Absentee Minded

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

Longtime Southern Dallas political consultant Jan Gore, who worked for the pro-arena forces, says the white people who have opposed the big-ticket referendums, typified by Boyd, don't get black votes because black voters interpret their absence as fear and their fear as racism.

"You can't be afraid to come into the black community and expect to get black votes," Gore says on the telephone. "One of the best-kept secrets is that you can come into the community, and nobody's going to cook you for dinner."

Reed wins Southern Dallas, Gore says, because Reed shows, whether it's through Kathy Nealy or someone else.

"Carol Reed knows what she's doing."

Everybody in this business has at least two edges on his or her sword. Jan Gore is no exception. While she believes the black vote in Southern Dallas must be respectfully courted, her own respect for it has limits.

In Southern Dallas, especially among the elderly citizens who constitute almost all of the early vote, Gore sees voters who are too tractable, too meek in their obedience, not brave or rebellious enough--a phenomenon she attributes to the city's history of plantation politics.

"One of the things I have said from the '60s is that every big city that the civil rights movement passed by has struggled from that point on. It's like wandering in the desert for 40 years. If we had had a strong Birmingham-type civil rights movement and burned down two or three things, we would probably be better off today."

The point Jan Gore wants me to get is that the elderly black absentee vote is either a buried treasure capable of carrying you to victory or a land mine capable of blowing your legs off, depending on who you are and where you step.

Different people, of course, see different blocs. Reed objects to the characterization of the black elderly vote as the city's only solid, reliable bloc.

"Nobody says anything about [former council member] Donna Blumer's [far northwest] district being the big 'anti' voter base," Reed says. "The people I see coming from that base are mostly white, very angry and, I think, very cynical. They come out in droves."

But that base, Gore argues, operates from its own inchoate, restless, vaguely irrational inner push--frustration over city services, a sense that City Hall is crooked, that they're giving away the store to Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks, all of this perhaps spiced with a seasoning of racism directed against the mayor and black council members.

The point is, you can predict North Dallas. What white leaders such as Laura Miller tend to do, Gore says, is put their fingers in the air, guess which way North Dallas is moving and then go get in front of it.

What makes the black early vote trickier is that on some issues, especially on "white people" issues like the arena about which few elderly people in Southern Dallas really give a rat's tail, the elderly black vote can be turned on a dime by leadership. Especially when someone knows how to pluck the harp of the city's deeply entrenched plantation politics, the elderly black vote can be used to protect the big-ticket gang (the sports team owners, the public-works contractors, The Dallas Morning News) from the angry middle-class white vote.

The numbers involved may seem minuscule at first glance--a few hundred here, a few hundred there--but these figures grow more formidable when stacked against the steep odds the big-ticket promoters must overcome in order to push their projects to victory. Even Carol Reed describes the 1998 yes vote on a city tax subsidy for the arena as an extreme squeaker that she pulled off only by generating voter turnout on election day.

"Going into election day," she says now, "I was a dead person."

The backers of the new arena--mainly the sports team owners who stood to reap $125 million in tax subsidies from the city--spent $2 million on the election, against $80,000 raised by the anti-arena camp. For that, they lost the white vote by 14 percentage points and the Latino vote by 12 points. But they won the black vote by 56 points.

Even though whites voted at twice the rate of non-whites, the math at the end of the day gave the team owners their $125 million by an incredibly narrow margin of 1,642 votes out of 124,118 votes cast.

Before I talked to Jan Gore about the absentee campaign for Ed Oakley, I went back through the arena election and put some of the numbers into a simple spreadsheet. Like a geologist's seismograph, the spreadsheet looks beneath the jigsaw surface of the city's 760 voter precincts and shows the outline of a mother lode.

Beginning just south of Fair Park and running due south to Corinth, Southerland, Ledbetter and Simpson-Stuart roads, through council districts 7, 4, 5 and 8 (Chaney, Thornton-Reese, Hill and Fantroy), are 11 magic precincts where the early vote alone contributed more than 1,400 votes--almost 90 percent of the margin of victory. Early vote includes both mail-in ballots and votes by people who show up in person at early voting centers. The official count does not separate the two.

But both the mail-in and the walk-in votes in Southern Dallas are very orchestrated, operatives agree. Voters tend to expect help either with the mail-in ballot or a ride to the early voting place.

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