Absentee Minded

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

I walked the streets of District 6. The voters I interviewed told me terrible tales of political operatives showing up at their houses and pressuring them to turn over their ballots. They said the operatives all wanted them to vote for Dwaine Caraway.

But there was this mystery: When I asked the same elderly black voters who they really wanted to vote for, they all said, "Dwaine Caraway." I wasn't able to figure out at the time why people were being railroaded into voting for the man they already wanted to vote for. Now I know.

One end of the story here is that Oakley won. He beat Caraway soundly, by 748 votes out of about 5,000 in the June 2 runoff.

Though she insists she doesn't indulge in any dirty election deeds, political activist 
Sandra Crenshaw knows all the early voting and absentee ballot tricks.
Mark Graham
Though she insists she doesn't indulge in any dirty election deeds, political activist Sandra Crenshaw knows all the early voting and absentee ballot tricks.
Jan Gore is a seasoned veteran of many campaigns. Her son, Terrence, is a computer expert. Between them, the Gores helped that nice, nice Ed Oakley get bad.
Mark Graham
Jan Gore is a seasoned veteran of many campaigns. Her son, Terrence, is a computer expert. Between them, the Gores helped that nice, nice Ed Oakley get bad.

But there is another end. In losing the overall vote, Caraway also lost the absentee vote. The county elections department is still unable to provide a precise tally, but Oakley appears to have taken about 60 percent of the absentee vote.

That raises an obvious question: If Dwaine Caraway, that bad, bad man, was out on the street with this huge absentee vote effort that Laura Miller was all jacked out of shape about, why did Ed Oakley beat him in the absentee count?

Here is what I missed: Ed Oakley, that nice, nice man, beat Caraway in the absentee vote because the really sophisticated absentee ballot effort--a clever computer-assisted use of lists, voting histories and election materials timed to coincide with a long weekend when county election officials would be off on holiday--was Ed Oakley's absentee campaign.

That's right. Oakley's absentee campaign.

The thousands of ballot applications walking out the door of county elections headquarters in the last weeks of the campaign were carried out by the Oakley campaign. Operatives working for Oakley had mounted an absentee effort that was good enough to pull the rug from beneath the Caraway operatives.

And that's what all the frenzy was about: The Caraway operatives were in a panic when they showed up to collect the old folks' ballots, because Oakley's crew had been there ahead of them.

Caraway insists that he never sanctioned an absentee effort and that if one took place, it was a rogue campaign carried out without his moral or financial support. Oakley says basically the same thing. So on the issue of whether they accept responsibility for the efforts of their own campaigns, we have a draw.

Both plead ignorance.

Nothing in my July 7 column about the Caraway effort, "The Real Cheaters," was factually incorrect. I stand by every word. But the fact that Oakley's effort happened at all, and that I wrote my columns about that bad, bad Dwaine Caraway without even knowing that the nice, nice Ed Oakley's campaign had done its own absentee effort, puts a big tall pointed dunce cap on my head. With twinkle stars on it.

I'm glad this happened, because in the process of working my way toward the truth about the Caraway-Oakley absentee ballot shuffle, I discovered a much larger reality, one that shapes the politics of the entire city. The manipulation of African-American early in-person voting and absentee by-mail voting is a major element in the way all citywide elections are won in Dallas.

It's why the taxpayers gave $125 million to the promoters of a new arena downtown. It's why we have a multibillion-dollar eight-lane freeway project in the Trinity River bottoms where we were supposed to have sailboats. It's why the city is going to vote YES on the 2012 Olympics in a citywide referendum November 6.

The reality is that the early vote in majority-black precincts in Southern Dallas is the city's only disciplined vote. Especially in citywide elections on issues that are not entwined in the internal politics of the black community, the Southern Dallas African-American vote has a history of responding obediently to the call of leadership.


Carol Reed, the political consultant who runs Mayor Ron Kirk's campaigns, who runs all of the big citywide referendums for the business establishment and who will probably run the Olympics campaign, is keenly aware of the value of the Southern Dallas early vote.

Reed, whose firm collects a $2,000-a-month retainer from the mayor (down from $4,000 a month two years ago), works from a stylish suite of offices above McKinney Avenue. She's a Californian who can have a strong sense of humor, but today, sitting at a conference table, she lays out the early vote question in strictly businesslike tones:

"In big referendums, I run a strong early vote program. This is no different from any kind of business you're running. In marketing, you go where you have the biggest chance of getting a yes vote."

Reed, who directed the campaign of the city's first black mayor, bristles at the suggestion that there is something wrong with pitching hard to the black community on projects like the arena, the river or the Olympics. "Basically, what it is now is that we are in a city where you have to campaign all over the city."

She suggests obliquely that the forces who were opposed to the arena and the river deal and who will be opposed to the Olympics referendum don't ever get black votes because they never campaign in Southern Dallas.

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