By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ever since the 1998 bond election when the city got its hands on $246 million in tax money for the Trinity River Project, City Hall has done everything it could to keep the public out of it. Now, thanks entirely to council member Mitchell Rasansky, the lone wolf of the North, we might even get a chance to vote on what they're doing down there.
But not without a muddy, bloody fight first.
The city manager and most of the council are solidly behind a formal City Hall policy which says City Hall does not have to honor any of the promises made to citizens eight years ago when the Trinity River Project was up for a vote.
Look, we don't make this stuff up. This isn't an ABC docudrama. This is court record.
In 2001 a group called Taxpayers for Sensible Priorities sued the city for breaking all the promises it made to voters to get them to pass bond money for fixing up the river where it flows through downtown. During the campaign we were bombarded with television commercials showing people sailing on a lake downtown and happy families strolling on a promenade along a riverfront that looked like the Seine in Paris. Now I think it was the Seine in Paris.
But as soon as City Hall got the money, it changed the plan, taking all the nice stuff out and spending the money instead on a freeway we weren't even told was going to be down there and that isn't even needed, according to standard measurements used by highway builders.
So the Sensible Priorities outfit sued. The city manager went to court and argued the city was not bound by its advertising campaign or even by brochures it had published under its own official logo. The only thing it had to follow was the ballot language itself--so vague that it barely limited the city in how it chose to spend the bond money.
The Sensibles lost. In September 2001, state District Judge Anne Ashby handed City Hall a summary judgment supporting its position. It was a windfall for City Hall. Predictably, the main thrust of the project has detoured 180 degrees away from the grand central park proposed to voters.
The most outlandish detour of all has been a plan to tear down all the freeway bridges downtown, none of which need tearing down, and replace them with fantasy suspension bridges designed by Spanish über-architect Santiago Calatrava. The total cost of this adventure, billed as an exercise in "public art," would be 160 percent of the total 1998 Trinity bond program amount.
I have tried to say in the past that I don't know much about architecture. And I don't get much argument on that. But I do know this: The whole Trinity River thing has become a kind of pebble stuck in the city's throat. The project has departed so wildly from the public promises made in 1998 that it has become a kind of standing joke. No one will ever build anything like a true political consensus or any public momentum in this city until the Trinity River question gets cleared off the table.
Enter Mitch Rasansky, council representative from District 13 in the Royal/Marsh lanes part of North Dallas. At the end of last week, Rasansky announced he no longer supports the bridge scheme and thinks it should be submitted to the voters in a citywide election.
Before I go on, let me add some context here. A recent poll showed Rasansky as a leading contender for mayor in 2007 should he decide to run, according to the person who commissioned the poll, council member Ed Oakley of Oak Cliff. Oakley, already a declared candidate himself, told me at the end of last week that he and Rasansky emerged from Oakley's poll as the top two candidates, based on a scenario in which the heavy-voting districts of the North get split by multiple candidates. Oakley stressed that his poll provides only a snapshot that may change in the months ahead.
He said he and Rasansky registered well based on high citywide name recognition and loyal bases of support in their own districts.
I'm not writing about who's going to get elected mayor of Dallas in the May 2007 election. By then I believe we will have been invaded and taken over by the French anyway. All this obsession with Islamo-fascists, and we forget what somebody with an agenda and a boatload of really good foie gras can do to us. What I'm saying is that today, right now, when Mitchell Rasansky speaks, he speaks as a contender.
I happen to think he has a powerful argument--that City Hall isn't being square with the voters on the money for the Trinity project. And when the rest of the gang down there talk about it they sound like telemarketers from a former Soviet region.
"Let me tell you what has really ticked me off," Rasansky told me. "You can check back on city council tapes. At least a dozen times in the last year, year and a half, there's always this money being spent out of the $246 million bond issue.
"I keep asking, 'Now if we approve this, are we going to have enough money for the bridges?' And every time, [Assistant City Manager] Jill Jordan answers, 'Yes,' or [Assistant City Manager] Ramon [Miguez] or [City Manager] Mary [Suhm] says, 'Yes, we have enough money.'
"And guess what! We don't have enough money. So I'm incensed that they..." He paused. "I don't want to use the word deceived. That's bad. That they did not have their facts together the 10 or 12 times that I asked the question. I guess that's the nice thing to say."
There's no question Rasansky's right, as far as he goes. The initial round of bids for the first Calatrava bridge came in at twice what the city had budgeted. And it's the small one. The next two are hanging out there in the fiscal ozone.
But once you open the Pandora's box on the Trinity River Project, you can't stop with the bridges. I don't mean to condescend, but I don't get the impression even Rasansky understands fully where this goes. The vast majority of the public probably do not understand yet the degree to which the whole project has been hijacked to fund that freeway/toll road, whatever it's going to be.
Once you lift the lid on that discussion, I think you have a major excoriation of the city's longtime traditional leadership on your hands. And I'll be there with a folding chair and popcorn to watch. But then my tastes in entertainment are a little twisted.
None of this happens without a very nasty fight first to shun and silence Rasansky. The first move, probably under development as we speak, will be some down-and-dirty swiftboating. A major effort will be mounted to paint Rasansky as a crank.
I even asked one of the city's leading political consultants last week if she thought Rasansky would be painted by his detractors as a Max Goldblatt--the Pleasant Grove hardware store owner, gadfly and certified crank who came within a whisker of forcing incumbent Mayor A. Starke Taylor into a runoff in 1985. Goldblatt's entire platform consisted of championing a Disney-style monorail transit system for Dallas.
But the consultant had never heard of Max Goldblatt. It occurred to me later that when Goldblatt was wrapping up his run for mayor, the consultant probably was wrapping up what I bet was a very successful year of kindergarten. So I guess Rasansky's probably safe on the Goldblatt thing.
But he will be painted as "Mad Mitch," the onein every 14-to-1 vote on the council, the lone wolf, the outrider. I hope they do it. I'll be there with my chair and my refreshments for that one, too, because I think a campaign like that will get him elected mayor.
I talked to Carol Reed, who ran the campaigns of former Mayor Ron Kirk and is running the campaign for the citywide bond program now. She said Dallas has a way of going for the man or the woman alone on a horse on a hill.
It's what Ron Kirk was when he ran for mayor in 1995. When Laura Miller ran to fill Kirk's unexpired second term in 2002, she wore her outsider status like a tiara. Reed told me Dallas goes for the brave loner, as long as the brave loner has something to say.
"People want you to stand up and say what you think," she said. "Say, 'This is a dumb idea,' or 'This is a great idea.' At least stand up and be counted."
Rasansky knows that nobody on the current city council is going to support him in an effort to put the bridges before the voters. "The vote's going to be 14-1," he said. "They're scared to death.
"Thank goodness I make a nice living. I don't depend on anybody for funding my campaign or anything like that."
I think he will run for mayor. Somebody will slime him. That will make him run for sure. And he will run on this issue of a vote by the people on the Trinity project.
I remember Goldblatt. Mainly I remember that the stupid monorail damn near got him elected mayor. I think the monorail was one thing people at least could understand, out of a mumble-talking, never-look-you-in-the-eye City Hall with its hat pulled down and its hands in its pockets.
Mitchell Rasansky is way smarter, way more sophisticated and way tougher than Max Goldblatt. And this time the monorail isn't his idea. It's theirs.
Oh, I can tell already the popcorn won't be near enough. I'm going to need a great big giant box of Jujubes for this one. Maybe even some Raisinets.