By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A lineup of heavy hitters was on hand for the Dallas Breakfast Group's March 9 candidates forum at the Crescent Hotel. Real estate mogul Vance Miller was there, along with representatives of Texas Instruments, Southwestern Bell, and Hunt Oil Co., among other executives. They nibbled on eggs and fruit as they considered whom to open their wallets to in the upcoming council election.
The meeting was a sort of low-key two-year performance review by the influential group. The guests of honor were Dallas City Councilman John Loza and two of his colleagues, Veletta Forsythe Lill and Donna Blumer. Harry Tanner, the Breakfast Group's executive director, described the three as incumbents with no election opponents. To the audience, Tanner's words translated into a simple equation: Incumbents + no opposition = $0 campaign contributions.
Loza began to squirm.
Two years ago, many of these same executives had endorsed Brenda Reyes over Loza for the District 2 council seat. When Loza beat Reyes, the victory was considered a major upset--an example of how a grassroots candidate can beat the establishment. Finally, many District 2 residents believed, they had elected someone who would answer to them rather than to businessmen who live in Highland Park and use City Hall for their own benefit. Today, Loza still is proud of his win.
"I saw it as a victory for the average people of District 2," Loza says. "I portrayed myself as someone who would listen to everybody and make good decisions on that basis and, basically more than anything else, someone who was going to try my best to bring everyone into the process. In other words, someone who wasn't going to be taking orders from just a few people."
The fear of "outside interests" is again defining the District 2 race, only this time it's Loza who faces a grassroots candidate: neighborhood activist Pete Vaca. Loza was quick to point this fact out to the moneymen.
When the time came for him to speak, Loza corrected Tanner. He told the business group that he had a significant opponent in Vaca, who was their enemy: an anti-establishment type backed by the same "no" crowd that fought their arena project, which Loza had championed once he was elected.
"I wanted to make sure that they knew I did have opposition," Loza says, explaining his performance before the Breakfast Group. "I didn't want them to think that I was getting a free ride like Donna and Veletta."
To prove his point, Loza shared with the audience information he found on an Internet site edited by Sharon Boyd, a former Loza ally who led the opposition against the arena and who is now helping manage Vaca's campaign. Loza read Boyd's description of Vaca as a candidate who will not "suck up" to the "ODB," or Our Downtown Betters, Boyd's nickname for the city's business leaders--the same people Loza was breakfasting with.
Blumer recalls the awkward silence that fell as the implications of Loza's statements registered.
"Everybody there just sort of dropped their jaws. He was clearly playing up to the establishment," says Blumer, an outspoken critic of the arena. "Several eyes darted my way because everyone knows Sharon and I worked on the arena. By saying what he said, it was implicit that he was somebody that would go along with the group. It was an embarrassing moment for us all."
Mostly it was an embarrassing moment for John Loza, who rose from working-class Mesquite and passed through the doors of Harvard University before landing a seat on the Dallas City Council, where, his former friends say, he has become the establishment's whipping boy.
Rick Leggio recalls a lecture he gave Loza while the two were driving in East Dallas during the 1997 District 2 race. Leggio, Boyd, and longtime political operative Joe May were helping Loza in his campaign against Brenda Reyes, a Louisiana native backed by downtown money.
"I told him before he got elected that there's a gray period that you go into after you're elected. There's a lot of people that come after you that you don't know, but I think you'll come out of it OK because you have a strong moral foundation. I was wrong. He turned. He went to the dark side," Leggio says, his voice rising with anger. "Loza is horribly weak. He has no balls."
Back then, no one familiar with city politics would have predicted that the two friends today would be at each other's throats, with the voluble, if melodramatic, Leggio leading the cries that Loza is kowtowing to the "establishment" at the expense of his district.
The allegations began to fly in late February, when Leggio abruptly resigned his position as Loza's appointee to the Dallas Plan Commission. Loza was angered by rumors that Leggio was attempting to find a candidate to run against Steve Salazar, the only other Hispanic on the council, whom Loza considers an ally. Leggio, meanwhile, had grown increasingly suspicious that Loza was becoming a pawn of Mayor Ron Kirk and wealthy developers.
The tension came to a head when Leggio, against Loza's wishes, voted against a plan by Albertson's Food & Drug to build a giant grocery store in Old East Dallas. Some of the very neighborhood groups that had once supported Loza fought against the plan, which would require rezoning several acres of residential property. Days later, Loza revealed that he planned to vote in favor of Albertson's, and Leggio declared war: He, along with Sharon Boyd, would run vocal Albertson's opponent Pete Vaca against Loza.