By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Despite full endorsements from city staff and its consultant, Unison Consulting, Leppert has campaigned to shoot down the contracts at the upcoming June 23 council meeting and initiate the bidding process. Suddenly, what seemed like a sweet and straightforward deal has split the council 7-7 along its usual fault lines over questions of race, of profit and of who's greasing whom in the backroom. Rarely in his tenure as mayor has Leppert had to fight this hard to secure a council majority, and ironically, the swing vote appears to belong to Angela Hunt, the frequent lone wolf on the council opposite Leppert. Just back from maternity leave, during which she missed much of the action, Hunt is suddenly like the unpopular kid whose parents just installed the only swimming pool in the neighborhood.
"Even when I was dating Paul, I was never courted like this," Hunt says, referring to her husband.
The mayor has focused his message on transparency and obtaining the best deal for the city, but lost in the sound bites on this topic is Love Field's status as a city-owned, self-sustaining, federally obligated entity, which means any revenue it generates must be spent for the capital or operating costs at the airport. Despite the city's $130 million budget shortfall, not one dime in revenue from Love Field can be spent on paying a police officer's salary, fixing a pothole or keeping a rec center open.
"I think it's in the back of most people's minds that the airport is profitable," says Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway. "It's making money, and I think that some folks may look at it and say, 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?'"
Star's and Hudson's contracts cover roughly 54 percent of the total square footage allotted for concessions at the new terminal, with the remaining 46 percent scheduled to go out for bids later this year. The details of the bidding process are unknown at this point. The city can customize the request for proposals as it sees fit, giving certain weight to experience, rent terms, proposed capital investments or other points.
Leppert has been criticized by his opponents for his sudden stand as a staunch opponent of no-bid contracts. Aranza and some minority council members point to his November 2007 vote as a member of the D/FW Airport board in favor of three contracts awarded to Pappadeux (seafood) and Pappasito's (Tex-Mex) that weren't put out for bids. The total square footage of those deals amounts to more than 65 percent of the space that Aranza would be awarded at Love Field.
Aranza claims Leppert is targeting the contracts at Love Field to appear as a champion for open government and polish his résumé for a run for U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat in the 2012 GOP primary. He also claims Leppert's seeking payback after Aranza lobbied council members to appoint Forrest Smith to the D/FW board in 2008. Smith, who's white but is known as a minority advocate, replaced former board member Jan Collmer in a contentious 9-6 vote, with Leppert finding himself on the losing side for one of the rare times in his administration. Aranza, who also operates several concessions with a total of 370 employees at D/FW, spoke in favor of Smith at the March 5 council meeting.
While Leppert's interest in the Senate is well documented and he says he'll make a decision about running for a second term as mayor by the end of the year, he stresses that he's been consistent since taking office as mayor. And he laughs off the allegations about Smith's appointment, calling them "ridiculous."
Some minority council members and Aranza also question the role of Willis Johnson, the mayor's top minority consultant. Johnson is registered as a lobbyist for Concessions International, an Atlanta-based food and beverage concessions company. The lobbyist registration form Johnson filed with the city states that he's lobbying for concessions at D/FW, and both he and a representative at Concessions International claimed on the Dallas Observer's blog Unfair Park that the company has no interest in the concessions at Love Field, which will double in square footage as a result of the new terminal. However, Concessions International was an 80 percent partner in a joint venture that was among the three bidders that lost to Aranza for the 1996 contract at Love Field.
Leppert maintains that he was unaware of Willis Johnson's connection to the concession company until it came to light in the media and says his relationship with Johnson is no different than Aranza's close associations with council members. Johnson did not respond to interview requests.
Back at the airport, Aranza strolls past the ticket check-in areas for the facility's lesser-known air carriers—Continental and Delta airlines—and heads outside. Two excavators are demolishing a cargo building while a McDonald's employee passes by with a metal cart containing soft drinks.
"The mayor is wrong when he says there's not going to be any change in what's going on in my operations," Aranza says, referring to Leppert's attempts to minimize the financial impact of construction.
Aranza points several hundred yards down the road where his commissary has been relocated. Supplies are no longer easily transferred from the second floor of the lobby—just one of the many inconveniences that affect Aranza's bottom line.