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Democratic County Judge Jim Foster May be the Latest Target in the Inland Port Battle

The boom happening now on the Interstate 20 corridor in southern Dallas is an economic miracle. So tell us again why two politicians need to get it under their control.
Eli Luna

So the Democratic Party in Dallas County is going to slit the neck of its own highest office-holding incumbent, Dallas County Judge Jim Foster, who has committed no sin.

State Senator Royce West and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, two of the county's top Democrats, have declared publicly that they will support someone else for Foster's post in the March 2010 Democratic primary election.

What was it Isaac said to Abraham on Mount Moriah? The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Ah, that would be you.

Look, being a communistic libertarian Malthusian Fourierist myself, I take no sides in other people's intramural bloodletting. I just thought you might want to know some inside skinny.

According to a February 8 story by Gromer Jeffers in The Dallas Morning News, West, who represents District 23 in central and southern Dallas County, and Price, who represents the Commissioners Court District 3 in southeastern Dallas County, are opposed to Foster because both feel the Democrats need "new blood."

Maybe not so much new blood. Just his blood.

Foster took a tough stance against West and Price in defense of the "inland port," a shipping and warehousing development in southern Dallas County. He told me last week that West and Price are involved in what he called a "shakedown" of the main developer, The Allen Group. Foster says that's why West and Price are out to get him.

But first, in order to write this column, I had to go back and do something I would dearly love to avoid doing for the rest of my life—reading my own stuff. Foster, you recall, was swept in by the November 2006 Democratic electoral tsunami in which Dallas County Democrats took 41 of 42 offices and turned the local world upside down. He came to the table with almost no political experience. It showed.

Let's see here. On August 9, 2007, I called him "Judge Jim ('The Accident') Foster." In the same article, I described him as "a mysterious little man who is hardly ever there."

I am not hugely proud of this record. Foster was brand-new to public office. He stepped into a high-profile, high-pressure position with a tough learning curve. Maybe a more generous person would have cut him more slack at the outset. But, you know, I don't remember "generous" coming up in my job interview here.

The truth is that he has evolved in office. He led the commissioners court to an enlightened position on free distribution of condoms. He discovered huge inefficiencies in the county's collection of traffic fines and instituted an effective reform. As part of that, he fixed the county's computer system so that people with overdue tickets could no longer renew their drivers' licenses or get their vehicles inspected.

He discovered dishonest mechanics were selling vehicle inspection stickers without doing the inspections and created a Clean Air Task Force to deal with this and other pollution problems.

Not bad. We should've noticed.

In the inland port matter, he took a very tough, independent stance on an issue of enormous importance to the whole county but especially to the constituents of West and Price.

I spent part of last week riding around southern Dallas, looking at the boom taking place along the Interstate 20 corridor driven mainly by the development of a massive rail, trucking and warehousing nexus that promises to make Dallas a major continental shipping hub.

Especially in these disastrous economic times nationally, the activity and job creation related to the inland port in southern Dallas County are a phenomenally counterintuitive story of success—really good news, a ray of golden sunshine through dark clouds.

The primary engine driving the inland port development is a firm, The Allen Group or TAG, that has moved here from California. TAG is here not because anybody in Dallas invited it. The company, which has been active in shipping and warehousing in the Middle West and California, looked at a map of America and saw a ganglion of rail routes and expressways converging in southern Dallas County.

Richard Allen, CEO of TAG, a family-owned company, has been candid about other important elements in TAG's decision to buy 6,000 acres here: His firm came to southern Dallas County seeking cheap land and lots of available labor but especially a less onerous burden of government regulation.

Joke's on them.

In recent months I have reported here about efforts by certain southern Dallas elected officials, especially Commissioner Price, to take control of the inland port. Not every elected official in town or even in southern Dallas County has supported Price in this effort.

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson was especially tough on him when I spoke with her about the inland port. She and I talked at the end of last year, and I reported on that conversation at the time. But it's worth a refresher course now because of the way it fits with what Foster told me last week.

 

Johnson said Price's efforts to bully TAG were consistent with what she called a long history of shakedowns: "I see all of these different deals that he's trying to do over the years," she said, "shaking people down and all that kind of stuff."

In particular, she lambasted him for pushing a so-called "master planning" effort for the inland port, which she described as phony and a dodge designed to impede TAG and squeeze it for money: "John was making sure he put a cork in there to stop everything until they did what he wanted them to do," she told me. "John was holding out until he could arrange for somebody to get some money."

She even described a meeting with Price and West at West's offices in which the pair tried to get her to go along with them. She quoted Price as telling her, "'We're the toughest three people in this county.'"

She said he told her, "'If we stick together, we can get a lot of things done. These people [TAG] are not going to come in here and there not be some blacks making money. They really need to leave some money in this community.'"

Johnson said Price's efforts angered her because he was standing in the way of an incredible economic boon for southern Dallas, an area long plagued by racism and neglect. "Every time there's an opportunity to do some kind of development in the southern sector, people get discouraged because of all the mess they have to go through with two or three people, and they say they moved on."

I spoke with Foster twice, once in his offices and once on the phone. He told me that he, too, had been summoned to the offices of Senator West for a tongue-lashing days after Foster had joined Republicans on the county commissioners court in voting down Price's master plan idea for the inland port.

TAG has argued that Price's proposed master plan effort, which would take at least 18 months to complete, would duplicate planning already on the shelf. Richard Allen says Price's plan would cast a pall of uncertainty over TAG's 6,000 acres and might even stop the inland port's momentum. But for Price and West, it's all about control.

"When I first voted against this inland port plan," Foster said, "Price got furious. Furious. He almost hit me. I had to adjourn the court, because he was so angry."

Soon afterward, West called. "I get a call on a Friday about 4:30 p.m., and he wants me to come by his office. So about 5:00 I show up at his office, and Price is there. He's trying to convince me that, quote, 'You need to quit voting with the Republicans.'

"I said, 'You don't understand. This is not a Republican-Democrat issue. It's about the ability of these developers to come in here and develop this land so we can increase the tax base.'

"Well, West just got belligerent. He started slamming his fist down on his desk with every word, and he said, 'You do not understand! I need control of that inland port!'"

I asked him to tell me more directly why he thinks West and Price want control of the inland port. "It's all about a shakedown," he said again, "and Price is involved in multiple shakedowns."

I called and e-mailed West and Price and spoke to their staffs, seeking comment. I explained in my e-mail exactly what I was writing about. Neither man responded.

Obviously there is bad political blood between Foster and the pair, West and Price, based on their publicly stated intention to work against Foster's re-election next year. That animosity should be weighed in considering Foster's allegation.

On the other hand, you have to look at the very public behavior of Price, who has thrown roadblocks in the path of the inland port, opposing a badly needed bridge, opposing an important trade designation and publicly deriding TAG. In that effort, and for reasons that are beyond me, Price has been joined by the editorial page of the Morning News, which has spoken caustically of Allen.

If you had joined me on my tour of I-20 last week, you would have encountered another powerful factor to consider: Here, in a zone that was still a barren wasteland three years ago, I saw new hotels, huge high-tech warehouses, restaurants, high-end mixed-use developments and gated neighborhoods, all springing from the soil in a hubbub of construction and traffic.

Control it? Why does a state senator or a county commissioner need to control this? No one has ever adduced a shred of evidence to argue that it's out of control or harming anyone in any way. It's just goin' and blowin'. That's a good thing, isn't it?

 

Look, the Democrats may, in their wisdom, choose somebody else to run for county judge. I don't have a dog in that. All I know is that West and Price don't need to take over a continental shipping hub in an industry neither one of them knows a thing about. They need to think about the 60,000 jobs this development promises for southern Dallas and the billions in tax base.

Then they need to ask what they can do to help. Listen closely. And get the hell out of the way. This thing needs more Eddie Bernice Johnsons, more Jim Fosters, and way fewer Royce Wests and John Wiley Prices.

That's what this particular throat-slitting is about. Forget new blood. This is about control.


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