The Real Cheaters

Officials showed courage by cracking down on Dwaine Caraway's campaign

Apparently The Dallas Morning News, the city's only daily newspaper, has no intention of telling you this story, so I will. You need to know that last Saturday's District 6 city council run-off election was an earthquake.

I'm not talking about who won. What made the election momentous was that local officials finally got up the courage to attack a vicious form of election cheating that has defiled minority politics in this city for way too long.

For weeks before the vote, everybody close to this election knew that Dwaine Caraway, running for the council seat vacated by his wife, Barbara Mallory Caraway, under term limits, was trying to steal the election with tainted absentee ballots. And for weeks it looked as if nobody was going to lift a finger to stop him.

The drama of Saturday night was that a group of local officials--Bruce Sherbet, the elections administrator, and Shirley Acy, the city secretary, along with people from Dallas County District Attorney John Hill's office--blew the whistle on the Caraway campaign. That never happens.

The officials threw out between 150 and 200 absentee ballots that had been delivered to the county elections department Saturday afternoon. The ballots were thrown out because the Caraway campaign had violated technical rules governing how ballots may be gathered and delivered to election officials. My two-bit opinion is that all of them should have been tossed because of the methods the Caraway campaign used to get the ballots from voters in the first place.

As it turns out, Caraway would have lost the election to challenger Ed Oakley even without the absentee votes. But he is using the disqualified absentee ballots as an issue to argue that the election was stolen from him by a bunch of white officials.

Caraway has race-carded the whole election from the beginning, and it's amazing what kind of terror he has been able to strike by doing so.

The Morning News, for example, had a reporter, Gromer Jeffers Jr., on the absentee ballots story for weeks before the election. But not one word did they publish.

I called Jeffers to ask why the paper sat on his story. He didn't call back, of course. But you can figure why. Caraway is black. Ed Oakley, the guy who beat him, is white. Race continues to be the one issue that always turns the News' knees to jelly. It has been Caraway's one issue from the beginning, and obviously it's going to be his issue in challenging the outcome of this election.

"We will not stand by and be conspired upon and cheated upon," Caraway shouted to the cameras Saturday night.

What a joke. The person doing the conspiring and the cheating in this election was Dwaine Caraway, certainly in the moral sense, if not legally. What makes it worse is that his campaign workers' targets were elderly, disabled African-American absentee voters.

I spent a good part of the week before election night out walking the streets of Precinct 3128 in District 6, in a little neighborhood across Hampton Road from Pinkston High School and the West Dallas public housing projects. Caraway refused to talk to me, but I did come across his field coordinator for Precinct 3128, Pat Spears, who assured me that no one connected with the Caraway campaign was out there messing with any elderly people about their absentee ballots. "Campaigns don't have people who go around and do that," Spears told me in a very frosty tone.

OK. Let's go see.

This neighborhood is equal parts tough and gentle. Gang-looking young men, sipping jumbos on the grass under a shade tree, give strangers the bad eye. But almost every front porch carries well-worn chairs and a table for the sweetened tea. There are 2,900 people in the precinct, of whom 2,000 are black, 880 are Hispanic and 20 are white.

People here know each other and look out for their neighbors. A nosy reporter knocking on doors of elderly people is likely to rouse the neighbors.

Patterns emerge after a while. Caraway's ballot collection agents didn't go after the Hispanics. They didn't try very hard with the elderly black people who are still sharp. But almost every elderly black voter I visited who showed any sign of fuzziness or confusion had a story to tell about giving up a ballot. Most of them told me about "the Spanish man and the tall black man with a gray beard." There were other teams of vote collectors as well.

The law is very loose on what campaigns can do with absentee ballots. It's not against the law in Texas for a campaign worker to go to a voter's house and urge the person to vote for a particular candidate. The worker can even volunteer to mail the ballot for the voter. But I believe I came across several situations in Precinct 3128 that went way over the line and amounted to tricking people out of their votes. You be the judge.

Charlesetta Coleman made a little wave with one hand to signal that I was to sit down on the nearer of two metal chairs on her deep-shaded front porch while she took the chair farther away. She told me she had refused to give her absentee ballot to the tall black man with a gray beard.

"I didn't feel like it was for him to come and take a ballot that I had voted on," she said. "He could have opened it to see who I had voted for, and if he didn't like it, he could throw it away."

How did he react when she refused to give him her ballot?

"He was kind of irritated. I felt like he was kind of pushy."

People familiar with this particular campaign tactic tell me that vote gatherers are usually paid by the ballot. At Mary Smith's house, they came in swarms. She said she hadn't been very aware of the election in the first place and wasn't sure who any of the candidates were. "I really didn't know too much about them," she told me.

Three separate teams of vote collectors had been buzzing around Mrs. Smith's house in the last few weeks, two in each team, six people in all, all of them competing to get her ballot for Caraway. She said she had been visited by "a young girl and a boy, maybe in their 20s," also by "the Spanish man and the tall black man," and also by a third team whose identity caught me by surprise--Pat Spears and another campaign worker named Mark Baker. Spears, of course, was the lady who had assured me only the day before that "Campaigns don't have people who go around and do that."

Mrs. Smith showed me the bottom half of an official Dallas County Elections Department application for an absentee ballot, torn off at the perforated line, with the names and phone numbers of Spears and Baker written in ball-point pen near the printed title, "Dallas County Elections Department." Mrs. Smith said Spears had instructed her to call her the moment she received her absentee ballot in the mail. I asked Mrs. Smith who Spears worked for.

"The county," she said immediately. "That's what she told me."

Before she could call Spears as instructed, the "Spanish man" and the tall black man arrived at her door and demanded that she produce her ballot. Then she says the Spanish man gave her instructions on how to vote "straight Democrat." City council elections in Dallas, of course, are non-partisan, so there is no way to vote by party at all.

"Miguel made me to know that we were Democrats," she said, "and that's what we were about. Miguel explained to me how to sign the envelope, because I'm on the Democratic side, always."

Then the Spanish man and the tall black man left. With her ballot.

"He was obligating about it," she said.

Marvin Collins, 69, was sitting on a wooden box in his garage, daubing dirt off a gasoline engine with a rag, when I visited him on Memorial Day. The vacant lot next-door was full of shiny new cars and pickups in a delicious haze of barbecue smoke. A dozen or more of his relatives were making preparations for a reunion.

I went to see him because he had filed a sworn affidavit with the county saying the Spanish man and the tall black man had taken his ballot from him, unmarked, after he had refused to mark it for Caraway in their presence. The ballot turned up later at the election department signed, sealed and voted.

I showed him a photocopy of the signature on his ballot envelope. He took his finger and traced the letters to show me that it was not his. "I don't do my M's like that, see, and I don't drag out the S like that on Collins."

Collins says he had never even applied for an absentee ballot and didn't know that one had arrived in his mail that day when the two men showed up. He was outside mowing his lawn.

"They said, 'Go inside and look in your mail. There's a brown envelope. Bring it out here.'"

He says he found the envelope, and the men told him to fill it out for Dwaine Caraway. "I told them, 'I ain't made up my mind yet.'" The men made a move for the ballot, and Collins let them have it.

I asked him why he had allowed them to snatch it.

"I'm going to tell you about myself," he said, dropping his voice so relatives passing back and forth with pitchers of tea and platters of sandwiches would not hear. "I suffer from short of breath. Asthma. I was real short of breath at that time when they come."

Only later, when Collins went to his regular polling place for early voting in person, did he find out that the rolls showed him as having already voted. Because he filed an affidavit saying his absentee ballot had been stolen from him and forged, he was able to vote in person, and his absentee ballot was thrown out.

He told me he had voted since he was a young man in Freestone County. "I paid the poll tax to vote," he said.

There were other terribly sad stories along the streets of Precinct 3128, and a lot of pain. Old people are embarrassed to admit their vulnerability.

I also had a wonderful week. I leaned on fences and listened while beautiful old ladies told me about scrubbing floors in Chicago and dancing to big bands on Galveston Island, mumbled tales that wandered and warped like dreams in the warm breeze.

Who would send bullies out to trick these people out of their votes?

Only a political gangster. That's who the Morning News is afraid of. But that's also who the local officials stood up to on Saturday night.

Saturday night. Let me tell you. That was one great night for this city.

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