By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
At the end of last month TrinityVote, the group seeking a referendum on building a toll road in the river park downtown, turned in way more than enough signatures to call a referendum on the road. The big-hairs had said it could not be done.
So I thought maybe they might spend some time noodling that around and speculating on what it means that they were so upside-down inside-out totally mistaken about everything.
But as the French say, non! Radio silence from Hair-do City. So as your speculator du jour, I must speculate for them.
Next week (on the 15th) both sides in the referendum battle turn in campaign finance reports, and we will begin to see the shape of things ahead.
This is a culture war, and I can tell you right now which side is going to win: not the big-hair money-buckets who want the highway, no matter how much money they pour out of their buckets. First of all, I don't think they will have the advantage they may assume. The TrinityVote campaign finance report will offer some surprises.
I can't get anybody to give me a precise number, maybe because they're still figuring out what it is, but I think the TrinityVote folks raised between $100,000 and $200,000 just for the petition effort. If you figure that the real enthusiasm for their campaign really only begins now, it's a very respectable number.
If they can do that much for the petition drive alone, they may be able to do 10 times that for the full-fledged campaign.
But the second factor here is even more important: The only reason anybody ever even got this close to building an expressway right next to the river, right in the middle of the new river park, right between the flood control levees we depend on to protect us from becoming New Orleans, is because for a long time the public didn't know about it.
What the TrinityVote people have found is that people in the public tend to move quickly from almost no awareness of the issue to outrage, as soon as they understand what's really being proposed.
Already with the petition drive alone, I think TrinityVote has confirmed something I have always devoutly hoped was true about Dallas—that the city itself is much smarter and hipper than the big-hairs who still run it, and the only reason the big-hairs run it is because people in the city have lives. They don't pay attention on a day-to-day basis to very much of what goes on at City Hall, because most of it is not compelling, to put it mildly. It's stuff that sounds like plumbing problems.
Give the city something worth caring about, and the newer, more sophisticated city will start popping big-hairs like human balloons.
City council member Angela Hunt, who led the petition effort, told me at the end of last week that her group's original hurdle was not the army of so-called "blockers" hired by the other side to talk people out of signing the petitions. The problem was that very few people had any idea what the toll road was.
In 1998 when voters passed a $246 million bond issue to launch a multibillion-dollar reclamation project along the Trinity River in downtown Dallas, Angela Hunt was still in law school. Later like most people she assumed the project was what its promoters had promised in television ads—a glitzy parks project.
She told me about the period in her life a year or more ago when, as a new city council person, she was beginning to see the bait-and-switch: The promised program of parks had been squeezed down to a pathetic remnant, making way instead for a high-speed limited access highway nobody ever voted for.
She didn't vote for it or know about it. She found that her constituents didn't know about it. She found that her colleagues on the city council didn't know about it. But worse, they didn't care.
"When I would go talk to neighborhoods," she said, "I would just frankly ask people, 'What do y'all think of this toll road being built down where the Trinity park is going to go, down between the levees?' And I got these blank stares.
"And then people said, 'What are you talking about?' It was so obvious to me that no one knew.
"But once they got over that, there was disbelief. They would say to me, 'Why would we put a toll road down there?' It was very fast, going from not knowing to disbelief to anger. That was kind of the flow of emotion."
I have always suspected that most council people have only the sketchiest notions how the Trinity project really works. Some do. Some are smart and motivated like former member Sandy Greyson (who also had smart, motivated constituents pushing her). And some, like former member Ed Oakley, may have personal wealth riding on the outcomes through real estate investments, which tends to help them overcome their attention deficit disorder.
But most of them do not pay attention and are led around like hogs with rings in their noses by the city's professional staff. I am reminded of the words of a friend of mine who has worked for the city all his life, who refers to council members as "the summer help."
Hunt told me last week she found that few of her colleagues on the council knew squat about the toll road project before TrinityVote announced its petition drive. "I talked to some of my colleagues, and I just said, 'What do you think of this? Did you know we're putting a toll road down in between the levees?' They really didn't believe me. They thought I was mistaken.
"One of my colleagues said to me, 'I think you're mistaken about that. It's going to be on top of the levees or right outside.'"
She told me that once she convinced fellow council members they were wrong—that the plan was to build a superhighway right through the park and inside the flood control levees—their reaction was to try to talk her out of bringing it up again.
"They said, 'Look, this toll road has been planned for a long time. This is the only place it can go. It's on track and you don't want to destroy the project. We can't really change this now. It's too late,' and blah-blah-blah.
"So I knew that if we were going to make a change that it would not be through the political channels, because there simply weren't eight votes [a majority] to make the type of changes that need to be made."
In talking about her efforts to analyze the Trinity project, Hunt dropped one little off-handed detail that told me volumes. It's a small but very telling window about the generational and cultural difference between her and the rest of the council:
When she asked city staff for numbers, she told me, the staff always gave her the information in "PDF" computer file formats. She told them she didn't want PDFs. She wanted Excel.
PDF files are the computer equivalent of PowerPoint Presentations. Usually you can't change or manipulate a PDF file. You sort of turn it on and then sit there like a dummy and click through it as though you were reading a comic book.
With the information in Excel spreadsheet format, you can go in and compare things and see if all of it adds up. That was how Hunt figured out that the money for parks in the overall program had shrunk down into a sad little stub on her bar chart while the money for the road had exploded out so far it took page after page after page of spreadsheet just to find the top of it.
I can guarantee you that most of the rest of the city council still think it's way cool even to have a laptop. Give them a touch screen, and they squeal with amazement.
The people behind Hunt in the TrinityVote effort are extremely interesting—as smart as anybody in any big urban grassroots effort anywhere in the country, I believe, but tougher, perhaps, for being battle-hardened by this particularly butt-headed city. They assume, for example, that the other side will spend money to knock the pins out from under them at every single step of the way—from the verification of signatures, to the campaign, to vote day, even to legal challenges to the outcome if they win the referendum.
They're ready. I had a little impromptu chat one day at City Hall with R. Michael Jung, the lawyer who wrote the ballot language for the petitions. Jung is a guy who went to Ohio Wesleyan, M.I.T. and Harvard Law School. He has serious credentials in local grassroots politics but works now for a major law firm where he sometimes represents the other kind of roots. He has looked at life from both sides now.
When I asked him if he was worried about a legal challenge to the ballot language, he grinned like a Cheshire cat.
I think Mr. Jung sees this coming and has his claws all sharpened up.
They're going to win. The people who want a park, not a highway, are going to win this. I don't care if the city secretary tries to ditch the petitions because she claims they didn't sign the right people the right way. I don't care if the other side spends five million bucks on a campaign or if they lose and sue.
This thing is rolling. It's the city, the new city. It has the one advantage that cannot be overcome—inevitability. Full speed ahead. Big-hairs be damned.