By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Laura Miller representative is sprawled loosely over a lawn chair in front of the door to a city rec center. At his elbow lies a stack of pamphlets explaining the point of view of Mayor Miller, the Trinity Commons Foundation, the Dallas Citizens Council and real estate baron Harlan Crow on the Trinity River toll road project.
They're all for putting a toll road through the new park we're trying to build along the river downtown. They don't want people signing any petitions today calling for a referendum against the road. So they've hired persons like the gentleman who slumbers before me at this moment to explain their point of view and try to talk people out of signing.
This particular representative of our mayor is clad in red pants, a T-shirt and a cap pulled down over his face. From beneath the cap I believe I hear the sound of snoring.
Ah, but no. An attractive North Dallas woman in tennis shorts has approached the polling place, and the Laura Miller representative now opens one eye to appraise the proximate passage of her smooth, bare legs.
"Mommy," he mumbles to her, smiling slyly with only one eye open, lips stuck together with sleepy saliva. "Hey, Mommy."
But I have the distinct impression this woman is not the mother of the Laura Miller representative. In fact she looks quite distressed that the Laura Miller representative is even speaking to her, let alone addressing her as Mommy.
Now the would-be voter with the legs is giving the Laura Miller/Citizens Council/Trinity Commons/Harlan Crow representative the very widest possible berth she can manage and still get to the door without falling headlong into the shrubbery.
But the Laura Miller representative is undeterred. With thumb and little finger waggling at his ear in the universal hand sign for telephone, the Laura Miller representative appears to be suggesting an assignation with his mother.
"Hey, Mommy," he says. "I can give you my number. You can call me later."
She shakes her head no—a very definitive no—and batters her way through the door into the polling place. I am quite sure the woman was not the mother of the representative of Laura Miller. In spite of differences I may have had with the mayor over the years, I do not believe that a representative of hers would suggest a liaison with his own mother in the presence of a reporter.
Besides, now here comes another woman in shorts who he thinks is his mommy, and he's offering her his phone number too!
I must tell you. In a day of touring around to polling places last Saturday, I was quite taken aback by the caliber of persons who had been hired to represent Mayor Miller, the Dallas Citizens Council, the Trinity Commons Foundation and Harlan Crow on the toll road referendum issue. I am terribly worried about sounding snobbish here, because, as you can well imagine, the last thing a good liberal like myself wants to do is be snooty.
But you could have knocked me over with a feather. In fact, you could have knocked me over with the breath of a few of these folks. It puts Laura Miller, the Dallas Citizens Council, the Trinity Commons Foundation and Harlan Crow in a whole new light.
The hiring of so-called "blockers" to keep people from signing petitions is not new or unique to Dallas by any means. In a number of states—Nebraska in particular—things have gotten so out of hand that attempts have been made to pass legislation protecting the petition process from gangs of goons hired to scare people out of signing.
What is unusual here is the class of people doing the hiring. I'm a proud former union member myself, so I say this advisedly: In most of the cases I have read about elsewhere, the goons have been hired by people who sort of know what they're doing. Like tough labor unions.
Here, the people who want to kill the petition drive and ward off a referendum seem like hot-house flowers. I don't know if they're really up to this. Not to be unkind, but the people I found at the polls representing our mayor and the rest of them didn't even rise to the level of goon. Some of them, like the gentleman on Frankford Road, didn't rise at all, as a matter of fact.
My son, Will, who had surprised his mother by coming home for Mother's Day and was accompanying me on my tour of the polls, wound up sitting down with the gentleman in red and having quite a chat with him. Both of them, it seems, are what are called "rappers." Who knew?
The man in red was a Mr. Q from Detroit. Just Q. Usually he is employed as a rapper. Apparently my son is also a rapper. Like my son, Q was only in town for a few days. He was here from Detroit to assist the mayor in her efforts to defeat the Trinity toll road referendum.
Q declined to discuss the conditions of his employment, but he did nod assent proudly when I suggested the rate was rumored to be about $200 a day.
Q's job was to grab up copies of the mayor's brochure attacking the referendum, leap from his lawn chair and offer the brochures to people thinking about signing the petitions. As I observed the process at other polling places Saturday, some people who might otherwise have paused to sign a petition were inspired instead to rush off to their automobiles, jump in and lock the doors when suddenly approached by one of the mayor's representatives.
I was not able to watch Q in action, however, because he had stationed himself at a polling place where there were no signature-gatherers for the petition, allowing him to sleep all morning between attempts at finding his mother.
I suggested to him that this was a pretty sweet deal, working as a blocker at a polling place where there was no one to block. He suggested to me that my insight did not make me Albert Einstein. Both he and my son seemed disappointed when I said we needed to shove on.
At another polling place in North Dallas I found some of the mayor's representatives who were at least working for their two bills a day. A young man stationed at a folding table outside the polling place was asking people to sign petitions, and two blockers, a man and a woman, were busily pushing in around potential signers and waving "Sink the Petition" flyers at them. The blockers were able to steer some people off to their cars before the petition guy ever got a chance to speak to them.
I asked these blockers for their names, and like all of them I spoke to Saturday they refused to identify themselves. The gentleman, who was wearing a hairpiece that I initially took to be a hat, told me he did not speak to reporters. When I asked him where he was from, he said, "From zero."
The man from zero.
At another polling place, I tried to chat up a lady who was holding a sheaf of the mayor's flyers in one hand while smoking with the other. I was fascinated, I must admit, by the way she smoked. She was able to consume a whole cigarette in two or three drags, collapsing her cheeks against her skull to create a furrowed-brow cross-eyed suction powerful enough to make the entire cigarette sort of curl up and turn to ash like the fuse on a firecracker. I swear in the very few minutes I was able to get her to converse with me, she smoked three cigarettes.
I wanted her to talk to me, because I hoped to find out how she and the mayor had met. But she hurried off and hid behind a tree. I thought of telling her that her son might be looking for her, but then I thought better.
In an interview before Saturday's election, Craig Holcomb, executive director of the Trinity Commons Foundation, had declined to use the word "blockers" for the people he was hiring to represent him and the other petition opponents. He described them instead as "education technicians."
I have known Holcomb for many years. He is a gentleman and a scholar. I called to warn him, or so I thought, that the people he and the mayor and Harlan Crow have been hiring to represent them might not be living up to their high standards. I told him about the gentleman at Frankford Road who was looking for his mother, and I believe I also mentioned the man from zero. I wanted to tell him about the lady with the amazing midway-act cigarette-smoking trick, but he sort of cut me off.
"The feedback I have received is that they were professional and did a good job," he said.
Well, you know, blow the man down! I was shocked, shocked! It was like I was right back out there standing in front of their breath.
I asked, "Can you tell me anything about what service they worked for or how you recruited them?"
"No," Holcomb answered.
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Because, Jim, I have to take your call for various reasons. I really don't want to expose anyone else who is an innocent bystander to what it is going to ensue."
Well, I just don't know what that means. I guess he must be worried about the mommies. Tell you what. If Laura Miller's side wins, I'm definitely going to the victory party. With a film crew from Cops.