By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
That, say some African-American leaders, would be a disaster. A resident of Southwest Oak Cliff, Oakley brushes off the race factor. He counts among his supporters blacks who appreciated his efforts to rezone their neighborhoods. "Does that mean because I'm white I have to move somewhere else?" Oakley asks. "Are we going to segregate communities again?"
Such appeals to high-mindedness don't impress Dallas' old-school black leaders. "The election of an Anglo in a district established to empower minorities is a violation of the spirit of 14-1," says Diane Ragsdale, an activist and former city councilwoman who doesn't live in the district. Meanwhile, an influx of Hispanics has drastically altered the complexion of District 6, which has 82,000 residents. New census figures show that a once-solid majority black district is now only 44 percent African-American, with 39 percent Hispanic and 15 percent white.
More than any other council race, this year's fight for District 6 highlights the shifting legacy of 14-1 in an increasingly diverse city. What kind of politics emerges when no group has a clear majority?
Whatever the answer to that question, Caraway continues to play his cards as though the race is all about race. As for his chief challenger, he says, "Oakley has the right to run, but he's in the wrong race."
What he means, more to the point, is that Oakley is the wrong race.
It's Wednesday night on March 28 at the West Dallas Multipurpose Center, and about 20 mostly elderly residents have gathered for a candidates forum. Since only 23 out of 847 registered voters in this neighborhood cast a ballot in the 1999 city council election, those gathered could very well represent the entire voting populace of Precinct 3126.
Williams is first to speak. Earlier in the evening, two Williams volunteers had handed out campaign fliers. "Community Leadership for Unsolved Problems," reads one, which touts Williams' stand for "environmental justice" in neighborhoods such as West Dallas with histories of lead contamination. Despite his appeal to local interests, Williams actually lived in North Dallas until January.
With a mane of billowing gray hair and a face creased with age, Williams, 58, looks the part of an elder statesman. Yet in spite of four previous attempts, he's never won election to the council he fought to diversify. A plaintiff in the landmark 14-1 case, he sued because the old, mostly at-large city council election system in place until 1991 effectively blocked minorities from office. A federal judge imposed 14-1 (shorthand for 14 council districts and one at-large mayor) on Dallas.
Williams' own failure to capitalize on his successes in court is an ironic coda to that era. Still, he styles himself as the heir to the old-school black activist tradition once championed by former Councilman Al Lipscomb. A fixture at city council meetings during open-mike time, Williams bemoans "eight years of no change" under Barbara Mallory Caraway, suggesting the district will get more of the same under husband Dwaine. "The lead smelters should have gone away in those eight years," he says, referring to a battery recycling plant that contaminated West Dallas for decades and is only now being disassembled.
Dwaine Caraway is next. After rattling off his connections to the black community--Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School, Franklin D. Roosevelt High School and Texas Southern University--he lashes out at Williams for criticizing his wife. "For us to sit up complaining, saying, 'What's been happening over eight years,'" he thunders. "The lead smelter should have been gone 40, 50 years ago. It should have never happened!" His oration rivets the audience, which responds with "Mmm-hmms" and "all rights."
"I do my job well," he concludes in fiery preacher mode, promising to defend the neighborhood from the predations of wealthy developers. Not that anyone is beating down the doors to develop prime real estate in tired West Dallas. "Let's not be fooled and let these developers come in..." he says. "Because that is the plan."
Next, Oakley relates his successes obtaining single-family zoning for the mostly black Arlington Park neighborhood, the 10th Street Historic District and The Bottoms neighborhood in the Trinity River floodplain, which stabilized the areas by blocking industrial development. The audience responds with a polite murmur, a definite accomplishment for Oakley.
But then Oakley falls into a trap of his own making. He talks about bringing nationally known businesses to West Dallas like Starbucks to spur economic development the same way Oak Cliff has done. Dwaine Caraway seizes on that remark. "We can fix the coffee, too," he says. "It ain't nothing but coffee. We'll get out there and sell it."
Later in the evening, an audience member berates Beckles when he asks rhetorically how to stop prostitution and drugs. "You keep asking us," she says. "You're the candidate."
Near the end of the forum, Williams makes a bizarre, vaguely anti-Semitic remark. "The dollar goes through the Jewish community eight times before it leaves," he intones, but "the dollar only goes through [the black community] one time."
The evening ends with smiles and handshakes. Afterward, a middle-aged man walking across the parking lot sums up West Dallas' choice. "The people are with Roy or Dwaine," he says.
There's one small problem with "the people" in West Dallas. There aren't many of them, and the area has a history of woeful voter turnout. As part of a federal desegregation decree, some of the black public housing residents who used to live in West Dallas have dispersed to subsidized housing in white neighborhoods.