Real Politics

Feudal grudges and an imprisoned holy man in the Dallas mayoral race

This mayor thing is getting very interesting, but it's also painful to watch at times. The city's first black mayor just concluded a two-term tenure, and all of a sudden it's as if black and white Dallas are on an awkward first date.

Very awkward.

Let me give you an example, an incident pieced together from knowledgeable sources on both sides of the story. A week or so ago, Tom Dunning, the establishment candidate, was whisked south for a meeting with a group of African-American community leaders.

I believe Dunning expected he would be meeting with two or three people. The way it used to be: maybe a couple of preachers and a former council member, something like that.

Instead it's an edgy crowd of more than a dozen people, all with demands in their hands--specific things like set-asides, deals with money attached. In fact, they have a piece of paper they want Dunning to sign in exchange for their support.

The background here is that some of the faces in the crowd are people former Mayor Ron Kirk has always painted to the guys downtown as jerks and con artists.

Dunning gets mad. He thinks he's being hijacked. From his point of view, it's irresponsible to agree to things like this in a smoke-filled room. He's a business guy, not a backroom pol. He suggests they never would have behaved this way with Kirk.

They say, "Exactly."

Dunning leaves. The people in the room all leave--mad. A major failure to communicate.

Why?

Dunning's not a bad guy. He's trying to get elected mayor and keep his integrity intact. In his lack of respect for some of the individuals in that crowd, he was merely reflecting attitudes that everybody in the white power structure downtown learned from Ron Kirk. What better teacher?

Not that Dunning hasn't been around on his own. He's been around forever. In terms of his own personal contacts with the black community, Dunning goes back further than anybody else in this race, further than most white people in the city. He served on the board of the Martin Luther King Center with former council member Al Lipscomb before it was the Martin Luther King Center, when it was the Crossroads Community Center.

But that history can be as much liability as asset, too, depending on what it makes him do. For example, one of the more picaresque sagas in the campaign season so far--something you won't be seeing on television--has been the parade of candidates and/or their emissaries to the Southern Dallas abode of former Councilman Lipscomb, currently under federal house arrest for bribery. The terms of Lipscomb's sentence--I checked this with the feds--do not allow him to leave the house or talk to reporters for political purposes, but he is free to receive visitors, and, like an old Holy Man in Palestine, he does.

I love this.

Dunning tells me that Lipscomb is endorsing him. For Tom Dunning to say that, it had to come from Lipscomb. Dunning doesn't fib about things. But, you see, Lipscomb can't come outdoors and confirm or deny it to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, the Domingo Garcia camp is spreading the word that Lipscomb and his entourage are really behind Garcia. And, of course, Lipscomb can't come out and tell us whether that one's strictly true or not, either.

I think he loves this, too. I think we should put up a sign and re-name his house "Fort Wriggle Room."

In fact, there's a fairly specific story making the rounds about Dunning's dealings with Lipscomb, some of which I have been able to loosely confirm. It goes like this:

The Dunning camp sends word to Fort Wriggle Room that Lipscomb needs to line up his troops for Dunning. Lipscomb agrees, but he sends word back up the line that Dunning needs to call the troops himself. Lipscomb even provides a list of names and phone numbers.

Apparently Dunning doesn't do it. Not himself. Some of the key names are contacted by intermediaries instead. And here is where you get to the sore place.

The use of intermediaries between the black and white communities in Dallas was merely how it was always done. At a certain point in time it even may have been a sign of respect--that you knew enough not to try to cut around anybody.

Those days are gone. For two terms, Ron Kirk was the intermediary. Ron Kirk is gone.

The use of go-betweens now turns out to be a very clumsy mistake. One of the people who definitely should be in Tom Dunning's camp but isn't, for example, is former city Councilman Don Hicks, a lawyer and captain of the largest African-American political action committee in the city, now signed up as campaign treasurer for Domingo Garcia. Hicks is so unhappy about the way he was approached by the Dunning camp that he was one of the few people willing to talk to me about it on the record.

"Tom Dunning obviously thought that the accommodation afforded Mayor Kirk would be transferred to him."

Hicks calls that "a very stupid mistake."

"I'm a four-term councilperson from the highest-voting African-American council district in the city, and I never received a telephone call from him. I've been at the table. I am at the table. You don't need a go-between to talk to me."

Hicks didn't tell me who did call him for Dunning, merely that it was someone "who wanted to be a power broker."

Not Dunning.

On the other hand, candidate Laura Miller did call Hicks, herself.

"Laura Miller called me. Before Domingo got in the race, I was just about ready to go over there."

Hicks still considers Miller a viable choice for Southern Dallas. "It's very nice to know we have two strong candidates that would represent all of Dallas," he says.

Now please don't take this to mean Tom Dunning has no black support. He has substantial black support. County Commissioner John Wiley Price is already on the radio endorsing him in ads, and other well-known black leaders will follow in the weeks to come.

In fact, some of the bad wiring here may not be Dunning's fault. You could say just as easily that some people in the black community are being way too sensitive and defensive with a guy who isn't hostile, isn't a racist and could do them some good.

I don't know which side of that dispute is more right or wrong than the other. But I do know this: It's really remarkable how little day-to-day black-white familiarity has been built up during the Kirk years.

There was a certain wrinkle in the Ron Kirk phenomenon that may not have received its due. The establishment needed Kirk to control black Dallas, and Kirk needed the establishment to win white Dallas. But Kirk didn't need anybody in black Dallas.

He was this city's first black mayor. He was smart, good-looking and effective, with money in his pocket. He was a dream come true for the rank and file of black Dallas. When he went to black schools, children stretched their arms to touch him. When he wanted to, he could blow right by the traditional leadership of African-American Dallas like they weren't even standing there. Black leaders in Dallas had more to worry about from Ron Kirk than they ever did from any white man.

Ron Kirk's gone.

There's a lot of stuff that a lot of people went along with during the Kirk years that they have no intention of going along with now that he's out of the way. Those people want to be sure that the white power structure knows how they feel.

Tom Dunning is a decent guy and an honest man. He's learning how they feel.

But enough of all this depressing racial stuff. How about the real issue here? Why can't that Carol Reed get her ads right?

Reed, the political consultant to Dunning's campaign, had to pull down her first set of TV ads because the ads incorporated snippets of film that weren't authorized for political use. Rob Allyn, consultant to the Laura Miller campaign, was widely quoted deploring the use of unauthorized snippets in a campaign.

So Reed snips out the unauthorized stuff and snips in some other footage showing a Channel 4 cameraman shooting Dunning at a news conference.

Channel 4 calls. They claim it's unauthorized to use an image of their cameraperson in a political ad. So Reed pulls that one down, too, and snips in a different snippet showing city council member Dr. Elba Garcia, wife of candidate Domingo Garcia, smiling at Dunning during a news conference.

Last time I checked with Reed, Dr. Garcia had not called to complain that use of her image was also unauthorized. But she still could do that at any moment, and I have the phone number if she needs it.

Meanwhile, a source who is close to everything, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, deniability and invisibility, provided me with a 1998 story from The Dallas Morning News describing how Rob Allyn got in trouble for unauthorized use of a snippet of music in a radio ad for another political campaign. I called Allyn, who agreed that he had made such a mistake. Allyn was contrite and had a very long and intriguing story about his mistake, and I only regret that I lack the space here to repeat it.

Take it all together. The feudal history. The ancient grudges. The holy man under house arrest in the Wriggle Room. But especially the snipping and sniping.

This is almost like real city politics. Is Dallas getting cool or what?

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