By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Tom Leppert is a tall, thin 52-year-old from North Dallas who talks as if he has five more minutes to live. If you don't know by now—and judging by the dismal turnout in last Saturday's election, you probably don't—he and council member Ed Oakley are in the runoff to be Dallas' next mayor. Exactly a year ago, Leppert was the chief executive officer of Turner Corp., an $8 billion construction giant that doubled its revenue during his seven-year tenure. The company is now building a tower in Dubai that upon completion will be the world's tallest building.
On April 26, a Thursday two weeks and two days before the election, Leppert was far away from the oil fortunes of United Arab Emirates, attending a mayoral forum at Friendship West Baptist Church. Located on a quiet, hilly road on the southwestern fringes of the county, Friendship West is one of the largest black churches in Dallas. Its pastor Frederick Haynes worked with Leppert on the 2006 city bond campaign.
Haynes had already endorsed Leppert, giving many of the other candidates that evening a handy excuse to attend a debate in North Dallas instead. Max Wells, a banker and former mayor pro-tem, was one of the candidates who skipped the forum at Friendship West. In his place he sent Don Hicks, a former city council member and one of several black politicos who endorsed Wells. Seeming agitated, if not out for blood, Hicks wasted no time attacking Leppert for once belonging to the all-white Dallas Country Club.
"Anybody who, in 2007, wants to be associated with a known racist organization and then resign a few months before running for election, I don't have respect for him to be mayor," Hicks said.
A few months earlier, The Dallas Morning News reported on Leppert's club membership. For the Leppert campaign, it was a rare and fleeting burst of bad press. The News soon moved on and ultimately endorsed Leppert.
Hicks was trying to school the white CEO in front of the black crowd. In past forums, Leppert appeared agitated and uncomfortable when other candidates took a shot at him. This time, though, in front of a smart, engaged audience, Leppert wasn't fazed at all, choosing to ignore Hicks' comment. Instead, when it was his turn to speak, Leppert talked about how a nearby Chili's restaurant closed down, using it to show that reports of the southern sector's rebirth are partly exaggerated. Throughout the evening, Leppert talked about education, job growth, the Trinity River Project and, of course, economic development in southern neighborhoods, eliciting quiet but noticeable affirmations from the audience. Leppert talked about himself too, mainly trying to explain that he wasn't just a rich ex-CEO.
"I was raised by a single mom; my father died when I was young," he said. "She had challenges. She never had an education. From her I got an awful lot, and I learned an awful lot. I got the good sense of the importance of a work ethic. She had to make the utility bills; she had to make the rent check."
At the end of the forum, when the candidates gave their closing statements, Hicks again took a swipe at Leppert. "This is personal with me, why I support Max Wells," Hicks said. "I haven't found anything in his background that would offend my ancestors."
Leppert again refused to respond to Hicks' jab. "This election is all about possibilities," he said. "You look through the southern sector and see if the investment is there and if we created jobs. I bring a very different skill set than anybody else up here."
When the candidates were finished, Leppert and wife Laura stuck around and talked with people in the audience. Wealthy North Dallasites rarely appear comfortable outside their natural habitat, but the Lepperts seemed happy and at ease at a black church in southern Dallas. Hicks, meanwhile, left the forum as soon as it concluded.
Last Saturday, Leppert coasted into the runoff against city council member Ed Oakley, trouncing the deep field in the voter-rich council districts in North Dallas. But what made Leppert's victory all the more impressive was how well he did in the largely black and Hispanic districts in the southern sector. He finished no worse than third in any southern sector council district, easily beating Wells, who had the hefty support of the black establishment, in all of them. Leppert even beat Don Hill, the respected black mayor pro tem, in a few council districts south of the Trinity.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Leppert led the field in mayoral fund-raising, allowing him to sprinkle the southern sector with billboards far ahead of his competitors. But unlike Wells, who spent $800,000 of his own money for all of 8,600 votes, he also clearly connected with voters across the city. Casting himself both as a savvy business leader and the self-made son of a—one more time now—poor, single mother, Leppert never got thrown off message. At every forum, even as other candidates and their proxies would jab him, Leppert proceeded as if they weren't there, choosing instead to explain how his successful tenure as the CEO of Turner Construction was a good prelude to leading a city like Dallas. His message wasn't profound or fresh, but it clearly resonated with the segment of the electorate that wanted a change at City Hall.