Absentee Minded

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

It's an interesting contention, worth examining more closely. In a long, up-and-down telephone chat, Sharon Boyd, the Web-page gadfly who was a principal leader of the anti-arena campaign in late 1997, angrily denies Reed's charge.

Boyd and I speak often. We're phone friends. She tells me that her anti-arena campaign wasn't able to attract black supporters because all but a very few of the black people who responded to her call for volunteers wanted money.

"They all wanted to be paid, and we didn't have the money to pay them."

Sharon Boyd says her white anti-establishment volunteers are reluctant to walk the streets of Southern Dallas. Southern Dallas political operatives say that means they shouldn't expect to get African-American votes.
Mark Graham
Sharon Boyd says her white anti-establishment volunteers are reluctant to walk the streets of Southern Dallas. Southern Dallas political operatives say that means they shouldn't expect to get African-American votes.
Dwaine Caraway spent weeks poring over the records of his June 2 defeat by Ed Oakley. He didn't disprove any of the vote-hustling charges against himself, but he did come up with evidence that Oakley was no angel, either.
Dwaine Caraway spent weeks poring over the records of his June 2 defeat by Ed Oakley. He didn't disprove any of the vote-hustling charges against himself, but he did come up with evidence that Oakley was no angel, either.

She says her white volunteers were not about to walk the streets of Southern Dallas. "Some of these houses are houses you don't feel real comfortable going up to," she said. "The white volunteers are not going to go."

That's a wobbly way to defend against a charge of racism. But the fact is that people experienced in Dallas politics, both black and white, tend to support some of what Boyd claims.

When I asked if the white opponents of the big-ticket projects shouldn't come to Southern Dallas to argue for their ideas, longtime African-American political activist Sandra Crenshaw laughed at me. If they come, she suggested they bring their money, not their ideas.

"The leadership responds to money," she said. "Sorry."

Crenshaw describes the political system of Southern Dallas as an apparatus left behind when the last white Jim Mattox labor-left Democrat left town. Deprived of a philosophical or partisan base, exploited on issues like a fancy new sports arena with little immediate relation to the lives of elderly black voters, and taken over by people who depend on it for their livelihoods, the machine is more a business than a political organization. Crenshaw suggested that my idea of white people coming south to preach their philosophies was naïve.

"Some white people have tried what you're talking about. [Political consultant] Lorlee Bartos has gone on out there and tried to do what you're talking about, but she gets beat up so bad, called a bitch and run out of the community, that I don't think she wants to come back. You're messin' with people's money, honey."

Bartos, who ran Annette Strauss' campaign for mayor in 1989 (Strauss won with 73 percent of the vote), also helped the anti-river bond forces in 1998. In an interview in her East Dallas living room a few blocks from majority-black neighborhoods, she confirms some of what Crenshaw has told me.

"I was called a racist because I wouldn't pay walking-around money. I remember what I was told by people in the Strauss campaign. They said, 'It's simple. You just write a check and send it to the preachers.' But I refused to do it, and for that I was called a racist."

People at the top of the pecking order put money into Southern Dallas politics through the use of middlemen. Unfortunately, almost no financial records of the arena or river campaigns exist today because the city rushed to destroy them soon after the elections, using an exception in the law that allows purely municipal election records to be destroyed much sooner than in elections where there is any state or federal issue. But by looking at other elections where records have been preserved, the pattern emerges.

The main conduit for funds to Southern Dallas in all elections is political consultant Kathy Nealy, who has been a mainstay of Mayor Ron Kirk's campaigns, for example. I asked Carol Reed, Kirk's campaign guru, what Nealy does for those campaigns.

Reed smiled and said, "Ask Kathy Nealy."

I asked Kathy Nealy, who gave me a genial answer about "grassroots community-based organizing." So I asked specifically about the $29,790 the Kirk campaign paid her for "Election Day Expense" in 1999.

It turns out election day expense is the traditional "walking-around money" that Bartos had refused to pay. Nealy told me it's a legitimate and necessary part of campaigning in Southern Dallas.

"Election day expense is a little different in our community," Nealy said. "You have what they call card-pushers, handing out literature, who have to be out there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You have to pay people to go door to door, and you also have to pay poll watchers to be at various locations." (Poll watchers are monitors for a candidate or group. They stand and watch the process inside a polling place, but they are not the people who sit at the table and check voters off on a signature sheet.)

At what I am told is a typical pay rate of about $100 for a 12-hour shift, the money paid to Nealy for Kirk's 1999 election day expense would have funded an army of almost 300 people on election day alone.

When the 1998 Trinity River bond campaign came along, an older and wiser Bartos says there was one reason and one reason alone why the mainly white opposition element didn't go south much with its campaign.

"We didn't have the money," she says. "It's that simple."

In spite of all that, experienced activists in the black community say black voters can't help coming to certain conclusions when they never see the white anti-establishment forces show up in their neighborhoods.

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