By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Leppert led the council to approve a $519 million modernization of Love Field Airport, an expanded ordinance banning smoking in bars and pool halls and an ordinance permitting vehicles of uninsured drivers to be towed and impounded.
The mayor has donated his $60,000 salary to a DISD scholarship fund and a program designed to improve high school graduation rates. He's also implemented several programs including Ready to Read and the Mayor's Intern Fellows Program, which gives high-school students experience in the corporate world.
But Leppert's humanitarian efforts took a seemingly Machiavellian turn in February when The Dallas Morning News reported that Leppert had contacted State Senator Royce West in the hopes of exploring legislation that would enable him to oversee the beleaguered school district. Leppert refused to comment other than by issuing a benign statement through his chief of staff, saying, "Our children's education is too important to leave any ideas off of the table."
Even Halstead, a former schoolteacher, disagrees with Leppert on this issue. "I think the citizens of Dallas would have been unhappy if their mayor had been concentrating not only on running a city but running a school system when they had elected him to be their mayor," she says.
Whether the story was purposefully leaked to gauge public reaction or an unintentional slip by West, the power grab made Leppert look unprepared and unprofessional. But the hits against his reputation were just getting started as he maneuvered to build the convention center hotel.
"This guy's got chutzpah. He doesn't give a darn about the citizens of Dallas," Rasansky told the Observer's blog, Unfair Park, on October 22, after the council approved spending $4 million on hotel construction in what seemed like an attempt to render the referendum irrelevant. "It's damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
Several Dallas mayors have placed the convention center hotel on their political agenda, but none has approached the issue with the fervor of Tom Leppert. In his June 25 inauguration speech, Leppert mentioned building a convention center hotel as a "key to our economic and competitive success tomorrow."
Leppert has proved he's willing to do whatever it takes to make this hotel a reality. In February 2008, he convinced the council to place an option on the $42 million purchase of a parking lot in front of the convention center as the site for the hotel, the sale of which was finalized by a council vote last May. Originally, he represented that he wanted to minimize taxpayer involvement in the hotel, but that morphed over time, and he began to sell the project as a publicly funded hotel. His reasoning: The city can get a better deal on the mortgage. In June, Matthews Southwest was chosen as the hotel developer, which was selected, according to city staff, in part because of the team the developer had put together included a wide array of local and minority businesses.
The anti-hotel petition drive, which garnered nearly 60,000 signatures when submitted October 9, just seemed to make Leppert more determined to fast-track the project. Besides the council approving $8 million in hotel pre-development costs and signing off on operator and developer agreements, the mayor pushed to secure funding for the project, which would have led to a bond issuance before the vote and made the outcome of the May 9 vote immaterial. But he was stopped by the poor economic climate, which depressed the bond market and couldn't provide the 5.5 percent interest rate the city sought for the revenue bonds, the vehicle chosen to finance the hotel.
"He's like a wild-eyed automaton the way he addresses things," Donna Blumer says. "I think, what in the world could make you so adamant about this—a man who hasn't even lived in the city very long—why would he be so hell-bent on getting this built?"
Small wonder he would become the target of those who wanted to undo the hotel. During an April 7 debate between Leppert and Raymond, moderated by KXAS-Channel 5 news anchor Brendan Higgins at the Westin Galleria hotel, Higgins addressed what he called "the elephant in the room" by asking both sides about the negative TV ads the anti-hotel group had directed at the mayor.
The first ad labeled him "arrogant" for trying to get funding in place before the voters could have their say; a second noted how the mayor was "rushing to build a taxpayer-owned hotel"; and a third, quoting from the Morning News editorial that said he hadn't leveled with voters during the toll road campaign, posed the question: "Can we trust Mayor Tom Leppert to tell the truth about his taxpayer-owned hotel?"
During the Galleria debate, Raymond told Higgins that before the campaign kicked off, Crow had phoned Leppert and asked him not to make it personal, but at the pro-hotel group's initial press conference at City Hall, Crow was referred to as "a Park Cities billionaire."
"We continue to stick with the issues," she defended. "Our commercials really aren't about Mayor Leppert. He's a great guy, and he's doing wonderful things for our city."
The mayor could have seized the opportunity to hit back hard: How could they bash him for attempting to deny citizens the right to vote on the hotel when prior to the toll road referendum, Crow himself had spent $20,000 to hire "blockers" to stop citizens from signing the petition that would allow them to vote on the toll road?