Don Hill Slides From Mayoral Candidate to Alleged Criminal

How did that happen?

Although Hill was unquestionably ambitious, with his sights set on the mayor's seat well before most people thought of him as a serious candidate, he wasn't a showy politician. Many of his friends say he preferred the role of moderator, even if that meant pleasing no one.

Lynn Flint Shaw says that Hill was often the voice of reason between the urban and suburban voices on the DART board.

"There would be times when there were heightened tensions in the room, and he never got angry," she says. "He was always the calming voice.

Today, Shaw nearly laughs at the new image of Hill as the kingpin of southern Dallas, spinning a web of bribery and corruption. Although she lauds his intelligence, particularly his ability to quickly grasp a complicated issue, she chuckles at how scatterbrained Hill could be.

"He'd be late for meetings, and we'd call him and hear him say, 'I'm on my way, I'm on my way, five minutes,'" she recalls. "And then 15 minutes later we'd call him, and he'd say, 'I'm down the street, I'm down the street.'"

Barr, Hill's former boss, says that Hill, while flawed, was gifted in the courtroom.

"When Don would talk to you, you would think you were very important to him and what you were saying was very important to him," Barr says. "He had a tremendous gift for talking to juries. He came across as compassionate, understanding and a man who had scruples, morals and character."

A respected attorney in his own right, Barr says that Hill never made the law a priority, focusing most of his efforts on tending to the ho-hum routines of a city council member.

"He could have made $250,000 a year working for me, but he just could never turn City Hall off. He just couldn't."

Now that Hill faces detailed allegations of graft and extortion, his friends and colleagues are stunned. Even though it's been more than two years since the FBI conducted its very public raids of his law and council office, Hill's supporters thought—or maybe just hoped—nothing would come of it. As the months and then years dragged on without news from the feds, the cloud of suspicion that hovered over Hill started to drift. But then on October 1, when a federal indictment placed Hill behind a church taking a $10,000 bribe, the people Hill seemed to serve so well were heartbroken. Here was a church deacon using the house of God as a criminal outpost.

"With Councilman Hill it was never about 'I,' it was always about 'we,'" Pemberton says. "So when these indictments came down I was shocked. I cried many days."

"This is just surreal. It's surreal," Barr says suddenly as if he just realized what's become of his former colleague. "I'm talking to a reporter about Don Hill being indicted."

In January, Hill launched a long-shot bid for mayor even as the FBI investigation promised to plague his campaign. Hill wore the same suit at nearly every candidates' forum. Still, he was mesmerizing on the campaign trail, outshining his rivals at nearly every public appearance—once he got there, that is. While the other candidates stuck to dry, forgettable stump speeches, inundated with either clichés or obtuse policy points, Hill delivered a hopeful message grounded in reality.

Hill promised to extend the revitalization of downtown, which he helped usher in as a council member, to other pockets of the city. Only the prospect of continued economic growth, he told each audience, could ease crime and boost the city's tax base. While the other candidates were immersed in a competition over who could promise to hire the most cops, Hill's message stood out as both pragmatic and honest.

Still, while Hill seemed preternaturally at ease on the stump, the FBI's investigation of his conduct in office made it impossible for him to run a winning campaign. It delayed his entry into the race and scared off would-be donors and supporters.

"Mr. Hill, though I like him as a friend, still has a federal indictment hanging over his head, and I do not want to see the city of Dallas embarrassed any further," council member Bill Blaydes told the Dallas Observer during the mayor's race. "It still has not been settled; it may be settled in Don's mind, but not the rest of the world."

Hill and his enterprising staff tried to use his potential criminal problems as an emblem of grit, labeling his bid for the mayor's seat as a "campaign of courage." They even hung that slogan on a billboard outside his office featuring a serious-looking Hill in a suit. The candidate's point was clear: Even though he was the subject of a federal investigation, he still had enough faith to shoot for the highest office in town.

"I think that two years is longer than it took to formally charge Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling," Hill told the Observer during the mayor's race, claiming that his case couldn't possibly be more complex than that of the former Enron executives. "I have taken the approach that I've done nothing wrong or improper or illegal, so at some point in time the government should say there isn't anything and clear my name completely."

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