Whipping boy

John Loza learns that making friends is easy for a city council member. Keeping them is harder.

Once again Loza's life is stressful. A lawyer, he complains that his practice has been harmed by his council work. In fact, his license is suspended because he's behind in required continuing education classes, though he still practices law.

And he still faces people who tease him because they believe he's weak.
"I know nobody's ever going to describe me as a firebrand or a table-thumper, or anybody who is particularly exciting," he says. "And I know no one's ever going to think of me as someone who lights up the room when he walks in. That's fine. I know what my personality is, and I don't have a problem with it. But at the same time, the strength I did have with regard to conciliation and bringing people together...I thought that was something the city could use."

Indeed, Loza is not one of the council's finer orators. About the most stirring speech he has made during his two-year tenure came last April, when Loza peddled the Trinity River bond package to Hispanic voters, passionately arguing that the project would bring jobs to Hispanics who live in West Dallas and Oak Cliff.

"We're not going to listen to the naysayers because it is our future that is at stake here in this bond election and to our future we have to say yes," Loza said.

That day, Loza cemented his reputation as a councilman whom Kirk and the establishment could count upon to help deliver the Hispanic vote when big projects are on the line. At the same time, his characterization of the project's critics as "naysayers" alienated many of his own constituents--particularly those in East Dallas--who opposed the Trinity bonds. The issue passed with just 51.6 percent of the vote. In Dallas, where politicians are pigeonholed as either pro- or anti-establishment, Loza had effectively taken sides with the "outside interests" that his former political allies in District 2 rail against.

"You can't be on both sides; they [Kirk and his allies] make it very clear, " says Blumer, who with Laura Miller composes the council's anti-establishment wing. "I've seen people, when they get on the council they take a look at what the situation is, particularly with this mayor, and they really don't want to appear to be outside the loop. When everybody's wondering what's going to define you [and] you take a strong stand on something, that puts you in a particular category. [Loza] absolutely has supported the establishment on virtually every issue."

In October 1997, just a few months after Loza took office, the deal for a tax-financed arena made it to the council for approval. Sharon Boyd, who had campaigned on behalf of Loza because he had pledged to oppose any taxpayer funding of the project, had begun to suspect that Loza was changing sides. Boyd says her suspicions were confirmed during a chat she had with Loza the day of the vote.

"He came by and said, 'Well, Sharon, I feel that if I go along with this, the guys downtown will see that I can work with them,'" Boyd recalls. "I said, 'Mothers told their virgin daughters, don't give it away because the guy's not going to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.' John had just given away his virtue, and he's not going to get a second date."

Today Loza says his onetime opposition to the arena deal changed because its taxes on hotels and rental cars don't put an "undue" burden on his constituents, many of whom are poor. He also notes that voters subsequently approved the Trinity project and public financing for the arena.

"There were a lot of people who went either way on that. I just made the decision I thought was best in both cases," Loza says. "What I'm trying to establish with my voting record is that I don't take orders from anybody. I really don't think I could be accused of being in anybody's back pocket."

Neighborhood organizations are just one of many voices in his district, which includes Deep Ellum, downtown, and the West End. In those areas, support for the arena runs high, and so does Loza's approval rating.

Maggie Campbell, executive director of the West End merchants association, says Loza was a strong ally in her organization's fight to route DART rail lines around the arena's east side, linking it to the West End.

"John Loza was one of those council members who stuck with us down to the end, even when it was obvious it wasn't going to go that way and the political pressure was on," Campbell says.

Loza didn't know the extent of the mess he was about to create last February, when he announced that he was going to vote in Albertson's favor despite near-unanimous opposition among neighborhood associations in his district. Like hornets roused from their hive, the associations' members are now forming tiny battalions and heading straight toward Loza, their stingers set on kill. Loza, however, is not running for cover.

"I don't want to make it sound like I am not willing to work with those neighborhood associations," Loza says. "I'm not going to say, 'You opposed me on Albertson's, so be gone with you,' but there are some individuals within those organizations who feel they have to come after me personally, and I'm not going to sit back and just take it."

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