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.

In a debate some four years ago over the value of land Belo was selling to the city for an expansion of the Dallas Convention Center, Decherd was "all over City Hall, himself, lobbying people," according to former council member Jerry Bartos. Since then, his newspaper's support of a project to build more levees along the river and fix up the old ones has been ham-fisted, to say the least.

But what does all of that, taken together, have to say about a small group of powerful, moneyed players trying to control things? The Citizens Council has been padded with public relations persons; the Breakfast Group is down to its last few strips of bacon; the little people won a hard-fought federal court fight and got a 14-1 all-single-member city council system installed in 1991. So does all of that mean that we now have a much more independent, grassroots-style political system in Dallas than we used to have?

Since the late 1930s, the Citizens Council had virtually run the city: It put its own slate of city council candidates up for election--without ever admitting they were its candidates, of course. And those candidates were almost the only candidates who ever got elected, because no one who had money ever had the temerity to put his money up against the Citizens Council's money.

The way you ran for office was by sucking up to the Citizens Council to get on its slate. Otherwise, forget it. So isn't all of that a thing of the past now?

"No," my Breakfast Group guy said quietly. "It's the opposite. I think quite to the surprise of the people who want to control things, 14-1 has been the best thing that has ever happened to them. They have literally never had it so good."

But why, in the wake of 14-1, would it be easier, not harder, for this group to run the city council? Shouldn't 14-1 have made the council more independent?

"I could have told you this when they were doing 14-1," my guy who spoke to the Citizens Council said. "The districts are too small. Especially in the poor districts, there's no base. These guys can go in with a relatively small amount of money and be the only show in town."

My Breakfast Group guy agreed. "There's no one else out there writing checks against them. The unions, except for city employees unions, aren't players. They used to be, years ago, but they haven't been for a long time.

"People in the more southern Dallas districts tend not to have true political organizations to raise money for them. So a very few people can go in, especially to the vulnerable districts where there's very low voter turnout anyway, and really make their dollars count."

Oh, but would they really do that? Spend money to get the elected representatives of the poor to work for rich guys downtown instead of for the poor?

The picture on paper is at once more stark and a little more complex than the portrait of half a dozen horsemen riding roughshod over the masses. The campaign finance reports of our current city council members reveal that a relatively tiny number of people and companies overwhelmingly dominate the money end of city council races in Dallas, but it's more than just Decherd, Hicks, Hunt, Luce, and Perot. Add to them the businesses that have a financial stake in the Trinity River project; the law firm of Blair Goggan, which holds a much-coveted monopoly contract to collect delinquent taxes for the city; the apartment owners association; downtown developers seeking tax subsidies; and the city employees unions, and you have a picture of almost total control of the city council through campaign contributions.

Barbara Mallory Caraway, for example, represents District 6, which includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods in West Dallas. She depends on this constellation of interests for well over half the money she raises to run for office. In a campaign finance report covering three weeks' time in 1997, Caraway showed contributions totaling $10,400 from David Biegler (DCC), Erle Nye (DCC), Henry S. Miller (DCC), and Louis Beecherl Jr. (DCC), CEO of Beecherl Companies (an investor closely associated with the Stemmons interests, Beecherl has been a principal business lobbyist for the river project); from the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors; from Texas Instruments; from Blair Goggan; from George Shafer (DCC) of Industrial Properties Corp, also associated with the Stemmons levee gang, the original proponents of the river deal; from the Dallas Breakfast Group (we're sure she meant the PAC); and from Pete Schenkel, of course, of Schepps Dairy.

Schenkel, who is more from the Dallas Crime Commission element of the power structure than the Citizens Council, has achieved some notoriety in recent years as the patron saint of Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb. As a federal probe of Lipscomb's personal and public finances drags on, many people wait with extremely bated breath to see whether Schenkel's name will surface in any formal way in that unhappy matter.

Charlotte Mayes, who represents District 7 (a swath from South Dallas up to far East Dallas), is a little imprecise about filling out her reports, so some of the time periods covered are uncertain. An intriguing parallel emerges, however, between her situation and Caraway's: In what seems to be the same general period of time, when Caraway raised $10,400 from the downtown interests, Mayes raised $10,350. Almost as if someone had agreed on a number to get to.

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