The Colonel Gets Fried

It took time and 90,000 signatures, but Dallas finally joins the 21st century

The difference is that in most Southern cities those pyramids got blown up during the decades of the Civil Rights Movement. Not here. We could talk all week about why. But the fact is, it didn't happen here. In that sense Dallas is truly anomalous—the Lost Valley of the Pre-Civil Rights Dinosaurs, a place that anthropologists should have put on their critical lists decades ago.

Too late. It's gone. The old Dallas disappeared last weekend. The push-back finally happened.

Almost 90,000 human beings signed petitions calling for a referendum on that toll road. Allow me to put that number in perspective.

Colonel Sanders, Colonel Belo, it's all the same guy. And up until last weekend, he ran Dallas like his "little village."
Fred Ross/Toronto Star/Zuma Press
Colonel Sanders, Colonel Belo, it's all the same guy. And up until last weekend, he ran Dallas like his "little village."

The new mayor, Tom Leppert, was elected by about half that number of votes. All of the sitting city council members who won office in two recent elections—a general and a runoff—failed to garner that many votes in toto. One council member, Steve Salazar, was elected by 717 voters.

The number of people who signed those petitions is staggering. It's three times the number who signed petitions in late 2003 and early 2004 for a chance to vote on the so-called "Blackwood strong mayor" reforms.

The required number of certified signatures to put Blackwood on a ballot was 20,000. The required number for the TrinityVote ballot was 48,000. City Secretary Deborah Watkins found about 52,000 valid signatures on TrinityVote's petitions, meaning the rest of them failed to meet rigid requirements for certification.

But the total number is still 90,000. In 1998 the Trinity River project was authorized on the backs of a total of 39,000 "yes" votes. The number who signed petitions for this referendum is more than twice that.

Even the smaller number certified by the city secretary is one and one-third times the number who voted for the project in '98. By the way, it's 105 percent of the number who voted for the new mayor in the June 16 runoff election.

So what does this kind of push-back mean? Oh, it means everything. I don't even want to talk yet about the debate on the toll road, except as it illuminates this sea change in the politics of the city.

Local media, for example, with the exception of the Dallas Observer and some of the better TV news operations, have always been the Lost Valley mouthpieces of the Beloans. That has to change now, even at Belo Corp., the company that owns the city's only daily newspaper, because even the Beloans are obligated to speak seriously to the 90,000.

Right up to last weekend, The Dallas Morning News consigned principal coverage of the TrinityVote movement to two local columnists, Steve Blow and Jacquielynn Floyd, whose offerings were dismissive and silly, without even an attempt at real reporting.

Last Sunday—the day the city secretary had to announce her findings on certification—the News ran on its front page a well-written, fully reported and balanced story by Bruce Tomaso profiling city council member Angela Hunt, who has led the TrinityVote effort.

I just can't over-emphasize what an important shift that is. It means that Hunt and her group have demanded and received respect from the News after months of goofy derision and slights. How did they demand the respect? With that number we've been talking about—the 90,000.

And that's the other side of this coin. Can you really blame Colonel Belo for running the show single-handed when there was never anybody around who had the bones to force his hand? That's really what this moment comes down to. Someone has shown up to force his hand. In fact, 90,000 someones.

The day after the signatures were certified, Mayor Leppert told the Morning News he had asked the district attorney to investigate possible fake signatures. If Leppert found 42,000 fake signatures, the petitions would still pass certification. He has to know that. It's a simple refusal on his part to show respect for the huge number of voters who did sign properly.

You're going to hear other unbelievably A.D. arguments against the referendum from the people who support putting a massive toll road through the park downtown. One is a kind of technical gotcha on the voters. This argument says that even if the road called for by the state at the time of the election was a quiet little park road, and even if no toll road was even mentioned on the 1998 ballot, lots of people were talking about a toll road in '98 and you should have noticed that and you should have been smarter.

Nah-nah-nah on you.

Now that is really what I call A.D.

How about, "No, nah-nah-nah on you, because I'm going to vote against your stinking toll road in November."

That's what I call a real city.

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