Taking It to the Street

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

"The city staff gets its will from the level of advocacy that the city council member brings to the table. I would never expect a bureaucrat to say, 'Oh, I'd better take it on myself to go out there and see what needs to be done in South Dallas.'"

It's a straightforward equation: Lazy, unresponsive council member equals no help on potholes.

What she does not agree with is the perception of other candidates that people in her district are getting impatient with the big-ticket deals downtown.

"No," she says bluntly. "I do not hear that. That is not something I hear at all."

Marvin Crenshaw does. In fact, he says it's pretty much all he hears these days.

Certainly in terms of city council politics, Crenshaw, 53, is the veteran. He helped create the existing system. As a grassroots activist in the years before single-member districts, Crenshaw probably was thrown out of more council meetings than most of these other candidates have attended.

He has played some hardball, down-and-dirty racial politics in the past. He is associated in many white minds with the least pleasant aspects of Farrakhanism.

But he says the message from the streets is unmistakable: "Racial politics is over in this district," he says. "It's history."

In its place, he says, will be a more sophisticated, more demanding politics of coalition, focused on smaller, more immediate goals.

"People just know more," he says. "I supported the Trinity River, for example, but I believe that if another election was held today on it, it would not pass."

Maybe it's a good thing the Citizens Council holds its candidate screenings in secret. It might be bad for public morale actually to see it done.

According to people who were present when the District 7 candidates appeared, Strickland worked the room like it was old-home week, shaking hands all over the place and calling everybody by his or her first name. Chaney, also familiar to the moguls and possessed of the necessary graces, was similarly at ease. The rest of them sat quietly, waiting their turns.

Each had been given a questionnaire beforehand. Five questions. The first four were mainly mouthwash: What single citywide issue would you consider to be your top priority? Who else supports you? Have you ever done anything bad? "What should the role of the business community be, in your mind, in helping to set public policy?" (The implied thought is "In your mind, and only in your mind.")

But number five is what we're really here for: "What is your position on: the Trinity River project; the Olympic bid."

It couldn't be any plainer. Sure, all of the candidates want some downtown money. But this is what the downtown money is all about. The Trinity River project. The Olympic bid. You want the money? Then you had better speak positively and persuasively about the big-ticket items.

You hear people talking about curbs and gutters? Los arroyos y las aceras? Great. Tell them to wait. Otherwise, all you'll get is one of those nasty calls from Bill Ceverha.

There are different versions of what happened that day before the Citizens Council, of course. Middlebrooks suggests she thought she heard Brantley-Wango speaking pretty favorably about the Trinity River project. Brantley-Wango says that's a lie, and that Middlebrooks was the one sucking up. Strickland, of course, didn't have to suck up, and the low-key Chaney could have done it in a way that no one would notice.

But we get the picture. On one side, the people's champions. On the other, the checkbooks.

In terms of the major candidates' overall gifts and experience, this is probably one of the best council races any part of Dallas has seen since the inauguration of single-member districts eight years ago. But in this worthy field, two things make Brantley-Wango stand out.

One has to do with her years as a seasoned performer. Whether it's a press conference in the flag room at City Hall or a two-minute speech in a sweaty classroom in South Oak Cliff High School, she's very good on her feet. She has timing, poise, delivery, and intensity. She can quiet a room.

The other has to do with her lack of experience, her political greenness. She knows less than the others about the political system in Dallas, and so she is surprised and angry when the system steps on her toes.

Late one night after a political appearance, she is eating a sandwich in her living room while Hans sips a beer and watches the news. She has been doing her own research on the Trinity River project, and while she eats she is riffling through a stack of letters and documents, trying to find something she'd stumbled on earlier in the day.

It's late. She's tired. It's all still a little confused and muddled. She has been informed that some of the land supposedly protected by the Rochester Park levee still requires flood insurance, because it isn't really safe from flooding. She says she is learning from her candidate walks that most of the people in Rochester Park vehemently do not want the levees the city has said it's going to build for them.

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