Feeling sorry that the politically gifted Don Hill got convicted of corruption. Please don’t.

Two more things about the Dallas City Hall corruption trial. Then I'm done. I almost promise.

I'm having trouble with something. Many people I talk to who know Don Hill, our former mayor pro tem recently convicted on seven of nine corruption counts in federal court, feel sorry for him. I do understand why. And I do not despise him or think he's a no-good son of a bitch. I just have trouble with the feeling sorry part. Let me explain.

The people I talk to tend to think he's guilty and got what he deserved—he's facing 95 years when Federal District Judge Barbara Lynn sentences him, probably early next year—but they feel terrible for him.

It’s possible to understand Don Hill’s fall from grace without feeling sorry for him.
Danny Fulgencio
It’s possible to understand Don Hill’s fall from grace without feeling sorry for him.

Let me give you an example. I talked to a guy who had to go into City Hall to do business with Hill toward the end of Hill's 10-year tenure on the Dallas City Council. This person wouldn't talk to me for attribution because he still has to represent a major local organization before the council on a variety of issues.

He didn't tell me exactly what he was talking about to Hill, but I got the sense that his issue, like most of what goes on at City Hall, had a real estate element. He told me that he found Hill "very impressive and very bright" in terms of his ability to grasp complex political issues involving lots of players and factors.

I have the same impression of Hill. He is capable of being really good at political leadership, which is its own quite specialized métier, its own art or craft or both. People who haven't taken part in politics or watched it up close for a period of time sometimes don't appreciate how special are the skills it demands.

What Hill had—still has, I guess, if he ever gets a chance to practice it outside a federal penitentiary—is the ability to see and understand lots of competing and disparate interests as they converge on a single point of contention. And he can treat everybody with respect.

Not everybody has that. In fact, not that many people have it. Most people see life as the good guys (that's us) versus the bad guys (that's them), and they don't understand why the bad guys don't just go die.

In the trial, Hill came across on FBI surveillance tapes as sharing the basic pathology that brought down the other four defendants in the dock with him (of 14 charged, six have pleaded guilty and three await separate trials). Like the rest of them, Hill thought it was OK to thwart the public interest as long as somebody he liked made some money out of it. As such, when he does get sent to the pen he will be joining many people of similar bent.

The basic principle, difficult for many to grasp, alas, is what I call, "My TV set, your TV set." You have to know the difference. The people's property and prerogatives belong to the people. You can't just gob onto them. It's like somebody else's TV set. That belongs to somebody else. You can't have it. If you're supposed to spend the tax money on housing for the poor, you can't spend it on yourself instead. This is a very difficult and complicated concept, I know, and I'm sorry I brought it up, and I almost promise never to do so again.

Don Hill didn't get it. That's why a federal jury found him guilty, along with four confederates including his wife. But that doesn't mean he couldn't have figured it out. He is smart. He is talented. A good life and career have been wasted here.

The other thing I hear about Hill from people who have been through the City Hall wringer is this: It's a lot about the money. Dallas pays its council members $37,500 a year in salary for a job that can easily eat up 100 hours a week. This means that serious middle-class people with families cannot really afford to serve.

You wind up with three kinds of people on the council: rich people who don't have to earn a living, poor people, and poor schlubs in the middle, trying to make a go of it on $37,500. It's those middle grounders who get into trouble.

In my three decades of watching City Hall, I know every step in the dance. First there's a sort of sniffing-out period. People who want something out of a council member slide up close to him and see if he's interested in a quick lunch. Maybe a longer lunch next time. Maybe an invitation to the ball.

Some people have street smarts about this. It's kind of like your first day in prison. Don't accept a carton of cigarettes from a large, one-eared man whose tattoos look like they were put on with a dinner fork. It's not a gift.

But some people don't have street smarts. I can tell how far along they are in the process by how much their suits have changed after six months on the council. Even if they're still buying their own suits, it's always a bad sign when they start trying to look like bankers.

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