It's the money

And it's nowhere near enough to attract a slate of decent city council candidates in southern Dallas

This wasn't the hardball question, the kind a reporter slips in at the end of a dull conversation, hoping to catch the city council candidate off guard. But it stumped District 4 hopeful Elijah McGrew. The patter stopped, all the easy talk in that soothing baritone voice about fixing streetlights, enforcing city codes, and strengthening the ordinance governing sexually oriented businesses.

"How do you make a living?"
A brief silence, then McGrew's favorite answer: "That is so interesting."
Yes, it is. And McGrew, 41, known for his much-publicized campaigns against fleabag motels and topless clubs, quickly decides he doesn't like the drift of this interview. "My goodness," he says. "Are you gonna put me in front of the paper as the 'Deadbeat Candidate'?"

Hmmm. It does have a sort of ring to it. And it pretty much sums things up.
After all, the city secretary's roster of council candidates lists McGrew's occupation as "unknown." And Dallas County records show a misdemeanor assault conviction, five guilty pleas to driving without a license, and six evictions from various apartments resulting in $2,253 in judgments against McGrew. (McGrew disputes three of those evictions, saying he never lived at those complexes, and says he "took care of" what he owed in one of the other cases.)

Fits my definition of deadbeat.
Then there's the matter of the car, a big old prairie schooner over which neighborhood activist Mary Lou Zijderveld sued McGrew in small-claims court. Zijderveld says he agreed to purchase her 1978 Buick Park Avenue for $800, paid $100 down, then made himself scarce.

The activist, who befriended McGrew while the pair picketed Northwest Highway topless bars, never got another penny from him. But she did start receiving McGrew's traffic and parking tickets, since he never bothered to register the car in his name.

If that weren't bad enough, sometime in 1998, McGrew simply sold the car to one Jose Trevino, according to county records.

McGrew's explanation for the missing Buick: "I was, you know, just test-driving the car."

Of course. But gee, didn't Zijderveld want it back some day?
"No," McGrew says. "She said 'Well, look, Elijah, you can either bring the car back or keep it or sell it,'" he says.

Zijderveld agrees that she did say something like that in exasperation after McGrew had "test-driven" the car for an entire year.

"It's so interesting," McGrew adds. "It's so interesting. If I was wealthy, I would pay my debt. When you get in politics, it's crazy how people come out of the woodwork and say things like that. And deep down inside, she knows that I'm a good person."

From there, the conversation shifts to a muffled plaint about poverty, further assertions that he's an essentially decent guy, and talk about how he'll pay back Zijderveld once his campaign is over.

McGrew contends that he's the "most informed guy" in this year's council races, thanks to years of research for his Local Political Candidates Society, which distributes information about city council members and candidates. That organization has become his full-time pursuit, he says, even though he doesn't get paid a dime for it.

A few days later, McGrew follows his lament with a string of accusations against Zijderveld, including some of a highly personal nature. "I'm getting tired of getting beat up," he says.

Zijderveld, a retired state employee who lives near Bachman Lake, isn't impressed. "I used to feel sorry for him," she says. "He kind of came across as the victim--someone who's pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But he's just a low-life. He loves to whine like a child."

It's the time of year when spring rains flush small furry pests and assorted other vermin from their hiding places. And it's the time of year when a curious array of southern and West Dallas residents--among them opportunists, deadbeats, and the mysteriously underemployed--suddenly get the notion that they're qualified to serve on the Dallas City Council.

Some of the folks who fit in one or more of those categories may actually end up sitting at the horseshoe, if history is any indication, selling out their needy districts through sheer ignorance or neglect.

The reason is simple: It's the money.
While single-member council districts brought a new measure of democracy to Dallas, a steady stream of underqualified candidates has plagued southern Dallas council races.

McGrew, running for the Pleasant Grove seat Councilman Larry Duncan will relinquish because of term limits, isn't alone in possessing a scrawny resume. Check the lengthy list of southern Dallas candidates on file at the city secretary's office, and you will find an inordinate number of no-names, sell-outs, and individuals who have no recent acquaintance with the working world.

You can blame this, in part, on Dallas' failure to pay its council a living wage. Council members make $50 per meeting day, a figure unchanged since the 1960s. Voters have refused seven times to increase that meager compensation, with the last attempt losing badly in 1997.

There's no question that the city's policy hits hardest in southern and West Dallas, where few, if any, people are independently wealthy. A family breadwinner can't afford to serve on the council and net an average of only $300 a month.

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