By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Some people used to call West the most powerful black politician in North Texas. Nobody says that anymore. Instead, they take out the word "black." Within a few years, they may remove "north." Party leaders such as Molberg and Coggins say that West is positioned for a statewide run whenever he's ready—a comment that would have prompted people to wait for a punch line just a few months ago.
But while this is a different time, West is not exactly a different politician. He's still a creature of the slippery world of Texas politics. That will come in handy if he runs for governor, but for now, it takes some of the luster off his accomplishments. For all that West has done for his district, if not the state, the legislator is just as much of a good old boy as the North Dallas establishment his prominence threatens.
Like his peers in the Legislature, West has found creative and questionable ways to raise and spend campaign funds. Specifically, West the candidate pays West the attorney for his office space, creating the type of awkward, self-regulated arrangement that drives good government types nuts. He's also taken tens of thousands in donations from TXU while his son helped handle the electric utility's public relations. Then there's the whole Wilmer-Hutchins imbroglio that even West's friends say could come back to frustrate the state senator. As the district suffered one demoralizing setback after another—from epic cases of mismanagement to student-teacher cheating scandals—West could do nothing but watch Rome burn. And collect his attorney's fees.
In 2004, Wilmer-Hutchins nearly disintegrated financially, failing to meet payroll at least twice. The district closed three schools while its bank, Wells-Fargo, asked to sever its relationship. That year, West collected $174,000 in attorney's fees from the district, yet his critics say that he continually failed to collect outstanding property taxes that could have helped Wilmer-Hutchins.
"I don't think he did a good job at all," says former Wilmer-Hutchins board member Donnie Fox, who claims that West's law firm often seized property from elderly residents without proper notification. "And the sad part about it is he's a Wilmer-Hutchins grad. It's terrible."
This is a familiar arc in American politics: The young, trailblazing candidate becomes a comfortable creature of the establishment once he's solidly in power. West's public life has traced that path and veered off it. For all his trappings of wealth and status, West still has the common touch, even if he sometimes uses it for his own advantage. Constituents laud him for waging tiny neighborhood fights that a legislator of his stature could easily avoid—and when he fights he usually wins. Maybe for West, it was better to become the establishment than to challenge it.
"It would be silly for that man not to achieve," says former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb. "He is a successful lawyer and a successful politician who has not forgotten his community. I hope he becomes a multimillionaire."
But in the 1960s and 1970s, as the black preachers in Dallas sold out to the white North Dallas business community, taking their money and patronage in exchange for keeping an imagined peace, Lipscomb was one of only a scattering of Dallas black leaders who knew how to fight. He first noticed Royce West when Lipscomb was helping integrate the board of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district. Before Wilmer-Hutchins was mismanaged by blacks, it was mismanaged by whites, who complemented their incompetence with bigotry. To Lipscomb, a young and talented West was a reminder of what he was fighting for: a school district that could tap the potential of its best and brightest. West played football and basketball for the Wilmer-Hutchins Eagles. He took his classes just as seriously and even ran—and lost—for student body president in high school.
"You had a star athlete who was also good in his studies and didn't fool around with anything," Lipscomb says. "You just knew he was going to be successful."
As a lawyer, West did pro bono work for the South Dallas Information Center, Lipscomb's civil rights organization that doubled as a social ministry. West provided a range of legal services, from helping the group's protesters to meeting with parents whose sons were arrested.
Lipscomb didn't get much of an education and resents many blacks who did, but to him West is different because he fights the same fights Lipscomb did, only armed with a law degree and perched from a seat of power.
"He has a personality that's winnable; it's not false, it's real. It's penetrating," says Lipscomb, accelerating his cadence like a runaway train as he boasts about West. "You can feel it. I don't care if you're from Fish Trap Road or North Dallas, he's the same no matter what."
It says something about West that he could draw plaudits from both Lipscomb and Paul Coggins, the former U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Lipscomb. If one salutes West for having the common touch, the other praises him for having sway over elites.