It's another in a long line of sales pitches for Mayor Tom Leppert as he hawks his vision for a convention center hotel. Tonight the promoter-in-chief is going mano a mano against those who support a referendum for a city charter amendment that would put the kibosh on his proposed half-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded venture. It's only a debate, a forum for civil discourse, but for both sides it's become damn personal. At stake is not only the future of the hotel but the political fortunes of the mayor who, nearing the midpoint of his term, has acquired a Teflon-like invincibility and seemed untouchable—at least until recently.

Marshaled against him this brisk March evening is Anne Raymond, the head of the hastily formed Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel. But there's no denying reality; she is merely the capable mouthpiece for the vested interests of the anti-hotel crowd. The real money behind their movement flows from Harlan Crow, her boss at Crow Holdings and the owner of the Hilton Anatole hotel, which stands to lose profits aplenty if a city-financed hotel opens its lavish doors downtown.

Leppert is not only a savvy dresser—baby blue French cuff shirt, multicolored tie and gold watch—but also a savvy speaker. He lashes out against Crow without naming him, as if he's just some faceless corporate profiteer who wants to deny the city its economic potential rather than the familiar son of one of its beloved real estate titans—Trammell Crow—for whom Leppert himself once worked.

Scenes from the battle: In his many public pitches for the convention center hotel, Mayor Leppert has argued that a vote against the hotel would be a vote against the future of Dallas.
Sam Merten
Scenes from the battle: In his many public pitches for the convention center hotel, Mayor Leppert has argued that a vote against the hotel would be a vote against the future of Dallas.
Sam Merten
Sam Merten
Mari Woodlief, left, president of AllynPartners, and Carol Reed have teamed up as consultants for Leppert on his mayoral, toll road and hotel campaigns.
Mark Graham
Mari Woodlief, left, president of AllynPartners, and Carol Reed have teamed up as consultants for Leppert on his mayoral, toll road and hotel campaigns.
“He was essentially
an administrative man, high quality, who did
no harm nor made
any difference,
except that he always
looked good.”
Mark Graham
“He was essentially an administrative man, high quality, who did no harm nor made any difference, except that he always looked good.”
A loss to Leppert in the ’07 Trinity River toll road vote didn’t deter city council member
Angela Hunt from opposing the mayor’s plans to build a $500 million publicly funded hotel.
Mark Graham
A loss to Leppert in the ’07 Trinity River toll road vote didn’t deter city council member Angela Hunt from opposing the mayor’s plans to build a $500 million publicly funded hotel.
Dallas Citizens Council
President Donna Halstead says Leppert helps carry out her organization’s agenda by
tackling complex issues like the
Trinity River Corridor Project.
Mark Graham
Dallas Citizens Council President Donna Halstead says Leppert helps carry out her organization’s agenda by tackling complex issues like the Trinity River Corridor Project.

Details

Web Extra: This multimedia timeline looks back on the milestones, for the mayor and the hotel debate, leading up to the May 9 vote.

The mayor mentions this "individual" several times throughout the evening, wagging his index finger each time. This person has poured millions into the campaign, he says, and his family has been fighting the hotel for 25 years to protect its financial interest.

"You have one person that is the opposition," Leppert says. "Anne works for that individual."

Raymond counters by saying she is more than Crow Holdings, touting her 25 years in the hotel investment business and her selection by two mayors—Leppert and Laura Miller—as a member of the convention center hotel task force. "As I've watched this unfold—watching the government try to compete in the private hotel business—they've made horrendous errors already," she says.

Two of the city's bigger gaffes, Raymond says, include buying the hotel's site for $42 million when it was on the tax rolls for approximately $7 million and striking a hotel management contract with Omni Hotels that's "totally favorable" to Omni. As Leppert watches, legs crossed, Raymond argues that the reason the private sector hasn't built the hotel is because it's destined to lose money. "But the city wants to get it done, and the taxpayers are left with losing money."

Leppert explains to these West Dallas residents why there are sound business reasons to support the hotel: Dallas has slipped out of the Top Five convention cities, and it needs a hotel adjacent to its billion-dollar convention center to get back in the game. And a hotel would stem the money hemmorhaging from the convention center—$3 million a year.

"That comes right out of your wallets, my friends, because that comes out of the general fund," says Leppert while holding up his black leather wallet—effectively providing the audience with a visual cue they can understand. "And that number's not going to go down. Keep in mind, that's your tax money...It's not unreasonable to believe over the next 30 years, it's going to be more than $150 million in taxpayers' money if we don't do something."

Leppert's on a roll, pacing back and forth, his steely blue eyes engaging the audience, his long arms waving to make his point: a hotel won't just save the convention center, it will increase tax receipts, prevent city services from being cut, create 3,000 temporary jobs and 800 permanent jobs. Kill the hotel, and Leppert makes it sound as if Dallas is doomed. "This is not about a building," he says. "This is about our economy and looking to the future."

At least one audience member isn't buying it; he calls the hotel a "boondoggle" and says, "Let us vote," referring to Leppert's attempt to nullify the referendum by funding the project before voters have their say.

The mayor offers no response.

Silence has been Leppert's tactic when confronted with difficult issues: He refused to speak with the Dallas Observer in April 2008 for a story about the hotel, claiming he wasn't ready to discuss the issue "until things have firmed up and we know which direction the city is heading." Again, the Observer requested comment for this story, but his chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, said, "Right now the mayor is focused on the two charter amendments, as well as issues in the Legislature and Congress."

Leppert also refused interview requests from The Dallas Morning News regarding his plans to take control of the Dallas Independent School District.

While he might not have much to say to the press, he's running a tireless public campaign to ensure the convention center hotel is approved, which will take a no vote on Proposition 1. Additionally, he's encouraging voters to also say no to Proposition 2, which would allow the public to vote on economic incentives of more than $1 million that the city gives to private developers, if 500 citizens sign a petition.

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."

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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."

In 1986, Leppert moved to Dallas to become a national partner for Trammell Crow Company, then the largest apartment developer in the country. Trammell Crow died earlier this year.

"I have nothing but good things to say about him," writes Harlan Crow in an e-mail to the Observer about Leppert's three years working for his father. "He was essentially an administrative man, high quality, who did no harm nor made any difference, except that he always looked good."

In 1989, Leppert seized a job opportunity in Hawaii, at 34 becoming president and CEO of Castle & Cooke, a real estate development company. In Hawaii, he changed jobs twice, securing high-level positions in the financial sector before landing a job with Turner Construction. Representatives of Turner, which has moved its corporate headquarters back to New York, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Returning to the area, Leppert resided in the Park Cities. He now lives in a Dallas mansion valued on the tax rolls at more than $5 million in the upscale Preston Hollow neighborhood.

When his opportunity came to weigh in on the divisive May 2005 strong mayor referendum, he didn't even vote. Just two years later, he'd cast his first vote in a Dallas mayoral election—for himself.

So how do you raise name ID for someone who's only known to the business community?

"You buy it," Reed says.

By the end of December 2006, Leppert raised $500,000 for the general election compared to $75,000 for former council member Ed Oakley. TV ads began airing in January, and billboards went up quickly in southern Dallas.

Oakley says he knew Leppert would be a serious contender when he received early support from the leadership of the Citizens Council, but as he points out, Oakley also received a fair share of donations from members, including Harlan Crow. "We kind of split that baby right down the middle."

Ron Steinhart, a member and former chair of the Citizens Council, says he considered Leppert "a long shot" to win because of his lack of political experience, which is why he donated money to four candidates including Oakley and Leppert. "I was amazed at how quickly people coalesced around Tom and how much money he raised," Steinhart says.

Leppert finished first in the election, but lacking a significant majority at 27 percent, had to face the second-place Oakley in a runoff. Leppert would raise more than $2.3 million for his mayoral bid and padded his war chest with another $950,000 from his own bank account to dwarf the nearly $1.8 million brought in by Oakley. "He had his own personal wealth that I didn't have, which in the long run made a difference," Oakley says.

Oakley also attributes his 58-42 percent drubbing in the runoff to The Dallas Morning News making front-page news of his homosexuality and him going negative in a TV ad that focused on Leppert's facial tic. The ad also criticized Leppert's time at Turner, claiming the company had used toxic dirt to build an elementary school and was fined for illegal dumping.

"One of the things that I should have never let my consultants do was take me down the path of running negative ads," he says. "And there's not a day that goes by that I don't regret it."

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Only three months into his term Leppert became City Hall's new talking head for the Trinity River toll road, a gig that would cause his credibility to be called into question.

Backed by the political and business establishment, the mayor began a crusade to keep a high-speed road inside the city's levee system. In 1998 Dallas voters narrowly had approved a bond program that included the road, named the Trinity Parkway, as part of the $246 million Trinity River Corridor Project, which also features flood-control improvements and an ambitious park development.

The road's cost in 1998 was projected at $394 million, but ballooned by 2007 to $1.3 billion. Troubled by the escalating cost and decision to move the road deeper into the park, freshman council member Angela Hunt led an effort to encourage citizens to vote "for" a city ordinance that would halt plans for a high-speed, six-lane toll road built on concrete piers. The proposed ordinance would restrict the speed and size of any road built inside the levees, along with ensuring that the road provided direct access to the park.

Halstead, whose Citizens Council donated $297,000 in support of keeping a high-speed road inside the city's flood-control system, says her organization backed the road because it would alleviate traffic congestion near downtown. She neglects to mention that the road is expected to boost land values surrounding the Trinity River, which will benefit the bank accounts of Citizens Council landowners in that area, including former member Harlan Crow.

On September 25, 2007, Leppert sat down in the auditorium of Rosemont Primary School in Oak Cliff for his first major Trinity River debate. He would match wits with the woman who had become the bane of his existence: Hunt, who was flanked by former council member Sandy Greyson.

Much like he's tried to convince voters that the hotel vote isn't about a hotel, he maintained that the Trinity vote wasn't about a road or a park. Rather, he framed the issue as if the vote represented some higher good: "It's about a commitment to go forward to build what we need to have the greatest city in America."

Leppert urged the crowd of more than 300 to say "no" to wasting a billion dollars that would go to construction costs for the road. And where was this billion coming from? "It's coming from the North Texas Tollway [Authority]," he said.

So there was nothing to worry about, Leppert assured them; the funding for the $1.3 billion road project was already in place. With $1 billion from the NTTA, approximately $200 million in state and local funding and the city's $84 million contribution approved by voters in 1998, taxpayers won't be on the hook for any more money.

The mayor claimed there were no alternatives for the toll road if the inside-the-levees option wasn't approved. "It's a black hole where we dump a billion dollars," he said.

But according to an October 2007 article on Dallas Blog, the only commitment made by the NTTA was a $140 to $150 million estimate contained in its 1999 agreement with the city. In response to the online publication's questions regarding the NTTA's ability to finance the toll road, the authority issued this response. "No decision on the funding of the Trinity Parkway has been made."

Because a high-speed toll road would have piers that would penetrate the levees, the anti-road group claimed it would compromise the integrity of those levees. In the debate, Greyson asked Leppert why the city had requested waivers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, citing a February 2007 council committee briefing by city staff where they claimed the NTTA hoped to get a waiver or exception from the corps. The corps shares responsibility with the city for its floodway and levees.

Leppert denied that requests for waivers from the corps were made, stressing that the city had done nothing to weaken the levees. "The corps has signed off on the safety issues," he said. "They've signed off on the environmental issues. They feel very comfortable with it. They're the experts. Don't take our word for it."

But the corps hadn't "signed off" on anything. Gene Rice, the corps' project manager for the Trinity Corridor, told KERA shortly before the vote that the corps hadn't approved the road because there was no final design.

"We've made no determination at this time on whether the project will be acceptable or not," Rice said. "We are still working with the transportation interests to try to make sure it could go in safely, if it goes in."

Numerous briefings to the council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee support Rice's statements, disclosing that the corps will issue its approval or disapproval of the road only after the completion of its final design, which began in early 2009 and is scheduled for completion in the second quarter of 2010.

Hunt now says that she didn't attack Leppert's statements during the debate because they were phrased as though his knowledge came from personal conversations he had with the NTTA and the corps. "When you have a mayor saying that—a mayor that comes across as trustworthy, sincere and believable—of course you're going to believe them and trust them," she says. "But when the facts were revealed, there was no doubt he was lying. He made it up to win."

Mari Woodlief, president of AllynPartners, which teamed up with Reed as consultants on Leppert's mayoral campaign, the toll road campaign and now the hotel campaign, sent out a mailer that said, "Don't let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river..."

Asked if the mailer was misleading because the NTTA hadn't actually committed to any funding, she maintains that everything her company said in the campaign was "100 percent correct" and says the mailer never "spelled out" where the money was coming from. Regarding Leppert's statements, Woodlief says, "I don't think the mayor was ever untruthful about anything."

Whether voters felt deceived or not, they defeated the anti-toll road campaign by a margin of 53-47 on November 6, 2007. But what has been hailed as a great political victory for the mayor has in recent months come under fire, after the corps released its study about the structural integrity of the Trinity River levees, which it found unacceptable.

The most damaging blow came from the Morning News when it published a March 25 editorial titled "Leppert didn't level with voters in Trinity campaign" and said he "glossed over" key issues that could drive up the cost of the road or force the city to find a new location for it.

"The degree of certainty he projected during the 2007 campaign is troubling, given the very uncertain prospects the corps outlined behind closed doors," the editorial board wrote. "By obscuring important issues, the mayor just punted potential problems down the road. And he undermined the public trust."

Carol Reed claims the editorial was factually wrong, and Leppert didn't mislead voters. "And I don't think that he has said anything that he was not told."

But clearly the damage was done. The Morning News, which was so enamored of the mayor that it would assign a reporter to follow him to China in his attempt to promote economic ties, began to question his integrity, overshadowing the solid success he had achieved with so much of his political agenda.

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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.

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!"

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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?

But the mayor didn't point out the hypocrisy, or argue that in each instance Crow was motivated by self-interest. Instead he struck a softer tone: "Dallas deserves a lot more than playing grainy pictures on television and playing those attack ads."

Fearing that the $2.7 million that Crow has spent might sway the election in his favor, the mayor's political and business allies have stepped up their efforts in the last few weeks to show their support for him.

At a recent pro-hotel press conference outside City Hall, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price directed his attacks at Crow, making the bizarre connection between Crow and the Jim Crow laws, which enforced state-sponsored segregation of blacks until struck down by the courts and civil rights legislation.

"A lot of us are brought up in the South under what we call Jim Crow," Price said as Leppert stood behind him. "I'm basically saying that we need to vote no to Jim Crow."

Six days before early voting began, Ed Oakley joined a group of business people at the Stoneleigh Hotel who called themselves "Enough is Enough" to voice their support for the mayor. Rather than argue the merits of the hotel, they claimed to be motivated by the negative tone of the anti-hotel crowd's rhetoric.

Although Oakley himself used negative ads in his runoff against Leppert, Oakley says the offensive TV ads caused him to lend his name to the pro-hotel campaign. "I believe in the hotel," he said in an interview. "I don't know the numbers. I can't tell you that the deal is the right deal, but I know that we need a convention center hotel, and I have to trust the people that were elected."

While the anti-hotel crowd has made the trust issue a focal point of its campaign, the mayor hasn't helped himself on the stump. He has claimed that without the hotel, the convention center could lose $150 million in taxpayer money over the next 30 years, but a city-commissioned study, conducted in January by HVS Convention & Entertainment Facilities Consulting, indicates otherwise.

The study projects the convention center's net income for the next 10 fiscal years using two scenarios: with and without an attached hotel. In each scenario, the income for the first three years remains identical because the hotel will be under construction. Over the next seven years, the center's total net income is projected to be more than $6 million higher without a hotel.

While the hotel is expected to attract more attendees and more revenue, the result is higher operating expenses. Also, visitors who might otherwise stay in other local hotels may instead choose to stay in the city-owned hotel. This means a portion of the hotel occupancy tax they pay when renting their rooms will go to pay the bonds on the hotel instead of the bonds on the convention center, resulting in lower revenue for the center.

Despite the hotel campaign and the hits the mayor has taken to his credibility, his supporters remain unflappable in their high regard for him. "Whether you agree or disagree with him, you just never see a sinister plot behind what he's up to," Reed says. "He's doing it because he really thinks it's the right thing to do."

Whether the hotel is a "vanity project" as Hunt calls it, a "résumé building tool" as Rasansky has referred to it, or simply his vision of what's best for the city, the May 9 vote seems fated to be a watershed in his political career. Donna Blumer believes that if he doesn't deliver on the hotel and resuscitate the Trinity River project, the powerful business interests who put him in office will turn on him.

"I think that accounts for his unreasonable stands on the Trinity and on this hotel—for him to be so rabidly in favor of both projects, which have really serious flaws," Blumer says. "If he can't ram those through, I think the people who put him in office are going to say, 'OK, Tom. We need to move on.'"

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