Go West

With Dallas Democrats' return from the dead, state Senator Royce West is poised for bigger things, like maybe paychecks

When Walker returned, she saw West talking to her fellow trustees. West, she says, had long been close to her colleagues, treating them to dinner when they went on conferences. When the board emerged from the executive session, it voted again on West's contract. This time, they chose to retain him as the district's delinquent tax attorney, after trustee Virginia Hill switched her vote.

"I remember fussing," says Walker, growing angrier the more she talks about it. "I remember saying, 'That's not right. You can't let him go up there and change your mind.'"

Walker says that West pressured Hill to reconsider. Hill says that she doesn't remember why she changed her vote. "If I did, it was my business," she says, adding that just talking about the long-running saga at Wilmer-Hutchins causes her stress.

Royce West
Illustration by Jason Seiler
Royce West
Royce West is the political man of the hour, thanks to the Democrats' surprising November sweep.
Mark Graham
Royce West is the political man of the hour, thanks to the Democrats' surprising November sweep.

Walker says that West didn't do a good job for the district. "Royce was a Wilmer-Hutchins grad, and I felt like he really let us down."

Despite the very public implosion of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district in 2005, West escaped relatively unscathed. That same year, West was named in an FBI subpoena in connection with the ongoing, if not never-ending, investigation of bribery allegations at Dallas City Hall. The FBI wanted to review West's correspondence with city officials concerning apartment developer Brian Potashnik, who is at the center of the investigation for his cozy relationships with Dallas City Council members, including West's longtime friend Don Hill.

Throughout the years, West has consistently supported Potashnik's affordable-housing proposals, clearing the way for the developer to receive millions of dollars in tax credits from the state. West has been the recipient of Potashnik's largesse—he contributed $5,000 to West's campaign in 2001 as he began to grow his business—but there doesn't seem to be any other ties to the developer. In contrast, at the time the FBI investigation became public in June 2005, Hill was driving a BMW owned by a paid consultant of Potashnik's company. Interestingly, West has endorsed Hill for mayor.

West declined to discuss whether he's talked with the FBI about his relationship with Potashnik, but he doesn't seem remotely concerned about the investigation. In fact, a few months after he was named in the FBI subpoena, West considered running for district attorney.

"On a scale of a one to 10, I would say it was a 10," he says of the campaign. "It was something I wanted to do. I gave it a great deal of consideration." His desire to be on the team that develops the southern Dallas campus of UNT swayed him to forgo the district attorney race.

After West chose not to run, he threw his support behind Craig Watkins, who had almost defeated incumbent Bill Hill four years earlier. After Watkins won the Democratic primary, his campaign seemed to lag. His Republican opponent, Toby Shook, was rapidly outspending him. A well-known prosecutor in his own right, Shook was running a well-financed, professional campaign, while Watkins was having his mother answer questions from reporters about his tax and money problems. Making matters worse for the Democratic challenger, County Commissioner Price was critical of Watkins' campaign, openly questioning its seriousness in an eye-opening column by The Dallas Morning News' Gromer Jeffers.

At the time, the gossip in South Dallas political circles was that Price pulled his ally and favored consultant Kathy Neely off Watkins' campaign. (Price did not return a call for comment.) West, on the other hand, remained supportive of Watkins and signed off on the deal that brought a professional political consultant from New Orleans to revive the candidate's slumping campaign. When Watkins upset Shook, it tilted the balance of power from Price, the local powerbroker unafraid to cast his lot with Republicans when necessary, to West, the loyal Democratic partisan.

"John left Royce's guy hanging," Shaw says. "So Royce comes in and, thanks to Iraq and Bush, puts together this astounding victory, but this was also an astounding victory of Royce over John."

West's aides insist there is no rivalry between the two while West calls Price his "political brother." But Shaw, who has known both men for decades, says his friend is just being polite.

"I could tell you that Royce is much too cautious a politician to speak ill of John to the Dallas Observer," Shaw says. "But he knows what he did to him."

Southern Dallas politics are hopelessly complex and capricious, marked by long-standing alliances and rivalries that can shift on substantive issues or frivolous rumors. No one really knows if there is any competition between West and Price, and certainly southern Dallas is big enough for the both of them. If anything, the two are more alike than different. Both are extraordinarily savvy, and each can act like Winston Churchill in public and like Karl Rove behind the scenes. But last November's Democratic sweep seems to have turned West into the premier politician in southern Dallas and beyond. While Price initially endorsed independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn for governor and endorsed several Republicans, West cut television and radio ads for Chris Bell and promoted the party's straight-ticket strategy.

Now with his protégé in the district attorney's office and his law practice stronger than ever, West is at the pinnacle of his public and professional life—so far.

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