By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
True story. At 6:35 a.m. on the morning of the mayoral runoff election, Hal Kobey arrives at Bishop Heights Elementary School in East Oak Cliff where he has been assigned by the Miller campaign to serve as a poll watcher. By state law and in all elections, both sides have the right to assign poll watchers to each polling place. These are people who sit around all day to make sure no funny business happens.
At each polling place there is also an election judge. The election judge has considerable power, equivalent to a district judge in some matters.
Polling places are chummy operations. Over the years, the same people get appointed to serve as election judges and as watchers in the same polling places.
So Kobey shows up. Nobody knows him. He's definitely the odd man out. Precinct 3551, which votes at this place, is one of the city's most highly disciplined precincts, heavily managed by the Kathy Nealy/Terri Hodge Southern Dallas Vote Machine. (Nealy is the political consultant who handled Tom Dunning's take-the-low-road campaign in Southern Dallas, and Hodge is a Southern Dallas state representative whose own employee, Felicia Ann Pitre, was recently indicted by a Dallas County grand jury for ballot fraud. See City in this week's paper.) By the end of this long election day in Precinct 3551, the tally will be 527 votes for Tom Dunning and 47 for Laura Miller.
But at the beginning of the day, just after 7 a.m. when Kobey is officially signed in as a poll watcher for Miller, Election Judge Johnnie Goins pulls a little bit of old-time Election Day tomfoolery on him:
Kobey gets up from his chair and walks out into the hall to look out the front door of the school and make sure signs have been posted warning people not to electioneer within a certain distance. When he comes back to his chair, Goins opens up a blue pamphlet from the Secretary of State's Office and cites a passage of the election law on page 10 saying that a poll watcher may not leave the polling place without the permission of the election judge.
She says he left the room without her permission. She orders him to leave the building and not return. Kobey, behaving like a gentleman, leaves. Yuk-yuk. Happens all the time. Tricked him out the door. Now Laura Miller has no poll watcher at this very strong pro-Dunning precinct.
Normally that would be the end of it. Usually by the time the campaign gets done blustering and fussing about its watcher getting tossed, the election is over and the whole thing isn't worth a footnote.
But here is what happens this time: The Miller campaign is expecting exactly this kind of stuff and has a team of volunteer lawyers waiting downtown with their tongues hanging out like pent-up sled dogs. By 11 a.m. the lawyers have the Johnnie Goins matter before a district judge, who decides he can't overrule the election judge, Johnnie Goins.
By noon, lawyer Clint C. Blackman III is downtown presenting a brief on behalf of Miller to an emergency panel of the 5th District Court of Appeals consisting of Justices Ed Kinkeade, Joseph Morris and Jim Mosely.
At 1 p.m., too-toot too-toot, a rumble of hooves and the cavalry thunders up on Bishop Heights Elementary: Hal Kobey is baaaaaack, accompanied this time by an armada of five sheriff's deputies, two representatives of the Public Integrity Unit of the Office of the District Attorney and Clint Blackman with a court order in his fist telling Goins to put Kobey back in his chair immediately.
By the time I get there a TV crew is milling around outside and Kobey is inside eating his lunch from a paper bag. The person I feel immediate sympathy for when I enter the room is Goins, because she looks like she's on the verge of an aneurysm, sitting at her desk repeating over and over to herself, "I do not need this drama. I do not need this drama."
This may have been a nuclear strike to kill a gnat. Or it may have been a pre-emptive blow that prevented a whole bunch more funny business elsewhere in town that day. But this is what I think the incident tells us about the future at City Hall:
The Bishop Heights Elementary School Nuclear Incident is all the proof anybody should need that Miller and her cohort are not goofy gadflies. These are people who have been around the track, who know how to work the system, who will use extreme measures to defend themselves and who will do it skillfully.
All kinds of political veterans came to the Miller camp for the campaign, many of whom will stick. Pat Cotton, for example, is a political consultant who has compiled thick files on vote fraud in this city. Former city council member Jerry Bartos knows where a whole lot of bones are buried. Attorney John Barr is a one-man vote-fraud Swat Team. There are people in the Miller camp who have been in battle many times and have the scars.