By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In Sharon Boyd's Net world, a scruffy cast of characters mumbles and bumbles its way through every aspect of the city's affairs. There's "You Go To Hell" Kirk, "Mayor Pre-Tend" Poss, "Send Me Some Money" Loza, "Princess Velveeta" Lill, "Pretty Barbara" Mallory Caraway, "Brain-Dead" Thornton-Reese.
The cartoonish fools act in predictable ways, carrying water for "Our Downtown Betters," giving away the store to "Hicks-Perot-Belo," and making certain that life in the city's neighborhoods goes from bad to worse.
Up the street at school district headquarters, "Lounge Lizard" Rojas busies himself by "taking care of his friends" with massively inflated salaries.
A sort of chapel of the unformed opposition, visited by about 200 browsers a day, Boyd's site is a no-shades-of-gray kind of place where like-minded souls are invited to compose their own vinegar-laced verses, and the politically dispossessed -- from cops in need of a raise to homeowners fed up with strip clubs -- join the chorus. "It's preaching to the choir, but people have to know they're not out there alone," says Boyd, a former city Plan Commission member and twice-unsuccessful Dallas City Council candidate.
The Web site, dallasarena.com, is the legacy of Boyd's latest and biggest stand, the "It's A Bad Deal" campaign. The effort, which she organized and led, came within 1,600 votes in a 1998 referendum of defeating a public financing plan for the new downtown sports arena. The campaign is long past, and the skeleton of the American Airlines Center is beginning to rise along Stemmons Freeway, but Boyd is still fighting the arena project in print, in state court, and on the back window of her red Chevy Blazer, which is papered in yellow-and-black anti-arena-deal stickers.
Her site now opens to the banner "It's Still a Bad Deal," although Boyd's interests these days are far-flung. They include the debate over a new city ethics policy, questions whether Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton had anything to do with calling off police enforcement at Bachman Lake topless clubs, and just about anything else potentially embarrassing to the current city leadership, from Mayor Ron Kirk on down.
The headlines alone carry the message: "A Dallas Deal: The Master (Arena) Agreement from Hell"; "Judge Creuzot forces 'You Go To Hell' Kirk To Address New Ethics Code"; and "Jr. Sells Mavericks -- Takes Our Money and Runs."
The transcendently cranky tone has Dallas insiders -- the City Hall politicos she targets, their allies, and the political pros who run their campaigns -- dismissing Boyd as an oddball, a crackpot. "Sharon finds herself on the outside because when you're so strident, you're not easy to listen to. The crusader tone wears thin," says Carol Reed, one of Kirk's advisors and the architect of the winning arena campaign. "She's becoming the next Billy Jack Ludwig," says another member of the pro-arena camp, referring to the perennial mayoral candidate. Through six losing campaigns, the pre-Internet Ludwig passed out handwritten tracts on city street corners, gaining a single-digit following.
But given the source, who asked not to be identified, the comparison amounts to wishful thinking. Boyd is grounded enough with neighborhood leaders, political busybodies, Republican party activists, and people frustrated with the city's leadership that she's more than marginal -- although how much more is an issue for debate.
For starters, parts of the city's public-affairs press corps find her Web site irresistible. "It's some of the best reading in town, absolutely. I love her," says Brett Shipp, a WFAA-Channel 8 investigative reporter. "It's comedy and kind of underground and informative; it's one of the first things I go to, and a lot of other people in the newsroom read it too."
Just as significantly, the council's anti-establishment wing -- arena critics Laura Miller and Donna Blumer -- count her as an ally. "She has a lot of people who are very supportive of her as a result of the arena campaign," Blumer says. "She's kept those names as contacts, and when she gets behind a candidate or cause, she has many of them." State Rep. Domingo Garcia calls Boyd a "true maverick, which is a rare species in Dallas. There's a herd mentality in the political arena."
Over the past 10 years, Boyd has gone from quasi-insider to cautious candidate to an obstreperous gadfly who gleefully spins out phrases like "council puppets" and "little jerks." Her longtime political pals, including people whom she won't talk to these days, say she has grown into the outsider role in a particularly Dallas way. Once out of the loop, it's more and more necessary, and even attractive, to screech. Her message, too, falls into a particularly Dallas tradition -- fiscally conservative and small-government-minded at its heart, populist in its application.
Mostly, though, people listen to Boyd simply because she wants to be heard. "I want to be part of the city," she says. "I want a better city than what we have. Those things might make me marginal, and they sure make me weird. It's become eccentric to care."
Looking out from the front door of Sharon Boyd's Oak Lawn condo, it's easy to see why she thinks Dallas has tilted toward the moneyed few. The whole block across the street and down the hill toward Turtle Creek has been cleared of modest houses and apartments. Luxury flats and Mediterranean-style townhouses advertised at $800,000 and more are going up all around her.
"They put walls up around them; they'll never meet their neighbors," says the 53-year-old Boyd, who has lived on the same block since 1976. For 17 years she's been at her current address, a nondescript two-story building picketed by gray cedar fencing. "It's nice being able to live among my betters," she says in a mocking falsetto that brings what one friend calls her "Minnie Mouse voice" up into the troposphere.
"I'm a fixture here. I live on the same block in my hometown, so I really do get personal about people coming in, like Velveeta from Chicago and Ron Kirk from Austin, and destroying the city." Dallas is about "spending money and showing what you have" because so many people are from out of town, Boyd believes. "You have this image everybody is plastic. When you are living in a city that isn't your hometown, you're gonna live differently, flashier. There are things about people knowing you for 30 or 40 years that keep some balance in your life."
Inside her condo, Boyd apologizes for the four friendly cats, mostly former strays, and mentions she's just had the floors redone. They're a hip stained concrete. "I didn't want the place to look like a little-old-lady condo," she says. Her home is decorated with art that has a vaguely '70s feel, with lots of candles and wicker étagères filled with carnival glass. "It was really cheap glassware popular in the South in the '30s, '40s, and '50s," she says of the collection. "It was poor people's attempts at home decor. My family came from poor East Texas; they paid maybe 25 cents apiece for these, and as time went on they became more valuable." Her profusion of silver jewelry -- three rings on one finger, a silver cross on the other -- catches the morning light as she sets out breakfast for the swirl of cats at her feet.
Boyd was born in Paris, Texas, and raised on Beacon Street in Old East Dallas. From junior high on, she lived in Lewisville, then a small town. Her mother, a nurse, had already divorced twice when she met Billy Joe Boyd, a Dallas cop who adopted Sharon and her younger brother, melding them with his family of four kids. "He was ahead of his time," Boyd says. "He thought girls could do anything boys could -- we didn't have boy chores and girl chores." It was Sharon who got everyone cracking on floor-scrubbing patrols, her younger sister, Janell Davis, recalls: "Ohhhhh yes, she made sure. She was the organizer."
Boyd worked her way through college as secretary to the basketball coach at what is now the University of North Texas in Denton, moved back to Dallas, and settled into a job as a legal secretary. She later set up her own bookkeeping business for small law firms. "I noticed the legal assistant would be let go in the recessions, but the bookkeepers were forever," she says of her job, which takes her to the offices of several different firms every week. "Bookkeepers can be 80, and nobody wants them to quit." Single all of her life, she says she has nothing against marriage: "I just made some romantic investments that didn't work out...I'm probably real hard to get along with, you know."
Boyd's political involvement began on her street -- she tackled a problem with cruising traffic around the parks -- and grew into activism through the Oak Lawn Committee, a coalition of neighborhood groups advocating residential interests in the busy, near-downtown neighborhood. At the same time, she became president of the downtown Republican Women's Club, which met on Greenville Avenue, and was a regular delegate at state GOP conventions. That stopped in 1994. "I took part in a pro-choice rally," she says, "and they never invited me again."
Councilwoman Lori Palmer appointed her in 1989 to the city Plan Commission, where she took up the mantle of neighborhood preservation, dispersing social service agencies from their concentration in East Dallas and trying to close the crime-magnet day-labor agencies. When it came time for Palmer to endorse a successor for her District 14 seat, she picked Craig McDaniel. "Although I appointed Ms. Boyd to the city Plan Commission, I soon became aware from the reports of other commissioners that she had difficulty getting along with others, was frequently divisive, and often made up her mind before hearing all the facts," Palmer said at the time.
Boyd, displaying her usual brio, says the snub was mostly personal. "Lori apparently had some problems with another woman succeeding her," she says. "She also had congressional aspirations that McDaniel's supporters might have helped her base." As for the substance of the charge, she says, "I used to be on the team. I backed projects and tried to go along. They were the big guys with all the insight us mere mortals couldn't possibly muster. After you get a chance to see how wrong they can be, you realize that they're just shooting from the hip."
Without the endorsement, Boyd had an uphill fight in a nasty five-way race. When she accused McDaniel of raising "special-interest money" from national gay groups, Boyd was branded -- completely falsely, she says -- as antigay. "At least a third of the people who worked on my campaign were gay," she says. Then, someone mailed an anonymous -- and therefore illegal -- campaign flier to Democrats in the district touting Boyd as a "family values" Republican in the nonpartisan race. Boyd did well enough to force a runoff but lost it by nearly two to one.
"She was so savagely treated during that race," recalls Marsha Drebelbis, a Junius Heights neighborhood advocate. "I think after she lost that runoff, she set her jaw and said, 'OK, no holds barred.'"
As a result of the campaign and her Plan Commission days, Boyd became to some of her supporters a sort of shadow council member, someone to call when you're trying to navigate your way through city bureaucracy. "I'd call her when I'd need help. She's very knowledgeable about code violations procedures, on street closings, and just about anything," says Willetta Stellmacher, who until recently owned several apartments and rent houses in East Dallas. A former chorus girl now in her 80s, Stellmacher boasts about having arrested 39 burglars on her own in the space of one year -- an eccentric pistol-packing mama sort to whom Boyd gravitated.
With these pockets of support in the district, Boyd went for a rematch with McDaniel in 1995 and was drubbed again. "It was devastating. We'd worked so hard," says Boyd, brushing a strand of bottle-blonde hair from her face. "I just had to realize this was not gonna be what I was going to do with my life."
In late 1997, around the time it became clear the Dallas City Council was going to approve the idea of providing investors and team owners Tom Hicks and Ross Perot Jr. with $125 million in public money for their new arena, Councilwoman Donna Blumer got a phone call. It was Boyd, itching to put up a fight.
Only two council members, Blumer and former Councilman Bob Stimson, had voted against the plan to raise the arena money through "tourist taxes" -- surcharges on rental cars and hotel rooms.
"I said, 'Oh, Sharon, they're gonna do anything and everything; they will spend any amount of money and pull out all the stops to fight it.' She said, 'So? We'll fight back.'"
Boyd began calling people whose names Blumer passed on. An opposition force quickly jelled. "I was amazed at Sharon's energy," Blumer says. They had planned to use Boyd's condo for an early organizational meeting of their group, It's A Bad Deal!, but so many people showed up that they had to move out to the parking lot.
Over the course of the three-month campaign, in which the sports teams chipped in $2.5 million and arena forces outspent the opposition 28 to 1, Boyd emerged as the principal spokeswoman and architect of the campaign. Fairly or not, her style and bottom-line message became as much of an issue as anything else.
"There's this group of rich people who see public money as their private kitty," she says now. "I don't mind paying for someone else's health care at Parkland, but I do mind paying for someone else's entertainment, for some playpen for millionaires."
Boyd framed the vote as a giveaway to people who could afford to pay their own way, to "fat cats" and "robber barons." The proponents turned around the rhetoric, characterizing Boyd as an "aginner" who opposed such things as DART, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and the airport. False, false, and false, Boyd says.
"You started hearing the mayor denigrating her...then the rest of the campaign picked up the attack message," Blumer recalls.
"Campaigns always come down not only to message but to messenger; I think we had the better messenger," says Carol Reed, referring to the mayor. "Sharon wasn't easy to listen to. The sports talk shows ended up making incredible fun of her. They didn't need to do that. But she set herself up for a lot."
There was talk of a lack of humor, a whiny demeanor, her piercing voice. And as the campaign wore on, Boyd's shortcomings on the stump became a matter of discussion even in her own camp. "Sharon brought a lot of energy to the campaign, but people were turned off by her abrasiveness," says Greg Mullen, an apartment owner and manager who set up the campaign's Web site. "They thought we could get the same point across without bringing in the personalities.
"There was this meeting about it, and I expressed my view that I didn't want the voters to miss the message. She was becoming a distraction. We encouraged her to take a lower profile. She didn't," Mullen adds.
Boyd says she would have been happy to let someone else handle the speaking engagements, but nobody else stepped up. "It was not fun being the target of their meanness, of being the target of little jerks like [former Mavericks announcer and radio talk-show host] Kevin McCarthy. God, I despise that little sawed-off runt. He's a spokesman for the Mavericks, and he used his show to say these vicious things. All the sportscasters were using their air time to ridicule our cause, although I'd exclude Dale Hansen. He did his best to be more fair and level about it."
By most accounts, Boyd was all her side had. Laura Miller was evolving from Dallas Observer columnist to council candidate and joined the opposition late in the campaign. Blumer's husband had health problems, which limited her role. None of the small-business operators -- car-rental outfits and a mobile-home builder -- were experienced enough to step up.
"None of us are politicians, and some of the business people I talked to said you can't be a business leader in Dallas and fight these people," says Dave Capps, owner of Capps Van & Car Rental, which donated offices, billboards, and $20,000 to the campaign. "Some people say if she had not taken such a hard line, we would have done better. I think she did the best she could. She did it from the heart."
In the end, Capps says, the proponents had the money to mobilize young, nontraditional city voters in the Village and elsewhere, and if they lost the last one, they would have come back with another plan the next year.
Reed's analysis of the vote found that the proposal lost among people who regularly vote in Dallas city elections. In the two years since, Reed says, she has consulted on other campaigns in which voters are being asked to approve money for arenas -- most recently in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the hockey team proposed and passed an arena deal last year. "These things are always gonna be close, and the goal is to move past the fact that these guys are rich. You have rich people asking for public money."
In other words, Boyd was right to hit the "robber baron" theme. It was the intangibles -- her lack of political charisma -- that hurt.
Miller, who went on from the anti-arena effort to gain a seat on the council, says people are wrong to focus on why Boyd fell short. "There is not any other single person in the city that I know that created the amount of excitement over an issue like Sharon did with the arena," she says. "I've never seen the city so engaged in debate and angry. It was exciting, and that was all Sharon."
With no campaigns to fight and no races to run, Boyd has been outside the city's power curve and struggling to make an impact in the years since.
"She's such a junkie. Hardly a Wednesday will pass when I don't have a call on my answering machine and it's Sharon," says Miller, who says she's a regular visitor to Boyd's retooled and frequently updated Web site.
The Web site, a lawsuit, and a bitter split with several old political friends have occupied Boyd since, and she's gotten grouchier and crankier and more personal than ever. "I'm not running for anything, so it's not about me," she says, talking in the somber conference room of one of her law-firm clients. "It's not about 'Please love me.'"
Her performance may amuse her friends, but it has her old allies wondering what she can possibly hope to accomplish. "She needs to get the emotion out of it, and I've told her that," Capps says. "She makes it easier for people to discount her. If you want to do it from the heart, fantastic, but you can go about things a little softer and gentler."
Says another long-time friend who declined to be named, "I know a lot of people who agree with Sharon but don't want to be associated with her because of the tone."
But Boyd's politics these days run on a kind of pure fuel that laps the slower-moving vehicles of moderation. In 1993, says campaign organizer Anna Casey, Boyd was unwilling to go on any sort of attack. "She was very meek compared to now," says Casey, who worked with Boyd on several campaigns. "There's this tendency for people who go against the establishment to be labeled as eccentric, outcast, aggressive, overly hostile. It makes it easier for them to say, 'What's to lose?'"
Cay Kolb, a longtime friend and community activist in Oak Lawn, says, "I think it's frustration. For years, she worked within the system in her party and church and neighborhood, so you have to say there's been this change."
Along with her harsher tone has come a conviction that city politics consists of "good guys and bad guys."
Says Boyd: "I have come to a place in my life where I really do believe there are rights and wrongs, and when someone does something really wrong, you should shun them." She did that last year, when she cut ties with Councilman John Loza, who she had worked hard to elect in 1997 as an alternative to the downtown-business-backed candidate, Brenda Reyes. When Loza voted for the arena, Boyd saw it as a complete and unforgivable betrayal. She cut off Casey too, who had become a close friend, considering Boyd her political mentor.
"I don't have enough time. I'm not gonna waste my time trying to change somebody's mind who has no core values," Boyd says.
Loza, who justified support for the arena project because the taxes don't target his constituents, declined to comment. "Nothing personal, I just don't want to talk about her," he says. Boyd ended up working for Loza's losing opponent, Pete Vaca -- a move that added to her string of lost causes.
"If you're not with her 100 percent, you're not affirming her," says Casey, who has a number of stories about the scores of hours they spent together on campaigns. All but physically absent during her arena debate appearances, Boyd actually has a good sense of humor, Casey says. "We're both very pro-choice, and we were in her car, going somewhere on campaign stuff, and she says, 'Quick, give 'em the finger.'" Casey says she complied without looking, then turned around to see they'd just passed some abortion pickets.
Late last year, Boyd began yet another attack on the arena project, filing a taxpayer lawsuit that, if successful, could end up being a big headache for the Arena Group and Ross Perot's Hillwood Development Corp., which is developing acreage around the arena site. The suit alleges that the plan to repay the developers for the project's roads is illegal under state law. Boyd is specifically targeting the tax district created to reimburse the Arena Group $25 million for streets and other improvements -- money that will be raised by new taxes on the new development.
The suit alleges that such a district can only be set up for blighted areas that otherwise would not be improved. "It's a serious lawsuit," says Boyd, who is paying for it herself. "We think the land there would have been developed privately. If they want to put the arena in there, fine, but they shouldn't do it with this additional taxpayer money."
In its legal response, the city takes its sharpest aim at Boyd, all but calling her a bad loser. Boyd, the response says, is an "ardent, steadfast opponent of the new downtown arena" who has no right to continue her opposition in the courts.
James Murphy, a Dallas attorney who filed the suit, says Boyd came to him hoping to press a case against what she has called the "smelly" relationships between the arena interests and voting members on the council. Kirk's wife, Matrice Kirk, continues to hold valuable stock options from one of Tom Hicks' companies, and Councilwoman Veletta Lill's husband works for American Airlines, which bought the arena's naming rights.
Murphy says he thinks the "blight" issue is more compelling legally. "There has been development in the works there for the past five to seven years," he says. "The city is trying to say the area was blighted because there's [chemical pollution] in the ground. We say that's a cost of development." As with most contested civil litigation, the case is crawling through the early stages of discovery. It's yet to become enough of an issue to warrant a city council briefing. Murphy says Boyd has standing to sue as a taxpayer who can force governmental bodies to follow the law. It doesn't matter that she has criticized everything about the arena project, save architect David Schwartz's retro red-brick design. The look offended cutting-edge art critics, but it suited Boyd -- a lover of country music, spaghetti at Sal's, and Elmore Leonard novels -- just fine.
Casey, the former friend, says she isn't surprised Boyd has found a new way to carry on the arena fight. "She's the sort, in the Nietzschean school, who believe it's a fault not to have conviction, conviction above all else. To me, it's not recognizing truth. But to her, conviction is everything. It's her greatest fault and greatest strength.
"It makes her a very bad loser. It's hard to lose when you know you're right."