By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Last March, at a mayoral forum at Hotel Palomar, the fire alarm began to blare as candidate Tom Leppert spoke. Instantly, as if he knew it would ring all along, his opponent Darrell Jordan quipped that Leppert must have set off a lie-detector test. The audience chuckled. Leppert smiled uncomfortably and resumed his talk, even as the alarm continued to wail.
In fewer than six months, Leppert has gone from an out-of-work chief executive with almost no roots in Dallas to a prime spot in next week's runoff against Ed Oakley. He's done it by being the most disciplined candidate in the race. While his opponents in the general election switched positions and tactics nearly every week, sprinkling their messages with light, self-deprecating touches, Leppert is often so humorless and robotic he makes C-3PO look like Chris Tucker. Whether he's talking to a Republican women's group in far North Dallas or an African-American church in Southwest Dallas, Leppert remains the same: A pro-business, pro-development candidate who believes that his non-political background is what's needed to revive a city that's not quite as good as it can be.
"Are you happy where we are?" Leppert asked the audience at a mayoral forum at Paul Quinn College. "Highest crime rate, education going the wrong way, and we've talked a lot but we still haven't created economic opportunities."
If you haven't been paying attention to the Dallas mayor's race so far, here's an easy primer: Oakley and Leppert agree on the major issues; they differ in where they came from and how they see the city. Leppert, the well-regarded former CEO of Turner Construction, is trying to paint himself as the reformer in race, unschooled in the divisive ways of City Hall. Oakley, a Democrat, fills the unlikely role as the establishment candidate, making the point that Dallas is on the right track thanks to his leadership on the council.
"I want to be the mayor of Dallas for one reason," Oakley said at a mayoral forum this spring. "I have the leadership skills to coalesce this council and continue in the direction we're going."
As a three-term council member who was almost always on the winning side of a vote, Oakley has no choice but to run on the record of City Hall. So it's no wonder that to hear him tell it, Dallas is in the middle of a magnificent renaissance as council initiatives have led to a merry parade of development downtown. The owner of a small contracting company, Oakley took a lead role in crafting 2006's $1.3 billion bond package and chairs the council's influential Trinity River Committee. Perhaps more important, he understands the arcane processes of local government and has tried to sell that knowledge as something just shy of divine providence.
"I'm not bragging, but I've been there, and what I bring to the table is that I know all the inner workings of City Hall, and I know how to make it hum for the city of Dallas," he said in an interview early in the campaign. "I know exactly where to start. I just know it. I'm like 'Give me the test. I know it all.'"
He's right about that. At forum after forum, Oakley will go through the budget items in the city's last two bond packages and talk about how individual items—libraries, police substations, whatever—have affected particular streets in Dallas. So when Leppert talks about hiring more police officers without saying how he will pay for them, Oakley jumps on his opponent. He simply becomes indignant.
"I have the budget book in my car," Oakley told Leppert at a televised debate hosted by Channel 11's Tracy Rowlett. "I'll give it to you, and you can look through it and see what you'll cut."
As a relative newcomer to Dallas with zero political experience, Leppert is trying to paint Oakley's knowledge of government as a bad thing. In turn, he's selling his own message, which is conspicuously short on details, as something approaching an evangelical crusade.
"Do you want a mayor who focuses on City Hall and knows all the intricacies there?" Leppert asked at a recent forum. "Or do you want a mayor who is going to reach out, reach out to communities and reach out worldwide to make sure we have opportunities and can articulate the issues that will identify the success or failure in our city for the next 10 years?"
Leppert's main selling point is that as a former CEO of an $8 billion construction company he has the skills and the personality to run City Hall. Often he boasts about how his old company is "several times the size of the city of Dallas," making you wonder why exactly he's interested in the mayor's office in the first place. Leppert's tenure at Turner, however, is rather remarkable. He doubled the company's revenue in two years while winning it recognition for its extensive work with minority contractors. That background has clearly helped him win support not only with the Dallas Citizens Council but with community leaders in southern Dallas, who think he has the know-how to bring jobs and retail to their long struggling neighborhoods.