Absentee Minded

Hey, Mr. Zillionaire Developer, got a big public project you want to sell? Black Dallas has the votes you need--dirt cheap.

Here's an offer you can't refuse: For less than $12,000 paid to the right people, you can buy the early and absentee ballot vote in eight precincts in Southern Dallas--just enough votes, it turns out, to win you a $125 million taxpayer subsidy for your new sports arena or a $246 million city bond issue for your next big public-works construction job.

On November 6, when the 2012 Olympics referendum arrives, a similar handful of precincts could yield the margin of victory for a venture that will provide taxpayer guarantees for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of private development.

Wouldn't you pay?

During the recent city council runoff, Ed Oakley (top) was painted as that nice, nice man who wouldn't stoop to badgering old folks for their absentee votes. His opponent, Dwaine Caraway (bottom), was that bad, bad man who did. Now it looks as if that picture may have been a tad one-sided.
Mark Graham
During the recent city council runoff, Ed Oakley (top) was painted as that nice, nice man who wouldn't stoop to badgering old folks for their absentee votes. His opponent, Dwaine Caraway (bottom), was that bad, bad man who did. Now it looks as if that picture may have been a tad one-sided.

Dallas kids itself that it doesn't have machine politics. Dallas politics, in fact, are a gumball machine, with big prizes obtainable for pennies.

The key to the Dallas machine, as with any machine, is disciplined voters: voters who can be counted on to turn out and vote the way their leaders tell them. Those voters in Dallas happen to be African-American--not white, not Mexican-American.

But it would be a grave error to assume that only black people play machine politics or that the machinery is even especially beneficial to African-Americans. The Dallas system has become a pay-to-play game, and often the very people who wag fingers and accuse black campaigns of corruption are out there on the sly trying to make the same gumball machine work for them.

Like most people who follow local politics, I have been generally aware for at least the last five years, since the beginning of the campaigns for the downtown sports arena referendum in January 1998, that a certain system seemed to be in place. After the arena subsidy passed by a hair's breadth and again the following summer when the Trinity River bond proposal squeaked through, all the usual local analysts pronounced that Southern Dallas had carried the day.

It always seemed an odd alliance to me--African-American voters in some of the city's poorest precincts and the zillionaire developers who seek major public subsidies for their private-gain ventures. But I really had no idea just how odd the whole arrangement was until a recent series of events brought me face to face with my own naïveté.

You will forgive me: I'm a columnist, which is a subset of reporter. And in order to get to the meat of this business, I have to do a little mea culpa.

Just after the June 2 Dallas City Council runoff election, I wrote columns reporting that workers in the Dwaine Caraway campaign had engaged in an unscrupulous absentee voter effort. While that is certainly true, I now know that I missed a very important balancing side of this story.

Texas law is very loose on absentee voting. It is not against the law for a campaign worker to show up at someone's doorstep the day a mailed absentee ballot arrives from the county elections department, urge a voter to vote for a candidate and then "assist" him in filling out his ballot.

Toward the end of last May, in the waning moments of the Dwaine Caraway-Ed Oakley runoff for District 6, City Councilwoman Laura Miller called me up in a huge lather: She told me that Dwaine Caraway was "going to steal this election with the absentee vote."

District 6 is a long skinny kite, anchored in Southwest Oak Cliff, stretching up through West Dallas almost to the city's northwest corner. According to the 2000 census, District 6 is 44 percent black, 39 percent Latino and 15 percent white. The politics of District 6 tend to be driven by North Oak Cliff, Dallas' own Jerusalem, where various ethnicities choose to live close to each other and not get along.

Miller told me there were 1,600 absentee ballots out there hovering in the political ozone, mailed out by the county but not yet voted on and mailed back. She said those 1,600 ballots were being ginned up by the Caraway campaign in order to illegally pad the vote for Caraway on election day.

In addition, thousands more applications for absentee ballots were walking out the door of the county elections department every day--boxes of them--under the arms of paid operatives. Caraway, Miller said, was using political hacks to scam absentee votes from elderly people in African-American neighborhoods.

Caraway's opponent Oakley, a white, openly gay man, had won the endorsement of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the black community's most influential leader, who also happens to be a way-back sworn enemy of Caraway. Caraway, meanwhile, was believed to have offended Latino voters with some off-the-cuff remarks on a black cable TV show about too many Mexicans moving into the 'hood.

Miller's fear was that Oakley would win the vote on election day but lose the election in the final count because of the bales of scammed absentee ballots that Caraway's operatives would deliver at the very last minute. To Miller's great frustration, she said, Oakley was refusing to counter the Caraway effort.

I called Oakley soon afterward, and he confirmed to me what Miller had said: People were urging him to go out and scrape up absentee votes of his own to counter the Caraway effort, but he just wouldn't do it. He told me he had campaigned on the up and up; he thought absentee efforts were scummy; and he wasn't going to go there, even if it meant losing.

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