By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On June 26, 2005, on a Sunday morning after church, attorney John Barr called 80 of his firm's lawyers to a meeting at his office in Oak Cliff. Everyone was invited except Don Hill, who was unaware his colleagues were gathering to discuss his future. A few years earlier, Barr had hired Hill after he opposed him in a case. Barr was impressed by how the labor lawyer and city council member sought an amicable resolution to the matter rather than dragging it out in litigation. On this morning, however, Barr was ready to fire Hill.
You couldn't have blamed him. Earlier that week, FBI agents arrived at Barr's law firm with search warrants. Dallas police officers blocked the street while the local news media watched intently. A helicopter circled overhead. The authorities had come to comb through Hill's law office in search of records tying him to developer Brian Potashnik, who was at the center of an alleged web of corruption at Dallas City Hall. For Barr, a reserve police officer for decades, the FBI knocking on his door was not exactly what he had in mind when he employed Hill.
Barr's firm had no ties to Potashnik, and nobody accused it of any wrongdoing. Still, the tough, outspoken attorney, who successfully defended former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles on two indictments, didn't want his firm's clients scared off by Hill's starring role in City Hall's latest ethical melodrama. Besides, it wasn't clear that he was worth the trouble. Although a talented, well-liked lawyer, Hill often saw himself as a city council member first and an attorney second. Once, he was late to a conference with the president of a Mexican airline because he was meeting with elderly women in South Dallas. The women were in the midst of a crisis: One of their neighbors chose to park his car on his front yard, often running over the ladies' flowers as he drove in and out.
To many, Hill's obligations at City Hall, where his influence as city council member often eclipsed that of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, made him less of a lawyer. The firm's secretaries sometimes had to call him two or three times to remind him of a meeting with a client, fearful that he'd be too focused on his council job to remember his appointments. It wasn't that Hill was a bad attorney. Barr says that he's never seen a lawyer do a better job of reconciling angry parties in a lawsuit. Clients prefer a quick and agreeable settlement to years of costly litigation, he says.
But Hill's real passion was for city government, even if it didn't pay the bills. Now his political life was on the verge of damaging his professional life. At the meeting, Barr gave the attorneys a simple option: "If anyone wants him to go and feels strongly about it," Barr remembers saying, "he's out of here."
The attorneys at Barr's firm take home a percentage of the firm's earnings, so if someone is not billing enough hours because he's keeping cars off of South Dallas lawns and, by the way, he just happens to be in the crosshairs of an FBI investigation, that's not good for anyone's business. But the lawyers wanted Hill to stay.
Now Hill is facing a different election. He is one of the front-runners in the race to be the next mayor of Dallas, even though the FBI investigation, which first came to light nearly two years ago, continues to trouble his campaign. He also has more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes. But just like that June morning, Hill has his supporters, including Barr, who is now working as his campaign treasurer.
"The city manager runs the town, not the mayor, but what Hill has is an ability to bring people of different viewpoints to a commonality of interests," Barr says. "If the people of Dallas want to vote for Don Hill because he's going to be efficient at running the government of Dallas, then the hell with them, that's not what he does, but that's not what the mayor does either."
What exactly does the mayor do? In Dallas, that's not particularly clear. Unlike mayors in nearly every other major American city, the mayor in Dallas can't set a budget, fire a police chief or negotiate single-handedly with a developer. Instead, the mayor is just one of 15 city council members—the first among equals, goes the tired refrain—whose authority is more symbolic than real. That's why someone like Hill, whose own treasurer complains about his lack of organization, can be a top-tier candidate. He doesn't have to manage the city, just help those who do.
"Is this the guy you want running your restaurant? Hell no," Barr says. "He doesn't have business acumen, but he does have an ability to bring people together to resolve conflict."
If Hill inspires a mix of confidence and unease, the other candidates aren't any better. From influential city council members such as Hill and Ed Oakley to highly regarded corporate executives such as Tom Leppert and Sam Coats, this race has a fine collection of résumés and biographies, but right now, at least, that's all.