By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Leppert sits in his green chair at the center of the horseshoe in council chambers, wearing a dark blazer, white shirt and red tie. The remaining seats are vacant this late March morning, but the mayor at 9:04 turns on his microphone and calls the meeting to order. Council members rush to their seats like school kids trying to avoid a detention for being tardy.
Beginning meetings on time has become a Leppert trademark—a stark contrast to his predecessor, whose routine of late start-ups led council regulars to build in a 30-minute cushion.
This morning's open mic session, where citizens speak freely to the council, lasts nearly 90 minutes, with issues on taxicab regulations and changing the date for implementing the new smoking ban eating up most of the clock.
The most divisive agenda item isn't even set for a vote, but today is the first of two public hearings regarding the creation of a daytime curfew for students ages 10 to 16.
There's a spirited debate between speakers and council members, but Leppert will have the last word. By skillfully tossing leading questions to Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief David Brown and allowing him to make the point—major crimes are down, daytime burglaries are up, a kid curfew could be a significant crime prevention tool—Leppert deftly uses the chief to stake out his own curfew position before the council vote May 13.
The meeting rolls along with relative ease—also a Leppert trademark distinct from his predecessor—until a seemingly innocuous item comes up for discussion regarding the modification of a purchase agreement for land outside the Trinity River levees.
Mitchell Rasansky tells the council he "came unglued" when he noticed the item was related to the toll road, vowing not to approve it because Leppert and city manager Mary Suhm withheld key information from the council in 2007 regarding the corps taking issue with the road's impact on the levees. Angela Hunt joins in, saying she's distrustful of Suhm and her staff.
Council member Jerry Allen rises to the mayor's defense, implying that Rasansky and Hunt are going on the attack just for the TV cameras. Addressing Leppert and Suhm, he says, "Anything that comes out of your mouths, I believe it."
Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, a close South Dallas ally of Leppert's, adds that these kinds of attacks are better handled in back rooms rather than during on-air broadcasts. "I would take a bullet for this mayor," Caraway proclaims. "He has that type of respect because every single thing that I've asked him to do, everything that has been a need in the areas that I represent, he's stepped up to the plate, and he's done it."
Leppert appears visibly agitated but not out of control. He looks at Rasansky and assures him that the council has the same information he has. He says there were naysayers for ambitious projects like the Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House and then takes a swipe at Hunt.
"I know it is in the interests of some politically to [give up on the toll road]; I understand that," he says. "I don't think that's in the interests of Dallas long term."
Allen, a member of the Leppert majority, later says in an interview that there's no secret to Leppert's success in getting the council on board with his agenda. "The guy's pure. He's the real deal."
Hunt, on the other hand, believes that Leppert derives much of his council support from his business community support. "Some council members have a symbiotic relationship with the mayor: He provides them entrée into a kind of a wealthy, Citizens Council-esque group of patrons and campaign supporters while they may open doors for him in the southern sector."
Former council member Blumer thinks that council members who "go along to get along" by pushing the agenda of the Citizens Council can end up getting cushy jobs after their days working for the city. "Generally, most people involved in Dallas politics don't want to get crosswise with the establishment if they have any desire for future advancement either in politics or in business," she says.
When asked to explain just what the Citizens Council's agenda is, Donna Halstead offers few specifics, talking generally about how it seeks to address problems in the community and improve the quality of life for the citizens.
And does Leppert, in fact, carry out its agenda?
"Mayor Leppert has been willing to tackle really incredibly complex, difficult issues," she says. "There's no question that from the day the Trinity project was passed in 1998, it has represented the most complicated, multi-jurisdictional public works project certainly in our history, and probably in the history of the country."
Beyond securing a narrow victory in the toll road campaign, the mayor can list a long string of accomplishments for his short tenure in office.
Under his watch, the overall crime rate last year dropped more than 10 percent, and violent crime fell 19 percent as the city council funded 200 more police officers; in the first quarter of this year, the crime rate was down 18.7 percent, with a nearly 20 percent decline in violent crime.