Butt Naked

Barbara Mallory Caraway, in a photo of uncertain vintage

To the extent black Dallas is southern Dallas--and I'm not sure how much water that cliché still holds--then black Dallas wants to be known as a solid bloc these days.

I see a crack.

Southern Dallas did defeat two recent ballot propositions for so-called "strong mayor" reforms at City Hall. In the March 7 Democratic primary, southern Dallas did make Craig Watkins the Democratic nominee in the race for district attorney. But those elections had a lot to do with solidarity against people perceived as invaders from the north.

What happens when there are no blue-bellies at the gates? How solid is the bloc, and how strong a hold on southern Dallas voters does the traditional southern Dallas leadership hold? Judging by the District 110 Texas House race, I'd say less than it thinks, less than it used to.

In that contest Barbara Mallory Caraway should have gotten her butt kicked up one side of the block and down the other, and Jesse Jones, the seven-term incumbent backed by virtually all of southern Dallas political royalty, should have trotted into office on palm leaves.

But it was Jones' well-financed, heavily endorsed butt that took the kicking. Caraway won against the solon of Singing Hills, the well-off African-American neighborhood near Loop 12 (Ledbetter Drive) and Interstate 35.

And that was in spite of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and state Senator Royce West on black radio every few seconds hectoring everybody to go be good Democrats and send Dr. Jones back to Austin for his eighth tour of duty.

Caraway, a 49-year-old former Dallas City Council member, fooled them all when she beat Jones, a 74-year-old professor of chemistry at Baylor University in Waco. She beat him by only 78 votes, but only 4,598 people voted, less than 5 percent of the district's voting-age population.

That number--5 percent--is an important part of the picture. We're still talking about a part of town where hardly anybody votes. Given what they get back for it, I can understand why.

The list of bills Jones has authored over the years reflects a to put it...political approach. Or lack thereof. Jones, by the way, didn't respond to my many attempts to reach him. He never does. For me or anybody.

There was that recent law proposed by the good professor, "Relating to the operation of lawn mowers," second only to the bill for which he is perhaps best-known, "Designating the cast iron Dutch oven as the official State Cooking Implement."

The daring Baylor professor also fought the good fight for his bill, "Congratulating Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson and the Baylor Lady Bears for winning the 2005 NCAA Women's National Basketball Championship."

And I can't move on without mentioning my own personal favorite in his 14-year tenure, the bill "Recognizing the renaming of the Good Street Missionary Society to the Wilene Dade Missionary Society of the Good Street Baptist Church." I can just hear les misérables chanting that one at the barricades.

Rumors are rampant that the professor hasn't actually occupied his home in the Singing Hills area in South Oak Cliff for some years since signing on with the faculty at Baylor 75 miles to the south. I would have asked him about that had I been able to reach him. And gosh, a thought here all of a sudden: Could that have had anything to do with why it was so hard to get him on the horn?

But it all works for him. Nice fat checks from the restaurant association, the homebuilders association, the trial lawyers association--all that nice white money--just keeps rooooolling in like a river of honey. I'm never quite sure how that squares with the notion of southern Dallas hegemony, but I guess money's where you find it.

What was even more valuable to the solon of Singing Hills was his incumbency. That alone rendered him a stalwart and hero of the local Democratic Party, worth defending at any and every cost. An incumbent Democrat in Dallas is like the director's son at the all-girl's camp--handsome and flawless by definition.

It's the main reason he was supported by the holy trinity of Dallas black politics, Kirk, Price and West. I wasn't able to reach West, but I think he's actually busy.

"He is an incumbent," Kirk told me, "and he's a good friend. I think he has very well and honorably represented that district.

"My endorsement of Dr. Jones was solely related to my respect and admiration and gratitude for the job that he had done and was not at all any commentary or reflection on Barbara Mallory Caraway, for whom I hold equal respect and admiration."  

Price said: "Dr. Jones has been a good soldier. There was no reason to be against him. He carried legislation for Dallas County. How do you go against somebody who has been a good soldier? It's not as if any of them have been kicking up any dust down there in the Legislature."

But maybe people want more than a good soldier. Maybe they want change on the ground. Caraway basically beat Jones in a band of precincts she carried by heavy margins in the triangle formed by I-35, I-45 and Loop 12. If you start driving those streets on the western end near I-35 and work your way east, you see a pronounced trend.

The western end of Caraway country is poor and rough, similar to the poorer parts of Old South Dallas below Fair Park. By the time you get across Kiest Boulevard things are definitely looking up.

Finally you arrive at the area around the Cedar Crest Municipal Golf Course, and now you're looking at a neighborhood on the verge of better days. The houses here were built from the mid-1950s to the early '80s. They range in size from 1,700 square feet to 4,000 and in value from $100,000 to $300,000.

The more important thing is what you see with your eyes: Up and down these streets are signs of recent renovation, new landscaping and investment--the unmistakable signs of improvement ahead, especially given what's going on in the rest of the city. It's too good a buy.

At the center of this area, like a castle on the hill, is the city's $2.2 million Cedar Crest Clubhouse, opened in 2001--the ruby in the tiara of the Cedar Crest municipal course, which recently benefited from a $3 million makeover. I met Caraway and her husband, Dwaine, at the clubhouse for breakfast, at their suggestion.

It's their castle.

The movement to renovate the golf course and build the new clubhouse began when Barbara Mallory Caraway was on the council and her husband was vice president of the park board. It was very much their baby.

Before we ate, he took me on a tour. "After the white people moved out, the old clubhouse mysteriously burned," he told me. "All that was here was a little shabby cinder-block building."

The new clubhouse is an architectural homage to the 1920s golf palace that once stood in its place. It serves as community hall, wedding chapel, ballroom and all-around social center to the surrounding area. And, I noticed, there sure were a lot of prosperous-looking white boys out there on the links on a fine spring day. If this was southern Dallas' secret for a while after the renovation, it ain't a secret anymore.

I think Cedar Crest is emblematic of why Caraway won. The old system in southern Dallas was characterized by gentlemanly placeholders like Professor Jones, but the Caraways are people who were able to bring home some real bacon for the neighborhood.

"Barbara shouldn't have come within 1,000 votes of Dr. Jones," Dallas Plan Commission Chair Betty Culbreath told me. "They want to try to make light of her winning by 70 votes, but, hell, she shouldn't have come within 1,000 votes. The fact that she came up to him and got 70 more was a yeoman of a job."

There is no Republican running in this district, so Caraway's victory in the primary makes her the virtual representative-elect. Over bacon and scrambled eggs, she told me how she did it.

"I walked," she said. "I went to every house I could. That's what I did. I knew early on that Jesse Jones was a seven-term incumbent. I had been in politics before, so I did not go around, quite frankly, seeking a whole lot of endorsements, because I knew where that would end up."

Price and Kirk know why Caraway beat Jones. If Ron Kirk is the reigning heavyweight champion of City Hall politics in Dallas, John Wiley Price is the undisputed guru of precinct campaigning. Price said Caraway won because "she campaigned."

"She campaigned, and those son of a bitches [around Jones] took it for granted."

Kirk said the same thing: "One of the risks of legislative redistricting is that incumbents serve in districts they can serve in forever, because they are so heavily Democratic or Republican that they become safe seats.

"I think anytime you are in a district in which you do not draw an opponent for one term or two terms or three terms, and you draw a young, energetic, street-savvy opponent in a primary in particular, it is not at all a surprise to me that the incumbent loses."

On the phone last week, I asked Price if it was not a good sign, finally, that a door-knocking hard-campaigning candidate could win an election in southern Dallas against an establishment figure who can't behoove himself to hit a lick. All I could hear on the other end was groaning and gnashing of teeth, which I took for agreement.  

I think the bloc is strong when it turns its face outward to face a foe but weak when it turns inside. And all of that is opportunity.

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