Not Your Average Joe

The new county treasurer isn't too sure how he got here, but he's happy to help

I'm still getting used to the notion of Joe Wells as an elected official. But I don't think I'm having near as much trouble with it as he is.

It's kind of fascinating to see someone you've known for a long time, a familiar face, now suddenly in an unfamiliar light.

Joe, now the Dallas County treasurer, was one of several Democratic newcomers swept into local office last November on the anti-Bush tsunami. He and I have known each other casually for several years, because our kids attended the same high school and because of his involvement in environmental issues.

Joe Wells
Joe Wells
So far, the new county judge, Jim Foster, manages to be present at commissioners court meetings without really taking part.
So far, the new county judge, Jim Foster, manages to be present at commissioners court meetings without really taking part.

I was so dumb—I shouldn't even admit this—I didn't know he was the guy who got elected treasurer. I sat at a table next to his table at a political affair recently. I thought, "I wonder if Joe's still with the Volunteer Center of North Texas."

Then the M.C. introduced the elected officials who were present. And Joe stood up. I must have been gawping. He turned to me and held his hands out, like, "I know! Can you believe it?"

He's not the Lone Ranger in Dallas County. We have a new district attorney, district clerk, county clerk and county judge (the top county commissioner), all of whom were heretofore little-known private persons before the tsunami, not to mention more than 40 new court judges.

Any one of these could be viewed as more important than Joe—a fact he keeps reminding me of. I think he was hoping to shake me off by getting me to go tag after one of the other recently elected Democrats.

Unfortunately, Joe, you're the only one I knew personally, pre-tsunami. And this story, as well as being political, is personal. So I'm afraid you drew the black bean.

For the last several weeks I have been breaking off whatever I was doing every once in a while to go tag after Joe. And, I know: It's not really journalistic protocol to call him Joe, but I'm not quite ready to start calling him Wells. Sorry.

Joe is a big white bald guy, rangy, not fat, 58 years old with an open face, huge smile and a little bit of a self-effacing stoop as he approaches, always with both hands out like a ship's steward, as if he's got a towel over one arm and the main thing he has in mind is to get everybody into a dry deck chair.

We served on a committee together at Woodrow Wilson High School. He was a listener and solver, never a monkey wrench. I don't think I was a monkey wrench. I may have been a pair of pliers.

He was always very smart when I called him on environmental issues but very nervous about being quoted, referring often to his role in the nonprofit community and the need not to offend people by seeming too partisan.

He's had two jobs before this one in the last quarter-century. For 12 years he ran the main program that coordinates "community service" activities for people convicted of crimes, helping to refer 12,000 "volunteers" each year to some 600 approved nonprofit agencies. There was a lot of logistics in that, not to mention a clientele you didn't want to irritate unnecessarily.

Before that, he was administrative assistant to the late Dallas County Commissioner Chris Semos, who was one of the last of the old Democrats, back when they still had Democrats in Dallas County. Joe's father was a Democratic stalwart and well-known labor lawyer, one of the founders of the firm Mullinax, Wells, (Oscar) Mauzy and Baab.

In some ways Joe is the typical son of a flamboyant father. He's a great audience. But now there will be occasions when he will not be able to be the audience. Sometimes he will have to be the featured speaker.

Apparently I witnessed the first such occasion recently when I attended the potluck luncheon meeting of a club of about 25 county government retirees at Samuell Grand Recreation Center. Midge Austin introduced Joe. She was longtime secretary to former County Judge Roy Orr and also worked for Semos.

"I just want to point out," she said, "that Joe is the first elected official ever to deign to speak to our little group."

A round of appreciative applause clattered around the dimly lighted exercise room. Then Joe came bounding up to the microphone with both hands out, eyes wide, needing to get something straightened out right away.

"Well, I have to tell you," he said, "that since I got elected you are the first group that ever asked me to speak."

From the audience came this sigh—"Awwwww"—as if a puppy had just been splashed by a truck.

Then he launched into an awkward mile-a-minute ultra-fast-talking explanation of certain complex technological changes under way in the treasurer's office. It reminded me of that hypnotic fine-print blah-blah they do at the end of drug ads on TV. ("Maybehazardous whiledriving. Couldcauseneweyeballs toappearonbackofhead. Stonecoldpoisonous foroldladies.") It was only midday, but I thought I saw retirees beginning to droop and loop off toward the land of bounding sheep and cotton-puff clouds.

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