By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In person, there is nothing scary about Randall Dunning.
He is tall and lean and keeps his graying hair short and nerdy. A software engineer by trade, he's the sort of fellow who wears his cell phone on his belt and his polo shirt tucked neatly into his pleated khakis. In other words, he looks like the perfect Republican.
Problem is, Republicans aren't sure they want him.
Dunning, of Garland, is in the middle of a runoff against Angie Chen Button for a seat in the state House of Representatives, District 112. If Dunning wins on April 8 he stands a good chance of taking the general election—and that has some Republicans worried.
"I don't think most voters up to this point have realized who this guy is," says one state legislator. "He's far right even by Republican standards. I mean, this guy is off the map."
Readers of the Dallas Observer might remember Dunning. Back in the summer of 2006, the Observer profiled Dunning as part of a story on the Garland City Council, which had become the sort of place where council members challenged each other to fights, sometimes involving guns, over issues such as the right to park your RV on your lawn.
During one such spat in 2003, Dunning, a staunch property rights advocate, and another former council member got into it, culminating with a discussion about whether Dunning was quick enough to outrun a bullet. Dunning told the council member he would have to shoot him in the head "because I wear body armor." At the next council meeting Dunning wore a bulletproof vest, "just to pull [the council member's chain]," Dunning said.
Chen Button's campaign has dug up similar incidents at council meetings, such as the time former council member Jim Dunn said he had been receiving phone calls calling him a Nazi because of his position to stop the construction of a mini-warehouse. Dunning replied, "If the jackboot fits, wear it," prompting Dunn, a Vietnam vet, to say he would take away Dunning's "pistol and bulletproof vest and see who the man is." The mayor called an immediate recess.
Then there's the time Dunning voted against DWI checkpoints, likening the random police stops to "Nazi Gestapo tactics." Or the time he told his council colleagues that he would defend his home fortress—which includes radio towers, a communications trailer and a 48-square-foot underground bunker—"to the death." Larry Jeffus, a current member of the Garland City Council, said Dunning is a survivalist with links to the militia-like Republic of Texas, which wants Texas to secede from the United States.
"One of his favorite things to say is that he wants to destroy government from within," Jeffus says.
Considering all this, it's not much of a surprise that not one of Dunning's former colleagues on the Garland City Council has endorsed his candidacy. What is surprising, at least to some Republicans, is how many members of their party are backing Dunning, and that he got this far in the race in the first place.
The nomination was supposed to go to Jim Shepherd, a soft-spoken, easygoing Richardson lawyer who has 16 years experience in local politics. Shepherd had endorsements from outgoing state Representative Fred Hill, who had held the seat for nearly 20 years, and The Dallas Morning News. But by the time Shepherd entered the race in late January, Dunning was campaigning at full speed, locking up endorsements from conservative groups such as the Texas Eagle Forum and Republican Party heavyweights such as former state chair Tom Pauken. Dunning, who had entered the race as a long-shot, ended up just a couple hundred votes out of first place.
Now Chen Button, an executive at Texas Instruments, is doing everything she can to make Dunning's record on the Garland City Council work against him.
"He's shown that he can't work with people," she says. "The things he did in Garland would never work in the Legislature."
Jeffus, of the Garland City Council, agrees. He says in the time Dunning served on the council he voted against nearly every proposal. Of the few he supported, one was his pet project—an ambitious plan to link Garland's police and fire departments through U.S. military technology, at an initial cost of $8 million. Jeffus, who was not on the council for that vote, says the costs eventually ballooned to $14 million, and yet the project never worked.
"You can see its remnants on light poles throughout the city, but it was worthless," he says. "It doesn't even have scrap value.
"What alarms me most about his candidacy is that if he were elected, our district would go unserved. This is a guy who has signed a document pledging to never give public money to education, and when it comes to education, if you don't ask the Legislature for money they'll find somewhere else to spend it."
Dunning, who did not respond to several requests for comment, has painted himself as the true conservative in the race, and in campaign mailers he has focused on Chen Button's alleged ties to the Democratic Party, making much of the fact that since 1995 she has donated to the campaigns of five different Democrats.
Chen Button says the contributions are a red herring—that all told they amount to less than $5,000 and that in each case she was giving to candidates she had worked with on nonpartisan race-related issues in the Dallas area. She gave money to Regina Montoya Coggins in 2000, for example, because the two had worked together on a hate crime bill. She gave money to Royce West, she says, because the two had worked together on providing scholarships for inner-city kids.
As for Dunning's claim that he's the true conservative, Chen Button points out that contrary to his label as a fiscal conservative, he took part in decisions to raise property taxes twice during his rocky tenure on the Garland City Council.
What is most ironic, considering how ugly the race between the two has become, is that initially Dunning asked Chen Button to be his treasurer, Jeffus says. She decided to run instead.
In the remaining weeks before the runoff, Chen Button says, she will do all she can to let people know who Dunning is. Despite her efforts so far, Dunning hasn't lost the support of people such as Texas Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams or Pauken.
"He's the most conservative of the candidates in the race," Adams says. "And I've followed his career since he was a city council member in Garland."
In District 112, which takes in parts of Richardson, Dallas and Garland the "most conservative" label can go a long way. Considering that Dunning only lost the primary by 321 votes, and that in a runoff only the party's most faithful turn out, there's a good chance he could be taking his Rambo-style Libertarian politics to Austin. While the prospect of bizarro political theater at the state Capitol may make some giddy, it has others a bit queasy.
"It would be an embarrassment to Garland, to the Republican Party and the state Legislature itself," says the state legislator. "He would make news for all the wrong reasons."