Last Men Standing

Leppert and Oakley show that what you think about Dallas politics could be wrong

"I live in a world that has nothing to do with words," he said at a forum. "It's about generating results."

On the ground, Leppert ran Spanish billboards in Hispanic parts of town, participated in the Cinco de Mayo parade and visited large and small black parishes. With the help of talk show host Willis Johnson, a friend of Hill's who joined Leppert's campaign as a consultant, Leppert met with black firefighters and neighborhood leaders. He dropped by track meets and participated in mayoral forums in southern Dallas that his fellow North Dallas competitors skipped.

"The last thing I would want to do is to position myself to be a successful candidate and not a successful mayor," Leppert says. "If you take that view of it, you want to run as strong as you can throughout the city."

Leppert's campaign flouted many preconceptions about politics in Dallas, the most important being that elected officials such as Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Republican Congressman Pete Sessions, who backed Griffith, have any kind of sway over elections. Price, along with former council members Al Lipscomb, Diane Ragsdale and Don Hicks, campaigned for Wells, appearing with him on targeted mailers and radio spots. Kathy Neely, considered the top political consultant in southern Dallas, and a favorite of Price, also joined the Wells campaign, earning $12,000 a month for her services. But the so-called Price-Neely machine flopped like a Waterworld sequel, barely delivering 1,500 votes for Wells in the black council districts. Leppert, without the support of the old guard in southern Dallas, received nearly double Wells' vote totals. Leppert also trounced Griffith in Republican strongholds, where Sessions figured to have influence. Turns out, not so much.

Prominent Hispanic leaders such as Domingo Garcia and Hector Flores also failed to deliver for their candidate, Hill. Leppert ran even or better than Hill in several Hispanic areas, including the Oak Cliff-area council district of Elba Garcia, Domingo's wife.

Like Leppert, Oakley performed well outside his natural base in North Oak Cliff. Nobody would think that council District 13 in Northwest Dallas would be Oakley country. It's heavily Republican; Oakley is a Democrat. It's socially conservative; Oakley is gay. Its well-liked council member, Mitchell Rasansky, prides himself on being a fiscal conservative; Oakley, meanwhile, has never met a tax break he didn't like. But Oakley, though a distant second to Leppert in District 13, finished ahead of avowed Republicans Wells and Darrell Jordan in the nonpartisan race. Oakley also ran well in Lake Highlands, where he had the endorsement of outgoing council member Bill Blaydes, and parts of North Dallas, where his proposal to raze aging and crime-ridden apartment complexes hit home.

Nearly all the top-tier candidates for mayor hoped to make it to the runoff by bringing out their bases and gobbling up votes in the neighborhoods where they live. Only Leppert, Oakley and Wells made concerted efforts to reach voters across Dallas. Leppert ran a very modern, efficient campaign. After he entered the race in November, he quickly raised a half-million dollars within five weeks. After Christmas, Leppert's campaign sent out a five-page mailer to voters introducing him. He also ran a television spot where he talked about how he helped his, um, single mom by working as a janitor in high school. He also paid for 70 billboards in southern neighborhoods, which featured an inspiring quote from Frederick Haynes.

"Everybody was talking about how we had no base; well, we went and got ourselves a base," says Carol Reed, Leppert's campaign manager.

Oakley didn't need to get himself a base. He already had one. As a prominent city council member who helped craft the city's $1.3 billion bond package in 2006, Oakley had a decent number of votes before Leppert sent out his first mailer. An astute, savvy politician, Oakley is well-liked among the politically active neighborhoods in Oak Cliff, both inside and outside his district. He is also beloved by gay voters and Stemmons Corridor business owners who appreciate his unflinching support for the Trinity River public works project. With a decent base on hand, Oakley ran more of an old-fashioned campaign than Leppert. He and his supporters knocked on 70,000 doors, sent out a slew of mailers and seemed to smack a yard sign on every right of way and empty store lot in town. Although Oakley raised nearly as much money as Leppert during the most recent reporting period, he waited until the final days to air television spots.

"Not at one time were we worried," says Latrisa Rogers, who worked for Oakley. "Everybody was so confident throughout the campaign."

At mayoral forums throughout the city, Oakley barely made a presence. Unlike Hill and Leppert, captivating speakers, Oakley rarely distinguished himself among the field. There was one forum where, apropos of nothing, he talked about water main replacement. Overall, Oakley took credit for his view of the city's good fortunes, including the boom in downtown construction.

"I believe we're going in the right direction," he said at one forum. "If you believe we are, then vote for me."

Oakley and Leppert are a study in contrasts. While Oakley sometimes loses himself, if not his audience, in the details of City Hall realities, Leppert often ignores them entirely. Throughout the campaign, Leppert has talked about the need to improve public education in Dallas, making it one of his three centerpiece issues. (The others are crime and economic development.) But the mayor of Dallas has no real authority over the Dallas Independent School District. He can't set a budget, hire a superintendent or suggest a curriculum. So although Leppert says all the right things about public education—at one forum Leppert said, "Education saved my life"—all he can promise is that he will use his symbolic authority to get things done.

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