Taking It to the Street

Want to get elected to city council in southern Dallas? Forget the race card and patch that pothole.

The rhetoric is nostalgically New Left: "A hiring hall, controlled by the community, should be established to help move people into these jobs," according to fliers distributed at the door.

Put to music, Pete Seeger could sing it.
For some reason, the event is moved at the last minute from the main auditorium to a large classroom upstairs. Approximately 75 people are jammed in the room; it's hot; the a.c. hasn't been turned on yet. The crowd is 90 percent black. Most people are over 40.

All of the candidates pay lip service to the living-wage issue, but each of them tries to put some jump in the house with something else. There are candidates here from all over southern Dallas, but by far the largest number are those seeking Charlotte Mayes' seat in District 7. First elected in 1991, Mayes is being forced off the council by term limits. Eight people are running for her place, which encompasses South Dallas, part of East Oak Cliff, and Buckner Terrace.

One candidate, Sharon Middlebrooks, tosses out a few tried and true semi-racial lines.

"Our parks don't look like other people's parks," she says, with a very significant roll of the eyes.

Supposedly white people get all the nice parks, and southern Dallas gets screwed. Ten years ago, that line would have had people in a room like this slapping their hands on their student desktops and saying "that's right, Sharon."

Tonight she gets a muted "Umm-hmm."
Roy Williams is here, one of the two plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that overthrew the old, white-dominated at-large council system and established all single-member districts in 1991. That was eight years ago, and his face time is gradually wearing thin, but Williams still has clout in this room. A perennial candidate since '91, he is running in Barbara Mallory Caraway's District 6.

Williams is a tall, imposing figure with a practiced political presence. He can and does intone some of the time-honored maxims of racial politics as though he were playing a cathedral pipe organ. Tonight he edges in that direction and is greeted by stony faces and silence. He makes a quick adjustment, switches gears, talks instead about recent revelations that the incumbent, Mallory Caraway, takes campaign contributions from titty bars.

"Please, please, don't send someone back to the council who behaves that way," he rumbles.

Marvin Crenshaw, Williams' co-plaintiff in the city council suit and another famous face in southern Dallas, is running in District 7. He tries to pitch himself as the candidate most familiar with City Hall: "First of all, you need to send someone down there who knows where to go to the bathroom."

But the audience just looks confused, failing to appreciate his quip.
Brantley-Wango is one of the least-known candidates, certainly one of the greenest. But tonight, toward the end, when lots of people are nodding off at their little desks, she wades right into them and tells them all about Parry Avenue, South Boulevard, and Bonton, about the length and breadth of District 7.

"I have walked it all," she says, slowly raising a preaching finger high above her head. "And it's deplorable!"

A rumble comes up from the house. "Yes! Yes it is!"
"There is no excuse!" she shouts.
"That's right!" they shout back.
"I want something done about it!"

For the first time in a very long, hot evening, they cheer and shout, and a few even pound their desks. Clearly, in her months of walking door-to-door, Brantley-Wango has found the key to the heart of District 7.

The streets. The curbs. The gutters. The sidewalks. Las aceras. Los arroyos. Trash pick-up. Code enforcement. The part the city is supposed to do.

People here this evening pay respect to Williams and Crenshaw, offering a certain deference. The lawsuit was good. But it's history. Everybody has seen African-American council members on TV giving the white folks hell down there for decades.

But how about some new curbs? How about something we can see, something for which there are no excuses?

Welcome to the era of post-racial city council politics.

Of the eight people seeking the District 7 seat, the two most frequently viewed as front-runners are Joyce Strickland and Leo Chaney.

Strickland, 52, founder of Mothers Against Teen Violence, is the clear choice of the Dallas Citizens Council, the white business group that holds secret meetings and funnels money into campaigns. She is a very moving stump speaker.

Chaney, 49, has deep family roots in southern Dallas and a longtime job with DISD, has served on boards and commissions for years, and is easily the best-trained of the lot in politics and city procedure. He is probably acceptable to members of the Citizens Council because of his experience, and he has garnered some modest support from them.

In a very close third place is Sharon Middlebrooks, who is young, bright, and comes across as sincere. She is a repeat candidate with some track record in the community. She describes herself as a housing manager and consultant. Her record as an apartment manager is marred by a major censure from HUD three years ago for running a crack-house hellhole apartment complex. She blames all of that on the owners of the property, and HUD officials concede she may have a point.

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