Dallas' Political Designing Woman

When Dallas' political elite need a win, Carol Reed cheers them on and calls the plays

After all these years, Carol Reed can still own a room. Election night in Dallas comes on a warm Tuesday in November and Reed avidly mingles with businessmen, City Hall leaders and political insiders in a side hall of a music club a few blocks south of a glittering skyline. Tonight, the 60-year-old woman who keeps her hair bright and blond is wearing a black and white tweed Armani short skirt and a matching V-neck sweater. Reed always dresses stylishly when she knows she'll end up on television.

If only she could find a moment alone to even think about such things. Reed has just helped lead her side to another electoral triumph, blunting a furious grassroots campaign that threatened to upend the plans her powerful friends had for a toll road along the Trinity River. Now they were coming to show their gratitude. A city council member talks to Reed while she's on the phone and offers to buy her a glass of wine. The mayor pulls her in for a private conversation not long after an ex-mayor tells her a joke. A wealthy executive ambles over and gives Reed a long hug as she gives an interview to a reporter.

Wearing a blue blazer and no tie, Mayor Tom Leppert stands at the lectern. He gives a ho-hum victory speech and appears more relieved than joyous. To many of the people in the room, the new mayor, selected just five months earlier, is still a stranger. That's hardly true of Reed, who stands 10 or so feet away from Leppert and claps heartily. Though Reed is happy with the results, the truth is that she was never really worried. She knew all along she'd win.

Morrey Taylor
Carol Reed
Brandon Thibodeaux
Carol Reed

For more than 20 years, Reed has been a vaunted campaign manager if not a veritable celebrity in local political circles. Although she may be unfamiliar to most people in Dallas, Reed is the behind-the-scenes architect of the establishment, and her designs have sketched out the most important electoral triumphs in the city's recent history. She has helped elect three mayors, served as the chief fund-raiser for a fourth and successfully pushed public financing for the American Airlines Center and the original Trinity River project before voters in the '90s. She's also helped pass billion-dollar-plus bond packages for the city and the school district.

While her career is not short of triumphs, 2007 may have been her best year yet. In addition to helping elect Leppert mayor—while taking home $30,000 a month for her services—Reed warded off city council member Angela Hunt's initiative to kill the Trinity River toll road. Reed was also tapped this year to be the chief Texas fund-raiser for GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. That's a rather prominent post considering how heavily Republicans rely on Texas money.

Today, nearly 40 years after she stumbled into the fringes of a statewide election on a whim, Reed can choose just about any job in politics she wants. For the solidly entrenched business community, which has long enjoyed the final say in how Dallas is run, Reed is their go-to consultant. While some may wonder if Reed merely happened into a fortuitous relationship with the most lavish check writers in town, owing her success more to their bank accounts than her talents, the flip side of that argument is more accurate: The businessmen of Dallas enlist Reed because they know she's the best chance they have to stay in control.

"She has the respect and the ear of every major political leader in this city and every business leader in this city," says former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. "And she did that on her own."

People like to think of political consultants as a slippery lot who whisper brilliant strategies in a candidate's ear, leading the way to a magical election. The realities are far more mundane and rigorous, especially in a campaign run by Reed. She has a corporate approach, which is appropriate considering her business-minded constituency.

"I'm the CEO," is how Reed describes her role in a campaign. "The candidate is the product."

The first thing Reed will do is test that product through targeted and sophisticated polling and come up with a winning message. Let's say, for example, Reed's candidate says that his priorities are reducing crime, fostering economic development in southern Dallas and building a landing pad for alien spaceships in downtown. Reed's Washington-based pollster will see how that plays in different parts of the city.

Then Reed will look at which parts of the candidate's platform resonate with voters and which ones don't. For the themes that flounder, Reed will try to find a way to cast them in a vaguer light like, say, pitching the candidate's alien pad idea as a creative way to boost tourism.

Perhaps the most important information gleaned from the poll is whether the candidate's themes, if not the candidate himself, are received well by likely voters. If they're not, the campaign works on its candidate's message.

In the message phase, Reed often partners with Allyn & Co., the political consulting firm that has never been on the losing side of a Dallas mayor's race. When you put Reed and Allyn on the same side, they're virtually unstoppable. (And very high-priced. During the Leppert campaign, Reed and Allyn & Co. charged $30,000 and $20,000 a month respectively for their services.)

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