The Magic Touch

Want to know who to vote for? Whatever you do, don't ask Jim.

Carol Reed, the political consultant, told another staff member here at the Dallas Observer that I was "a man without a country" because nobody I liked for mayor got into the runoff election.

I like it. Call me the "Flying Dutchman of Bryan Parkway."

It's because I made the horrible mistake before the recent mayoral election of saying in a column who was going to get my vote. So now I'm looking at a runoff election in which both candidates are 100 percent in favor of putting a big highway through the planned Trinity River park—the one idea I really hate.

Ed Oakley's real estate holdings near the Trinity River could be viewed as conflict of interest or evidence of involvement and commitment.
Ed Oakley's real estate holdings near the Trinity River could be viewed as conflict of interest or evidence of involvement and commitment.

But that's not the worst part. I fear that my ill-advised opening of my mouth could be why my guy, Sam Coats, had bad luck at the polls. Long experience should have taught me by now that the Jim Schutze endorsement is like 1,000 broken mirrors.

I should have stuck with superstition. Normally I believe that if I say out loud which candidate I like even one little bit in an election, it won't be five minutes before the phone rings and somebody screams, "OH MY GOD, A PIANO JUST FELL ON THAT GUY!"

Coats should have done better. I blame myself for making it rain pianos that day. It's like Laura Miller endorsing somebody in southern Dallas. Just send the hearse while you're at it.

Now my choice is either Tom Leppert, whose platform is, "I had a single mother, now I'm rich, and I think we need a highway right through the park," or Ed Oakley, whose platform is, "I may be gay and a Democrat, but I'm still willing to bulldoze large apartment buildings full of poor people, and I think we need a highway right through the park."

Talk about a Hobson's choice. But I do have to choose, right? Because we all do. We can't just sit it out because of one issue. We've got to hike up our belts and place our bets based on everything else.

In the past week I have gone back into an Oakley issue that I wrote about before the election—his ownership of real estate in the area most immediately affected by the Trinity River project while he has been chairman of the city council's powerful Trinity River committee. I now have a better sense of his side of that story.

I don't necessarily buy it, but you might see it more his way than mine. First I need to correct a mistake I made in writing about this for the Dallas Observer blog, Unfair Park. I included as owned by Oakley some property owned by an entity called Trinity District Partners. Oakley did own that property, but he sold it to Trinity District Partners, which is not his company.

It's relevant, because Trinity District Partners is not named on his financial disclosure statement to the city. In fact Oakley does disclose all of the properties he does own and all of the entities in which he has an interest.

The issue here is this: Oakley has taken a very strong position on the most controversial element in the Trinity plan—the placement of a high-speed highway through the proposed park along the river, just outside the area where he himself owns real estate. So does he have a conflict? Has his position been warped by his ownership of property that might be adversely affected if the road were taken out of the park and placed closer to his holdings?

And did Oakley help shape zoning and planning policies for this area in a way that created value for his otherwise minimally valuable properties?

Oakley wouldn't talk to me, but David Marquis, his campaign manager whom I have known for a very long time, did talk. He said basically that Oakley has been involved in real estate in the area called the Trinity Design District for a long time. Marquis said Oakley has been diligent about using abstentions and even transfers of ownership to keep himself within the law and within reasonable ethical limits.

In 2002, when Mayor Laura Miller named Oakley chairman of the Trinity River committee, his ownership of real estate was raised as an issue by other council members. Marquis told me last week that Oakley assured the council in 2002 that he had sold or transferred all of the property that was of concern.

My issue would be this: He sold or transferred it into companies he owned or controlled himself.

Marquis told me Oakley did what city lawyers told him to do. He changed the way he owned the property in question. He declared all of those ownerships on his disclosure. He did not vote on zoning issues directly affecting those properties.

"I think the disclosure of it is the main factor," Marquis said. "He went in and talked to the attorneys and to everybody else to make sure. He felt like he did his due diligence."

I had also asked Marquis about Oakley's influence on zoning and planning for the area and about the effect the "Crow factor" might be having on his position on the proposed toll road alignment. Oakley's political contributions lists for the last several years have included many contributions at the legal maximum level from the Crow/Billingsley families.

Crow Holdings, a real estate company run by real estate magnate Harlan Crow, owns a lot of property near Oakley's holdings. Harlan Crow is adamantly opposed to taking the proposed highway out of the river park and putting it near his land. He recently helped fund paid "blockers" to discourage voters from signing a petition for a referendum on the road.

Marquis told me Oakley lived through the years-long debate on a route for the highway. Because Oakley is from Oak Cliff, across the river from downtown, Marquis said, he knows that any attempt to put the highway on that side will be met with cries of environmental racism. He thinks putting it on Industrial Boulevard will kill the redevelopment of that area. He believes the road has to go inside the levees along the river, and Harlan Crow happens to agree with him.

Marquis told me Oakley has been involved in zoning and planning for the area as a plan commission member and as a member of the city council but has never violated the city's rules on conflict of interest.

I'm sure you can smell my own bias here. I'm mad at Oakley for wanting to put that stupid highway through the park. I think his long involvement in real estate in the area right down by the river has given him an overly self-interested perspective. It irritates me that somebody like real estate broker Bob Darrouzet calls me up posturing as Oakley's disinterested defender and then I find out later he and Oakley have partnered on real estate deals.

I admit it: Oakley's relationships with people involved in that land are too cozy for my tastes. But Oakley has the right to say that I'm acting on my bias about the road and that I'm full of it.

He certainly has a right to own property. We want people on the council who have business experience. If I could show him breaking the law, I would have done so by now. What I see as conflict he has a right to view as involvement.

So what about Leppert? Leppert scares me for exactly the opposite reason. The guy comes out of absolutely nowhere. He's the Manchurian candidate, created from raw clay by Donna Halstead, president of the secretive Dallas Citizens Council. And he has all these prepackaged positions on things—like the toll road—from which he will not budge one inch.

But let's say I manage to pry myself loose from the Trinity thing for 30 seconds and listen to the rest of what they are saying. I did listen the other day when KERA broadcast back-to-back interviews with both runoffians.

Leppert was asked what he'll do about crime. He said, "Clearly from a long-term perspective, creating jobs and having a better educational system are very important. I think we need to be conscious of the next level, making sure that our rehabilitation programs and our re-entry programs for people returning from prison are as effective as they can be.

"But if you look across the country at every city that has successfully dealt with this issue, the first step has been that they put more officers on the street."

Leppert said we've gone for two decades without meeting a stated goal of three officers per 1,000 residents, spending money on everything else but never putting our money where our mouth is on this key issue.

They asked Oakley the same thing. He talked mainly about his scorched-earth approach to crime—bulldozing the apartment buildings where poor people live, a stratagem he calls "going at crime at its core."

"Pick any neighborhood," he said. "Go any place and take the area where crime-ridden multi-family exists, and the quality of life and the property values around this area are very low and the quality of living is low. And take out 1,000 or 2,000 of those units and replace them. You begin to get at crime at its core."

What a vision. I see it now—tens of thousands of wretches with their suitcases piled on baby carriages and their grandparents in wheelbarrows trudging down Interstate 45 toward Houston where foolhardy local officials have promised them food and shelter. The Oakley solution.

And Oakley's the Democrat! Just like Laura Miller was the Democrat! Why even have Democrats, if they're all going to run for office on the ethnic cleansing platform?

I told a colleague that I found Leppert's answers on crime interesting and hopeful and Oakley's answers hateful and depressing. He suggested I mention all that in a column as a way of making sure Oakley gets elected.

Not this guy. I'm too smart to make that mistake again.

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