Swing Low

So we heal the north-south rift by electing Colonel Sanders mayor?

Oh, please. Give me a break, willya? If I hear one more word about how all these old white guys running for mayor of Dallas are going to "heal the racial divide," I'm gonna blow lunch.

Or, on the other hand, one more word about how all the old preachers from South Dallas are going to flex their muscles in the next election. If those guys flex their muscles, somebody better have a defibrillator standing by.

Last week when Dallas Mayor Laura Miller announced she will not run for re-election next year, she and I talked about her and the race thing. She started out with the same line she was giving everybody else that day--how her greatest disappointment was that black people in southern Dallas don't get her.

She told me she thought one of her natural constituencies, maybe the main one, should have been southern Dallas. "There's never enough money to take care of their neighborhoods, to send them a cop. I thought they would be the ones who would be most satisfied that their mayor wasn't giving away the store so that they could get what they want.

"And it never happened. There was never a connection there. It never got through."

Nobody I talked to over the weekend, even her supporters, gave her a clean pass on that one. If you're the mayor and you don't get through, you're supposed to figure it out.

But this is also deeper than mere salesmanship. Miller and I go back a ways in Dallas. We first crossed paths in the 1970s at the late, great Dallas Times Herald, the paper The Los Angeles Times owned here. So I think now we both have the same sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs when we see all the starched white Colonel Sanders suits gathering on the veranda in front of The Dallas Morning News, lining up for mayor.

In the background, columnist Steve Blow pings on the strings of the old banjo while columnist Sherry Jacobsen bats her eyes and serves those frosty mint juleps. And, ah, how sweet: Here they come strolling up the walk in their seminary suits with their Bible under one arm and their hat under the other--the old South Dallas leaders. They stand on the lawn, of course, not the veranda.

Now the editorial-page staff comes out in their gorgeous white vestments. With the harps. Steve pings a note for pitch. Everyone hums. Sherry sneaks a julep for herself. And now they all sing, "Way Down Upon the Old Tax Increment Finance District."

I need a bucket.

Miller said it was frustrating and disappointing for her that black Dallas chose the old system, "because if they rallied around and put pressure on their council people to stop giving away so much money, they would benefit. And they never do it.

"It's plantation politics. It's Pete Schenkel sending the milk truck to the barbecue."

Translation for newcomers: Pete Schenkel, for many years head of Schepps Dairy when it was a locally owned company, was a longtime "benefactor" of former city council member Al Lipscomb, a revered figure in the black community who was eventually convicted on multiple federal bribery counts based on stories Miller wrote about him when she was doing my job here at the Dallas Observer. Lipscomb later was acquitted on appeal because of judicial bias in his trial.

"And I love Pete Schenkel," Miller told me. "He still looks back fondly on the days when he could send Al the milk truck for his barbecue. It touches his heart. But it's old school. It's old, old school."

It's also the same pattern she sees--and I see--in the kind of politics these guys running for mayor want to bring back. Everybody's so respectful. So kindly. The white men get to dish half the treasury out the back door to their buddies. And nobody says word one, because the black gentlemen all get to go home with apple pies.

Those are the things Miller stepped on that earned her the unforgiving wrath of the old black leadership. Her personal style, which could be cold and aloof, didn't play well on the street in southern Dallas, and that was her fault.

But style was not what the old preacher-ocracy cared about. They were mad about the money--the cheesy payoffs in the form of community block grant graft and phony bond projects, affordable housing grants and so on. It's all peanuts, pennies on the dollar, nickel-and-dime tip money next to the hundreds of millions going out the other end in the form of incentives to people like oilman Ray Hunt and his downtown posse.

"And why does the southern sector never change?" Miller asked. "Well, the FBI's in the building. They will have indictments, as they should. No one wants to be a developer in the southern sector and go through the six people who want their money. And meanwhile, everyone down there elects the same old unexciting people who want to go cozy up to Ross Junior and Ray Hunt. And I don't know when that ever changes."

Note 1: "FBI in building" refers to the ongoing corruption probe at City Hall. Note 2: "Ross Junior" is a reference to mega-developer H. Ross Perot Jr. Note 3: I've been writing about this stuff way too long. Now I'm doing footnotes.

I get calls from reporters in other cities--and I tell you this only to make myself look more important--asking me what's up with Dallas, what's up with Miller and how can this chick have both the white guys downtown and the black community mad at her at the same time? I used to go into a long dissertation on the city's history, but eventually I gave up. It can't be explained to people outside Dallas. It sounds like a black-and-white 1950s newsreel. Now my standard answer is, "Oh my God, my wife's leaving me for a truck driver!"

But people here get it. People on all sides of the divide. One of the people I spoke with last weekend was former city council member Donna Blumer, who represented the very conservative, solid Republican district now represented so ably by Mitchell Rasansky. She gets just as sick as I do listening to the Morning News and most of those guys running for mayor singing about how they looked over the Trinity and what did they see, coming for to carry them home.

"I think the establishment and the News and all those people exploit that. People up here, and I'm sure the average person in South Dallas, wants somebody who will come in here and do the job. But Ray Hunt always has a dog in the hunt. The same old players who feed at the trough down there are seeing it [Miller's departure] as an opportunity to get in there and really get a grip on things for themselves."

Pat Cotton, the white conservative political consultant who helped defeat both of Dallas' recent strong-mayor charter reform proposals, has a much less pessimistic view of southern Dallas than I do right now. She believes the anti-strong-mayor initiatives helped stir new leadership in the southern sector, people capable of rising above and standing apart from the old sold-out vote-harvesting machinery that has so long been a crucial element in the plantation system. It would be great if she's right.

But the one black mayoral candidate the Morning News has been pushing lately is city council member Don Hill. I guess they think they have to mention a black name. The joke is that Hill, who very publicly ditched his wife this year and married his girlfriend, couldn't get elected South Dallas dog-catcher, let alone North Dallas dog-catcher, never mind that he's a subject of the FBI corruption probe.

No, it's definitely going to be one of the white boys. An irony of Miller's departure is that her absence relegates the old black leadership to the same irrelevance it suffered before she took office. Now they've got nobody to be against, nobody to be for. 'Cept the boys. The gentlemen on the veranda.

I paint with too broad a brush: Some of them are OK. Darrell Jordan, a lawyer who has run before, has a few inches of air between himself and the Dallas Citizens Council, which is the old closed-door club downtown whose members lust to run things again once Miller's gone.

But as Rob Richmond, an independent-thinking Republican who was an early Miller supporter, pointed out to me, there isn't one of the white candidates who would go against the Citizens Council on a serious Citizens Council issue. As Miller would and did.

So I'm depressed. I don't see how we avoid a major step backward after she leaves. She has been a powerful change agent in a city that badly needed to change.

Miller said: "I told my husband last night, 'Honey, you know, this is the clearest example I've ever seen in my personal life where my family and my husband and my kids and the quality of my life took a much higher priority than my ego. Because the only reason to run again was for ego.

"'Oh, longest-running mayor in the history of the city. I'll show them and get elected again.' And then the problem becomes, yeah, well, what do you do after you win? Then what do I do? Sit down there with the boys and talk about Ray Hunt's next big development?

"I'm not jaded and I'm not unhappy and I'm not bitter. I just think I did the best I could. You move on to the next phase of your life, and it sure ain't going to be politics."

Miller will serve until June 2007. After that, she says, she's going to devote her time to her kids.

Listen to me, kids. You need to prepare yourselves for one of the most interesting periods of your lives. You will need helmets.

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