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Damaged goods

Ambush: At a sparsely attended candidates' forum sponsored by KNON-FM, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price began heckling Sandra Crenshaw, with the apparent consent of the forum's moderators and sponsors. Price, who is backing candidate James Fantroy, was seated with a number of relatives of former council member Al Lipscomb. Crenshaw repaired to an office in the Tommie Allen Recreation Center and dialed 911. When police arrived, debate organizers told them that a little heckling from the audience was permitted and that everything was under control. As Crenshaw put it later, "Everybody knows this was a set-up deal."

Studio portraits of the mayor and 13 council members decorate a side wall in the cavernous, glass-and-concrete atrium at Dallas City Hall. There should be 14 council photos, but behind a strategically placed fig tree, there's only an empty spot where the smile of District 8's longtime councilman, Al Lipscomb, once beamed.

For the past two weeks, Lipscomb, 74 and ailing, has been living in a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth, awaiting sentencing after his conviction in January on 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors proved to an Amarillo jury that Lipscomb accepted an envelope stuffed with $1,000 cash from Yellow Cab every month in exchange for voting to help drive the cab company's competitors off the road through increased city regulation.

To fill Lipscomb's seat -- which he held for 14 years -- and the blank place on the wall, a special election will be held May 6 in District 8. The crescent-shaped district runs along Interstate 20 at Dallas' southern edge; it's 60 percent black and dominated at the polls by owners of small, '60s-era single-family tract homes. As a whole, people in the area never get too worked up about municipal elections. Roughly 7 percent of the district's 32,162 registered voters went to the polls to return Lipscomb to office last May. Despite facing a federal graft indictment, the beloved "Big Daddy" Lipscomb coasted to victory with 79 percent of the vote.

Lipscomb's influence and the historically small turnout can't be overemphasized in sizing up the race for his replacement, say politically savvy types in the district. The small vote puts an emphasis on personal networks and some inventive get-out-the-vote efforts, such as election-day barbecue parties and plying the elderly with absentee ballots.

And those factors have a number of people in the district saying the four-way contest is more a two-way struggle between James Fantroy, Lipscomb's appointee to the city's Plan Commission for the past five years, and Sandra Crenshaw, a former Lipscomb park board appointee who spent one term on the council when term limits made Lipscomb ineligible to run. They're the candidates with a built-in base of support.

It's a disappointing choice, to say the least, a number of residents say. In a contest brought about by dishonesty, cheating, lying, and worse, neither promises a clean break from the past.

Court documents and state licensing and housing department records -- as well as some stunning admissions by Crenshaw to the Dallas Observer -- cast the Fantroy-Crenshaw duel as one between a man who paid a $3,000 fine for cheating on a state licensing exam and was twice charged with, though not convicted of, felony offenses, and a woman who 14 months ago said in court papers that she lacked the emotional stability to hold a steady job.

Beyond that, Crenshaw conceded in an interview that the feds also accused her of bribery in the Yellow Cab-Lipscomb case. She agreed to a limited immunity deal and testified for the state before the grand jury that indicted Lipscomb. Although Crenshaw admits she accepted cash from Yellow Cab, she says she either reported the money as campaign contributions or solicitied it as charity for social-service organizations in her district.

There are two other candidates in the race: Ruth Steward, a twice-a-month substitute teacher who was trounced by Lipscomb last year; and Joe Tave, a high-school history teacher who helped with Lipscomb's legal defense fund until, he says, Fantroy's supporters drove him off. Tave, a first-time candidate, has been hamstrung by a lack of money and organization. If that weren't enough, two weeks ago someone stole his pickup truck, which was loaded with campaign materials. He had jumped out to hammer up a yard sign and left it running.

Neither Tave nor Steward seems to be doing what it takes to break through in a district that even Tave says seems more willing to trust a familiar rogue than a newcomer like him.

"It's unbelievable we have candidates like this," says a member of a downtown business organization for which several of the District 8 hopefuls appeared soliciting support. "It would be funny if weren't so serious."

At times in politics, the Richard Nixons are followed by the Jimmy Carters, men who promise to clean up the mess, if nothing else. But this is not one of those times. Both Crenshaw and Fantroy are telling voters they oppose efforts to strengthen the city's ethics code. "I don't need an ethics code to keep me honest," Fantroy told the handful of voters who showed up at one recent campaign debate. "Now that we're getting to be the majority, all of a sudden we have to have ethics down there," Fantroy said, referring to the council's first-time minority majority.  

Crenshaw says a less forgiving electorate -- not an ethics code -- will clean up District 8. Her campaign, she said, is all about "full exposure" of the practices of crooked politicians she knows. She conceded in an interview, though, that she accepted use of a truck, received free car repairs, and often stopped by the Yellow Cab office for a drink before and after meetings -- all while sitting on the council and championing the company's position in votes and interviews.

Asked why she shouldn't be the first casualty in the voters' war on corruption, Crenshaw answered, "They know what I've done. We'll let them judge."

Says Jeannette Brantley-Wango, a former southern Dallas council candidate and occasional columnist, of the candidates: "God help the citizens of District 8."

It is impossible to underestimate the value of an Al Lipscomb endorsement in District 8, several neighborhood leaders say, and James Lee Fantroy claims to be holding the golden coin.

Three of Fantroy's maroon-and-white signs decorate the front yard of Lipscomb's modest Polk Terrace house. And while Lipscomb has not officially said it -- he could not be reached for comment in Fort Worth -- Fantroy is telling voters he is indeed the anointed one.

From 1995 until his resignation to run for council earlier this year, Fantroy was Lipscomb's appointee to the city Plan Commission, which hears zoning issues. Fantroy had considered running for council in 1995 but pulled back when Lipscomb got in the race. Crenshaw and others say Fantroy's appointment to the planning board was a reward, part of a new-found alliance.

Back in 1993, when Lipscomb endorsed Sandra Crenshaw, Fantroy pointedly informed a reporter, as a knock against Lipscomb, "The community asked me to run. Al Lipscomb didn't ask me to run." Now, Fantroy has a list of influential southern-sector politicos and Lipscomb friends in his camp, including Commissioner John Wiley Price, Dallas NAACP chapter president Lee Alcorn, Justices of the Peace Thomas Jones and Charles Rose, and Darren Reagan, head of the Black State Employees Association of Texas. Price wrote an endorsement letter on official-looking stationery last week, which the Fantroy campaign sent to thousands of district voters.

"Eighty percent of the people in the district will love Al Lipscomb as long as he lives," says Mary Watkins, president of the Arden Terrace homeowners' association. "I really feel people are gonna vote for [Fantroy] because they'll figure he'll do what Al wants him to do. Al put him where he is."

Beyond that, Fantroy is the only person, as one observer put it, "who has the money and will to do the things you need to do to win."

Fantroy's campaign headquarters proves that point particularly well. It is filled with printed signs, beautifully produced mailers and door cards, precinct maps, volunteer sign-in lists, and a coffee machine, all overseen by a full-time office manager. Fantroy is clearly running a professional campaign. He opened the office a few weeks ago in his security company digs near the Southwest Center Mall.

Down the street is an Elect Fantroy billboard, one of at least a dozen in the district.

Through April 5, Fantroy was the only candidate in the race with more than a few hundred dollars to spend: $25,000 and counting, most of it his own, according to his most recent campaign filing.

With it, he's touting his experience in the security-guard business: the good part of the record, not the one you find in criminal court files.

The 62-year-old Fantroy has for the past decade run J.L. Security and Investigation Co., and three years ago he completed the contentious purchase of a 64-unit apartment complex near the intersection of Loop 12 and Lancaster Road. "Doing business as" records in Dallas County show that Fantroy operated a liquor store through most of the '80s -- Fantroy's Liquor on South Lamar Street -- before getting into the security business. A native of Fairfield, southeast of Corsicana, he graduated from Dogan High School there.

Records show that Fantroy registered his security company in Dallas in 1989 but that for several years he had operated the company without the required license from the Texas Commission on Private Security.

In September 1989, the commission ordered Fantroy to pay a $3,000 fine for cheating on the licensing exam, operating without a license, and illegally carrying a weapon, says Ken Nichols, the commission's interim director. The commission found that Fantroy was operating without a license when he applied for one in October 1988. He signed a sworn statement saying he was a peace officer performing security for Minyard's Food Store on South Lancaster Road.

When state investigators checked with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education, they found that Fantroy was not a peace officer -- the only scenario in which he could have been working the job without a license.  

The cheating accusation was leveled by two witnesses, one of whom told the commission that Fantroy had opened a law book and looked at the answers while taking the security officer's licensing exam. The Observer could not gather Fantroy's side of the matter, despite repeated requests for an interview. The candidate had scheduled an interview at his office and confirmed the time, but did not show up for the appointment. He and his office staff declined to return phone calls seeking to reschedule.

State officials referred the charge of operating without a license to the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, which filed a felony charge of operating a guard service without a license. Court records show the grand jury declined to indict him in August 1989.

Fantroy went on to run unsuccessfully for the District 8 council seat in May 1993. Lipscomb, who was first elected in 1984, was ineligible to run because of newly enacted term limits. He endorsed Crenshaw, who beat Darren Reagan in a runoff. Fantroy gained 22 percent of the vote and failed to make the runoff.

He might have lost at the polls, but Fantroy was a big winner the next month when he landed a half-million-dollar contract to supply security guards to 14 Dallas Housing Authority projects. Competitors protested the award because six of the 12 bids were lower than Fantroy's.

Of the four companies that the housing authority determined met basic requirements, two still had lower bids than J.L. Security.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initially objected to the contract, but DHA officials defended their choice because Fantroy's company had local armed-guard experience. Then-DHA head Alphonso Jackson signed the contract with Fantroy's company. Jackson, now president of Central and Southwest Cervices Inc., a utility company, said he could not recall anything about the bidding or how Fantroy's company received the contract.

The choice of Fantroy's firm turned out to be a headache for the public housing agency. After receiving complaints of abusive guards who displayed shotguns and automatic weapons, chased off guests, and were either verbally abusive or flirtatious, DHA pulled J.L. guards from a third of its properties and cut the two-year contract back to 18 months. It later sued Fantroy's company when it failed to defend DHA against an abuse-related suit brought by one of the residents. Jackson says he vaguely recalls the residents' complaints and remembers that the contract was cut short. "They weren't performing, but I can't remember the specifics," he says.

Court records show that J.L. paid resident Broderick Lumpkin a $12,000 settlement in 1997 after one of Fantroy's guards entered his apartment, pulled a gun, and threatened to shoot the man if he didn't return a set of pool balls the guard accused him of stealing from the complex.

Lumpkin went into a breathing seizure and was taken to a local hospital for treatment. The guard, who was later accused of assault in the incident, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor reckless-conduct charge. Lumpkin's lawsuit accused J.L of failing to check the guard's criminal record. He had received probation in an assault case and in another case of unlawfully carrying a weapon.

Fantroy himself is no stranger to the criminal courts. On April 1995, Fantroy showed up on the ground floor of Dallas City Hall with a 19-year-old woman named Abike Washington. He had accompanied her to the Department of Public Safety's license office as she applied for an identification card.

When a trooper ran Washington's name through the computer, he found an outstanding warrant on a misdemeanor bad-check charge and stepped forward to arrest her.

According to a later indictment, Fantroy, who was wearing a badge, misidentified himself as a deputy constable and said he would take Washington into custody later. In fact, the indictment alleged, he had no such authority and had misled the trooper in a way that interfered with his doing his job.

Fantroy had been a reserve deputy constable two years earlier, but was asked to surrender his badge in 1993 when state authorities began looking into allegations that he had impersonated a police officer. That investigation was closed for lack of evidence.

The Dallas County District Attorney's Office brought the 1995 impersonating-an-officer case before a grand jury, and Fantroy was indicted on a third-degree felony. He went to trial in 1997, but the jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. Prosecutors later dropped the case, saying it was improbable they could obtain a conviction.

Some of Fantroy's political supporters say they are aware of his past troubles but dismiss them as inconsequential. "People know of these things," says Faye Gafford, president of a homeowners group in Highland Hills, in the eastern end of the district. "Everybody's had something in their past. I'm hoping he's learned from past experience."  

Gafford says Fantroy was a strong advocate for residents in a recent battle to halt expansion of a bothersome truck stop along the interstate. Indeed, Fantroy is touting himself as a man of experience handling such issues. But at City Hall, and in the neighborhood where he has lived for 42 years, he gets mixed reviews.

"He's done things here...mainly nothing," says Adge Barnes, a retired military man and postal worker who lives a few blocks from Fantroy. His neighbor, Reynolds Kirby, noted the lack of Fantroy yard signs in the immediate neighborhood where he lives. Kirby and another neighbor -- a woman very active in local issues -- say Fantroy has a habit of moving into leadership of neighborhood groups, then disappearing when things need to be done. "People around here know that," says Barnes.

At City Hall, Fantroy's former colleagues on the Plan Commission sound as if they're talking about a different person. "He's been an excellent commissioner," says Plan Commission chairman Hector Garcia. "He has stuck up for communities. He's been hard-working, with many community meetings. I've found him to be a pleasure to be with."

Says another commissioner, asking to talk on background, "I've heard him say on more than one occasion, 'We're in the majority now. We're going to be running this.'"

It's difficult to be Sandra Crenshaw these days, as anyone who on one recent morning was at Annie Nelson's house, a little frame structure that doubles as the Living Sacrifice of Praise church, could see. Crenshaw wandered by on the campaign trail, and Nelson invited her in.

At the dining-room table, among a lush display of potted plants, Crenshaw talked with three potential voters about "the good book" and her sense of being divinely inspired to run for office. Eventually, she got around to the issue of Yellow Cab. "Yes," Nelson said politely. "We heard something about that."

Crenshaw spent some time presenting what essentially was Lipscomb's defense at his trial in Amarillo. She said she accepted money from Yellow Cab but had no criminal intent. What has been a bigger problem for Crenshaw in the neighborhoods, however, is the widespread perception that her cooperation with the FBI and federal prosecutors toppled her onetime mentor and helped put him where he is today. For better or worse, Crenshaw's political career has been tied to the likable waiter-turned-civil-rights-crusader.

In 1984, she ran Lipscomb's first winning campaign, helping him break through in South Oak Cliff to voters who considered him a product of South Dallas. Then, in 1993, when term limits set Lipscomb on the sideline after nine years in office, he endorsed Crenshaw over two rivals -- including Fantroy.

After she completed only one two-year term, though, Lipscomb was ready to exploit a loophole in the term-limits law and return. And Crenshaw was vulnerable.

She was criticized for her scattered style. She was caught snooping through other council members' offices, got criticized for taking frequent junkets, and was tweaked for running up big bills on her taxpayer-funded cell phone. Rumor was, she was living in her council office or in her car, though Crenshaw says she wasn't.

Lipscomb had decided more than six months before the election that he could make his return. "I'd heard rumors that he had been around the money people," she says. "It got back to me, but when I confronted him he said, 'No way, baby, I wouldn't do that...' He denied it until the day he announced."

Crenshaw broke into tears as she described the election, and dissolved in sobs four other times when discussing Lipscomb or her "political enemies," whom she says she needs to keep at a distance for fear of suffering real harm. "That's why I don't think I need to disclose things about myself," she says.

Lipscomb ended up crushing Crenshaw by more than two to one, thanks in part to more than $20,000 in unreported campaign money from Yellow Cab owner Floyd Richards. Richards, who pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiring to bribe Lipscomb, testified that he funneled the unreported money to Lipscomb because he thought he would be a more effective council member than Crenshaw.

Linda Pavlik, a Fort Worth political consultant who advised Richards on how to help put Lipscomb back in office, testified in Lipscomb's trial that Richards would call her up in the middle of the night, drunk and raving, using ugly racial epithets to describe Crenshaw and Lipscomb. "He would say he had bought and paid for them," she testified.  

In an interview with the Observer, Crenshaw said she accepted car repairs and use of a truck from Richards and Yellow Cab, whose offices at the time were located a few blocks south of Dallas City Hall. Crenshaw frequented the Yellow Cab offices chiefly, she says, to dispel rumors that she was living in her office.

"Everybody knows the man [Richards] was an alcoholic. He had a bar in there. Whatever. Sometimes I'd go over there and say, 'Do you have a drink?'...I'd stop by there [after] a terrible day or whatever, and I gotta have this meeting with so and so, and so rather than go drink in public or whatever, because I'm not a drinker, sometimes I'd have very stressful days, and I'd go by there and say, 'Gimme some of that you got.'

"It was convenient before I'd go to the meeting."

Crenshaw, for whatever reason, was a vocal proponent of a Yellow Cab-backed city rule to limit the age of cabs licensed in Dallas. "We need to make sure [taxicabs] present an image that we can be proud of," she told reporters in September 1994.

The age-limit proposal Crenshaw backed and voted for fell most heavily on independent and minority-owned cab owners. And today, she continues to defend her stand.

"It wasn't Yellow Cab. It was also the hospitality business getting my ear," she says. "The opposing parties [the independent cab owners] came at me with emotion. A lot of them were West Africans and Iranians, and there was a language barrier. I suggested they hire an English-speaking lobbyist, much like what Yellow Cab had, and I promised them I'd give them equal attention."

Reporters covering the issue seemed to have no problem understanding the accented English spoken by some of the independent cab drivers. They, in turn, had no problem explaining how the new regulations threatened to destroy their livelihoods.

Crenshaw says she considered Yellow Cab a "good corporate citizen" and a "well-run company." At times, she says, Richards or other company officials would give her cash that she would use to "do my community work." Asked to be specific about which projects the company supported, she mentions soliciting donations for the Wilmer-Hutchins school district and the Junior Black Academy, and accepting the one-time use of Yellow Cab vans to drive some senior citizens home from Fort Worth after a recreational outing.

Upset by unfavorable publicity about her involvement with Yellow Cab, Crenshaw brought civil lawsuits over the past year and a half against Channel 11 and Rufus Shaw, who writes a column for the Elite News. In the Channel 11 case, which a judge later threw out, Crenshaw represented herself. She pleaded indigence, asked the court to waive filing fees, and filled in answers about her finances on a required questionnaire.

In the document, which was file-stamped in February 1999, the 46-year-old Crenshaw wrote that she was not employed. "Do not have full emotional stability to sustain concentrated efforts," Crenshaw wrote. She described her occupation as "contract labor for political and government purposes."

In her suit against Shaw, filed last month, she described her occupation as "sales." In her filing for the city council seat filed earlier this month, Crenshaw listed her occupation as "community relations."

Asked to explain specifically how she supports herself, Crenshaw said that "my family supports me" and that they would continue to do so if she retakes a seat on the council, which pays $50 a meeting for expenses.

In the Rufus Shaw column Crenshaw cited as defamatory in her lawsuit, he, too, questioned how she makes a living. But the swipe that bothered her the most concerned her involvement in the Lipscomb bribery case. "And how about Sandra Crenshaw. How did Ms. Crenshaw manage to escape indictment when she was a longtime close associate of Mr. Lipscomb?"

In her lawsuit, which is pending, Crenshaw alleged that Shaw "...published false statements implying I acted as an informant and in the context of the community in which I live. This exposed me to harassment by admirers of Mr. Lipscomb."

Indeed, when Crenshaw appeared April 11 at a forum sponsored by KNON-FM, Lipscomb's daughter, Yvette Dudley, and other Lipscomb family members were among hecklers who shouted, clapped, or yelled every time Crenshaw spoke -- a disruption egged on by County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

The meeting was obviously an ambush set up for Crenshaw.

Although Dudley would not comment, the suggestion seemed to be that Crenshaw's biggest sin was disloyalty to her dad. "Crenshaw is as bad as the Dallas Observer," Price said in a brief comment to a reporter. Council member Laura Miller was the first to expose the relationship between Lipscomb and Yellow Cab in a column in the Observer in early 1997.  

"Crenshaw is so detached from reality that she called me repeatedly at home and City Hall recently," Miller said last week. "She wanted to give me advice on the ethics code. She couldn't understand why I didn't call her back and got so abusive, I told my council assistant to tell her to put all her great ideas in writing. Which she didn't do. She thought that was insulting."

Crenshaw is taking shots these days from all angles, but she has spent enough time politicking and working in the district that she has a network of loyalists, and some Fantroy supporters see her at least as a minor threat.

"You working your list?" Crenshaw asked one old friend the other day. With such a small number of actual voters, a little organization can go a long way in District 8.

And sometimes, it can work as cover.

A week after Price heckled Crenshaw at the KNON forum, Crenshaw brought about a dozen supporters in purple T-shirts to an NAACP-sponsored forum at the Singing Hills Recreation Center. No hecklers showed, which might have been a good thing for them. A young man the size of a pro linebacker had stationed himself on the front row. On the chest of his purple Crenshaw T-shirt were the words "Boo this."

The names Joe Tave and Ruth Steward don't appear in Dallas County's criminal and civil court files. The records show no charges; no lawsuits for bad debts or back taxes.

"Joe Tave is squeaky-clean," one southern sector kingmaker says. "The problem is, he's been squeaky-quiet."

Tave, 56, who holds a master's degree in guidance and counseling from East Texas State University, is a history and government teacher at Spruce High School. He moved to Dallas in 1991 from Odessa, where he worked as a school guidance counselor and as the owner of a lawn-sprinkler business. If elected, he says, he'll leave teaching and restart his business.

"I represent change. There are some very astute voters in the district, and they want change," says Tave, who is quick to add that being outside the district's traditional power circles is a huge handicap. "I hear Fantroy's supporters on the radio say, 'Nobody knows Joe Tave. Who is Joe Tave?'"

Crenshaw, meanwhile, says she "welcomes" him to the district, and has photocopied voting records showing that Tave has voted only twice in city elections since 1993.

Tave, like his opponents, is not one to criticize Lipscomb or back any big ethics push downtown. He says that, from a black perspective, it's difficult to judge Lipscomb's transgressions harshly when so many wrongs have been committed historically against blacks.

"I've lived a certain kind of life, committed to my church and to teaching kids," he says.

Tave was among a group of people who organized Lipscomb's defense fund in early 1998 and raised $30,000. The effort slowed considerably and disintegrated into political infighting once it became clear that Tave was considering running for Lipscomb's seat. "I was labeled an opportunist," he says.

Tave made a round of appearances -- along with Fantroy and Crenshaw -- before several real-estate groups and the exclusive Breakfast Group, he says. But he emerged with no contributions to aid his campaign. At least two people familiar with those meetings say none of the candidates seemed impressive enough to warrant support.

Tave says he thinks he can do enough mailings and hammer up enough signs to have a chance at making a run-off. But he thinks the district's politics are vicious. "People tell me if I want to win, I have to get out in the nursing homes with the early voting and help 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds fill out their ballots," he says. "I won't do that. But you'll see it being done."

Steward, who has campaigned least of all and spent only $116 on her campaign, says she might not have what it takes to win either.

How did Lipscomb beat her last spring?

"Barbecue," she says. "He fed a lot of people on election day. I'm not throwing any barbecue parties."


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