Steve Salazar had a birthday last week.
Salazar is a freshly minted Dallas city councilman. This means that he's still scoping out men's room locations, never mind figuring out where all the political land- mines are buried at Dallas City Hall.
Which is precisely why he never would have expected one to pop up at his own birthday party. (This guy, who is former councilman Domingo Garcia's successor and personal pal, is all of 30 years old, believe it or not.)
So here's what happened.
Salazar's administrative assistant, Juanita Arevalo, arranged a small, intimate party in a fifth-floor conference room near the council members' offices. "It's more or less of a tradition," she told me, referring to staffs throwing their bosses birthday parties.
It was a low-key affair, to be sure. Just the council members, their staffs, and City Manager John Ware were invited. In Salazar's case, a cake was ordered from Kroger--which forgot, incidentally, to put the words "councilman" on the cake. Arevalo brought the chocolate and vanilla ice cream. No drinks.
"The whole thing was maybe 15 minutes at the most," Arevalo said. "We sang 'Happy Birthday.' The council members came in and out. People had a piece of cake and talked to each other for a few minutes."
Or antagonized each other.
In other words, welcome to the fifth or sixth round of the Ron Kirk-Paul Fielding heavyweight championship of Dallas.
"I've got a summer intern working in my office who's a senior at Harvard University," Fielding told me with barely restrained relish the other day. "And he looks like a senior at Harvard--bright green pants, button-down Polo shirt, a real yuppie. And so I take him over to Salazar's birthday party to introduce him around to everybody--everybody."
Well, not quite everybody.
"Every council member and staff member--except the mayor," Fielding concedes. "It really wasn't an oversight. I must have done it subconsciously."
Well, the mayor responds--in a big-man way, I might add--by striding over to introduce himself to this kid in the hurt-your-eyes green pants. John Ware, who may have been equally intrigued by the only city hall employee in a Newport, Rhode Island garden-party wardrobe, accompanied Kirk.
One of the two men asked the kid, who is white, where he was going to school. "He's a senior at Pinkston," Fielding quickly responded, referring, of course, to the large, predominantly minority high school in West Dallas--which, of course, prompted mass confusion on the intern's face. Kirk and Ware then began asking the kid polite questions about Pinkston. Fielding cut back in. "Actually, he's a senior at Harvard," Fielding said--you can be sure with a gleeful smirk.
But the game wasn't over. "Kirk gets this real smug look on his face, and he says, 'I'll bet you don't even know where Pinkston is,' Kirk says to the kid. But the kid's done some volunteer work at a shelter near Pinkston--and that really puts the mayor in his place."
Actually, the mayor doesn't recall much of any of this except that he introduced himself to some nice young guy in the room whom he didn't know. Yeah, Fielding tried to pass the fellow off as a Pinkston student, but Kirk had no idea why--and he didn't spend more than a millisecond trying to figure it out.
"It was just a birthday party," Kirk says, baffled when asked about the exchange. "The council meeting was over, and we were just laughing and having some fun."
Yup, it was a real barrel of laughs.
Here it is, bottom-line: why intelligent men and women cannot appease a sports franchise, snag a car racetrack (from Fort Worth, of all places), come up with some kind of recycling program.
They cannot stop pecking each other's eyes out. Not for a minute. Not even at a 15-minute birthday gathering, where they use politically unadulterated youths as fish bait.
Since the inception of the charter changes four years ago that brought us a slightly more empowered mayor and 14 narrowly focused caped crusaders, there's been hell to pay. First there was the Brawl at City Hall--Steve Bartlett and Jan Hart's bitter power tussle that eventually sent Hart packing for the private sector. Though no less hateful than the animosity between Kirk and Fielding--which has caught fire like a match to Sterno in two short months--Bartlett and Hart did display more class. They dueled strictly, albeit furiously, behind the scenes--with prickly memos, hard-boiled glares, and quiet power grabs. Both being rather charmless and anal-retentive types, their battle raged on for a full 11 months before it became publicly known that the new mayor was actively gunning for the manager's head--and Hart was aiming a little lower down.
Then there was the Thrilla on Marilla--the lightweight bout between Fielding and Alphonso Jackson which kept us occupied for a few weeks in the winter of 1993. The councilman and the Dallas Housing Authority chief, you may recall, got uniquely physical during a tense meeting in Mayor Bartlett's office. When it was over, no one was at all surprised that someone would want to stomp grapes on Paul Fielding's face--his major in college was, no doubt, the art of bringing out the worst in people. What surprised everyone is that Jackson actually did it.
A diminutive, soft-spoken, horn-rimmed-glasses type, Jackson simply gathered himself into an absolute fury and, like a bull at Pamplona, rammed Fielding face first into the unyielding metal frame of a partially opened door. Blackening eyes. Mangling facial nerves. Sending ears to ringing.
Jackson blew his opportunity to become a sympathetic figure in the eyes of Fielding detractors when he panicked, dissolving into a choke mode--not only denying that he'd beaten Fielding up, but frantically concocting off-the-wall scenarios about what happened. In one, the mayor, who actually witnessed Jackson's handiwork along with half the mayor's staff, was blamed for the bludgeoning.
Now, God knows it's true that the mayor would have enjoyed throwing Fielding into a door. But that's just not his style.
Which brings us to the next Holy War at City Hall: Fielding vs. Bartlett.
This was the longest-running battle yet. In fact, it lasted the entire four years that Bartlett served. As in his conflict with Jan Hart, though, Bartlett was determined to keep it as private as possible. Fielding, consistent with his style, wanted it on the front page and 6 o'clock news every day. The result was a rather lopsided skewering, with Fielding tossing off scathing insults of the mayor on a daily basis and the mayor replying with those enigmatic jokes and that tight, disingenuous smile.
Fielding on Bartlett in March 1992, at the mayor's 100-day mark in office, referring to Bartlett's relationship with the rest of the city council: "The honeymoon is over. I think the spouse has been meeting with the divorce lawyer."
Fielding to Bartlett in September 1993, when Bartlett privately encouraged, then publicly abandoned, Councilwoman Donna Halstead's efforts to throw John Wiley Price and his Warriors off Northwest Highway: "I used to think you were a weasel, but a weasel has a spine; you're just a worm." And so on.
If you detect a pattern here, you're not alone. Of the three biggest personality clashes over the past four years, Fielding was a star player in two of them. And he made headlines in two other high-profile rants. One was against Charles Anderson's bloated, undeserved, and possibly illegally negotiated severance pay upon being ousted from DART. The other was against the city-funded Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters for bringing a well-known Jew-hater to town for a speech; the speaker ultimately took specific aim at Fielding, calling him a "hook-nosed, bagel-eating" so and so.
Fielding's tirades are often--down deep, below the vitriol--based on valid points. As in the two cases discussed above. But, unfortunately, those points all too often become lost in the cacophony of the moment, leaving people with just the memory of the screaming.
The Dallas Morning News ran a nasty cartoon of Fielding last week; the daily spares no opportunity to trash the man on a regular basis because he opposes many of the sacred-cow issues the paper cares about.
But this is not a self-righteous diatribe against the councilman.
Because this is a smart man. This is an ethical man. This is an honest man. On complex issues at City Hall, he wields a verbal scalpel--making mincemeat out of dense city staffers and showing up any council member who dares oppose him on an issue's merits. Fielding believes in open government, unlike the majority of his brethren. He serves the public without political motive or opportunistic bent.
But he has one fatal flaw, and perhaps for the first time since he's been on the city council, it seems destined to overshadow his many fine qualities. "If Paul doesn't like you, he's not going to be nice to you, no matter what," says a close friend of Fielding. "On the other hand, if he's your friend, you're not going to have a more loyal friend."
Which is great for friends. Murder for enemies. And two short months into his mayoral term, Ron Kirk is Enemy No. 1.
"It's difficult to work for someone you don't respect--and I have no respect for him at all," Fielding says of Kirk. "This is a man who won't sit still for five minutes--he gets up constantly in meetings, leaves the room, doesn't listen to what's going on. He's not interested in being mayor. He just wants the pomp and circumstance. This guy makes Bartlett look in touch."
As usual, there are kernels of truth--just little alarms worth watching out for--in what Fielding says.
Kirk is very much into the pomp and circumstance at this point. But that's to be expected, I suppose, when you pole-vault a young, obscure person into the most high-profile political job in town. The guy can't go out to eat without being mobbed as though he were a rock 'n' roll star.
And so you have the inexplicably ostentatious white 1995 Lincoln Continental. And you have Kirk, instead of driving himself in his own tattered old BMW, summoning one of his two fulltime, city-paid drivers to pick him up last Saturday at his Lakewood home (where the driver cooled his heels outside for almost a half hour waiting for the mayor to emerge). The driver ferried Kirk to Oak Cliff for a one-hour cameo at a Baptist church, after which said driver--to whom the taxpayers were paying overtime, mind you--escorted hizzoner back home to Lakewood.
All of which is nauseating--and such a far cry from candidate Ron, mayor of all the people, who boasted that he had refused a driver during the campaign in favor of driving himself around in his own car. Kirk told me then that he just couldn't stand having someone in the car with him all the time--he needed his privacy to listen to music or stare into space. Well, not any more.
But this kind of stuff does not make or break a mayoral administration. If Kirk actually accomplishes something and doesn't become so self-absorbed that he loses sight of why people elected him, his insistence on the royal treatment will be irritating, but incidental to the big picture.
Fielding, though, doesn't see it that way. Zeroing in on the mayoral limousine, he's off on one of his obsessive tangents, demanding from City Attorney Sam Lindsay an interpretation of whether it violates state laws governing gifts to public servants. Never mind that Dallas car dealers, looking for goodwill and publicity, traditionally loan cars to our mayor (much as dealers do for the local mayor in cities all over the state).
Fielding wants a legal ruling. "The restaurant association brought the council lunch every week back in 1988 until our city attorney said we couldn't do it anymore because it was a gift," he says. "How is this any different?"
Two weeks ago, we had another Fielding frontal assault. After glancing at his council calendar one day, he noticed that one of the weekly council meetings fell on Yom Kippur, the most sacred Jewish holiday of the year. Fielding dispatched a snotty letter to Kirk--with copies to the rest of the council, of course--berating Kirk for allowing such a disrespectful thing to occur. Never mind that the previous city council (including Fielding) had adopted that schedule--voted for it, in fact. Which means Kirk had nothing at all to do with it.
These episodes follow two other perceived slights: Kirk's decision to change house rules so that the vocal minority (notably Fielding, Donna Blumer, and Larry Duncan) can't throw things on the agenda unless five council members are behind it; and Kirk's decision to give all committee chairmanships and vice-chairmanships to council members who supported him in his race, his rules changes, and his decision to dump Charlotte Mayes as deputy mayor pro tem.
These matters are clearly, understandably aggravating to Fielding, one of the four the mayor is snubbing, punishing, and generally beating about the face and neck.
But the mayor's moves are equally understandable. After all, as the Kirk cabinet of confidants will tell you, this is how the political big boys in Austin and Washington do it. This is how Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock and Speaker of the House Pete Laney do it: they reward the ones who brung 'em. And after six years sitting down in Austin, lobbying those boys for the City of Dallas, Kirk is doing things as mayor the way he learned them there.
We haven't seen this kind of hardball politics in Dallas for years. Mayor Annette Strauss was so congenial--to everybody, friend and foe alike--that when citizens stood at the council chamber microphone and criticized her unmercifully to her face, she sweetly thanked them for coming. She called every single council member nearly every day, just to sweet-talk them and keep them in the loop. To this day, they marvel.
Bartlett was no such saint, but he did his skewering privately--withdrawing his support on issues, cutting off communication with council members, actively seeking out candidates to run against incumbent members he didn't like. Still, he held back in public, keeping his criticisms mostly to himself and passing out committee chairs to everyone--even arch-nemesis Fielding.
Those days are over.
City Hall politics under Kirk is now a blood sport, as state politics have been for years. As we are now seeing, when Kirk said he was going to "stop the blame game," what he meant was that he was going to cut off at the knees anybody who didn't join his team and pursue his agenda.
"Ron took me to lunch shortly after he was elected," councilwoman Donna Blumer told me, "and I was amazed that during the entire lunch, he never asked me what my goals were, or what my constituents wanted. He only talked about himself and his goals and his plans and his agenda."
And that's the way it's going to be. Let's just hope it works--at this point, it's far too early to judge whether Kirk is going to improve our collective lot, or if all his blustering is just that. If he doesn't produce--if his council coalition can't be more productive than our last administration--I'll be the first to solicit Paul Fielding's critical jabs.
And they'll be there for the taking. "I really don't see any hope for these two," says Pat Cotton, a political consultant and friend of Fielding. "Not unless they agree to go through crisis intervention. And I don't think there's a mediator in town who would touch that.
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