Don't tell me it's too early to worry about the 2007 Dallas mayor's race. It's never too early to worry. And the next mayoral race is going to have everything to do with what's going on in the city right now.
There are two main scenarios for the next mayor. The first one is "The Healing Angel." In the Healing Angel scenario, Dallas voters will go for the candidate they think can bind up the city's wounds after the FBI's City Hall corruption probe turns out to be a big bag of hot air. The winning motto will be "No More Drama." Harps and roses everywhere. Incumbent mayor Laura Miller will be out looking for a job.
Scenario Two: "The Avenging Angel." In this one, the outcome of the FBI probe proves Miller right. City Hall is revealed to be a corrupt Tennessee Williams plantation. Dallas voters are sick of it--sick of the downtown white guys who hand out the bribes, sick of the poor minority politicians who take them. They vote to give Miller back her sword, and this time they want her to lop off the head of anybody down there who even faintly resembles a character in Gone With the Wind. Miller takes to the role with aplomb: Methodically decapitating her victims, she hums the old Disney tune, "Whistle While You Work."
It could go either way. Heal. Avenge. Depends.
There are people around town right now who claim to know what the FBI has found so far in its City Hall investigation. They say there will be only one or two low-hanging fruit indictments--or maybe even no indictments at all--and the whole thing will turn out to have been a political vendetta. In that case, it's easy to imagine that voters will decide they've had enough theater.
But other people are predicting that multiple African-American council members will be indicted before the end of the year and that subsequent revelations will unmask a pervasive culture of corruption at City Hall. If that happens, the city's old-line white business leadership will suffer credibility losses at least as severe as the blow to black leadership. After all, it takes two to tango on the plantation.
Consider these two elements. Five years ago when the Justice Department was prosecuting then-city Councilman Al Lipscomb for taking bribes, pillars of the Dallas business establishment rushed out to Amarillo to defend him. Grocery chain magnate Liz Minyard testified that the cash her family had supplied to Lipscomb over the years was "his livelihood, and separate from his politics."
Southwest Airlines president Herb Kelleher told the court that Lipscomb, who subsequently was convicted on 65 counts, was "fundamentally an incorruptible person."
In court and talking to reporters, Lipscomb--always painted as Dallas' firebrand "Civil Rights icon"--admitted to taking money over the years from former Mayor Annette Strauss, dairy executive Pete Schenkel and a host of other pillars. He argued then and believes now that the ease with which he collected cash from the pillars was proof there was no impropriety.
The feds said some of it was bribery. The jury agreed.
Second element: The plan being hatched now to get rid of Miller in 2007 is based on the same north/south coalition that defeated two "strong mayor" charter initiatives in March and November of this year. Both defeats were blows to Miller. Both of these very successful campaigns were based on marrying a solid anti-Miller vote in black Dallas with a split vote in white North Dallas.
Political consultant Pat Cotton, instrumental in both of these defeats for Miller, told me last week that the same game plan will get rid of Miller permanently two years from now. "We need a candidate who can split North Dallas," she said. "And in southern Dallas, it's 'anybody but Laura.'"
I told her I thought that sounded like a smart plan, if the city is in the mood for the healing angel scenario. Then the anti-Laura forces just have to find a candidate who can unite southern Dallas with the people in North Dallas who will vote against her.
But I said I thought it sounded like maybe not so smart a plan if voters by then have been watching a bunch of nasty bribery trials on TV. Let's imagine that the voters put that picture together with a city council that keeps giving multimillion-dollar tax cuts to rich white guys downtown who don't need the money. Let's imagine they even remember Lipscomb and the old north/south dynamic that lined his pockets. Then your north/south coalition isn't the solution: It's the problem. It's the plantation all over again.
All of it depends on how the voters feel after the current chapter with the FBI plays out. Everybody has a theory. A couple of pretty good sources, speaking not for attribution, told me they believe two sealed indictments are already in the bag. But other even better sources scoff at that idea. They say no way.
Lawyers who represent targets of the investigation, speaking to me last week on a not-for-attribution basis, said they think FBI investigators are less than halfway through the mountain of files they've seized in multiple raids last summer on offices and homes of city officials. If the lawyers are correct, then the conclusion of the investigation could still be several months off. Or several years off.
A swirl of recent stories seems to paint a panoramic picture of wrongdoing at City Hall. But the lawyers working this vineyard say the stories will have to be teased apart and bright lines drawn before anybody can be indicted. If a bunch of guys are talking to each other about buying a city council member's vote, and if they trade large amounts of money over it, and if some of them talk to the city council member about it, and if the city council member delays the agenda item they're interested in, there still may not be an indictable case against the council member unless you can show money going into the council member's pocket.
People are speculating about whether the FBI is leaking stories to CBS 11 Television in order to bolster its position and stave off criticism that it has mounted a racist probe. I tend to think Channel 11 just has some good reporters working for it, and I wish the FBI were leaking stuff to me. But some of what the FBI has done publicly, such as meeting with black community leaders to explain its methods, does seem unusually political.
There is a difference of opinion about the role of politics in the probe. Mike Snipes, who left the U.S. Attorney's Office a year ago for private practice and is representing a peripheral figure in the City Hall probe, told me he doesn't believe political pressure will have anything to do with the ultimate decisions on indictments. In particular, he said the U.S. Attorney won't seek indictments in order to provide the FBI with cover for a weak investigation.
"You got guys over there who are professionals, Mark McBride and Bob Webster, who've been federal prosecutors for 100 years and damn good ones, and they're not going to move on it unless they think they've got it. And I think they're still assessing things."
But another source familiar with federal law enforcement who spoke to me not for attribution was a bit more qualified. He said the degree to which political and career pressure may impinge on indictment decisions depends entirely on the FBI agents and the assistant U.S. attorneys involved. Some back-scratching and face-saving is possible. A safe bottom line, however, is that the U.S. Attorney will not go to battle with a case he knows he's going to lose.
An example everyone brings up sooner or later is the FBI probe of the Dallas public school system in 1998. The FBI dug and dug to make a case on a whole tier of top DISD administrators. The heat was on the FBI then, as it is now, to come up with a pattern of high-level corruption. But the FBI didn't get there. The only big fish the U.S. Attorney netted was superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, who was actually delivered to them on a platter by this newspaper ("Yvonne's School of Accounting," by Miriam Rozen, Dallas Observer, August 7, 1997).
Come to think of it, didn't we also give them Al Lipscomb on a paper plate ("Clueless," by Laura Miller, May 30, 1996)? Shouldn't they give us a plaque or something?
The point is that the feds are only human. They can dig and churn and send up smoke for months--for the next five years in fact--and decide on the last day before the statute of limitations lapses that they didn't make it.
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Or they could slam somebody tomorrow. Another myth going around City Hall these days is that the feds can't have much yet on any council members because none of them has received a "target letter" warning that he or she is the focus of a federal investigation. I ran that one by a source who has taken part in many federal investigations. He said the government is under no obligation to give anybody a target letter, whether that person is a target or not.
"For example, Jim, we typically do not send a target letter to a drug dealer informing him that he will be raided soon."
Mayor Miller is a change agent. During her tenure so far, she has thrown mud in the eyes of everybody on the plantation--the givers and the takers. She could be rewarded with a fresh mandate. Or she could be rewarded with a boot in the butt. The election isn't until 2007. But the city's future probably is being decided before our eyes right now.