By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Last week, November 5, election day, there was one election you missed for sure if you do not happen to live in the part of Dallas affected by it. Come to think of it, you probably missed it even if you do live there. Voter turnout in that area was somewhere south of 6 percent.
And it was a rout anyway. In a special election to fill an empty seat on the school board, Miguel Solis trounced his opponent, Kristi Lara, by a margin of 2 to 1. Not exactly a cliffhanger.
But it was a huge and dramatic election — a scene right out of the movies. Let me tell you why.
For decades, maybe half a century, this city, like most American cities, has been mired in political catatonia concerning the public school system. Wave after wave of would-be reformers, most of them sincere, some of them charlatans, have rushed the walls of this mighty gray fortress only to be repelled by the boiling oil and cannonballs of the politically organized teachers unions and a minority leadership that was quick to cry racism.
So two big things came out of the District 8 school board race last week. Now we know when we talk about minority leadership, we need to say which. Most of the black leadership in the old segregation neighborhoods, still bitterly opposed to anything that might erode their influence on school hiring and firing, leaned toward Lara, whom they perceived as friendly to their cause. But Solis won his race with solid support from the League of United Latin American Citizens and other Hispanic leadership in a school district where 68.7 percent of the citywide student body is Hispanic.
The other big thing is this, and I do not say it to belittle anybody or hurt people's feelings personally: The vaunted political machinery of the teachers unions must need some oil. A lot of oil.
Their support for Lara brought her precious little in terms of votes and even less in money. Take away a couple of pissed-off rich supporters with axes to grind, and Lara was high and dry to the bitter end.
For the unions and black leadership, this was all about getting rid of Mike Miles, the school superintendent. Miles is pushing a program of reforms that would entail doing away with the time-honored seniority pay scale for teachers in favor of some form of merit pay. The hope was that Lara, considered a lock-cinch vote to fire Miles, would join four other anti-Miles votes on the nine-member board and provide the edge needed to send him packing before merit pay could become reality.
In addition to broad Hispanic grassroots support, Solis had the support of a lot of well-heeled business types in the reform movement. Maybe it was always a given that he would have more money. But in a low-turnout election like this one, money is not everything. What the unions promised Lara was more about boots on the ground and technical electoral know-how — knocking on doors, getting people to vote early and loading the old folks into vans on vote day.
I kept my ear to the ground pretty closely during the early vote phase of this election. I don't live in the district, but I'm just outside it, and a lot of it is in my part of town, Old East Dallas, or, as we call it, Dallas' Bay of Political Pigs, the land of close-fought elections and swordplay worthy of Johnny Depp.
Certain kinds of people in this part of town are accustomed to getting calls and door knocks from certain kinds of campaigns. I kept asking. They all kept telling me they were picking up only radio silence from the Lara campaign.
To whatever extent the unions did mobilize, it was a notably ineffectual effort, according to the final turnout and tally. Meanwhile, if it hadn't been for those two pissed-off rich people with grudges, Lara would barely have had enough campaign money to cover a good month's cell phone bill.
In the two periodic finance reports filed by both campaigns so far, Solis showed contributions at eight times the amount raised by Lara — $80,962 to $9,820. Of Lara's relatively paltry showing in cash donations, 60 percent came from the two pissed people, attorney Lisa Blue and retired real estate tycoon Don Williams.
Blue was Lara's lawyer in a failed lawsuit alleging Solis had not met residency requirements for school trustee candidates. That suit included a demand for $100,000 from Solis and the school district. It's hard to figure how someone thought it was a good campaign plan to go into the school district's pocket for a hundred large while running for the school board.
As Eric Celeste pointed out last week at D Magazine, Blue has a longstanding professional relationship with Lara's other big donor, Don Williams, a retired real estate magnate who lives in Santa Fe now. Williams is furious with Miles because Miles ditched an educational program for Dallas schools that Williams and his wife were championing. Williams has been up there in his Indian mud castle ever since, fulminating and stamping the ground like Rumpelstiltskin, telling everyone he wants Miles fired. And that, of course, was just what Williams and Blue and the unions and black leadership all assumed Lara would help do if she won.