Cronies on the Bench
Psst. Hey. Wanna see somethin' dirty? Peep in this little window with me. C'mon! We won't get in trouble. Look in here.
It's City Hall. Yeah, no kidding. They don't know we can see them. For the last year, they've been going through all kinds of elaborate window-dressing gyrations for our benefit, parading around holding hearings and gathering "data" about municipal judges, whatever that means, because they want us to know how logical, efficient and fair they are.
All total bullshit. Look in here and you'll see what they really do. See, they hit a snag with that logical, fair stuff. It didn't work out the right way for some of their buddies. Somebody who was supposed to get a job didn't. Oops. Can't have that.
So what's going on here is a little offshoot meeting where they think nobody's watching. They're going to trash the whole thing. There is a particular dance at the end I don't want you to miss, a quick little two-step you might not even notice if you're not watching for it.
About a year ago, the Dallas City Council launched a big process to fix the city's supposedly screwed-up municipal courts system. I don't want to talk too much about the individuals in this deal right here, Judges Cheryl D. Williams and Timoteo Gonzalez. They were among five judges not recommended for reappointment. There are 11 full-time judges in all. Williams and Gonzalez reacted to the news by immediately suing the city.
Hey, I'm no judge of judges. The City Council's ad hoc court reform committee, using several criteria, decided these two were among five who should go. I have talked to lawyers familiar with the courts — speaking anonymously, so they did not have to fear reprisal — who told me they thought Williams and Gonzalez were good judges.
I don't know. That's not the point here. Be that as it may, we have the whole yearlong window-dressing thing about gathering data and coming to fair and logical conclusions. At the end of it five judges get bounced. Let the rumble begin.
The ad hoc committee was headed up by two council members who have different relationships with courts and the law. One, Angela Hunt, is a lawyer and former litigator, so we could say she has a professional relationship. The other, Delia Jasso, is married to a local judge, so her relationship is of a conjugal nature.
When the committee makes its findings public and the five are about to be put out on the street, major trouble erupts, mainly from council member Vonciel Hill, who has her own relationships to deal with.
Hill was a member of the special committee, but she attended not one of its meetings. Zeeero. Never showed up once. She is a lawyer and former judge, a five-year veteran of the municipal bench, as a matter of fact. And she is not at all happy about Williams and Gonzalez being among those bounced.
Hill immediately paints the whole issue as racial, even though the new roster of judges proposed by the ad hoc committee exactly preserves the racial balance of the old roster. As soon as the race card goes down, Jasso, who is Hispanic, goes down with it. She sort of jumps down.
The new recommendations were her own work with Hunt, and Jasso originally championed them. But the minute Hill drops the race-ace, Jasso strips down and takes a big running belly-flop dive, turns against her own proposal and swims up behind Hill to join the opposition.
Hill then introduces a special "budget amendment" in the city's ongoing budget process. It proposes that two new full-time judgeships be created, naming Williams and Gonzalez in the proposal as the people who should get those posts.
Hunt is incredulous. When Hill brings it up at the council committee budget briefing we're peeping in on, Hunt takes a kind of you-gotta-be-kidding-me attitude. It's the type of event where there's usually very little media attention and a tiny audience.
"It's not right to hand out full-time positions to well-connected attorneys, write them into the budget, create a position in the budget for these attorneys who, I would remind everyone, have sued the city of Dallas," Hunt says.
Hill is highly insulted by Hunt's use of the term cronyism. Highly highly insulted. Most highly. Insulted on high.
It is "absolutely, totally, utterly insulting," she says, for Hunt even to suggest that Williams and Gonzalez are "being proposed because they are friends of council members."
Hill offers this defense of them: "These people went through the process the same as the persons the ad hoc committee recommended to this council." Hill says it haughtily, with indignation.
Yeah, but. Then the committee recommended that those two not be hired back. That was what the process was for. Everybody goes through the process. The process finds that some should be kept and some put out. These were among the put-outs. It's like everybody takes a test, but some people pass and some people flunk. It's ... it's ... oh, forget it. What is this, anyway, the Mad Hatter's tea party?
Hunt keeps coming back right on it. "We are talking about, out of the blue, hiring two full-time judges," she says, "not based on data, not based on metrics, not based on anything tangible that we can understand about efficiencies. It is not data-driven. It is politically driven."
So far, I would say this is all the obvious part. Hill wants those jobs for her buddies, and she's going to say whatever comes into her head to get them. She didn't go to any of the meetings. She doesn't give a rat's ass about the process. She just wants her friends back in their six-figure city jobs.
Now you need to factor in the other thing I told you: Hill has lined this whole thing up on straight racial/ethnic lines. If you're black or brown, you better be for her. The whites who are against her are all going to be slimed as racists.
By now the whites on the council are OK with being slimed as racists for half an hour. Been there, done that. If you're white and you want to serve on the Dallas City Council, you need to be OK with getting called a racist every once in a while. It's like hiccups. Just hold your breath. By the next agenda item it will go away.
So how does this all shake out? The minorities are in the minority. There are 15 people on the council counting the mayor. Only seven are minority. Of the whites who have spoken, all have defended Hunt. That means Hunt wins and Hill is toast, right?
OK, right here is that little two-step I told you about. The fact is that Hill wins. The council votes eight to seven in a straw vote to endorse her position, which means the Hill proposal will be the recommended position when the full budget comes up for a vote later this fall.
How does she win? Who comes over from the white side and votes for her? One person. Mayor Mike Rawlings.
You're thinking, "You're kidding me!" The mayor? The big corporate chief executive all the white people in North Dallas voted for because he was going to run the city like a business?
And this is the reason I wanted to make a window-peeper of you. Forget the stuff between Hunt and Hill. Forget the cronyism. You know that stuff goes on all the time. You weren't born yesterday.
The mayoral two-step is what's important. It's what really makes City Hall tick, the little picture at the heart of the big picture, the miniature in the mural.
Just as he is about to vote, after having said nothing while everyone else spoke, Rawlings mumbles: "It always seems to be about politics. It is. This is a political body. And that's what we do. I have taken ownership of that."
This doesn't sound like a good thing coming, does it? That's what I thought, too, at the time.
Rawlings tries half-heartedly for a higher note: "I am a big believer that we in America are too polarized," he says, "and we must find common ground as best we can. So I don't think compromise is a bad word here."
And then he votes for the crony deal. Hill wins. Hunt loses.
How can that be? I will tell you how. It can, because that is how it always ends here in the back corridors — a tradition that goes back way before Rawlings.
The minority council members always go small-bore. They want crumbs, not cake. They fight for jobs for their buddies, not for jobs. It's a cheap tab. The Citizens Council mayor always reaches across the table and picks it up.
Rawlings is adamant he made the best decision for the city. He says he's passionate about fixing the courts and believes the courts are much better off than they were.
Rawlings says his vote accomplished a compromise between two halves of the council on a divisive political issue. "People are looking to me to pull the council together," he told me.
Fine. But the other reality is that those seven minority votes went straight into Rawlings' hip pocket. The next time some kind of North Dallas/East Dallas, civic-minded, middle-class, neighborhood-based, goody two-shoes, Girl Scout coalition rears its ugly head and gets in the way of a Citizens Council deal — anything from the Trinity toll road to gas drilling — the Citizens Council mayor will pull those votes out of his pocket and use them to shoot the two-shoes down.
And the mayor is right. Why be polarized? There is no reason the two sides can't overcome their differences, as long as one doesn't have any vision and the other has no scruples.
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