City Hall's Slam-Dunk Gang
City Manager John Ware sat stone-faced, staring straight at Larry Duncan while they did it to him. Mayor Ron Kirk turned away, trying to gloss over the moment with decorum and weak jokes. But the truth of it--the smell--broke out over the room in the moment right after they had ripped open and gutted the two-year capital budget for Duncan's council district at a February Dallas City Council briefing. For a few seconds afterward, none of the council members, not even the ones who had voted unsuccessfully to rescue Duncan, would look him in the eye.
It had been an ugly, ugly thing. Their eyes were averted in sympathy and shame. John Ware and Ron Kirk had just administered the political equivalent of a slap hard enough to knock the spit out of Larry Duncan's mouth.
Even then, if he had just managed to stay quiet in the pause after the vote, Duncan
might have denied the mayor his drop of blood. But in that moment, speaking over the hubbub, Duncan asked plaintively, "So what are we cutting?"
The quaver in his voice was a rare crack in the wall of gamesmanship that normally encloses these proceedings. Through it, one could glimpse both the emotion of the moment and the agonizing poverty of much of his district, which includes some of the most depressed neighborhoods in southern Dallas.
Duncan had spent two years getting his constituents to agree on what they could and could not claim as their slice of the bond-program pie. His question seemed fair. The city manager had cut the capital budget for his district to half the budgeted amount for all the city's more affluent districts.
Duncan had made a valiant last-ditch effort to protect his people from the cut. But his motion had failed on a 7-7 split vote.
Now who would tell the people of District 4 what was to be taken away? Would it be the bridge across the railroad yards in the ancient Freedmen's Town at Joppa? The flood-control projects? The improvements along Military Parkway? How would they make up the $4 million that had been yanked away from them?
Kirk pounced on the question. With evident pleasure in his voice, he said, "That's up to you, Mr. Duncan." He told him he'd have to go back to his constituents and tell them they need to "re-prioritize."
In other words, you go tell them in Joppa. Look them in the face and tell them you lost their money. Try that on for size.
You may have missed the funeral. But the 14-1 single-member Dallas City Council system is dead. Mayor Ron Kirk and John Ware are the slam-dunk gang of City Hall. They run everything. It's not 14-1 anymore. It's 2-nothing.
That's the unmistakable impression left by a month of interviews with people involved in the political process, with grassroots community organizers and with some members of the Dallas City Council, past and present.
There isn't even a lot of debate about it. The only real difference of opinion is how long it's been dead, who did it, and if it was euthanasia.
Even some of the people who say Kirk and Ware have become City Hall's slam-dunk duo blame the actual death of single-member districts on the people who occupy them, some of whom seem to have difficulty understanding compound sentences, let alone policy issues.
Gerald Britt, pastor of New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in South Dallas and a stalwart in the battle for single-member districts in the late 1980s, put the issue at City Hall succinctly:
"Nature abhors a vacuum," Britt says.
Though Britt doesn't think Kirk and Ware are all that terrible as rulers, he worries about what the current setup may bode for the inevitable day, perhaps not all that far off, when they leave.
"The thing that is dangerous, as long as you've got amateurs and political unsophisticates on the council," he says, "is that you leave the potential for a really bad mayor and a really bad city manager to take over the city."
Lots of people do think Ware and Kirk are terrible rulers. But no matter what you think of them personally, the fact seems to be that Kirk and Ware are the only ones in the house. They are the people who can make things happen at City Hall. Council members who dare cross them are dealt with vindictively. And the programs Kirk and Ware support are the programs of the city's traditional downtown business establishment.
It's not an academic point for the people who are out there trying to change the city. For them, the effects are personal and harsh. The landscape is littered with examples: Members of a neighborhood group who've fought for years to get badly needed street improvements find their projects simply lopped off the manager's budget without a word. A young auto-racing entrepreneur with a dream for reviving a decaying block in South Dallas is told by his council member that she can do nothing to help him. The whole process by which dreams and goals bubble up out of grassroots communities is not only stunted and ignored, but seems to be actively reviled by the regime at City Hall.
There's enormous irony in this moment in the city's history. Neighborhood leaders, civil rights activists, yuppie re-doers, preservationists, all kinds of people who believed in the power of communities fought for the 14-1 single-member council system that is now in its seventh year. They won. We've got it. And now these very people are weaker and less welcome at City Hall than ever before. "Slam-Dunk Gang" is the epithet with which frustrated black leaders have described the white and Hispanic majority on recent Dallas school boards. The term is a little rusty, especially now that the downtown business establishment's Ultimate Slam-Dunk Secret Weapon, former superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, has been trotted off to the federal pokey with her hands behind her back.
But it applies perfectly at City Hall, allowing for multiple layers of irony and a good deal of game-playing genius. There, the new and much more cleverly constructed Slam-Dunk Gang is made up of two men who seem to function almost as one.
City Manager John Ware, the hireling of the pair, is an ex-military man with a martial bearing. He draws some predictable darts for being too tough on subordinates and sometimes using naughty words when he bawls them out. But he's a paid boss. That's his style. They hired him.
It's the mayor who draws a more bitter and emotional brand of complaint from critics, including members of his own City Council--even some who appear to be his staunchest allies in their public remarks.
One member, generally thought of as a right-hand man to the mayor, extracted a blood vow of off-the-record anonymity, closed his office door, then said in whispers, "The mayor is very, very arrogant. He doesn't listen to anyone. He has the answer before you ask the question."
But why are we talking in whispers?
We are talking in whispers because the council member doing the talking is seriously afraid of Ron Kirk. In Kirk's three years of elective office, he has acquired a behind-the-scenes reputation for brass-knuckled vindictiveness, in sharp contrast with his public persona as a glib, quick-witted, back-slapping, jokey kind of guy.
You might argue that the current Dallas City Council often needs a little kick-start in order to achieve a fully wakeful state. But in truth, not all of the council is composed of space debris. There are still a few in there who are a lot sharper than what Dallas deserves for not paying them to serve.
Larry Duncan, for example, represents one of the city's most racially and economically diverse districts, in southwest Dallas. He probably comes closest of any council member to having a coherent, reliable, predictable political organization in his district. (Donna Blumer, who represents a much more conservative, whiter district in North Dallas, is also very organized politically.)
Duncan is also controversial. He's a white man who consistently gets elected in what was supposed to have been a safe black district. But he gets elected with lots of black votes, as well as white.
Some people like him a lot. There are people who don't like him a lot. But almost everyone thinks he's good at the difficult process of consensus--staying in touch with the wishes of his constituents.
Larry Duncan ought to be good at it. He was one of the early architects of the 14-1 system, and, before that, when he was president of the Dallas Homeowners League, he helped create the movement that made 14-1 happen.
The single-member-district idea was always simple. And big. The idea was to let people rule their own communities. The old system included two at-large members, in addition to the mayor, who was also elected city-wide. The other eight council members ran from districts in their own parts of town.
You could win a district by trudging door-to-door, going to crime-watch meetings, speaking at Rotary Clubs and garden parties, calling people up one by one at dinner time and not letting them off the phone until they promised you their votes. You could be poor or middle-class and win without going into somebody's pocket.
But to win the city-wide seats, you had to be able to afford a lot of TV advertising--very expensive, especially for an unpaid job. So whoever had the biggest bucks always won the at-large seats. The money they used was almost always raised money. And it almost never failed to do the trick.
A certain portion of the business establishment that had an interest in city business--especially real estate developers, airline companies, road and bridge builders, that ilk--always made sure their people got the most money. That way, the old system gave three guaranteed seats on the council to people who had a business reason for dominating city decisions. All they needed were two more votes out of the remaining five, and they ruled.
So they ruled.
The shortcomings of the old system were usually viewed in strictly racial terms. The system was replaced in 1991 after a federal judge ruled that the old system of three at-large seats gave control to the white community. But the trick was that it wasn't really about race. Race was, if anything, a diversion to keep people from seeing that everybody's political power had been usurped.
In the early and mid-1980s in Dallas, middle-class and working-class white people started figuring out that they were getting screwed too, just like the ethnic minorities. People like Duncan decided they didn't want to be ruled by developers any more than African-Americans wanted to be ruled by whites.
Everybody wanted to rule himself and live like an American. Everybody. That's really why the city went to a system of all single-member districts.
And now it's gone. It was only around for seven years. But the single-member-district system is effectively extinct.
Politics is more than money, but money is sometimes the clearest reflection of what's going on. In an election next May, Dallas voters will decide whether to allow the city council to borrow approximately $543 million by selling bonds over the next four years.
That money, if approved, will be divvied into pots, most of it going to the high-profile big-trophy projects backed by the city's major real-estate development interests--the plan to rebuild the Trinity River and money for the arts district, for example.
In fact, so much of the bond issue will be sucked up by the flash-and-glory deals that only about $140 million--a quarter of the total--will be available for the basic street, gutter, and pothole things that most council members' constituents seem to yearn for.
And why is it that so many of the city's average, everyday citizens keep telling their council members that what they want is the streets fixed, the garbage picked up by city employees instead of exploited homeless people, storm sewers repaired, trees planted, medians mowed? Are people in Dallas just whiners? Are they imagining that the city is decaying before their eyes when it is not?
No. It's nobody's imagination. In fact, there is a single number, a figure, a statistic that explains everything. It is the number on which to keep one's eyes. It is the number that tells the story of the city in today's perplexing times:
According to information supplied to the City Council by the city manager, that is the amount of backlogged work--deferred maintenance, nuts and bolts, stuff people want fixed or replaced or somehow remedied--sitting on the books of City Hall today.
Dallas has a credit rating that allows it to borrow approximately $135 million a year at good interest rates. In order to fix the things the citizens of the city have told their council members they want fixed, Dallas would have to borrow every cent it could, spend every cent it could--forget about the river deal and the arts district and the arena and everything else except what the citizens say they want fixed in their neighborhoods--and it would take 23 1/2 years to get the task done, long enough actually for another generation to be born and grow up, and why not just have them do it?
But that's only if we were spending all of our bond money on fixing the city, not just 25 percent. At the rate the mayor and the city manager want to spend the money, taking care of the city's basic "inventory needs list" will take more than 91 years. By then, people may be living on other planets, or, more pessimistically, in trees again.
That's another way of saying we're not going to do it. Other fish to fry. Forget about it.
The $140 million left for the basic needs of the city over the next four years is divided into pots of approximately $10 million for each council district. Up until now, the informal rule of the council has been that each council member decides how his or her slice of the bond money should be allocated.
It's up to them. And who knows? Some of them probably consult the Ouija board to figure out how to spread it. Others obviously consult the people who pay for their campaigns. Larry Duncan, like Blumer, gets out and around. So do a few others.
For Duncan, it's meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Lots more meetings than most people could stand. But that's how he does it.
What Ware and Kirk did to Larry Duncan over the bond money at the February 18 briefing wasn't exactly an ambush. Duncan, who has been around city politics for the better part of a quarter century, saw it coming. Several weeks before the meeting, Duncan sat down with the Dallas Observer over a cup of coffee at a Denny's restaurant in his district and laid out exactly what they were going to do to him. He wanted to explain why it wasn't just fun and games to him.
Duncan represents District 4 in southwest Dallas--a diverse hodgepodge of ethnicities and economic cadres, including some snappy new neighborhoods, some respectably aging middle-class subdivisions, and a lot of staggering poverty.
"But we don't have problems about sharing the money in my district. We work it out," he said. "People in my district are accustomed to making do with limited resources. That doesn't seem to be a problem for them. Everybody here gets it."
Tapping his finger on the Formica table, he said, "There are unlimited things people might like to have. But then there are things like the bridge at Joppa that we just have to do."
Joppa is an old Freedmen's town, cut off by a bend of the Trinity River on one side, bound up and trussed on all others by highways and a railroad switching yard. It is one of the city's sinfully forgotten and neglected pockets of poverty--a patch of rural East Texas in the shadow of downtown.
"I had two constituents who died in Joppa last year while the ambulances sat on the other side of the tracks waiting for a train to clear," Duncan said.
His constituents in Joppa want a bridge over the rail yard. They want it badly. They have wanted it for years. His district has consistently voted in favor of city bond issues, hoping to get its own narrow wedge of the pie. They knew they couldn't get the whole overpass all at once, so they settled for only the design portion of the project out of the 1995 bond election. They were told the bridge itself would be built with money from the upcoming election.
But Ron Kirk doesn't like Larry Duncan. Duncan, in fact, is part of City Hall's strangest club and alliance--The People Who Aren't With Ron. It's difficult to see any unifying theme in their group other than Kirk's dislike for them. The other founding member of the club, and a very unlikely ally of Duncan's, indeed, is arch-conservative council member Donna Blumer, who represents a North Dallas district.
At her desk in City Hall, Blumer related a lot of ancient City Council history to explain why Kirk is so vindictive toward her and Duncan, as he was toward former councilman Paul Fielding, now in the clink. A lot of it, she says, goes back to Kirk's first few days in office, when he was furious with some of the council for resisting his personal selection for mayor pro tem, Chris Luna. But the end of the story, according to Blumer, is that Kirk whips up on her and Duncan because he needs people to use as an example. He beats them up to keep the others on the council in line.
"He stripped Larry and me of our committee posts," Blumer says. "Then he worked very hard to keep all of our appointees from being put on any significant subcommittees."
Duncan had been chairman of the council's health and human services committee. Blumer had served on the transportation committee and wanted badly to be chairperson or at least vice chair. Her constituents feel hammered by traffic congestion in the LBJ/Tollway region of the city, and the transportation committee is where the key decisions will be made on those issues.
Kirk used his appointive power to bust Duncan from the chairmanship of health and human services and to keep Blumer off the transportation committee entirely.
Maybe that's just politics. But it isn't the way the game was played before Ron Kirk took office.
Former Councilman Jerry Bartos says, "It wasn't like that." He told the story of Pleasant Grove Councilman John Evans, who was caught hammering campaign yard signs for the man who was running against Annette Strauss for mayor.
"That was in the paper," Bartos says. "But after Annette won, she appointed Evans to the chair of the finance committee. She thought he was the best for the job, and all that campaign business was behind them."
Not Kirk. He plays a relentlessly jugular game in which personal slights are never forgotten. No one has been on the dirty end of that stick worse than Larry Duncan.
Duncan spent two years asking his constituents what they wanted to spend their next bond-election budget on. They told him. He drew up his list.
Then Ware informed him that he would be stripping away $4 million of Duncan's $10 million for a new branch library in his district.
Duncan told Ware he had discussed the branch library with his constituents. They didn't want it. Not yet. They were willing to spend part of their money for the land for the library, phasing it in on a time-delayed budget the way they had to do everything else in their part of town.
But not the whole thing. They had other things they wanted more. Like flood-control projects. Like the ambulance bridge at Joppa. They wanted to put off the library building.
Too bad. Ware was taking it all. Now.
At the nasty little briefing in the back of City Hall, Duncan pleaded for his constituents' money back, his voice shaking with emotion. Kirk explained coolly that wealthy patrons like Margaret McDermott might stop kicking in so generously to help the city's library system if the city didn't make the tough choices and kick in some of its own money.
His tough choice? Take all the money from Duncan's district. Now.
Duncan fought it to the last. He proposed an amendment to the bond package taking the branch library out of his budget, so that he could spend his money the way his constituents told him to.
At the briefing, Sandy Greyson, the normally reticent new member from Far North Dallas, made a pointed, compelling speech in Duncan's favor and against the Kirk-Ware attack on a lone council member. "I think this is just going to tear us apart," she said.
In a quietly intense speech, Don Hicks, a long-standing leader in the black community who usually tries not to get cross-wise with Kirk and Ware, also took on the slam-dunk duo.
Hicks said, "This district stuff is important. I don't expect the mayor to have any respect for that, because he's at-large. He's the 1 in 14-1. But I don't think that most of us want to encroach upon the deference that we've traditionally shown each district. We've said that that's the form of government closest to the people.
"With all of us out here scrounging for money for our districts, what we generally get is a more meaningful and robust spending plan. That's the genius of the system."
Hicks said he thought allowing the city manager and the mayor to soak up a single council member's budget by loading large city-wide projects into it was an assault on the single-member system equivalent to "changing the charter by fiat."
Al Lipscomb, the aging black councilman who is hip-deep in his own legal problems, seemed especially distressed by what was going on, flailing his arms as he spoke like a man caught in ropes. He clearly thought the assault on Duncan was wrong, but he as much as said he was not free to come to his aid.
Kirk lectured them against their parochial views, reminding them that they were elected to the Dallas City Council, "not the Oak Cliff City Council or the Pleasant Grove City Council."
It was exactly the kind of condescending speech that advocates for single-member districts used to have to endure from the downtown oligarchy back in the 1980s.
Part of the enormous irony of what's going on at City Hall now is the way the race card has been played. Kirk and Ware are black. Both men have an ability to express themselves and deal with controversial issues in ways that tend to put white people at ease. Kirk especially has a personal charm and intelligence that can quickly disarm even the prickliest of white skeptics.
But Kirk is also enormously popular in the rank-and-file black community, where his appeal sometimes verges on the magical, in spite of the fact that he comes from nowhere politically in the city, was hand-picked by the white business establishment, and is maintained on a generous salary by a major downtown law firm.
Nowhere is there greater frustration over the racial puzzle at City Hall than among the longtime veteran community organizers of the black community--not the accommodationists but the tough grassroots political opinion-makers who have always fought for African-American self-determination.
"The black community in Dallas never believed that a black man could be mayor," said Peter Johnson, who was a civil rights organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. "Then Ron Kirk was chosen and given to the black community by the white business leadership. The trick that white people must understand is that this has to do with racism. The only reason black people voted for him was because of the color of his skin."
That he is the city's first black mayor, with a magnetic appeal to the rank and file, makes most black leaders loath to criticize Kirk publicly. White political leaders have to walk a careful line for similar reasons. In a city that is still decades short of anything resembling racial poise, both sides pull back nervously from certain levels of criticism, leaving between them a vacuum that has become Kirk and Ware's political base of operation.
Johnson, like many of the veterans in the city's community organizing wars, can't help expressing a certain admiration for the sheer cleverness of the establishment in coming up with the Kirk-Ware mechanism.
"I tell people I have a lot of admiration and respect for the people who run this city," he said. "Not only do they play hardball, but they're slick as most pimps I know."
The tendency at City Hall to move major public policy issues off the council table isn't limited to the bond election. A number of City Hall watchers believe, for example, that the whole Love Field lawsuit business between Kirk and Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr is a sham in which the state court judge handling the case is playing the role of either dupe or co-conspirator.
Nothing may express this skepticism better than the fact that former Dallas City Councilman Jerry Bartos--champion for decades of the effort to get the Wright Amendment flight restrictions lifted from Dallas' Love Field--doesn't like what's going on. That's in spite of the fact that the Wright Amendment restrictions probably are going to be partly lifted at last, as part of a settlement in the dueling lawsuits between the two cities.
Bartos ought to be dancing on his desk. But he's not. Simply put, Bartos thinks the settlement in the lawsuit will be a backroom slam-dunk deal to guarantee the monopolies of American Airlines at D/FW and Southwest at Love Field.
"I don't know how it works exactly, but I think it's a game," Bartos says.
By agreeing to sue each other and then treating the thing like a football rivalry, the two mayors have put the matter safely off the public agenda and into the hands of lawyers, Bartos and others believe. The deal, when it is done, will be presented as a fait accompli to the two hapless city councils.
"They will allow through-ticketing at Love Field," Bartos says, "but they will continue to force planes leaving Love Field to land in the surrounding states, stopping every 280 miles or so. Probably nobody could come into Love Field and compete with Southwest on that basis."
While protecting Southwest's monopoly at Love Field, the deal would also keep Southwest out of American's monopoly at D/FW.
"It is an arrangement that divides the market and maintains two virtual monopolies in aviation for the metroplex traveler to deal with," Bartos says.
And all of it will be done without much reference to that pathetic City Council thing downtown.
So solid is the lock on things at City Hall that huge controversial issues fly right past the City Council without stirring a hair on a single council member's forehead. Some members don't get it. Some are afraid. Some have given up. There are many paths to catatonia.
Right in the midst of the debate on the bond package, the Northrup family announced that a Houston developer wants to build a $100 million apartment complex on Northrup property in the Farmers Market area. During the recent briefing, before the esteemed council voted to remove both of Larry Duncan's hands and one foot, several of them made glowing speeches thanking the slam-dunk duo for bringing this wonderful deal to them.
The developers were asking the city to put $11 million into the project, and council members said that seemed like a great deal: $11 million to get $100 million.
Well, oopsy on that. No, $11 million doesn't get us $100 million. That really would be a wonderful deal. If that sort of deal were available, we should expect to see people flying in from Bahrain and elsewhere to get in on more of the same.
No, the city's $11 million investment would get the city an additional amount of tax base that may or may not wind up being worth $100 million. At today's tax rates, that additional amount of tax base will take 17 years to pay back the city's $11 million investment. And by then, there's no telling if the apartments will still be worth enough to pay any decent taxes at all.
That amount, of course--$11 million--is more than the four-year capital budget for an entire City Council district. In Mr. Duncan's case, of course, it's twice as much. It's not a trivial amount.
Not that developing Farmers Market is a bad idea. It may be a great idea. But it's difficult to imagine a time in the last 20 years when such a large idea could move through the minds of the entire City Council and appear not to rustle a single mental leaf.
Only days before, the council had acquiesced just as meekly to the manager's decision to stretch out the payments on the bond issue by an extra year and borrow an additional $73 million.
Maybe it sounds good. It's what the guy on the lot says when you look like you might want to buy the Honda: You can afford the Lexus. Same payments. Just more of them.
It will give the mayor and the manager a public relations ploy when opponents of the bond issue argue that all of the money will go to the river and only a pittance will be spent on the $3.2 billion worth of deferred potholes, sewers, curbs, and gutters.
They can say, "Oh no. We feel your pain. We're borrowing extra money. We'll get to you. Be patient."
But you're going to have to be really patient, more patient than you were going to have to be already. The new plan means the street improvements and nuts-and-bolts projects people want are being pushed even farther to the back of the gravy train. In fact, what the mayor and the manager are doing is heavily front-loading the city's borrowing capacity in order to get the trophy projects, especially the river, paid for up front.
Most of the nuts-and-bolts projects that council members have promised their constituents are premised on what used to be the city's basic policy on borrowing money: that it would borrow about $200 million in elections held every three years.
So now the city is going to borrow $543 million and take four years to pay it off. But when did that policy change happen? There probably isn't a more fundamental policy issue than the underlying capital-borrowing plan of the city. It governs everything that can happen, everything that can be done. But there you have it. Kirk and Ware sailed it over the council's heads, and nary a propeller turned on a beanie.
In all of this, there is a single overarching question, capable of being expressed in a single three-letter word.
If Ron Kirk is a man making a career in politics, which he ought to be, and if John Ware is a man making a career in public administration, which he seems to be, then why would they want to do anything other than what the voting public of the city wants them to do? If there is a general sense out there that the city is sliding down into a $3.2 billion rat-hole of its own deferred needs, and if that sense is what brings the voters to their feet, then why wouldn't Kirk and Ware be doing everything in their power to meet that demand?
Why instead do they seem to be devoting all of their muscle and energy to shutting down small, community-driven issues in favor of things like the $246 million Trinity River bond package?
Neither Kirk nor Ware would talk to the Observer for this story. Kirk did return one call, which the Observer missed, but he declined to return several more after his press spokeswoman determined the story would contain criticism of him. A spokesman for Ware said he was "not interested" in commenting.
There are recurring rumors that Ware is a short-timer and will jump to a job in the private sector. It's possible he sees big, high-profile projects like the new sports arena and the river project as better career monuments than a lot of little pothole jobs scattered around the city.
It's easier to speculate about Ron Kirk's motivation. From the moment he was first mentioned as a candidate for mayor, his main backers have included people like William T. Solomon, a past chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council who was co-chairman of Kirk's campaign finance committee.
Austin Industries, founded by Solomon's grandfather, is a Forbes 500 company historically involved in public-works projects, especially roads and bridges. Austin Industries built the downtown Triple Underpass, the old Fort Worth toll road (now Interstate 30), and more recently has been a major player in the construction and expansion of the Dallas Convention Center.
The river project promises to be a $2 billion roads and bridges and levees public-works bonanza for someone with solid connections at City Hall--probably one of the biggest public-works projects of its kind anywhere in the nation.
Kirk draws a salary reported at about $200,000 a year from the downtown law firm of Gardere & Wynne, consistently one of the top 10 biggest law firms in Texas over the last decade.
Gardere & Wynne does not publicize its client list, but the list is known to include American Airlines. Also on the list in recent years have been Electronic Data Systems, U.S. Homes, and Donald Carter, former owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
Larry Schoenbrun, managing partner of Gardere & Wynne, says the firm never seeks to influence city decisions and turns away clients who want help at City Hall. He concedes that being mayor is "substantially a full-time job" and that Kirk spends little time at the firm's offices, but he says Kirk does maintain "rather regular hours here, though limited."
If Kirk seems to march to some drummer other than community pressure, and if one were inclined to guess who that drummer or drummers might be, it would be hard to resist guessing that it's probably the same old drum major who has always made Dallas City Hall march.
Bid'ness. The Citizens Council. The crew downtown that has a dollars-and-cents interest in public-policy decisions coming out of City Hall.
So what does any of that mean for real people? Kirk and Ware will say it doesn't mean anything, of course. All is well. Show's over. Everybody move along home now.
The numbers are sufficiently rubbery, to say nothing of the people spouting them, that's it's difficult to come up with a precise measure for what the Kirk-Ware slam-dunk bond program will do to neighborhood needs. The duo have conceded that it means the city will have to push back the basic streets-and-gutters items at least an additional year, to the end of the four-year cycle.
But even that assumes a great many things--that the city's tax base will continue to grow by at least 2 percent a year, that conditions in the national economy will remain favorable. A dip here or a blip there in the trends, and the city might not be able to sell those street bonds four years from now, whether the voters have approved them or not.
Meanwhile, the anecdotal evidence everywhere is that the manager is already scouring the landscape, searching hard for projects he can shut down or put off in order to take the heat off the trophy deals.
In the Claremont neighborhood, near Ferguson Road and R.L. Thornton, fate has thrown together a mainly white middle-class subdivision with what were some ghastly Soweto-style slum tenement buildings only a few years ago. People from the two sides of the tracks pulled together, and they have accomplished miracles in cleaning up the apartments and fighting for other improvements.
In this bond election, the people of the Claremont Addition Neighborhood Association anticipated they would finally get three street-improvement projects that would be the culmination of years of activism and working with City Hall. Vikki Martin, an artist who is a mainstay of the group, was excited when her council member, Charlotte Mayes, sent her the city manager's bond proposal and told her all three of the street projects were included.
"But I looked through it, and two of them were gone," Martin says. "I called Ms. Mayes, and I said I couldn't find two-thirds of our stuff. She said, 'Oh, don't worry, it's in there.'"
No. It wasn't. You really have to read the whole thing. Two-thirds of the projects the neighborhood had worked for years to get--all of which Mayes had told them they would get--were gone. Disappeared.
The manager took them.
"You can imagine the embarrassment that council member Mayes must have felt," Martin says, "to be telling us, 'It's on the bond program,' and then we do the research and it's not. And this is to a community that's done the work on this for years and years."
Derrick Mitchem is a 30-year-old, second-generation, professional drag-car racer, well known on the national circuit, who grew up in Dallas. Nine months ago he bought a funky, falling-down building in South Dallas--the original headquarters of the Bama Pie Co.
Named for the lady who originally baked them, Cornelia Alabama Marshall, Bama Pies are little pecan confections you can still find in some convenience stores. The pies gave birth to what is now a mammoth food-processing corporation headquartered in Tulsa, run by Bama Marshall's granddaughter.
Mitchem, a rangy, good-natured, quick-smiling guy with a lot of energy, wants to restore the old Bama Pie Company as a historic site and set it up as the new headquarters for his racing company. Leaning on the trunk of a car next to the building recently, he proudly displayed architectural renderings and a raft of letters from preservation experts saying his project had real merit.
He stumbled on the property and ordinarily would never have considered investing in that area. He's from a relatively privileged background. The blasted area around the old Bama building isn't where he grew up. But something about the place and the idea spoke deeply to him.
"Can you imagine?" he says, nodding toward kids picking their way across a littered intersection a week ago. "I want to use part of it for a display room for historic race cars, so kids could come and look in the window and see them. Can you imagine what that could do for this area?"
He says that six months ago he was told by more than one City Council member there could be as much as $150,000 to $250,000 in local community-development financing available for his project.
"Now they just say, 'It's not there anymore.' That's all I'm getting. 'It's not there.'"
He turns, looks at his building, and exhales a mighty sigh. "This is something that really hits hard to me," he says. "This is my life. This is something that I want to do."
Of course, beneath the surface of the bad news, there is wonderful news. It's a mysterious blessing on us all that the city even has people in it like Vikki Martin and Derrick Mitchem, people who weave the fabric of community around them according to some spiritual warp even they probably don't fully understand.
The weavers of community enjoy successes, even without money. Usually without money. And they do get help from good people who work for the city.
Jonathan Sterling is a 29-year-old laborer from New Hampshire who has put down roots in a bitter landscape of bottle shards and discarded drug needles along the Santa Fe tracks in East Dallas. He and his young wife own two old sun-bleached houses that rise above the ruined dirt like shipwrecks. They have helped organize the neighborhood around a host of causes.
He conducted a walking tour, proudly showing off the vacant lots where he has persuaded someone to dump truckloads of chip-mulch, steaming on a cool morning recently. "We're trying to create a layer of earth between the glass and the children's feet," he said.
He showed off the best houses on his block and the apartment buildings where landlords have been persuaded to haul off years of accumulated trash.
The end of the tour was his pride and joy--a scrawny park next to the tracks where the Parks Department has built a tidy tin-roofed pavilion with a concrete floor. Parks workers have put in sandboxes and a wooden climbing structure and will soon plant trees.
It's a patch of orderly green in a world of chaos--a sign that someone cares.
"The city built that pavilion," he says, as if announcing the Miracle at Lourdes. "They work with us all the time to keep this park like it is, really nice. They have a Central Services Team that comes in and sets up meetings between us and the people in the city we need to get to help us.
"We are very, very happy with this program and with the help we've gotten from the city," he says.
Those are the people who build the city anyway--the grassroots community builders and the hands-on city employees who work with them. They are the pillars. The city doesn't spill out of a sports arena. It grows up organically from places where someone found a way to create new soil between the glass and the feet of playing children.
There are all kinds of people who work for the city who want to do good work, who draw satisfaction from helping build the community, just as grassroots organizers do. The single-member system was supposed to have reached up from the grassroots, found the outreached hands of help from City Hall, and helped both sides accomplish together the quiet thatching of community.
But it didn't. The single-member system has failed. It's gone. We don't have 14-1. We have 2-zip.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.