Agin and Agin

The next city election will separate the good aginners from the evildoers

That's why we don't have them. It's at least part of why Boeing didn't come to town. It's our communal ball and chain: We have allowed our schools to go to hell.

Oh, it's not that miracles don't happen and wonderful instruction doesn't take place out there on the campuses in spite of the pitiful circumstances. But parent after parent is standing up here tonight in the cathedral talking about gut-level conditions in their kids' schools--elementary students who have to wait in line an entire class period to use the bathroom, high school cafeterias that don't meet minimal health standards, Third World conditions that are pervasive in the district.

When I look at these numbers for the tax rate, it all comes clear. These numbers are the footprint of abandonment. This is the real story--even more fundamental than all of the battling over desegregation and headquarters corruption. Dallas simply decided some time ago to stop paying to keep up the school system.

State Representative Domingo Garcia, pondering a run for mayor, is especially worried about the city's school system.
Mark Graham
State Representative Domingo Garcia, pondering a run for mayor, is especially worried about the city's school system.

We all know this history. Reasonable people also recognize that the school district under Moses' leadership has dramatically cleaned up its act. But the danger in the Laura Miller vote is that so much of it comes from Northwest Dallas--home to many fine civic-minded people but also a bastion of the bad kind of aginnism, made up mainly of empty-nest or private-school white-flight types who are mad at City Hall and the school system because they think they have been taken over by people of color. Those voters may all say NO to the bond issue.

The crowd here at the cathedral tonight is somewhat mixed, but the overwhelming majority are Mexican-American. They are what community organizers call "the Cathedral vote"--a term originally from the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio where Mexican-American people actually vote, unlike Dallas. If they did vote here, in alliance with the African-American vote and the progressive white vote, they might provide the edge needed to overcome the bad aginners.

A few days later: Now I am sitting in the large, tastefully appointed office of state Representative Domingo Garcia, a former city council member, one-time mayoral candidate, lawyer and activist on education issues. He has been signaling in recent weeks that he may jump into the mayor's race for the upcoming special election. Today he is counting out the numbers for me:

"The mayor's race will have an eight to 10 percent turnout," he says. "When I ran for mayor in 1995, there were 44,000 registered Hispanic surname voters in the city of Dallas. Today there are 58,000."

Garcia tells me that he can win the election outright if he can take 60 percent of the Latino base and then pick up modest support among African-Americans and progressive whites.

Garcia represents a middle and upper middle-class Mexican-American element more interested in public education than any other issue. In the Legislature he has fought--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--to make public school systems in Texas come to grips with their shameful dropout rates and other ways in which the schools fail Hispanic students in particular.

He hasn't made up his mind whether to run or not. He tells me he's headed to Europe for a week with his wife, city council member Dr. Elba Garcia. They're going to think about it.

The Reverend Gerald Britt of New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, a leader in Dallas Area Interfaith, tells me on the telephone that he thinks the Cathedral vote may actually make it to the polls this time. "There is going to be a very intense effort and a lot of strategy and training to get the vote out in January," he says.

If that does happen, it's a revolution.

It would be wrong to think that the white community is opposed to good public schools in Dallas. The city's business leadership in particular has fought the good fight for schools for years, and there are lots of white people in the city who have been loyal to the schools through thin and thinner.

But Laura Miller is still opaque on these deep-running questions. (She did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.) Will she risk her Northwest Dallas aginner base by coming out foursquare and aggressively in favor of the bond issue? If not, will the Cathedral vote really show up at the polls in numbers sufficient to counteract the bad aginners?

That's a lot in the balance. It's really everything.

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