Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

Mary Vogelson, who held that meeting in her home in the fall of 2006, was also a reigning expert on how Dallas deals with mavericks.

"It's not pretty," Vogelson said. "They know better than to go directly at something they can be caught at. So they go for whatever you hold near and dear."

She said the Trinity group tried to tell Hunt: "You will be ostracized. Whatever project you might want to do next, that's what they will go for.

Trinity Vote leader Angela Hunt couldn't put the brakes on curiosity.
BRANDON THIBODEAUX
Trinity Vote leader Angela Hunt couldn't put the brakes on curiosity.
One of the more incredible aspects of the Trinity toll road debate has been its abilityto stir the passions of people not ordinarily interested in civic issues.  It is, after all,just a toll road. Why would so many people care so passionately? But they do.This piece of art—deeply felt and painstakingly drawn—came to the Observer from Richard D. Townsend, Jr., who is incarcerated in a state jail. It is but one of countless expressions, pro and con, that have come our way from surprising sources.
One of the more incredible aspects of the Trinity toll road debate has been its abilityto stir the passions of people not ordinarily interested in civic issues. It is, after all,just a toll road. Why would so many people care so passionately? But they do.This piece of art—deeply felt and painstakingly drawn—came to the Observer from Richard D. Townsend, Jr., who is incarcerated in a state jail. It is but one of countless expressions, pro and con, that have come our way from surprising sources.

"I admired her, but she had not a clue how vindictive and mean and ugly and closed the people who run this city are. We told her, 'Anybody who comes out publicly and supports you is going to lose his job.'

"She asked us, 'Who is willing to contribute money and help fight this fight?' We said, 'Not anybody with money.'"

Vogelson and the rest of the group knew how difficult it was going to be and how important to raise money. "You pay to play in this town," Vogelson told me, "and I mean all the way to the wall."

They didn't want to make unnecessary missteps. That brought everyone to delicate questions of timing. The group could announce an intention to gather signatures any time it wished. Once it actually began to gather signatures, a clock would start at City Hall: By law the petition circulators would have 60 days to complete their effort.

The legally required number of certified signatures was 50,000 to 55,000—whatever turned out to be 10 percent of the registered voters in the city. It was more than twice the number that had to be gathered for the recent referendums on the "strong mayor" charter changes.

In the fall of 2006 the group found it had an immediate problem in Hunt herself. The following May 12 Hunt would have to stand for re-election to her council seat. So far she had no serious opponent.

"Mary Vogelson brought this up," Hunt remembers. "She said, 'Angela, we're a little worried.' I said, 'Well, what are you worried about?'

"Mary said, 'If you step out on this, they're going to run somebody against you. It's going to be tough on you.'

"I said, 'Well, I don't care about that.' They said, 'Well, we do care about that, because you have more influence on the council than off.'

"I thought I was being brave by saying I don't care. But they pointed out that that was being kind of stupid."

Vogelson remembers it almost that way. She was concerned that at earlier meetings she and the other battle-hardened veterans might have been a little hard on Hunt in trying to warn her of the difficulties ahead.

"She asked to meet us again," Vogelson told me. "We were trying not to discourage her. Bless her heart, she wasn't discouraged. She and Paul came together and said, 'Hey, we want to do this.'"

So a certain plan was agreed upon. Hunt and her husband would proceed with their brave crusade. But the battle-scarred vets would exact a few conditions.

On March 14, two days after the final filing deadline for the May 12 city council election—that is, two days after anyone could legally file to run against Hunt—the group, now calling itself "TrinityVote," held a press conference on the Trinity River bottoms announcing its intention to seek a referendum on the Trinity toll road.

I went. I saw all of my old friends and sources, but I saw dozens of people I had never seen before in my life—many of them young and fresh-faced—people who did not look politically battle-hardened at all.

I spoke recently with one of the new people who had shown up that day. Nathan Morey, 29, is a first-year law student, now at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. He was living in North Oak Cliff at the time of the press conference.

"I go to all the parks," he said. "I love the trails in Fort Worth and Arlington.

"I had been following what Dallas was going to do with its portion of the river. I was one of those people who was sort of fooled.

"I thought the road was going to be the parkway, because on one of the city-sponsored Web sites, you see this image from an Oak Cliff vantage of the parkway coming down and having a regular street intersection with Zang Boulevard right as it crosses the river. There's, like, crosswalks right across the street.

"When I found out it was going to be a freeway, I was a little upset. And that was when Angela was making a stink at City Hall about the flood control and the safety standards.

"I e-mailed her, and she e-mailed me back and said, 'OK, come to the river bottoms.' And they had that press deal down there. I guess that's where I got hooked into everything."

In the legally required 60 days, Hunt and her allies gathered 91,000 signatures calling for a referendum. To put that in context, that's 6,000 more people than voted in the last citywide election, which was the June 16 mayoral runoff.

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