By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Sure. Turnout for the Democratic runoff election for county judge on April 13 will be tiny. Few people will vote, but the outcome will be huge. The real issue is the character of the community.
You know who the real candidates are, right? Let me paint it for you as if we were looking at an old-fashioned political cartoon.
Picture one candidate as a guy in a pinstriped suit with slicked-back hair smoking a fat Cuban cigar. A bunch of old walruses are crowded in behind him stuffing greenbacks into his pockets and down his collar. He grins and says, "That tickles."
Then picture the other candidate—a smart, clean John Q. Citizen—looking straight out at you. Pointing at the rest of them with his thumb, he says, "That stinks."
That's this election.
It's the smoke-filled room, the insider guys, the new oligarchy, whatever you want to call it, versus open and above-board dealing and a fair shake for all. In the one corner it's Clay Jenkins—a Manchurian Mr. Nobody chosen by the very same guys who attempted to screw up the Inland Port deal trying to dish contracts to their buddies. In the other corner it's Larry Duncan, who has one of the longest, best track records in this town for getting things done and for real and fair minority participation.
Duncan is the level playing field. Jenkins is the trap door.
Does that mean I think Clay Jenkins is a crook? I don't know him, and I don't believe it's against the law to run with the inside money.
A big part of the problem with Jenkins, however, is that he won't talk. Jenkins refused to talk to our Sam Merten when Merten uncovered seemingly incontrovertible evidence that Jenkins had voted in Ellis County while claiming to live in Dallas County.
I couldn't get a sit-down with him either for this column. His campaign manager insisted I submit questions in advance and promised an interview if I acceded. Seasoned people don't ask for questions in advance, because it makes them look like they're afraid. But I sent some questions. Jenkins waited several days, e-mailed me some absurdly non-responsive answers ("I am committed to rebuilding infrastructure and spurring economic development throughout Dallas County...") and then told me, "Your request for further interview on these subjects is declined."
This guy has not one inch of local Dallas track record on which a sane voter could judge him. He refuses to step out on the track and run a few wind-sprints. Tell me why we're supposed to bet on him?
But a lot of people are. Jenkins was first brought to the table through the early endorsements of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and state Senator Royce West. His campaign treasurer is the president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, whose members have been sluicing money into his campaign like it was water.
In the most recent campaign reporting period alone, one law firm, Brian Loncar P.C., matched almost all of the money Duncan has raised in the entire election. In a period of weeks, Loncar wrote checks for Jenkins in amounts of $10,000, then $15,000, then $6,000.
Jenkins, an unknown whose contributors have blessed him with half a million dollars, got $10,000 from the firm of his treasurer, Tex Quesada (president of the Texas trial lawyers), another 10 grand from King of Torts Frank Branson, five grand from Waters & Kraus, five from Baron and Budd, and smaller donations from a lot more. (Hint: the $1,000 donors are the pikers on Jenkins' list.)
I like trial lawyers. If I ever have to go to trial, that's the kind I want. But the Dallas County Democratic Party—made up mainly of judges trying to keep their jobs—is looking at Jenkins like he's an ATM. He's a direct pipeline to the ultra-deep pockets of the trial lawyers, who are capable of spewing money for all of them in this election and elections to come.
Here's a scary tidbit from Jenkins' reports: He even took five grand from Bob Perry, the Houston homebuilder and World's Biggest Douchebag, who won't pay those people from Mansfield who keep beating him in court over the bad house he sold them.
Bob Perry is the guy who helped fund the swift boating of John Kerry in 2004. That same year he gave a million bucks to Rick Perry, who promptly set up a new state agency to protect homebuilders from lawsuits. He's one of the biggest funders of ultra-conservative Republican causes in America.
What kind of Democrat gets money from Bob Perry? A Democrat who plays ball with the boys. Nuthin' but ball.
Duncan has been around as long as I have. Long. I have written favorable articles about Duncan in the past and tough ones too. He didn't ask for questions in advance for this interview. He sat down without preconditions. He's a big boy, tough skin, strong sense of message. And the message is all about the old oligarchy and the new good old boys.
"We fought long and hard to get out from under the old oligarchy," he said. "That was what single-member districts were all about. It wasn't to exchange one oligarchy for another. That's the same old thing."
Duncan was first elected to the Dallas City Council in 1991, after the federal courts imposed the first all single-member-district council system on the city. His district had been engineered to be a safe black seat. Duncan, who is white, won that election and continued to win re-election until 1999 when he was forced out by term limits.
In 2003, Duncan was elected to the board of trustees of Dallas County Schools, an agency that operates 1,700 buses for local school districts in the county, placing it in the top five student transportation agencies in the nation.
When Duncan hit the board, he found an agency that was comfortable in its obscurity and rife with good-old-boy conflicts of interest. After spearheading a reform, he was elected board president two years later, a position he still occupies.
"I am, in effect, coordinating services with 14 independently elected governments," he told me. "You don't read about it in the paper because it's not blood, sex or scandal. You don't hear shouting and screaming and pounding. We're just getting stuff done."
It's a skill set that Dallas County badly needs in its new highest elected official. "The county is in a similar strategic position vis a vis the cities and other governments," Duncan said. "I have shown the leadership to get along with independently elected folks and get stuff done."
In Duncan's second city council race in 1993, he ran against Realtor Fred Blair, a strong candidate with high name identification in southern Dallas. But Duncan was supported by Commissioner Price, who took a personal political risk by supporting a white candidate against a prominent black competitor.
Back then, Price was still a young, idealistic leader who had bloodied his own knuckles on the good old boy oligarchy in this town. He told black audiences Duncan was a brother.
That was then. This is now. What happened?
Price joined the good old boys.
The best but not the only evidence is the Inland Port deal. Price helped sabotage a developer who was bringing huge opportunity to southern Dallas. The sabotage worked out very well for the Ross Perot clan, who own a competing facility in Fort Worth and who have strong ties to Price and Democratic political consultant Kathy Nealy, who delivered the black vote for Perot in the American Airlines Center bond election in 1998.
Price wanted the principal developer, The Allen Group, a private, family-owned company, to surrender an ownership slice of the company to a group of Price associates calling itself "The Salt Group." One Price associate who was supposed to be given a slice of the action was Senator Royce West, according to Allen group CEO Richard Allen.
Allen told me he was informed by Willis Johnson, Mayor Tom Leppert's southern Dallas political consultant, that West was to be an unnamed principal in the company to which Allen was to surrender shares in his own firm.
Allen said in an interview that he immediately informed Johnson and others in the group that putting a sitting state senator with key voting power over issues critical to his project on his payroll would create a conflict of interest. He told me Johnson assured him it was all right, saying, "'It's already been cleared with the ethics commission in Austin.'
"I said, 'Well, I don't care if it's been cleared or not. It makes absolutely no sense. He needs to be able to represent his constituents.'"
West has consistently denied any knowledge of these conversations, pointing out to me that his name does not appear on any paper associated with these transactions.
I can't help noticing, however, that Price and West went shopping for a new county judge the minute the sitting Democratic county judge, Jim Foster, sided with the Inland Port project's developer against West and Price.
What does that tell you about the leadership of the Dallas County Democratic Party? They ride in on horseback to chop Foster off at the neck, even though he's their own incumbent. His sin is honesty. He may have gotten off on the wrong foot, but he was headed in the right direction—clean government, equal opportunity and the biggest economic opportunity southern Dallas has ever seen.
They bring in this hey-boy from Waxahachie. He is—surprise, surprise—a trial lawyer. The Web site for his Waxahachie and Dallas law firm brags of winning $9,513,437.88 for "a subcontractor as a result of an incident at a concrete plant." That's great news for the subcontractor. But the Dallas County Democrats present a less appetizing picture, rubbing their mitts in glee, drooling over getting their own "equity" in all that nice trial lawyer money. And they want you to turn your back on Duncan, who has a 30-year record of honest dealing and getting things done for regular people.
That's why this election is so huge. Everybody says Dallas County has gone Democrat. I have a question. What kind of Democrat?