Michael Capehart likes to talk. If given the chance, this 52-year-old Oak Cliff native will keep you riveted, his lilting voice filling a room, twisting vowels and turning phrases in a way only a native Texan can. And talking is what he's been doing these days, as often and as much as he can. The problem is, no one is listening.
You see, Capehart is running as the Democratic candidate for county commissioner on the November 3 ballot. His mustachioed face and hearty handshake have been showing up at every parade and rally in town, going where the people are, in a home-brewed attempt to bring them his message. After all, he has only 30 days left to reach a quarter of a million voters in Precinct 2 and tell them about his campaign.
Sadly, even the opposition has barely heard of him. Republican Party Chairman Bob Driegert can talk at length about Republican incumbent Michael Cantrell, but, "as for the other one, I just don't know. The truth is, I don't know a thing about Capehart." Although Cantrell says he is not taking Capehart for granted, judging from the response to the race from the local press, he might as well. Not only has The Dallas Morning News given little coverage to the campaign, small suburban papers show no interest in it at all.
"We did a [Democratic Party] fundraiser in Mesquite the other day and told the Mesquite paper we would have these candidates out there. They didn't show up. We did a thing with [gubernatorial candidate] Gary Mauro in Garland, and the Garland paper didn't show up. Stuff like having a politician in town, I thought that's what newspapers lived on," Capehart says. "I would be thrilled to death if The Dallas Morning News did an article talking about every bad thing I'd ever done, describing me as a short, fat, bald-headed little twerp, making fun of my clothes, my house, my car, my pet, as long as they talked about me."
After years of helping other candidates, putting their names on signs, registering voters for elections in which he was not running, and watching Dallas County politics from the outside, Capehart wants in. Now it's his turn to talk, and be talked about. "I love going out there and meeting people, communicating with them, but I've been doing it as a nobody. So I thought, Why can't I do it as a candidate?" he says.
So after watching Cantrell run unopposed for county commissioner, Capehart took Theodore Roosevelt's challenge not to remain among the "feeble souls who never dared to experience victory or defeat" and started the arduous journey down the campaign trail.
This may be his political debut, but as a die-hard Democrat with years of watching and working from the outskirts of the political arena, he feels ready to get down to business as a politician in his own right and focus on the job he feels the commissioners court should be doing.
"First of all, what happened to repairing roads and bridges? I challenge you," he says, lifting an indignant finger high in the air, "to go to Mesquite, Texas, and find a single person out there that can tell you where any county money has been spent to repair a single road or a bridge."
Indeed, ever since 1995's conservative wave landed Republicans Cantrell and Kenneth Mayfield in the Dallas County Commissioners Court, one would be hard-pressed to recognize it as the same predictable governmental body of years past, whose main concern was maintaining roads and worrying about various county budgets including the jail and courthouse. With Republican incumbent Jim Jackson, Cantrell and Mayfield formed a conservative coalition that tried its hand at issues as far removed from the county's jurisdiction as school prayer. When they prohibited county health workers from distributing condoms and needle sterilization kits to help prevent the spread of HIV among high-risk groups , the Republican triumvirate catapulted the commissioners court into the national spotlight and drew irate comments and columns from as far away as New York City.
Capehart shows no interest in fighting these ideological wars. If elected, he wants to modernize what he calls a "large, inefficient county bureaucracy," give an East Dallas battered women's shelter "a little seed money," and relieve the overcrowding that keeps defenders in county courts waiting up to two years for their trial dates.
But none of Capehart's political dreams will come true if he doesn't overcome that troublesome barrier on which so many well-intentioned candidates stumble: name identification. He may have learned a lot about running campaigns in his years as a volunteer helping politicians such as Ann Richards, David Cain, and Bill Clinton. But it's pretty tough to run a campaign out of his Rowlett home on a budget brought in by a continental breakfast fundraiser--"that way, you just have to provide coffee and doughnuts," he says.
Though the portly Capehart, with his downturned mustache, may look more like Sancho Panza than he does the spindly Don Quixote, he has his windmills all lined up: The race takes place in a Republican district; his opponent, Cantrell, is the incumbent, and Capehart himself describes him as a "decent, honest person," albeit one he feels "isn't earning his $82,000-a-year salary." George W. Bush, his political star shining brighter than ever, heads the Republican ticket and is expected to sweep into state and local offices may of his fellow party members.
Lisa Payne, Dallas County Democratic chair, admits that her headquarters has not been able to offer financial support to candidates for at least 10 years now, and no change in policy will take place because of Capehart.
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"The Dallas County Democratic Party has been..." says Capehart, searching for the right word, "courteous. You have got to understand, they are the party of people who don't have a lot of money to give away. It takes every penny they have to cover their bases in south and central Dallas; they don't even talk to people out there in Garland or Mesquite."
Precinct 2 represents northeast Dallas, which has a majority of Republican voters. "Just because there is a Republican majority, it doesn't mean the precinct is mostly Republican--85 percent, 90 percent. Now, I'm just talking a majority here." Yet Capehart is undaunted by these numbers, especially in light of his most innovative campaign tactic: converting reluctant Republicans. He intends to do so by delivering his campaign fliers (which he folds himself and helps distribute) only to those Republicans who aren't hardcore--those who vote Republican but avoid primaries.
Although Capehart has no money to conduct his own polling, he does have a gut feeling about how the race is going. "Ten years ago, when I started participating in political rallies and parades, about half the people in Garland would boo us. Four, five years ago, you'd hear an occasional boo, and some cheers. Now, this year, I heard no boos, and a whole lot of people cheering; some were even calling out my name."
If the absence of boos can somehow translate itself into votes come election day, Mike Capehart might find himself on the commissioners court, where the name-calling that goes on isn't meant to flatter.