By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
If the West Dallas debate is any indication, Leppert has become a persuasive political speaker, winning over most of the crowd by hitting on big-picture themes while glossing over nagging details.
Although his résumé is highlighted by an MBA from Harvard and a tenure as CEO at one of the world's largest construction companies, he was a political nobody until the Dallas Citizens Council, a consortium of business interests who some believe run this city, plucked him from the business community.
Leppert learned a lot from his heated 2007 mayoral campaign and his success as City Hall's pitchman for the Trinity River toll road referendum. His ability to keep the road project on track boosted his stock with the business community, which is completely behind the project.
For many business leaders, Leppert has been a refreshing change from his predecessor Laura Miller, who was seen as a polarizing maverick on the council, and not one of them. With the exception of council members Angela Hunt and Mitchell Rasansky, Leppert has enjoyed unwavering support from the majority of the council, enabling him to push through his political agenda with ease.
Under his watch, crime has dropped, economic development has spiked and he's cracked down on code enforcement in vacant downtown buildings. He has forged key relationships with South Dallas leaders, successfully pushed for an expansion of the city's smoking ban and reached out to the Dallas Independent School District in unusual ways.
But it's only within the last several months that he's faced a serious challenge to his credibility, accused not merely of overselling the toll road but flat-out lying to voters to win. These accusations didn't just come from political opponents, but from The Dallas Morning News, which has been one of his most ardent supporters.
As a result, the upcoming hotel vote has morphed into a referendum on Leppert's credibility—a referendum that is causing voters to question whether they still trust his leadership.
"It's hard for most of us to believe that somebody can be such a bold-faced liar, and he obviously was [during the toll road campaign], and I think he's doing exactly the same thing with the hotel," says former city council member Donna Blumer. "If he wants to remain mayor, he has a lot riding on this vote."
With its crowded field of candidates, heavyweight political consultant Carol Reed had no plans to involve herself in the 2007 mayor's race. She had handled former Mayor Ron Kirk's successful campaign, but says she was "beat badly" while representing Tom Dunning in the February 2002 runoff against Laura Miller to determine who would replace Kirk. She thought the '07 race would be unpredictable and "weird," but knew Leppert as early as 1999, when he became chairman and CEO of Turner Construction and moved its headquarters from New York to Dallas.
Leppert had turned to Reed to build his contacts within the business community, and she steered him to the Greater Dallas Chamber, now known as the Dallas Regional Chamber, which Leppert would chair in 2003. Reed gave Leppert an entrée into the Dallas Citizens Council, introducing him to Donna Halstead, who since 1998 has served as president of the council, a powerful organization of approximately 175 business leaders including Ray Hunt, Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks. At Halstead and Leppert's first meeting in '99, she asked him to become a member "because of the size of Turner," Halstead says.
Before agreeing to represent Leppert, Reed says, she wrote down the issues she felt were important to her on a piece of paper. She identified education, downtown, the southern sector and crime.
"He said, 'That's exactly what I want to talk about,'" she recalls. "And so, we were off to the races."
Reed says Leppert is "absolutely brilliant" and had the ability to gain necessary support in the business community.
In fall 2006, Halstead recalls approaching Leppert at a Baylor Health Care System luncheon and suggesting, along with Dallas lawyer Mike Baggett, that Leppert run for mayor. "And he didn't say no," she says. She thought he would be a great candidate because of his "quiet strength and incredible level of integrity."
Reed also felt that Leppert had a backstory that was "a cut above what you would expect."
His father had died when Leppert was an infant, leaving his mother to raise him on a secretary's salary. To make ends meet, he took various jobs, including working as a janitor in a doctor's office, which he described in his first TV campaign ad. After one year of community college in his native Arizona, he earned a scholarship at Claremont McKenna College in California, where he became student body president.
Next came an MBA from Harvard before landing a job in Los Angeles with an international management consulting firm where he specialized in financial services. In 1984, he was selected as a White House Fellow under President Ronald Reagan, and while in Washington, D.C., he met the woman he would marry.
"Laura is soft-spoken but has great instincts, and nothing gets past her," Reed says. "I don't care if he's in the churches on Sunday morning, or if he is at the homeless shelter, or if he's at a black-tie gala, she's there. This is a partnership with them."