By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
As the May 1 election nears, the race has bitterly divided former allies. This race marks the first time that Loza's political views have cost him a friend, but he has more than just a choleric ex-plan commissioner to contend with. Albertson's proposal is pending before the council, and a growing number of East Dallas residents are joining Vaca's campaign. Increasingly, their complaints about Loza are being echoed in other neighborhoods, where residents are beginning to wonder where Loza's loyalties lie.
For his part, Loza still prides himself as an independent and says he doesn't take marching orders from the business community or anyone else. While Loza has championed big-ticket projects such as the arena and the Trinity River levees, he has resisted pressure from Mayor Kirk and his colleagues on other issues. More often than not, Loza also has supported less controversial projects favored by neighborhood associations. If not for his support of Albertson's, Loza likely wouldn't be the only incumbent with a significant opponent.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, Loza's performance at the Breakfast Group netted some contributions, but they hardly amount to a pot of gold: $500 from the Breakfast Group's PAC and an additional $1,350 from some of its members out of $12,225 in contributions. The full extent of Loza's backing from the establishment won't be known until after the election, when the next round of reports is due.
If Vaca's report is any indication, Loza now faces exactly the sort of grassroots campaign he waged to beat Brenda Reyes. A part-time student and professional mediator, Vaca has raised $7,643, most of it from arena opponents.
The District 2 race serves as a reminder that neighborhood associations have a stake in city politics and that they are increasingly impatient with city officials who embrace expensive projects while basic services, such as code enforcement and street repairs, are neglected. That, combined with the distrust generated by developers who barrage the city with requests for variances to codes intended to protect neighborhoods, has helped turn Loza's friends into enemies.
What's more, the race has spilled beyond the borders of Loza's district in East Dallas, where neighborhoods are divided by twisting political boundaries as well as by class and ethnicity.
It's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world except for Loza.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the students at St. Mark's School would serenade Loza with their twist on The Kinks' hit about a boy who falls for a cross-dresser named Lola.
Life at St. Mark's was tricky for young Loza: His intelligence put him at the head of his class, and he was an honor-roll student, but it couldn't make up for his blue-collar roots. That, plus a meek personality, made him an irresistible target.
"Ah, I can hear it now," says one former classmate, who giggles as he recalls how the boys would tease Loza. "The poor guy. He had a high voice. He was kind of chubby, and he was timid. He was a dweeb. That's the bottom line."
If the Marksmen yearbook, class of 1981, is any indication, the taunting Loza endured at St. Mark's took on a harder edge. The biography of Senor Bajito, or "Mr. Little Man," as he was known to his mostly Anglo classmates, includes made-up "quotes" from Loza next to his senior picture: "Did you say Spic?" and "Now, for the last time, I was born here in the U.S."
On a recent Monday afternoon, Loza slips into Spanish as he orders the catfish plate at Azteca, a restaurant on an industrial stretch of East Grand Avenue near Fair Park. Loza's outfit of gray slacks, blue suit coat, and a red sweater pulled over a white shirt resembles his St. Mark's uniform. The prep-school look is completed with a high school ring, which he absently strokes.
Loza says the fact that he was the only Hispanic in his class was not a problem at St. Mark's, a training ground for the sons of Dallas' upper class. But his father was a mailman and his mother a telephone operator, and Loza felt the pains of class-consciousness. He was as smart as anyone in his class, but Loza was never accepted into the club.
"It wasn't so much that people were snobby. It's one of those situations where there's a difference, and you can't get around it. You know, the kids were driving really nice cars, and there I was with my '71 Chevy Malibu," says Loza, who's a bit shy on the subject. "It wasn't so much envy as much as I felt awkward," he continues, requiring some prodding before offering an example. "If I was hanging out with friends, I guess I'd rather go over to their place rather than have them come over to mine, that kind of thing."
At age 35, Loza is much thinner today than he was in high school and a bit thinner than when he was elected--a subtle change that prompted some vicious gossips at City Hall to speculate whether the city's only openly gay councilman has AIDS. In fact, when he was 28, Loza was diagnosed with diabetes--a disease aggravated by stress that can cause weight loss.
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."
Instead, Loza is allowing issues of class and, to a lesser degree, ethnicity to color what should be a debate over zoning. Albertson's wants to rezone residential property to build its market. Many homeowners don't want a gargantuan store sitting in the middle of the neighborhood. How did that become a class issue? Much of East Dallas is split between District 2 and District 14, and the boundaries divide neighborhood associations such as Mill Creek, Vickery Place, and Swiss Avenue. Loza's district tends to be poorer and more heavily Hispanic, Veletta Forsythe Lill's District 14 more affluent and Anglo.
"There are people in District 14 who feel that they not only ought to control their own district, but they ought to control District 2 as well," Loza says. "It certainly has not been an easy call for me, but I think there are a few people within the confines of District 14 who feel that because of my decision on Albertson's I'm not qualified to represent my district, and I think it's wrong."
The "few people" are Swiss Avenue residents who oppose the store, a point Joe May--who on Loza's behalf is registering people to vote--made clear in a March 11 letter he distributed throughout East Dallas. "The true rehabilitation of East Dallas neighborhoods is up to everyone, not just the homeowners on Swiss Avenue," May wrote. "In essence, they want to determine the quality of life of every resident in Old East Dallas. It is now time to make your opinion heard. Do not let a few loud voices on Swiss Avenue drown out our thousands of voices."
While the neighborhood activists opposed to the store know how to get their voices heard at City Hall, May says they have historically ignored the opinions of their less affluent neighbors--many of whom live in low-income apartment buildings that have been neglected for years. (Several of those buildings will be razed if the Albertson's project is approved.)
"As a general rule, the only development that Swiss Avenue has ever advocated has been that development that gentrifies," says May, who adds that until the Albertson's debate came up "I didn't see anybody on Swiss Avenue wanting to preserve that affordable housing."
May is correct: The Albertson's debate has highlighted the absence of lower-income residents, who are mostly Asian and Hispanic renters, in East Dallas neighborhood associations that consist primarily of homeowners. If anyone knows the role these low-income tenants play in council politics it's May, who helped draw the original district lines in East Dallas when single-member council districts were created.
"The reason everything is the way it is...it's the only way we could get adequate minority districts that would allow adequate, in our case Hispanic, representation," May says. "I worked...to preserve an inner-city white district and preserve a second Hispanic district. John's is a Hispanic district, Veletta's is white."
As a result, the lines of District 14 snake through East Dallas toward Lakewood, gobbling up buildings Anglos live in and avoiding those occupied by Hispanics block by block. Neighborhood associations had to be sacrificed in order to accomplish the goal of increasing the number of minorities on the council.
While Loza can't be blamed for the way the district lines were drawn, Swiss Avenue resident and Vaca supporter Virginia McAlester says she's disgusted by the divide-and-conquer strategy the Loza campaign has employed. McAlester, a member of the city's Landmark Commission, says Loza ignores the fact that many of the neighborhood associations that oppose the Albertson's project lie in his district as well as Lill's.
"You can't divide a neighborhood down the middle and say, 'OK, people on this side of the street can work for one council person and people on the other side of the street can work for this other council person," McAlester says. "Part of our [Swiss Avenue historic] district is in District 2, and those people have as much right to ask their council person for help. What happens in two blocks of our neighborhood affects the other 10 blocks of the neighborhood."
Jo Blount, the president of the Mill Creek Homeowners Association, which lies in both districts, says that although she likes Loza personally, his position on Albertson's has turned her into a Vaca supporter.
"When the constituent homeowners who are working so hard to reclaim a neighborhood...are just pointedly ignored, I just can't feel safe putting my trust in him," Blount says.
Although he knew his decision would be unpopular in East Dallas, Loza says, he decided to support Albertson's for the same reasons he backed the arena and Trinity River projects.
"The one thing that I have to look at above all else is what's going to be good for the entire district," Loza says. "The bottom line with Albertson's is, I'm supporting it because I think it's good economic development for the district and the city. The only way I can even try to do all of those things I would like to do for the district is to have an expanding tax base."
Loza says his job is to decide what's best for the district and take a stand--even if it goes against the wishes of neighborhood associations. Yet while there's no doubt that the Albertson's project is the root of Loza's political troubles, it's not the only decision he has made that has angered neighborhood residents.
Earlier this year, people living near Bachman Lake were concerned about a proposal by the Dallas Can Academy, which auctions donated used cars to pay for youth programs, to relocate its auction site from downtown to a six-acre lot near the lake. Dallas Can is one of the city's most prestigious charities, and the Bachman Lake proposal drew a $220,000 pledge from Dallas investor Jack Furst, a partner in Dallas Mavericks owner Tom Hicks' firm of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst.
To Bachman-area residents, the proposal meant that the lake would soon become home to a giant junkyard--a "special use" that wasn't authorized under the area's zoning laws. Although the cause was good, residents were hesitant to support the proposal. They had experience with the problems that granting exceptions to city codes can bring--such exceptions had brought a slew of sexually oriented businesses to their neighborhood. To make matters worse, the neighborhood was under pressure to support the project, says Tim Dickey, president of the Bachman/Northwest Highway Community Association.
"The heavy civic weight of Dallas Can was evoked early on," Dickey says. "It was like they could do no wrong. Everyone was talking about their board of directors as if they were civic gods."
Although the residents were willing to compromise with Dallas Can and support their request for a special use permit, they wanted to know whether the auction lot would be a permanent fixture at the lake. Dickey recalls how his impression of Loza changed when a neighborhood meeting on the proposal disintegrated into a shouting match and Loza intervened. In essence, Dickey recalls, Loza told the residents that they had better find a way to support the permit before it went to council because he was voting for it with or without them.
"Here's your council member, two months before an election, coming to a community group...threatening to shove it down our throats," Dickey says. "He lost so much support that night. This is not a group that takes that kind of dictatorial attitude from a council member well."
Loza confirms that he was direct with the neighborhood residents that evening.
"There were some other people there I thought were interfering for reasons I couldn't understand," Loza says. "My point to them was, 'Look, ultimately this is my responsibility, and I will make sure something gets done at city council on this.'"
What was especially shocking to the Bachman-area residents was how different Loza appeared than he did his first year in office, when he established a reputation for being a vocal opponent of sexually oriented businesses. Loza endeared himself to the neighborhood in early 1998, when he fought against a request by black nightclub owner James Price for a dance permit for his Lakeside Night Club. Residents opposed Price's application because Price had operated an adult club before, and they feared he would turn Lakeside into another.
By the time the issue made it to the council, Price and a number of black leaders claimed the residents opposed the club because its clientele was mostly black. After a contentious public hearing on the issue, during which Loza was viciously accused of being a racist, Price's request was denied on a 7-5 vote divided along racial lines. For many of his constituents, Loza's unwillingness to be bullied that day marked the high point of his career.
"Loza was under tremendous political pressure from the mayor and everyone else to buckle, and he didn't. He stood his ground," Dickey says. "The disappointment is, he was [once] so stellar for us and courageous, really."
Although the Bachman-area residents and Dallas Can ultimately worked out their differences and the permit was granted, Dickey says the arrogance Loza revealed was a troubling indication that his loyalties were shifting toward business interests rather than neighborhood interests.
"We want the city to stick with the plan, and they're always coming at us asking for a special-use permit," Dickey says. "All we're trying to do is get the city to go with the program [and] quit trying to get us to go along with the exceptions and telling us we're bad guys when we don't."
The frequent battles between developers and neighborhood organizations are a problem that predates Loza's council tenure. If he is re-elected, his second term likely will be filled with similar fights, and his loyalties to neighborhood associations will be further tested.
Dallas lawyer Roger Albright, a former plan commissioner who represents developers at City Hall, says the trend toward in-town living spells an increasing demand for new businesses. People who choose to live in the city rather than the suburbs still want their Starbucks and mega-markets. That's great for the economy but tough on residential neighborhoods, where vacant land is a shrinking commodity. More requests for variances and other exceptions to the city's planning rules are inevitable.
As the Albertson's case illustrates, Albright says, developers must do a better job of informing the neighborhoods of their plans rather than surprising them with 11th-hour requests for variances. At the same time, neighborhoods must keep an open mind toward development and realize that a strict interpretation of the development code isn't going to work.
"Everyone fears the unknown," Albright says. "One of the problems of living in the inner city is, indeed, it isn't going to be like living in the suburbs of Pleasantville. You have urban investments. You have mixed uses. It's a function of the economy. The city is not a static place where you just hope that things will never change, because they will."
Despite the trouble brewing in East Dallas, Loza says he isn't concerned about the campaign. He's certain that May 1 will be a cakewalk. What troubles him nowadays, he says, is not irate neighborhood activists or former friends who are now enemies.
"My biggest frustration has been that I got there at City Hall thinking that as a council member I could just give orders and things would get done," Loza says, giving his high school ring a twist. "One of the first things that struck me was, there were a lot of limitations on my power as opposed to just actually having power. That's still frustrating."
Loza laughs when he's reminded of an advertisement he placed as a joke inside his senior yearbook. In it, a fat cigar pokes out of a wide-open grin, as Loza poses as the roustabout of "J.L. Political Enterprises, Inc." an imaginary firm specializing in "Bribery, Scandal, Mudslinging, [and] Character Assassination."
"If you have the money," the ad reads in bold type, "we've got it."
"Oh yeah," Loza says, "everybody back then knew I was going to go into politics at some point." He pauses for a moment while he considers the memory. "It's funny sometimes how things foretell the future.