By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So here today is this tidy little avenue of sturdy working-class homes. When people open their doors, you can see the pride inside, the careful rows of bric-a-brac above the big-screen TV and the plush carpeting still remarkably fresh after two years of rampaging children.
Habitat, its volunteers and supporters, and the families who were able to move in under Habitat's income guidelines have invested heart, money, and blood, working to transform a terrain of ruin into a green pocket of decency and hope. The dream is almost there.
But it's also visibly slipping away, because the part of this scene that belongs to the city of Dallas--the street itself--looks like hell.
Two years after Habitat finished building the houses and people began moving in, there still are no curbs on this block. No gutters. No connection to a storm sewer. No sidewalks. It doesn't even look like an urban street. It looks like what you would expect to see in an all-cousin trailer park. Rain slides off the tarry surface of the street and floods up over the footpaths where sidewalks were supposed to go, turning the soil to gelatinous brown soup.
Up and down the block, in spite of the residents' efforts, there are unmistakable signs of disrespect. Someone has come in during the night and dumped trash on a vacant lot. Blowing litter is glued down in the mud on the sides of the street. It's the kind of thing you just don't see on a street that looks tight, looks right, looks like somebody's policing up the area on a regular basis.
On this particular day, two candidates are walking the block--Jeannette Brantley-Wango, running for the District 7 city council seat currently occupied by Charlotte Mayes, and Margaret Donnelly, waging a longshot campaign for mayor. Those races and all of the other city council seats will be decided in the May 1 municipal election.
Maria Ruiz, a compact woman with a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old in the house, won't immediately open the door for strangers. But when she darkens the peephole, she must spy something, perhaps the campaign literature. She changes her mind, and the door flies open.
Mrs. Ruiz, eyes lighted by a predatory gleam, sees fresh meat in front of her house--do-gooder, promise-making suits who want something from her. She rubs her hands together and starts belting it out.
The street. The curbs. The gutters. The sidewalks.
Both Donnelly and Brantley-Wango offer her political push cards covering broader topics such as economic development and public accountability, but she's not buying, not listening, not looking.
The street. The curbs. The gutters. The sidewalks.
Up and down the street today it's the same story from everyone. Abel Arriga Jr., who speaks little English, turns to Donnelly, who grew up in Venezuela, and says the same things in Spanish: "Las aceras, los arroyos."
Elaine Echols is shooing in children from the car. She moved here from Oak Cliff two years ago and loves it. "The neighborhood's wonderful," she says. "It's peaceful. It's actually quiet. Habitat's been wonderful."
But she wants to talk about the street, the curbs, the gutters, the sidewalks. Where are the sidewalks?
"I was led to believe we would have sidewalks," she says. "But right in front of our house we have holes where the water just sits if it rains. They get full of mosquitoes."
She says she has given up on the city. "I tried to contact someone, and they never even called me back. So I said OK, forget it."
The big picture is coming in loud and clear to both candidates: The big picture is at their feet. If they start talking about anything that's more than six inches off the ground, they're losing votes.
A few nights later at a candidates forum at South Oak Cliff High School, most of the men and women seeking the District 7 seat appear and give short speeches. The forum is sponsored by some union locals and ACORN, which is a Saul Alinsky-style grassroots organizing group with a long history in this part of the city. The evening's theme is supposed to be "A Living Wage." The sponsors want all the candidates to sign a pledge saying that, if elected, they will vote in favor of an ordinance requiring the city of Dallas to do business only with contractors willing to pay at least $8 to $9 an hour for labor.
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.
Further from the pack is Marvin Crenshaw, a perennial, apparently running to shave some votes off Strickland, but it's not clear for whom. Finally, there are three marginal candidates, including one who never shows up for anything and another whose stump speech is that he comes from Gary, Indiana. He says that's a good thing.
Of the eight, the wild card is Brantley-Wango.
Jeannette Brantley-Wango lives in a gracious restored home on South Boulevard in the heart of old South Dallas. She was born here 52 years ago, step-daughter of the Rev. P.T. Shaw, pastor of Ideal Missionary Baptist Church and one of the old preacher-powerbrokers of legend. She went through Catholic school in Dallas and graduated from Madison High in 1962, then attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
A stint on Canadian television launched her on a successful international career as a jazz singer. She came back to Dallas in 1982, when her Swedish husband's employer sent him here to check out the real estate market. Since returning, she has entertained in the area and was involved in a short-lived attempt to revive the Green Parrot, a Dallas jazz nightspot.
Her decision to run for Mayes' seat was inspired by an editorial in The Dallas Morning News calling for greater citizen involvement. But she has taken a line on local issues somewhat at odds with the News' support of the so-called "big ticket" public endeavors--specifically the project to rebuild the Trinity River, the sports arena, and the wooing of the 2012 Olympics. It's a line that might seem to pit her against many in the black community, whose votes have been counted on to push most of those items over the top at the polls. More than any of the other seven candidates, Brantley-Wango has been saying straight-out that the big-ticket deals may be the reason why the little-ticket things--the curbs, the gutters, the sidewalks--never get done.
It did not take long for her to find out how very unpopular that kind of talk is with the money boys downtown.
One recent afternoon, Brantley-Wango was on her way to City Hall to take part in a joint press conference with several community leaders who were raising questions about the river project. She was pulling out of the driveway on South Boulevard, in fact, when her phone rang back at the house. Her husband, Hans, took the call. On the other end was Bill Ceverha, former weatherman and Republican activist and a frequent spokesman for the Stemmons family interests pushing the river deal.
Hans Wango says Ceverha was excited. "He said to me, 'Jeannette's not going to that press conference, is she?' I said, 'Yes, I think that's where she's going.' He said, 'Well, that's a very big mistake. She's going to cut herself off from a lot of funding if she does that.' He asked me if she had a cell phone in her car so I could stop her. I said she didn't."
Brantley-Wango, who has known Ceverha and his wife for years, was angered when her husband told her about the call.
"Can you imagine that?" she asks, still fuming a week later. "I wasn't even saying it was a bad deal. I was just asking for more information so we could know what kind of a deal it is."
Ceverha, who has been around a lot more politics than Brantley-Wango, readily admits he told her husband she wasn't going to get any help from him if she took part in an anti-river event, even one raising questions about the river deal. And he wonders how she failed to understand that.
"That's true," he says of Hans Wango's recollection of the call. "I said that. Jeannette and I had visited. We're old friends. I've been trying to help her raise some money. But I've been working on the river thing for six or seven years. This is a major issue for me. I'm amazed she didn't know that."
Brantley-Wango says she did know Ceverha was pushing the river deal. She points out that when she spoke at City Hall, she said only that the people pushing for the deal needed to come clean with the public on all of the project's costs.
In her eyes, it's simple. Money is finite. The city can only sell so many bonds at one time. In order to know where her district stands, she has to know what the big-ticket items are really going to cost.
There are ways to focus on District 7 in southern Dallas and see it as worse off, in terms of what the city does for it, than other parts of town. For example, according to the most recent data published by the city showing how districts compare, District 7 and its neighbor to the west, District 6, share bottom place for the percentage of code-enforcement cases that get resolved by the city. These usually are cases in which a property has deteriorated badly and the neighbors are complaining. Getting it resolved means either getting it fixed or having it demolished.
But many poor people live in the southern and western ends of the district. It has twice the citywide ratio of people with incomes under $12,500, twice the ratio of houses worth less than $25,000, and significantly more elderly people and people without high school diplomas. It makes sense that more properties might deteriorate here and that the surrounding community might be less aggressive about dealing with it.
All of the candidates and most people in the district who have tried to deal with City Hall only shake their heads when the name of Councilwoman Charlotte Mayes is mentioned. Mayes has been famous during her four terms in office for not returning phone calls.
"I think the effectiveness of the representation has been a major issue," Chaney says.
It's also possible to focus on District 7 another way. From this other perspective, District 7 still has terrible problems, but its terrible problems are no worse than the rest of the city's terrible problems. The issue of streets is a good illustration.
Even by the city's own generous estimate of its own performance, almost one-third of the streets in District 7 are in substandard condition. The amount of the district's streets deemed by the city to be in "satisfactory condition" is 69 percent. And if that's what the city is willing to admit about conditions out there, one can only assume the truth is much worse. Anyone who has driven around Dallas recently knows what "substandard" means: gaping potholes, broken and eroded curbs, cracks, cheap blacktop patches all over the place, big old steel plates that have been left in the street for years. All in all, a teeth-rattling surface that seems to put 10 miles on a car for every mile driven.
But at 69 percent, District 7 is doing pretty well, compared with District 11, around Dallas' crown jewel Galleria area, where the ratio is only 60 percent satisfactory. And 11 does quite a bit better than District 2, in the very heart of the city and downtown, perhaps the city's most visited area, where the ratio is only 53 percent.
But all of the districts should feel sorry for Mary Poss' District 9, in affluent northeast Dallas and Lake Highlands. There the ratio is less than half good.
In fact, when the southern districts are compared with the northern districts, the south does better, at an overall average of about 64 percent satisfactory. The northern average is 59 percent.
The underlying reality, of course, is that the citywide average is 62 percent.
And that stinks. Everywhere.
Here is the mystery: For some reason, even though these are fat times and the local economy has been boiling for several years, even though real estate values have been steadily rising citywide and money has been rolling into city coffers, the city of Dallas can't even begin to get to the basic repairs it needs to make in the streets.
The answer to the heartache of Parry Avenue is not that racist or mean-spirited city officials have conspired to deprive a poor benighted block in South Dallas of what everybody else gets. Nobody gets curbs these days.
Jim Pate, regional executive director of Habitat for Humanity, speaks very carefully about city staff. He points out that he must work with them day in and day out. But he also seems not to blame them for what happens.
"As far as sidewalks go," he says on the phone, "we always put the sidewalks in ourselves in front of our houses."
So why didn't he put in sidewalks on Parry Avenue?
"According to code, you can't put in a sidewalk unless there's a curb and gutter there. I've never gotten a clear explanation of why that's the case. But I guess they don't want the sidewalk to be too far away or too close to the curb."
So why isn't there a curb and gutter?
He explains that curbs and gutters are the city's responsibility on "dedicated streets"--that is, streets that already exist, as opposed to brand-new streets created by developers out in the suburbs.
The city, he explains, isn't installing the curbs and gutters because it is several years behind on such projects. Even if it did finally install them, the city would assess homeowners on the block up to $750 a household for the work, as if it were a repair.
Federal money is available to pay for the work, so that no assessment would be necessary, but the city administers the federal grant programs so slowly that the wait is four years or more, even after a grant has been made. David Dybala, head of public works for the city, could not be reached for comment on the Parry Avenue situation.
Pate explains it with a related story. In the Bonton area of District 7, south of Highway I75 at Bexar Street, Habitat ran into a similar situation a few years ago. There were no city curbs or gutters. The city wouldn't allow Habitat to build sidewalks.
In that case, when Habitat finished building its houses, it went to the city for certificates of occupancy. Pate says, "The building inspector told us, 'I can't give you a green tag [certificate of occupancy], because you don't have sidewalks.'
"We went up the line to somebody and said, 'Hey, look, you guys are the reason we don't have sidewalks. Give us a break.'
"Well, they agreed it was kind of ridiculous. The cost to us of putting in sidewalks, by the way, is about $350 a house. So the city said what we needed to do in order to get a green tag without sidewalks was get a 'waiver of sidewalk.' Well, guess how much a waiver of sidewalk costs? You guessed it. $350."
Pate's theory--a more sophisticated version of what people tend to say when you walk door-to-door--is that when you call City Hall, you get a story. Some story. Long story, short story, good story, dumb story. But what you don't get is sidewalks. And what you never sense is an active will to get out there and help make life better.
Pate sees a universe of honest, well-intentioned city employees who have nothing to gain and everything to lose by bending a single rule a single inch. All of the incentives from above are for them to go cautiously and slowly.
"My spin is that the city council has declared affordable housing to be a matter of public priority," he says, "and that's good, but where it falls off the map is where you get to the departmental and agency level. Their hands are really tied."
But are they? Is it really a case of our political leaders wanting to do the right thing by us but being thwarted by an overcautious bureaucracy? Or is Pate too generous in his assessment of the city council?
District 7 candidate Sharon Middlebrooks, 39, suggests the people she talks to are beginning to get antsy about the political paradigm of recent years.
Since Ron Kirk's election as the city's first black mayor with principal support from the Dallas Citizens Council, all of the deals have worked the same way: The white leaders downtown go to the black community, offer a slice of the pie, and then carry the big-ticket items at the polls mainly on the backs of black southern Dallas votes. What Middlebrooks says she hears when she walks District 7 is that the bill is due. Now.
Her campaign headquarters is in a huge retail space in an aging, underoccupied mall on Buckner Boulevard near Interstate 30. It's an interesting choice, closer to the more affluent eastern extreme of her territory. A short distance north, the district begins to look much more like Poss' fashionable adjoining District 9. But what Middlebrooks says she hears from the people at the affluent end of the district is the same thing she hears from people in the poorer areas.
"They talk about traffic on Buckner, the potholes on Samuell Boulevard, how $1.6 million was approved to repair the streets in one area of the district in the 1995 bond issue and the work has still not begun. And they're not scheduled to sell the bonds until the year 2000."
This is where the rubber meets the road, in Middlebrooks' view. District 7 was one of the key districts where voters, especially in black-majority precincts, supported the mayor on the Trinity River project and the arena.
"The voters in this district feel that they have partnered with the city on the big-ticket items," she says. "Now they want the city to partner with them by delivering cost-effective city services.
"They are saying, 'Give me some of that now.' Not in the year 2000. Now."
Leo Chaney's family made money in the dry cleaning and real estate businesses. His mother was president of the black PTA when the schools were segregated. He was a member of the NAACP Youth Council formed by the late Juanita Craft, a revered civil rights leader of the '60s and '70s. Twenty years ago, he joined Kathlyn Gilliam in forming Clean South Dallas Inc., an early attempt at forming a southern Dallas political machine.
Chaney has worked on the executive staff of the Dallas Independent School District for 21 years, almost always in a community-relations capacity. He served on the City Plan Commission for eight years before resigning this year to run for city council.
"I've worked under four superintendents, and they have all supported my involvement with the city," he says quietly at a table in the fourth-floor library of DISD headquarters.
Better than any of his competitors for the District 7 seat, Chaney can speak the language of public finance, but he also hears the language of the neighborhoods.
"What I'm hearing from my district is street repairs," he says. "Repair these streets! People would like to see some old-fashioned street sweepers come and clean up the streets. It's simple everyday-type stuff, but people want it done. Now."
What Chaney sees is exactly where the big-ticket items and the curb-and-gutter items meet. Bond sales.
The mayor and the Citizens Council had their victory at the polls last year authorizing the sale of $246 million in bonds to pay for the Trinity River project. And according to legislation now being developed in Austin, voters will be asked to approve the diversion of sales taxes and the sale of additional bonds to pay for the 2012 Olympics, if not through the city then through some sports authority or other entity.
Selling bonds is a way for the city to borrow money. The public, however, has to put up the collateral--in the form of local property taxes. (A little-known aspect of the Trinity River project is that the bond vote authorized not only the bonds themselves but whatever kind of tax the city needs to levy to pay for them.)
If something happens and the bonds don't get paid off in time, local property owners must make up the deficit.
That doesn't stop the mayor and other downtown leaders from glibly saying that, if we need to fix the streets, we'll go ahead and sell bonds and do it.
What Chaney understands is that the city can only sell so many bonds at one time. Whether we call them city bonds or sports authority bonds or whatever, only a certain number of bonds can be sold with the same underlying tax base as collateral. Even after bonds have been approved at the polls, the city staggers their actual sale according to market conditions in order to get good interest rates and not damage the city's credit by borrowing too much too fast.
Chaney isn't opposed to the Trinity River project. But he wants to make sure the city will put streets and other neighborhood issues ahead of everything else--including the river deal--when it decides what kind of bonds to issue and when.
"There is a lot of concern out there about street and surface repairs," he says. "I think the Trinity is going to be a 20-year deal. So how do you prioritize selling all of these bonds? If you ask the people in my district, they will say the priority must be street repairs. Loud and clear."
That would seem to be the overwhelming consensus of almost everyone running for office in District 7. But there is one significant dissenter--the one who happens to have most of the serious Citizens Council money behind her.
Like Chaney, Joyce Strickland grew up in South Dallas and attended Dallas public schools. Unlike Chaney, she left. After finishing her bachelor's degree in mathematics at the University of Texas in Austin, she worked for IBM and lived in the suburbs. In 1992, when many successful young upwardly mobile African-Americans were moving back to the inner city, Strickland came back to South Dallas, only to suffer the most unbearable tragedy any parent can imagine.
A year after her return to the city, Strickland's older son and a friend were abducted and murdered. Her response was to stay where she was, leave IBM, and form Mothers Against Teen Violence. MATV has become a high-profile community-based organization providing services to people bereaved by homicide.
In raising money for MATV, Strickland has appeared before most, if not all, of the major players in corporate Dallas. She almost always puts tears in their eyes, brings them to their feet, then gets them busy writing checks. At least part of her success should be credited to their respect for her community work.
But if she didn't have their respect, her campaign would certainly be in financial trouble. In the first campaign finance report she filed, almost two-thirds of her contributions came from Citizens Council types or their generous and very civic-minded wives. (And wasn't it nice of Tom Hicks' wife to kick in $1,000 when he obviously had forgotten to do so himself?)
Her second report, filed a week after the deadline, was a more mixed picture. But it showed only $1,500 in contributions and loans, while the first one showed a total take of almost $25,000.
Twenty-five grand goes a long way in District 7. Only Sharon Middlebrooks is in the same ballpark. She also has received a number of contributions from people like Trammell Crow executive J. McDonald Williams and the Dallas Breakfast Group. But a vastly larger share of Middlebrooks' money has come in dribs and drabs from the community.
Strickland is the only one of the candidates who gets chunks like a grand from J. McDonald Williams, another grand from Williams' wife, and then two grand from Jeffrey Marcus, Tom Hicks' partner in Chancellor Media. And only Strickland says she doesn't see any conflict, tension, or contradiction between the big-ticket items and the potholes.
In her spartan office behind Mount Olive Lutheran Church on MLK Boulevard, Strickland sees the question coming:
"These funds [from the Citizens Council] were there and available to every candidate, and every candidate I know has gone after them," she says. "I don't know anybody who has said, 'I don't want your money.' These contributions were not bribes. I view them as votes of support, like letters of commendation."
She agrees that the nitty-gritty code-enforcement and street-repair issues are urgently important to her district. "That's what people talk about in the district. They talk about code enforcement before they talk about crime."
But rather than seeing a trade-off or conflict between those issues and the big-ticket deals, Strickland offers the straight Chamber of Commerce-Citizens Council line. The big-ticket programs will expand the tax base, provide centers of employment, and drive the prosperity that will eventually get the curbs fixed. A local version of the trickle-down effect.
"Many things are about to happen in southern Dallas. The Trinity River project will have major implications for the area adjoining District 7 and therefore will have implications for us," she says.
She agrees with the perception that what people get when they call City Hall is always a story, never a gutter, and that there is a tangible absence of will to go out and build a better city. She, too, believes Councilwoman Mayes let people down. But she says those are two sides of the same coin.
"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.
"They want to be bought out, so they can move and live somewhere decent."
She talks again about Parry Avenue, about the efforts of Habitat and the thwarted hopes of the families.
"There is just no excuse," she says. "There is no excuse for things to be this way."
She says again that she is convinced the real issue is that people are on the verge of seeing themselves as played for suckers. That, she says, is what lies beneath the intensity of feeling about mundane infrastructure.
"It's a powder keg," she says. "We're sitting on a powder keg."
If she can get in front of people, and if she stays on course, she would seem to be the one with the silver-bullet message.
Do something small. Do it now.
And even more interesting, if she's right about District 7, she may be right about the whole city. Maybe the challenge all along--the mission capable of uniting the city--was curbs and gutters.
And then, just think: Someday, if that works, we can go for sidewalks.