By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As Albertson's readies for the biggest zoning battle Dallas has seen in 20 years--a fight prompted by the grocery giant's plan to build a mammoth, suburban-style store in East Dallas despite objections from many who live there--the company's local team is learning how important it is for them to get their stories straight.
Take, for instance, the curious case of a late-October news conference organized on Albertson's behalf by longtime local political consultant Jake Fuller. Alongside Fuller was Hispanic activist Joe May, there to inject ethnic and class politics into what had been until then a straightforward zoning case.
"The issue is the use of affluent homeowner groups as a tool to advancing aggression in minority districts with the intent of denying those district residents a voice on [a] matter of importance to them," May said, according to a written statement that bears Fuller's office address and telephone number.
"The ongoing efforts by affluent residents to defeat a proposed zoning request located in a Hispanic neighborhood and supported by Hispanic residents is nothing short of plutocracy in support of aristocratic colonialism," May continued.
It was a provocative statement. Albertson's opponents, many of whom are Anglo and affluent, say they fear that plopping a mega-market on five and a half acres within walking distance of East Dallas' historic neighborhoods will lead to a bloom of unwelcome retail development. According to the news conference's spin, they're little more than plutocrats fighting to shield their yuppie, refurbished homes from a store that promises to bring jobs and convenient shopping to a poor Hispanic neighborhood that is ready to support the benevolent grocer from the grass roots.
Welcome to the revolution. ƒgalite. Fraternite. Triple coupons.
To Albertson's opponents, the news conference appeared to be the beginning of a new strategy by the company: Since the opposition was mounting a successful resistance to the project, team Albertson's hired a behind-the-scenes consultant and a self-appointed Hispanic "leader" to shame their opponents into silence by calling them bigots or, more subtly, cultural elitists.
Not true, say Fuller and May. But they forgot to clue in Fuller's receptionist, who answered a telephone call earlier this month from a reporter who sought to speak with Fuller about the store.
"You'll want to speak with his client Mike Coker," the receptionist said, her voice routine, Coker's telephone number at her fingertips.
That would be the Mike Coker hired by Albertson's to push its zoning request through the city bureaucracy. Coker is neither poor nor Hispanic, but he is the former director of the city planning department and attended the October news conference.
Fuller confirms that he was hired to arrange the news conference, but won't say who is writing the check. He also says he can't speak on the record. "I've been told that I'm not to be quoted," Fuller says. "I was hired just for about a week. I literally spent a week on it. Basically, it's Joe May's deal."
May, meanwhile, isn't sure just what to say when asked whether he is on Coker's payroll.
"No, yeah," May says. "Jake reports to me. It was just a week to do a press conference. I needed somebody to do a press release because we were getting hit in the Morning News. I needed to get my message out, and that's what Jake was hired in to do, to put this press conference together."
May continued to wade through the muddy situation, struggling to find a way to explain the arrangement among him, Fuller, and Coker. "I'm not paying Jake at all, and I don't work for anybody," he says. "I'm not on anybody's payroll."
Except, perhaps, his own. May owns two pieces of land a block away from the proposed store site, and his property is likely to increase in value if it's built. But if May isn't paying Fuller, then who is?
"Coker would be who's paying him," May offers. "But it was never a full-time [job] or anything like that. It was just for, you know, a one-shot thing."
As it turns out, the receptionist and May have it wrong. Fuller and May are not, after all, working for Coker or anyone else associated with Albertson's.
"I have never hired Joe May," Coker says, "and I have never paid Mr. Fuller a dime."
Got it? Someone--not Albertson's lobbyist Coker and not May--hired Fuller to help May get out the pro-Albertson's message that Hispanics in East Dallas are clamoring to have a 63,000-square-foot store built in their neighborhood, their aristocratic neighbors be damned.
If you're confused now, just wait. Turns out that some of the poor and working-class Hispanics who live in the neighborhood aren't exactly happy to have Albertson's (motto: It's your store) build its market, especially since the company plans to knock down some of their homes to do it.
As part of Albertson's project, four apartment buildings will be razed, and an estimated 350 low-income, mostly non-English-speaking Asian and Hispanic tenants will be displaced at a time when affordable housing is scarce in their diverse East Dallas neighborhood. Project opponents say the number of displaced tenants could ultimately swell into the thousands if other developers follow Albertson's lead and seek zoning changes that would allow them to replace neighboring low-income apartment buildings with commercial development.