Vox Populi

Wait a minute...There's democracy in Dallas?

A couple weeks ago the eminent domain issue came to a splendidly climactic democratic grassroots moment at a very heated community meeting in the Juanita Craft Recreation Center at 4500 Spring Ave., half a mile southeast of Fair Park. The meeting started in an exercise room, but the crowd quickly grew so big the gathering had to adjourn to the center's gymnasium.

State Senator Royce West, who with County Commissioner John Wiley Price is now the co-honcho of southern Dallas politics, was trying hard to sell the crowd on the virtues of the legislation FRI was seeking without actually owning up to being for it himself. And then the moment came.

Terri Hodge, Democratic state representative from District 100, a broad band across southern Dallas including the Frazier area, took the microphone and gave a stem-winding, electrifying, stomping and cheering, roof-raising speech that ought to be in a movie.

Hodge went right to the issue of legitimacy. If the proposed eminent domain legislation was such a good idea for southern Dallas, then why hadn't some elected southern Dallas official agreed to be its sponsor?

Stabbing the air with a fist, Hodge told the crowd, "I asked every member of the South Dallas delegation, 'Which one of you has the nerve to be sponsoring an eminent domain bill in my district?'"

They came unglued. The room vibrated with cheers.

"Everyone I talked to told me that they are not sponsoring this legislation," she said. She turned toward Senator West, who was watching a bit sheepishly from a few yards away. "My senator who shares the district with me has told me that he is not sponsoring the legislation."

West shrugged and looked a little sickly. The crowd cheered at that too.

"Until they come to you," Hodge shouted, "and tell you the truth, I will be working against eminent domain legislation."

People were on their feet, cheering.

Now West was really hanging his head, but in a way that was good-natured. "Wellll," he said.

The crowd laughed, but with him, not at him. They knew they had him.

"Wellll," he said again. "I got to follow the community, and it's real apparent to me that the community is saying no."

People clapped. West promised that he would do nothing to help introduce or sponsor eminent domain legislation in Austin. They cheered.

The debate that night at Juanita Craft was a whole lot of bitter and sweet mixed together. I heard people say things that broke my heart. One guy got up and said, "Don Williams is bad news for black people."

I know that not to be true.

But in the crowd around me on the bleachers—not down front where the speakers were, but in the crowd—I also heard a wisdom born of experience. When West promised them that the proposed legislation would not touch their property, people behind me and on all sides snickered.

"Not right away," one man said.

Southern Dallas knows this: Good intentions come and go. Changes to the property law stay. That's the thing about our system. Our leaders may be smart, but the people tend to be smarter. And that's what you have to respect.

I called Hodge a few days later. She called me back after 11 p.m. She was still in her office in Austin, combing through every bill in the House, looking for the fools who may try to slide an eminent domain bill past her when they think she's not looking. She intends to catch them and then post their pictures all over southern Dallas.

Wanted posters.

Nothing got solved. Somebody still rents houses in southern Dallas with no utilities, and Williams still intends for that to stop.

It's not that Williams has been unwilling to meet with southern Dallas leadership. He told me he and his folks have been doing nothing but. But they have to meet with the leadership and get it right. And where is that leadership?

In the bleachers.

Nothing ain't easy. But this is how a free people think together. And I sure do love watching it unfold.

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