By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Don't tell me it's too early to worry about the 2007 Dallas mayor's race. It's never too early to worry. And the next mayoral race is going to have everything to do with what's going on in the city right now.
There are two main scenarios for the next mayor. The first one is "The Healing Angel." In the Healing Angel scenario, Dallas voters will go for the candidate they think can bind up the city's wounds after the FBI's City Hall corruption probe turns out to be a big bag of hot air. The winning motto will be "No More Drama." Harps and roses everywhere. Incumbent mayor Laura Miller will be out looking for a job.
Scenario Two: "The Avenging Angel." In this one, the outcome of the FBI probe proves Miller right. City Hall is revealed to be a corrupt Tennessee Williams plantation. Dallas voters are sick of it--sick of the downtown white guys who hand out the bribes, sick of the poor minority politicians who take them. They vote to give Miller back her sword, and this time they want her to lop off the head of anybody down there who even faintly resembles a character in Gone With the Wind. Miller takes to the role with aplomb: Methodically decapitating her victims, she hums the old Disney tune, "Whistle While You Work."
It could go either way. Heal. Avenge. Depends.
There are people around town right now who claim to know what the FBI has found so far in its City Hall investigation. They say there will be only one or two low-hanging fruit indictments--or maybe even no indictments at all--and the whole thing will turn out to have been a political vendetta. In that case, it's easy to imagine that voters will decide they've had enough theater.
But other people are predicting that multiple African-American council members will be indicted before the end of the year and that subsequent revelations will unmask a pervasive culture of corruption at City Hall. If that happens, the city's old-line white business leadership will suffer credibility losses at least as severe as the blow to black leadership. After all, it takes two to tango on the plantation.
Consider these two elements. Five years ago when the Justice Department was prosecuting then-city Councilman Al Lipscomb for taking bribes, pillars of the Dallas business establishment rushed out to Amarillo to defend him. Grocery chain magnate Liz Minyard testified that the cash her family had supplied to Lipscomb over the years was "his livelihood, and separate from his politics."
In court and talking to reporters, Lipscomb--always painted as Dallas' firebrand "Civil Rights icon"--admitted to taking money over the years from former Mayor Annette Strauss, dairy executive Pete Schenkel and a host of other pillars. He argued then and believes now that the ease with which he collected cash from the pillars was proof there was no impropriety.
The feds said some of it was bribery. The jury agreed.
Second element: The plan being hatched now to get rid of Miller in 2007 is based on the same north/south coalition that defeated two "strong mayor" charter initiatives in March and November of this year. Both defeats were blows to Miller. Both of these very successful campaigns were based on marrying a solid anti-Miller vote in black Dallas with a split vote in white North Dallas.
Political consultant Pat Cotton, instrumental in both of these defeats for Miller, told me last week that the same game plan will get rid of Miller permanently two years from now. "We need a candidate who can split North Dallas," she said. "And in southern Dallas, it's 'anybody but Laura.'"
I told her I thought that sounded like a smart plan, if the city is in the mood for the healing angel scenario. Then the anti-Laura forces just have to find a candidate who can unite southern Dallas with the people in North Dallas who will vote against her.
But I said I thought it sounded like maybe not so smart a plan if voters by then have been watching a bunch of nasty bribery trials on TV. Let's imagine that the voters put that picture together with a city council that keeps giving multimillion-dollar tax cuts to rich white guys downtown who don't need the money. Let's imagine they even remember Lipscomb and the old north/south dynamic that lined his pockets. Then your north/south coalition isn't the solution: It's the problem. It's the plantation all over again.
All of it depends on how the voters feel after the current chapter with the FBI plays out. Everybody has a theory. A couple of pretty good sources, speaking not for attribution, told me they believe two sealed indictments are already in the bag. But other even better sources scoff at that idea. They say no way.
Lawyers who represent targets of the investigation, speaking to me last week on a not-for-attribution basis, said they think FBI investigators are less than halfway through the mountain of files they've seized in multiple raids last summer on offices and homes of city officials. If the lawyers are correct, then the conclusion of the investigation could still be several months off. Or several years off.