The Colonel Gets Fried

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

It's a different city now. Fundamentally. Here's why.

Last weekend the city secretary ruled that a citizens group had met the legal test for calling a referendum on building a major high-speed, limited-access toll road through the proposed river park downtown. But don't get all lost in that. You'll hear plenty about the toll road in the months ahead.

Right now the thing to know about the city is much bigger than the toll road issue. It's about what kind of city this is and what Dallas is going to be like to live in from here on out, compared with being here before last weekend.

Sunday night, at an intimate, very emotional victory celebration for the people who had gathered petitions for the referendum, I heard an excellent and pithy description of the way Dallas has always been. A wise man who cannot be named—one who plays at the top in Dallas but also has lots of experience around the country—was quoted by his wife as saying, "This city is no more corrupt or less corrupt than New York or L.A. or Chicago or any other big American city. It's just that in Dallas far fewer people share in the spoils."

Take the Trinity River project and try to imagine a fictitious scenario in which Dallas worked like other cities. Imagine that the old Dallas river-bottom landholding families could pull their own kind of insider country club strings to get a highway built through their land along the river downtown.

But imagine, too, that a bloc of ward-heeling laborites could use a different kind of under-the-table sleaze-ball pressure to get a big park by the river. And then imagine that the well-organized old inner-city black community could put the squeeze on through the Legislature to force some juicy contracts out of the deal. And imagine that Hispanics were able to leverage some campaign contributions for a shiny new Latino recreational center.

So in the end you would get a kind of corruption standoff in which there would be a road, park, economic development, rec center kind of thing. Under the American system of politics, that would be a real-world version of fair. Everybody gets a shot at a piece. Nobody gets the whole pie. Nobody gets left out.

In terms of pure political theory, it ain't pretty, but it happens to be the best way anybody has ever come up with yet of resolving complex, conflicting ambitions in a diverse, fast-moving molten society.

That's not how it worked here, before last weekend. We don't have ward-heeling laborites. We don't have a well-organized black political presence. We don't have any effectively organized Hispanic presence at all in spite of a growing Latino population.

All we have ever had was Colonel Belo.

Until right now—until this weekend when the TrinityVote petitions were certified by the city secretary, forcing a referendum on the Trinity toll road—Dallas has always operated under the Colonel Belo system of politics. Colonel Belo is up in his office tower looking out over "my little village," surrounded by a half-dozen of his dear old Confederate true-hearts.

He puffs on his cigar, thoughtfully strokes his snowy white goatee and then decides, no, by Jehoshaphat, we're not going to build all those lakes and geegaws the people voted for back in '98. It's just not going to be done. Instead we're going to have us a highway.

"I know we promised the little people some play-purties down there by the river, and I know it's their money, but sometimes we just have to do what we have to do."

Is it a crime against nature that Colonel Belo wants to corrupt the system? Not really. It's nature itself. The crime is that nobody else can corrupt the system back at him.

And then you have the devastating effects of the syndrome I call A.D., or "arrogant dementia." Colonel Belo-types suffering from arrogant dementia begin to identify getting their own way on everything with "clean politics." As long as they can bait and switch an entire bond issue and lie to the voters to get what they want for themselves, they believe that "our system is free from the sordid taint of politics."

But you let some outsider come shuffling up to the door, hat in hand, asking about the lakes and amphitheaters he was promised before the election: Well, that's nothing short of damned Yankee-style corruption.

That's what I call A.D.

Until last weekend when TrinityVote met the legal test for a referendum, there was never any real push-back here for "Colonel Belo," a name I have made up to represent the Dallas Citizens Council and the old elite. This place was run like a one-horse hick town.

It was run, of course, like every other major Southern city in America before the Civil Rights Movement. In all of these cities, small, tight-knit cadres at the top, imbued with cultural and historical disdain for democracy, used social and business pressure to guard local pyramids of power against the encroachments of loathsome voters.

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.

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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