Sour Town

You think Dallas City Council is nuts? Well, yeah, but look at Garland.

But just northeast of Dallas, a few miles from the Mockingbird Lane bridge over White Rock Lake, the politicians of Garland are largely intelligent and honest. They quote English political philosophers and bring laptops to council meetings so they can consult their Excel spreadsheets for appropriations measures. And yet they can't so much as agree on when each others' terms end. They've had a mayor storm out of a meeting after the council was set to approve a bill he disliked, a council woman's wife distribute political fliers in a voting booth and a former 60- or 70-something elected official accuse an incumbent of staring at her breasts. As a measure of revenge, she launched a Web site that doctored a photo, putting her adversary's head on the body of a fat, wrinkly man wearing a diaper and standing in a steam room. Hell hath no fury like a Garland politician scorned.

The political climate in Garland is so charged that the lone news writer for the town's only real newspaper has donated money to one of the candidates who recently won election to the council. Meanwhile, Hickey, who will be forced out of office because of term limits next year, is so disgusted with the rivalries and infighting that he's considering getting out of Dodge.

"I'm thinking about leaving Garland," he says. "You have a bad group of vindictive, mean people. They're schemers and connivers, and they're bringing the city down."

The girl next door: Edie Kirkbride failed to convince the Garland City Council that parking your RV in a residential yard is kind of white trash.
Mark Graham
The girl next door: Edie Kirkbride failed to convince the Garland City Council that parking your RV in a residential yard is kind of white trash.
If you can beat them, join them: Douglas Athas defeated the Garland City Council in court before getting himself elected.
Mark Graham
If you can beat them, join them: Douglas Athas defeated the Garland City Council in court before getting himself elected.

Dunning, the unofficial leader of the opposing faction of the council, asserts the moral high ground in the debate against Hickey and his axis of not-quite-evil.

"Edmund Burke had a great quote," he said before the election. "'When evil men band together, good men must do the same.' I'm not going to call the bloc evil, but when they bind together it forces us to bind together in self-defense."

This is Garland politics: a cast of drama queens, equal parts petty, stubborn, confrontational, conspiratorial and, believe it or not, endearing, at least from a distance. They were like a prototypical cast for the TV show Real World, without the hotness and youth. But on June 17, voters toppled the controlling wing of the council and their anointed heirs by sweeping into office three passionate challengers, each of whom more or less coordinated their campaigns to take on the clique that had been setting the agenda. Whether that will help ease the dysfunction or amplify it, no one really knows, but at the very least it's yet another act in the city's strange political drama.


This is as good a time as any to tell you more about Randall Dunning, who along with his wife, Karen, helped the challengers defeat his council colleagues. A delegate to the state Republican convention in San Antonio--the one that came out in favor of making it a felony to marry gay couples--Dunning is not just your garden-variety suburban conservative. He is skeptical of even the mundane functions of municipal government, such as code enforcement. With the tall and lean build of a drill sergeant, complete with a graying crew cut, Dunning believes that the terrorist strikes of September 11 could have been prevented if airlines allowed passengers to be armed. (Archie Bunker once had a similar idea.) He also suggests that the torture and abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were an outgrowth of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Don't ask us to try to explain that one.

To his detractors, Dunning is a conservative bogeyman, respected for his intellect, feared for his unrelenting distrust of all levels of government, even the one that he helps lead. As people often talk about him in alternately reverential and apprehensive tones, Dunning attains a mythic status before you meet him. To a newcomer, trying to understand who the players are, Dunning is the Keyser Soze of Garland. In person though, he's no wild-eyed zealot. He's a really charming guy who just happens to make Grover Norquist look like FDR.

Dunning and his wife homeschool their four children, in part because of the council member's own experience in public school. Dating himself a bit, he jokes that Paul Simon was right when he sang in his hit "Kodachrome": "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all."

Now a member of the scientific staff at Nortel Networks, Dunning says that as a student in the Chicago school system, he was trained to be "a good little socialist." One year in high school, his teacher instructed the class to create a government from scratch. The teacher meanwhile played God, spawning natural disasters and provoking global unrest. Three weeks into the assignment, the class created its own government, but it wasn't exactly a Jacksonian democracy.

"When it was done, we created a Marxist despotism," he says. "I was horrified at what I had just participated in, and it really magnified in my mind what the founders did when they created our government."

Dunning is now part of a real-life government, and while it's hardly a Marxist despotism, it's becoming something so bizarre that no high school class could have ever conceived it. It's hardly uncommon for city councils to squabble over neighborhood and budget issues, but how many of them quarrel over basic election matters? But in Garland, city council members were faced with a legal and political conundrum that could stump Solomon.

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