunt, and, uh, well, Ray Hunt. Then you have Hicks and Perot, who are fairly new and not really local guys in the sense of being involved in Dallas politics, except to get their own deals done. And you have [lawyer] Tom Luce, who seems to be everywhere these days.

"The big difference between now and the old days is the absence of the banks. It was really about the banks, from Thornton's time to the '80s, and since then we don't have any local banks. So the banks we do have either don't care who's on the council, or they only care a little bit, not enough to get their hands dirty."

The man who made the presentation to the Citizens Council agreed with my list of local players--Hicks and Perot on their own money deals (thank you very much for the Peace Symbol Arena), and Hunt and Luce on community issues like the schools (thank you very much for Yvonne Gonzalez)--with two provisos. One was that I not make too much out of Hunt's commitment to community service. "I mean, I think he is, but that's because he has already made lots of money off the community. Hicks and Perot are still making theirs. They may develop a social conscience later too."

The second proviso was that I had left out a key player. "Decherd [Robert, chairman of the A.H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News] is very, very involved," he said, "everywhere. He has a major personal involvement in local politics."

Decherd's involvement in recent years has been an expression of an old family tradition. Since the Moroney wing of the Morning News ownership clan became heavily invested in levee land along the river in the first part of the century, the Decherd-Moroney-Dealey folks who own the Morning News have always fought hard to promote their own real estate interests.

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