A big sign in the Seagoville senior center commands us to "Smile."
Another one--stretched across the back of the stage in stenciled letters--declares that "Life is beautiful when in full bloom."
But the cheery thoughts stay stuck to the walls. There is nothing beautiful or blooming about the handful of locals who've come here this cold Friday night to scowl at their two candidates for the Dallas school board.
The objects of their disdain are seated at tables on the stage. On one side is Don Venable, a pink-faced white guy who's made a career out of suing the Dallas Independent School District for myriad offenses--assailing its board members, administrators, and attorneys for what he calls their "mentality of criminality."
On the other side is Jesse Diaz, a Hispanic activist famous for his clashes at DISD board meetings with members of the New Black Panther Party and assorted other loudmouths.
Both are rank outsiders, rejected by the kingmakers in Dallas' white business community, the usual source of funding for these low-rent races. And mentioning the names of these men elicits expressions of horror from folks at DISD headquarters.
No, the residents of Seagoville, a small, semi-rural town that has the misfortune of falling within the boundaries of DISD's District 4, are not impressed with the choice of flavors presented to them at the candidates' debate on November 14.
Some express it by half-heartedly tossing a few questions at the candidates, questions to which there are no correct answers.
The others just sit and stare.
And it makes me wonder, If there are only two candidates in a runoff election, is it possible for both of them to lose?
Many of the questions that do come up tonight are plants--including the one posed by Rick Finlan, Venable's fellow litigant and former campaign treasurer:
"Has either candidate been involved in a fistfight or shoving match during a school board meeting?"
This prompts nervous whispers among the three debate mediators, who screen all of the questions, until a woman in a sky-blue cowboy hat interrupts from the audience. "We have some terrible censorship here today," she says in a thick drawl.
When the mediators finally give their approval--based on criteria that remain an utter mystery throughout the night--the question lands with a thud before Diaz, who sits meekly, shoulders hunched, hands clasped in front of him, trying to look like anything but the hothead he's reputed to be.
"Yes," he says quietly. "I have been involved in...maybe some shoving and arguing."
Then the question bounces to Venable.
He stands up before the microphone, adjusts his blue suit jacket, and pauses for a tiny, triumphant moment.
"No, I haven't," he says.
But earlier that night, the woman in the cowboy hat--J.R. McConnaughey, who doesn't even live in Seagoville--had popped a good one at Venable, demanding to know why he has sued the district so many times.
This time, Venable wasn't quite so composed. He turned visibly pink--pinker than his usual pink--and seemed on the verge of tears.
He managed to squeeze out a stream of talk nonetheless, jabbering about policies, about "holding individuals accountable," about "all sorts of sins down there" at DISD.
But his words won him no friends in Seagoville.
At the end of the debate, Diaz and his half-dozen supporters quickly make themselves scarce. Venable hangs around a bit longer, courting a lone voter by the coffee pot.
Meanwhile, the men and women of Seagoville glumly munch on chocolate-chip cookies, bickering a little with the outsiders who'd come to torment the candidates, then shuffle off into the dirt parking lot.
It would be an understatement to say that the importance of the Venable-Diaz runoff is lost on the general public.
All you have to do is look at the early voting patterns, if two votes constitute a pattern.
Yes, two votes. That's how many were cast at DISD headquarters last week during the first three days of early voting. At the three other polling sites, all within District 4, which encompasses a big chunk of Pleasant Grove, all of Seagoville, and bits of East Dallas, fewer than 150 people exercised the franchise.
Everyone else, in theory, will go to the polls on December 6. Remember, it's just a theory.
The winner will finish the unexpired term of trustee Lynda McDow, who has held the District 4 seat since 1994 and is planning to move out of state. But more importantly, the winner may determine the Dallas school board's future.
That's because the District 4 trustee could easily serve as the swing vote on a deeply divided board--at least until the next round of elections in May 1998.
Right now, board president Kathleen Leos is barely hanging onto a majority that generally includes herself and trustees Lynda McDow, Jose Plata, Roxan Staff, and Lois Parrott. This is all that remains of the "Slam Dunk Gang," the set of board alliances that has pitted the white and Hispanic trustees--supported by Dallas businessman John Scovell and other white community leaders--against the black trustees for so many excruciating years.
These days, Leos' faction is stumbling along like a dizzied, bleeding beast, barely able to push through motions to keep the district running with any semblance of efficiency.
Furthermore, Leos has been deeply tainted by her close association with disgraced former superintendent Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez and seems lost in board meetings without her brash buddy beside her.
On the other side are the three black trustees--Hollis Brashear, Yvonne Ewell, and Ron Price--and conservative white trustee John Dodd, surely the least likely folk hero ever to emerge among Dallas blacks.
While the board doesn't always break down along these lines--Parrott, for one, isn't firmly in the Leos camp--the existence of racial factions has rendered Leos' presidency weak. And that's an extremely important point, since the board is about to embark on the search for a new superintendent amid revelations that the last search process, which yielded Gonzalez, was a sham. (See last week's cover story, "One fine mess," by Miriam Rozen.)
The choice of Diaz or Venable for District 4 would have markedly different effects on the board.
Diaz would inject some new life into the ailing beast, probably enough to keep it limping through the superintendent search process. That's because he wholeheartedly supports Leos. "She handles herself just fine," he says, offering no specifics.
He doesn't pussyfoot around how he'll line up with the current board. "I look up to people like Roxan Staff, Jose Plata, and Lois Parrott," he says. "I want to be like them. I don't want to be like the other people."
Venable doesn't exactly want to be like the "other people" either. Indeed, he seems to have disdain for just about everyone on the board--judging by his caustic but absolutely on-target assessments of each member. He is definite about one thing, though. He thinks Leos needs to step down as board president.
"This is the weakest, saddest board structure I've seen--it's embarrassingly inept," Venable says. "I'm thoroughly convinced that Leos is not the person to take the board into this 'reconstruction phase.'"
Which, in Venable's mind, is the golden age that begins as soon as he's elected.
There are a few things you need to know about Don Venable. He's a smart guy, and he knows it. He has the egoist's habit of referring to himself in the third person, as in "Venable did this, Venable did that..."
An evangelical Christian and former seminary student, Venable sees a position on the board as his ministerial calling.
He sees his attempts to sue the district as a righteous quest, exposing all kinds of "sins" among DISD's historically evil leadership. (In fairness, some of his suits, filed with pal Rick Finlan, appear to have hit legitimate targets, such as DISD's questionable transfer of bond money to its general fund in an attempt to artificially hold down property taxes.)
And the 43-year-old, self-employed legal assistant, who represents creditors in informal bankruptcy hearings, desperately wants the District 4 seat. This is his fourth attempt to win it.
Earlier this year, Venable says, he'd just about given up on his activism in DISD. Through numerous suits, he'd already made his point--that the district couldn't continue its lawless ways. He figured he'd cleaned up the place pretty good. Furthermore, two of his three children had grown up and left home, and a third was entering his junior year at Bryan Adams High School.
"I got to the point where I was buying the barbecue grill, fixing up the house, enjoying spending time with my wife," Venable says. "And all of a sudden, she wakes me up one morning and says, 'Guess what, Lynda McDow's resigning.' And I had a major decision to make at that point."
Made much easier, he says, when Jesse Diaz announced his candidacy and received McDow's endorsement.
"I've said, if Jesse Diaz is the only viable candidate coming forth, I will have to run, because I simply could not abandon the school district to what might happen if Jesse Diaz got elected," Venable says.
"Diaz has made a career out of antagonizing black leaders," he adds. "His own community has chided him for that behavior. If he gets power and a podium, I'm thoroughly convinced he'll continue to do that."
In a field of four candidates--two of whom had never sullied themselves by getting involved in DISD affairs--Venable won the most votes in the November 4 election, with Diaz running second. A runoff was forced because neither candidate garnered a majority.
Since then, Venable hasn't stopped talking about the "process" of governing and what he's going to do to fix it. The process, indeed, is his object of faith, untainted by the frailties and depravities of the humans who serve in it as trustees.
"Process first, issues second," Venable says. "As a member of the board, I will constantly be concerned with a fair and efficient process."
The process in DISD is unfair, he adds, because it has historically excluded blacks. Venable, of course, sees himself sweeping in to right the injustice.
"Someone has got to get in the middle of it like an umpire and start throwing flags, and say we're gonna play by the rules," Venable says. "And that's what my job is...to enforce the process so that people can play by the rules."
Venable, in fact, seems rather impressed by his dealings with district pariahs such as Dallas NAACP chief Lee Alcorn. "What I've been so upset with over the years is the exclusionary tactics that have created a great deal of the problems [in DISD]," he says.
Apart from speaking endlessly about the process, Venable has spent a good portion of his energy dishing all kinds of dirt on Diaz.
He's so convinced of his own probity that peculiar blind spots have developed. Like the mean streak with which he hasn't quite come to terms.
Mind you, there's plenty of dirt to kick around on Diaz. Like the years he neglected to pay DISD property taxes and federal income taxes. (Diaz blames the failure to pay income taxes on his lengthy divorce, during which he wasn't allowed to dispose of any assets. He attributes the property-tax problems to home improvements that ran amok--thereby draining his cash supply. He claims he recently settled all of the debts for which he's responsible.)
Then there's the question of residency. On his application for the November 4 election, Diaz claimed he had resided for the required six months at a home in Pleasant Grove. But Diaz later admitted he didn't even buy the house till June.
Then Diaz offered the explanation that he'd been living on and off in his real estate office on Bruton Road. Regardless of the precise location--and he's maddeningly vague on the details--Diaz says he never lived outside District 4 during the six-month period.
Venable responds to Diaz's latest claim of residency with a typical smarty-pants quip.
"I'm running against the homeless candidate," he says. "There goes the homeless vote."
"I live here in this office," Diaz insists, speaking from his tidy desk in the realty firm he owns in Pleasant Grove. "Many, many people know that I've stayed here at this office. And I know that Don Venable has stalked me. I've seen him as I looked out the window--I've seen him here at 3, 4, 5, and 6 in the morning."
(Venable's response: "Venable has never even seen 5 in the morning.")
Diaz leads me to the back of the small building, where he's installed a bed across from his campaign phone bank. Or rather, he's plopped down a mattress, box spring, metal frame, and two pillows, and spread a sheet across it.
A single sheet. It isn't even tucked in. It still bears the fold marks, like he's just pulled it out of the package. Needless to say, there are no drool marks, cracker crumbs, or cat hairs, all the stuff you find on sheets that someone actually sleeps in.
Nor are there any blankets, and on this 40-degree fall day, it is downright chilly back there.
Next, Diaz shows me a small utility room with a refrigerator and washer and dryer. Beside it is a walk-in closet.
"See? Here are my shirts," he says, holding up three hangers--a big three shirts. Wouldn't go too far, I figure, not with Diaz's famously zippy wardrobe. A few ties are scattered around the closet, but it is mostly filled with house-for-sale signs.
Stepping back into the utility room, I ask, "So, what's in the 'fridge?"
Sure you live here.
When we sit down to talk, the 47-year-old Diaz has many soothing words to say--about his reputation as a hothead, about his opposition to John Wiley Price and friends, about Venable's "dirty pool" campaign tactics.
"I've mellowed," he says. "I've changed, because I was very emotional when I was there seeing things happening in DISD. To me, I saw it more as a personal attack when I saw those people doing what they were doing--going after [former board president Bill] Keever, going after Gonzalez.
"I think I got real frustrated, because I thought we need to be talking about the education of our kids. I wasn't the only one. I just happened to let my emotions out more."
Biff! Kapow! That he did. Diaz made his mark, so to speak, when he got in a scuffle with members of the New Black Panther Party at a school board meeting early this year.
You can hardly blame him for getting upset, though. Not when a guy like black activist Thomas Muhammad regularly opens his yapper and vomits up bigoted words at board meetings. Not when a member of the Panthers verbally and physically assaults a Hispanic woman outside of another trustee gathering.
Diaz got mad, all right. And he still has no intention of suffering such antics.
"I don't have anything against African-Americans," he says. "The people I'm against is Lee Alcorn, John Wiley Price, and that Muhammad person--a very racist person. I will continue to stand up against their beliefs."
What's disturbing though, are indications that Diaz's angry ways may go deeper.
Rick Finlan, Venable's sidekick, has distributed to the press a temporary injunction against Diaz from 1996, in which he's prohibited from communicating with his wife in "vulgar, profane, obscene, or indecent language" and threatening her physically, among other offensive acts, which are listed on three pages.
Diaz, when asked about the injunction, keeps his cool. "That's where he's getting all this crap about me--that I was abusive to my wife," Diaz says. "This guy is running scared. He's running with all this dirty stuff, making things up on me."
The wording of the order, he explains, is simply legal boilerplate. Furthermore, it applies to both husband and wife. "Believe me, none of that was happening," Diaz says. "I talked to my [ex-]wife, and she was laughing about it. That is just standard when you're going through a divorce. There is nothing to show I was abusive."
But the language in the injunction isn't that typical.
Edward M. Snyder Jr., Gloria Diaz's attorney in the divorce, won't say much about it. Nor will he let Jesse Diaz off the hook. "Those are public records, and I suppose you could say they speak for themselves," Snyder says.
Still not satisfied, I knock on the door of Gloria Diaz's home in Pleasant Grove, but she doesn't want to talk. The word "no" comes out of her mouth while the door is swinging shut.
The only public indication of her thoughts is what's posted beside her driveway: a red and white Jesse Diaz campaign sign.
You've got to extend a little sympathy to the District 4 voters. Consider how they see it. Some choice: baloney on white, or baloney on wheat.
Diaz has the support of longtime Hispanic leaders Adelfa Callejo and state Rep. Domingo Garcia, and is casting himself as the candidate who will ensure that the needs of DISD's huge Latino student body remain a priority.
That's a legitimate concern. But Diaz's inability to connect with other ethnic groups would put the board right where it is now--fractured along ethnic lines.
Victor R. Bonilla, who used to serve with Diaz on DISD's Hispanic Advisory Committee, puts it much more bluntly.
"Wasn't he the same guy talking all that trash to John Wiley Price and the black people, and now he wants their vote?" Bonilla asks. "It's like giving a dead man an enema--he's already dug his grave, now all he has to do is lie down.
"I'll be more than happy," he adds, "to send him a rosary so he get on his knees and start praying."
Then there's the baggage that Diaz carries--the pile that grows every day.
Like last Thursday afternoon. All of a sudden, the fax machine in my study creaks and groans, and out comes a copy of a $22,552.70 check Diaz has written to the IRS just that day.
He calls me moments later.
"I don't owe anybody anything now," he says proudly.
Thank you, Jesse Diaz, for that fine display of civic responsibility.
Would I vote for this guy? Only in the interests of news value. He's sure to supply many more enchanting episodes for the 10 o'clock news.
Venable, however, claims he'll make DISD so boring that TV towers will cease sprouting at district headquarters. He'll streamline the process, instill discipline, bring some order to that unruly batch of bickerers on the board.
Venable has definitely thought through his agenda. But I also get the sense, at times, that he believes in that sacred process as long as it goes his way.
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He admits to me at the debate, in fact, that he's been fined $3,000 by the court for stomping out of a deposition.
Does he have any plans to pay it? I ask.
Sure, he says--then he rattles off a whole set of conditions: When so-and-so pays me this, when so-and-so forks over the bucks for that...
The real answer, of course, is no.
And I wouldn't be all that surprised if Venable turned pink-faced, gathered his papers, and tipped out of a board committee meeting muttering something goofy about "the process, the process."
But at least he's concerned about the integrity of the process. Which, in the twisted world of DISD politics, has to count for something.