Last week late one afternoon I had a long chat with Sam Merten, former colleague, now the spokesman for Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, about a letter the city sent to a South Dallas businessman, also a guy I have known for years, threatening to take his business away from him under power of eminent domain.
I thought I knew what Merten was telling me. Sort of. But I wasn't sure. Then the next morning I opened The Dallas Morning News editorial page, and I did know. For sure.
Mayor Rawlings may not be the first well-meaning white man to get conned by South Dallas politicians, but right now he's the biggest.
On November 19 the city sent a letter to Dale Davenport, a septic tank dealer and installer from Rockwall, and his father, Freddy, a retired steelworker, telling them the city wants possession of the car wash that Freddy Davenport bought with his pension payout from Lone Star Steel at the corner of Myrtle Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas. The letter says, "As you are probably aware, the City of Dallas is planning improvements to Martin Luther King Boulevard and median. Plans have progressed to the point that we wish to advise you that your property described above will be needed for the project."
Along with the letter was a pamphlet explaining that if they refused to sell their business to the city at the city's price or a price set by a judge, they could be forced to sell anyway under the city's power of eminent domain.
A day before I called the mayor's office I sat in Two Podners Restaurant across from Fair Park staring across two slices of chess pie at the very flabbergasted red face of Dale Davenport, who was waving the city's letter at me.
"It says, 'As you are probably aware,'" he said. "As you are probably aware? Probably aware of what? I've never heard a thing about this until I got this letter."
Normally a government cannot use eminent domain to seize private property unless there is a clear public good to be served. But nobody at City Hall seems to be able to lay out exactly what the public good is here, unless it's getting rid of the Davenports.
I called Lou Jones, the city real estate manager in charge of this operation. I asked her to tell me about this "project."
"It's supposed to be a plaza," she said.
I asked if it was a walking around plaza or a retail plaza like a shopping strip.
"No retail," she said. "No."
I asked whose plaza it will be, whose plan it is now.
"I don't know," she said. "You would have to check with I guess the city manager or the council people. I'm not sure of that."
Got to seize the property. Not sure why. OK. Jones insisted, by the way, that the letter she sent to the Davenports did not include the words "eminent domain" or "condemnation." She said the letter was merely a statement of initial intent in a long legal process.
Yeah. But they also got a pamphlet saying their property could be condemned if they didn't sell. So, if you were the property owner and you didn't want to sell, would you not be worried that condemnation might lie at the end of this road?
"It's always a possibility," she said.
I called council member Carolyn Davis in whose district the car wash falls. Her staff relayed my message to her. Davis instructed her staff to have me call Adam McGough, Rawlings' chief of staff. I did call McGough and got a call back from Merten, the mayor's spokesman.
Merten said of the car wash, "It is a huge problem. I don't know how familiar you are with that specific property. On weekends literally hundreds of people gather."
Well, very familiar. I think I am more familiar than Merten or the mayor. In fact I have written about, visited and reported on this car wash for eight years, ever since it was a principal focus of a Texas legislative investigative committee probe of official corruption in Dallas. In sworn testimony before that committee, the Davenports explained how they had filed hundreds upon hundreds of police reports on crime at or near their car wash, which is blocks from crack and gambling houses that have been in mysteriously uninterrupted operation for decades.
The Davenports told how the Dallas Police Department had retaliated against them for reporting crime, at one point sending a dozen or more squad cars to the car wash during peak business hours. The cars were parked, locked and left on the lot, effectively preventing the Davenports from operating their business. This act of official thuggery by police was confirmed in rueful sworn testimony by then police Chief David Kunkle, who said he had nothing to do with it and it would never happen again.
After weeks of testimony the conclusion of the committee was that the victimization of the Davenports was part of a pattern of extortionate threat-making by elected officials in southern Dallas. Representative Terry Keel, committee chairman and a former sheriff of Travis County, told me at the time: "We had diverse businesses and individuals unconnected to each other who gave startlingly similar stories about these threats."
Most of the threats Keel said his investigators found involved schemes to get money out of businesses as so-called political donations. For example, it was a big mistake not to kick in generously to the "book fair" run by the late Leo Chaney, then a member of the City Council. But it was never quite clear what City Hall wanted from Davenport and his father, unless it was the whole show — their entire business.
Merten described the car wash to me this way: "He has this property that, from all looks at it, it's hard to kind of understand his business model, because it doesn't seem like he's doing gangbusters business-wise, but on weekends and such it's a huge loitering issue."
Wow. Don't know about that. In my times hanging around that car wash, especially on weekends, the coin boxes on the walls of those stalls never stop ding-a-linging. My ears hear a steady river of cash flowing into the coffers. I don't know how the city knows that the Davenports aren't making money on the car wash. Just in terms of sheer return on investment, I have to think that car wash is probably a serious gold mine.
Merten said, "The city in the past has approached him about purchasing the property at an above-market, very reasonable rate and the sense is that they're kind of dug in, and they don't want to sell. And we're not saying anything nefarious is necessarily going on, but it's one of those puzzling things where here's your run-down piece of property that theoretically isn't bringing you in much income and somebody is wanting to pay you well above market value for it. What is the logic of hanging on to it?"
But this is an easy one. The Davenports are easy to see. They have been around and in multiple businesses for a long time, here and in other communities. In Dallas they have been involved in intense high-profile local politics for eight years. The one tough examination of them was by that legislative committee eight years ago using paid professional investigators, subpoena power and sworn testimony by everybody from the mayor to the chief of police on down.
The committee's finding was that the Davenports were clean as a whistle but the elected officials giving them grief in South Dallas were dirty as hell. Tell you what. If these guys are crooks, then they both deserve Academy Awards for acting, because they sure come across as two real hard-working, East Texas, church-going white guys who happen to get along well with black people and won't back down from a fight.
But Merten is telling me he doesn't understand their "business model," and then the next morning I open the Morning News to the editorial page. And there I see the mayor himself.
A lead editorial called, "Bolder thinking in South Dallas" reports that the paper's editorial board has met with the mayor, and he is concerned that South Dallas "continues to harbor seedy shops, unattractive storefronts and a car wash notorious for drug dealing. ..."
So already we've got it a little wrong. The car wash is actually notorious for reporting drug trafficking in the area. Elected officials and police in the area are notorious — actually totally legally factually notorious — for ignoring the hard target centers of crime and persecuting the car wash instead.
The editorial goes on to say that the mayor apparently has experienced some of this same response himself from southern Dallas officials: "When it comes to confronting the owners of unsightly businesses on MLK, local political pushback halts everything."
The editorial quotes Rawlings: "The truth of the matter is ... they've got to work to get bad stuff [taken] down. When you do that, you make people mad. Now you create tension within a neighborhood."
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The editorial concludes, "It's a risk that southern Dallas leaders will have to take if transformative fixes are to take hold."
Great. Now we're tough. Now we're on our game. We know these bad businesses near MLK need to be taken out. We know they are protected by elected officials. We've told them, "Enough. We gotta start somewhere."
So where do we start? With the one business the same elected officials have been trying to get rid of for the better part of a decade, the one owned by the two white guys from Rockwall, the one where there is a clear record of their honesty and the dishonesty of the officials.
Mr. Merten? Mr. Mayor? You been took, boys. Big time.