By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Studio portraits of the mayor and 13 council members decorate a side wall in the cavernous, glass-and-concrete atrium at Dallas City Hall. There should be 14 council photos, but behind a strategically placed fig tree, there's only an empty spot where the smile of District 8's longtime councilman, Al Lipscomb, once beamed.
For the past two weeks, Lipscomb, 74 and ailing, has been living in a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth, awaiting sentencing after his conviction in January on 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors proved to an Amarillo jury that Lipscomb accepted an envelope stuffed with $1,000 cash from Yellow Cab every month in exchange for voting to help drive the cab company's competitors off the road through increased city regulation.
To fill Lipscomb's seat -- which he held for 14 years -- and the blank place on the wall, a special election will be held May 6 in District 8. The crescent-shaped district runs along Interstate 20 at Dallas' southern edge; it's 60 percent black and dominated at the polls by owners of small, '60s-era single-family tract homes. As a whole, people in the area never get too worked up about municipal elections. Roughly 7 percent of the district's 32,162 registered voters went to the polls to return Lipscomb to office last May. Despite facing a federal graft indictment, the beloved "Big Daddy" Lipscomb coasted to victory with 79 percent of the vote.
Lipscomb's influence and the historically small turnout can't be overemphasized in sizing up the race for his replacement, say politically savvy types in the district. The small vote puts an emphasis on personal networks and some inventive get-out-the-vote efforts, such as election-day barbecue parties and plying the elderly with absentee ballots.
And those factors have a number of people in the district saying the four-way contest is more a two-way struggle between James Fantroy, Lipscomb's appointee to the city's Plan Commission for the past five years, and Sandra Crenshaw, a former Lipscomb park board appointee who spent one term on the council when term limits made Lipscomb ineligible to run. They're the candidates with a built-in base of support.
It's a disappointing choice, to say the least, a number of residents say. In a contest brought about by dishonesty, cheating, lying, and worse, neither promises a clean break from the past.
Court documents and state licensing and housing department records -- as well as some stunning admissions by Crenshaw to the Dallas Observer -- cast the Fantroy-Crenshaw duel as one between a man who paid a $3,000 fine for cheating on a state licensing exam and was twice charged with, though not convicted of, felony offenses, and a woman who 14 months ago said in court papers that she lacked the emotional stability to hold a steady job.
Beyond that, Crenshaw conceded in an interview that the feds also accused her of bribery in the Yellow Cab-Lipscomb case. She agreed to a limited immunity deal and testified for the state before the grand jury that indicted Lipscomb. Although Crenshaw admits she accepted cash from Yellow Cab, she says she either reported the money as campaign contributions or solicitied it as charity for social-service organizations in her district.
There are two other candidates in the race: Ruth Steward, a twice-a-month substitute teacher who was trounced by Lipscomb last year; and Joe Tave, a high-school history teacher who helped with Lipscomb's legal defense fund until, he says, Fantroy's supporters drove him off. Tave, a first-time candidate, has been hamstrung by a lack of money and organization. If that weren't enough, two weeks ago someone stole his pickup truck, which was loaded with campaign materials. He had jumped out to hammer up a yard sign and left it running.
Neither Tave nor Steward seems to be doing what it takes to break through in a district that even Tave says seems more willing to trust a familiar rogue than a newcomer like him.
"It's unbelievable we have candidates like this," says a member of a downtown business organization for which several of the District 8 hopefuls appeared soliciting support. "It would be funny if weren't so serious."
At times in politics, the Richard Nixons are followed by the Jimmy Carters, men who promise to clean up the mess, if nothing else. But this is not one of those times. Both Crenshaw and Fantroy are telling voters they oppose efforts to strengthen the city's ethics code. "I don't need an ethics code to keep me honest," Fantroy told the handful of voters who showed up at one recent campaign debate. "Now that we're getting to be the majority, all of a sudden we have to have ethics down there," Fantroy said, referring to the council's first-time minority majority.
Crenshaw says a less forgiving electorate -- not an ethics code -- will clean up District 8. Her campaign, she said, is all about "full exposure" of the practices of crooked politicians she knows. She conceded in an interview, though, that she accepted use of a truck, received free car repairs, and often stopped by the Yellow Cab office for a drink before and after meetings -- all while sitting on the council and championing the company's position in votes and interviews.