When Paul Fielding stepped down from the Dallas City Council, abandoned his reelection bid, and pleaded guilty to federal charges of extortion and mail fraud, his abrupt departure seemed to bleed away what little drama existed in this year's council elections.
But councilwoman Charlotte Mayes, who won reelection Saturday, at least tried to inject some life back into the political season. As the election neared, Mayes' campaign was desperately seeking anyone who would listen to its tale of conspiracy theories, politics, race, sex, wire-taps, media influence, and lawsuits--all borne of a single article in The Dallas Morning News.
On Friday, April 18, the News ran an article authored by reporter Mark Wrolstad on a plan by Burch Management to open a new all-nude club off of Interstate 30 in far East Dallas. The site for the proposed club--which may or may not ever exist, depending on the outcome of pending hearings on zoning issues related to sexually oriented businesses--is in District 7, where councilwoman and Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Mayes faced a challenge from Sharon Middlebrooks.
Depending on whose spin you believed, Wrolstad either made a sloppy mistake in the story, or he was a pawn in a full-blown political conspiracy involving wiretapping and a $50,000 lawsuit pending against the Morning News.
Wrolstad's article, headlined "Company announces plan for all-nude club," covered the basic issues involving sexually oriented businesses and trotted out details of Burch's proposal. It wound down with a seemingly cavalier quote from Scott Burch, a Burch Management representative. "We think it'll be a home run," Burch said, coming across as a cocky entrepreneur who expected to prosper off the moral laxity of District 7.
If District 7 readers were already incensed, the next paragraph was even more disturbing: "Councilmember Charlotte Mayes, whose district includes the site for the proposed nude club, has said the bars should be left alone."
Anyone familiar with the city's long-running--and largely futile--efforts to get rid of sexually oriented businesses knows that weighing in on the side of topless clubs is akin to attempted suicide for a council candidate. Wrolstad's article went on to quote challenger Middlebrooks saying that nude clubs are bad, and that we should all fight them together.
The impact of the Mayes-is-gonna-leave-the-sex-clubs-alone paragraph was apparently swift and severe.
Mayes was furious and called Wrolstad, demanding a retraction. The councilwoman gave out the reporter's phone number to her constituents, urging them to call. She also wanted to know why Wrolstad had not quoted her recent position paper opposing sexually oriented businesses.
"Ms. Mayes wants to keep these businesses out of her district," the position paper reads in part. "We have a few and don't need any more."
Mayes claims that Middlebrooks' supporters pounced on the article and began walking around District 7 showing it to voters who had Mayes signs in their yards.
When Mayes spoke one night at the Claremont Neighborhood Association, she says, Middlebrooks showed up with 50 copies of the News article to pass out, and left some of the copies on a table along with other campaign literature.
Asked about that, Middlebrooks laughed long--as if in disbelief at what things have come to--and unequivocally denied bringing the News article to the meeting.
"I definitely did not bring them, as God be my witness, in spite of what man may say. I know what I did and did not do, and that was not what I did," she said.
Asked if anyone in her campaign was taking the article door-to-door, Middlebrooks said she was "totally unaware of that."
Mayes, who morally credentials herself as a Southern Baptist with two sons on the Dallas police force who neither drink nor smoke, called a press conference to clarify her position and lambaste the News, but no reporters showed up to cover it.
Danny Allen, who describes himself as a "helpmate" to the Mayes campaign, contends that the News article was a calculated attempt to sabotage her candidacy. "It's obvious that the Morning News has fabricated this deal to try to dishonor Charlotte and torpedo her election," Allen argued.
The day the article appeared, the campaign's phones rang off the hook with constituents demanding that the Mayes campaign come take back their yard signs, Allen says.
"The Mayor's office is behind this; he controls the Dallas Morning News," Allen continues. "Charlotte's being way too nice and not trying to draw some kind of conspiracy theory here, but I guarantee you it is."
Allen never delivered on a promise to produce documentation of the conspiracy theory, but there is more to the story.
Mayes does have a lawsuit pending against the News, as well as television stations WFAA and KXAS, accusing them of reporting the contents of an illegally intercepted telephone conversation between Mayes and her brother. The suit, filed in February 1996, seeks $50,000 dollars in damages, plus a cut of advertising revenue. Mayes is being represented by Oklahoma-based attorney Gary Richardson, who is making something of a career out of suing News parent A.H. Belo Corp. Richardson won a $58 million verdict against Belo several years back, at the time the largest libel verdict in U.S. history. Texas Lawyer reports that Richardson has sued Belo at least eight times since the verdict. The Mayes case is scheduled to come to trial in August, according to Allen.
The tape in question recorded Mayes, who is black, discussing her political future and using the word "niggers" in reference to other black politicians. Coming a month after Dallas Independent School District board member Dan Peavy's racially offensive tape recording was made public, Mayes' tape sparked a number of articles in which experts, columnists, and local politicians weighed in on the acceptability of a black person using the word "nigger," and questioned whether the skin color of the speaker had any bearing on the proportion of hate the word contained. Mayes says she won't talk about the tape because the case is in litigation.
In anticipation of her day in court--and the possibility that she might get a chance to prove up her damages--Mayes has been chronicling every slight by the News. The topless club article now joins her compendium of supposed indiscretions by the paper.
In an interview, Mayes sounded alternately exhausted, earnest, wary, and manipulative when discussing the latest flap. Although she will not directly accuse the News of conspiracy herself, she has no problems letting her campaign workers do so. Mayes claims she was not endorsed for reelection by the News because she didn't respond to an invitation to meet with the paper's editorial board. She didn't respond, she says, because of her lawsuit.
Five days after publishing Wrolstad's article, the News published a clarification conceding that Mayes' statement could have been taken out of context, and explicitly stating her position on nude clubs.
When contacted, Wrolstad would say little about the issue. "The clarification speaks for itself," Wrolstad said. When he wrote the article, Wrolstad said, he was not even aware of Mayes' lawsuit, although he seems very much aware of it now. Wrolstad acknowledged Mayes' concern that opponents might use the article to misrepresent her position, and stated repeatedly that he was trying to be fair to both Mayes and Middlebrooks.
As for Mayes, when pressed for specifics about her position on the zoning of sexually oriented clubs, the subject ostensibly at the heart of this whole controversy, she said she wasn't at liberty to speak in detail about the matter. It was, of course, because of pending litigation.
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