In public, at least, the charges are somber, the rhetoric bare.
The school board race between Richard C. Evans and Se-Gwen Tyler revolves around a high school diploma, which Evans finally admits he doesn't have.
Local educators line up to voice sober thoughts about the benefits of such a diploma, stating boldly that it is good to graduate from high school.
Others aren't comfortable way out there on that limb, and offer that Evans' big vocabulary makes up for any deficiencies on his resume.
None of this, of course, has anything to do with the real debate roiling in some sectors of black Dallas. Behind the scenes, the Evans-Tyler race is causing a meltdown among some of the city's established black leaders, accompanied by allegations of powermongering, political trade-offs, and personal indiscretions.
At least one prominent political insider, former Dallas City Council member Sandra Crenshaw, has quit Richard Evans' campaign, citing her disgust at the mudslinging tactics of both candidates' supporters.
Meanwhile, NAACP chief Lee Alcorn has endorsed Evans, reportedly in exchange for support in his expected bid for re-election as the Dallas chapter president. Alcorn had previously complained that Evans used his name on campaign fliers without obtaining his permission.
It isn't difficult to cut through the dignified talk about the candidates' educational backgrounds. Just dig up a copy of Jurline Hollins' underground gossip rag, Public Opinion Talk News, and check out last week's outrageous headline, which raises questions about the sexual orientation of one candidate and the sexual morality of the other.
The article that follows, written by Hollins, offers up the undiluted, unsupported rumormongerings of black Dallas--including statements, such as those in the headline, for which absolutely no substantiation is given.
"Can we talk publicly about what is being said by each campaign in the District 5 school board race--the things they say but are afraid to say publicly?" Hollins writes in the same teasing, breathless tone that she uses to introduce her informal hotline.
Hollins says she culls the rumors and rants from her hotline--(214) 374-8777--then reproduces them in the pages of her newsletter or on her Web site, which she was frantically trying to repair early this week.
"I'm just reporting opinions," she says. "They call, they write, they see me, they talk--and they talk and they talk."
If the sheer volume of scurrilous talk is any indication, the Evans-Tyler race is the ugliest, most divisive issue to hit the community in years.
"Whooooo. Golly. I mean, goodness gracious yes," Hollins says when asked if she's getting many calls on the school board race. "I mean, it's overworked. I never got this many calls--I've never had this much interest. I can't believe it."
Hollins' headline mirrors the level of discourse going on behind the scenes in black Dallas. To hear some of the candidates' supporters talk privately, the central issue is not education, but sex.
"Everybody's saying don't say it publicly, but it's what everybody's saying behind everybody's back," Hollins says. "I'm just saying what they're saying. Everybody's scared of it.
"The things that they don't want us to talk about, those are the things that I think the community needs to talk about--so that we can get over, just grow up," she adds.
The allegations against the candidates, who will compete for the District 5 school board seat in an August 29 runoff election, are in many cases highly personal and unprintable. But they have become so sordid that political consultant Crenshaw has withdrawn her support for Evans.
"My withdrawal of public support for Richard has more to do with my personal disdain for seeing how [the campaign] has torn the community, and how it has really become a power struggle between different factions in the community at the expense of the community," Crenshaw says.
"You would just have to know how much cow-manure slinging has been in this campaign. It's been a very painful process for me to see a community in denial, to see elected officials in denial, and to see candidates in denial."
Crenshaw, who had been acting as an unpaid advisor to Evans, and others say that the candidates' battle reflects a deep-rooted struggle between black Dallas' older, established political leaders, such as Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and former school board member Kathlyn Gilliam, and a younger generation that resents their longstanding control of black Dallas politics.
"I have a problem with our leadership not taking the time to have an informed electorate and to expect [black voters] to just do what they say because they say it," Crenshaw says.
The squabbling over the candidates has ripped apart the facade of black unity that community leaders once thought so important to preserve, at least in front of white people.
While Yvonne Ewell, who held the District 5 seat until her death earlier this year, earned the respect of all of black Dallas for her support of educational issues as a DISD administrator, political newcomers Evans and Tyler represent opposing factions.
Evans is associated with the "ethnocentric, Afrocentric approach to public education," Crenshaw says, while Tyler claims she'll represent children of all colors and backgrounds and strive to work with other school board members.
Many view Evans as a pawn of the old guard. Some of his support, says Dallas NAACP education chair Brenda Fields, "is because they think he will be a rabble-rouser like Kathlyn Gilliam ended up being toward the end. They keep saying he knows the issues and he'll speak out. But speak out saying what?"
Fields says Evans is the latest in a line of black leaders who speak loudly but say nothing. "Now his delivery is a preacher-style delivery when he's speaking and when he's talking," she says. "But if you listen to him long enough, initially he makes sense, but if you continue to listen, he drifts away and gets so carried away and so emotional until he loses his whole train of thought. He does not demonstrate that he is a stable person in mind."
Nonetheless--demonstrating the complex state of black Dallas politics today--Fields remains a staunch supporter of Lee Alcorn, who recently changed his mind about Evans and now publicly endorses him.
Fields says she is "still so very baffled" by Alcorn's flip-flop. But insiders say it's a trade for support from local ministers' groups and prominent politicians such as John Wiley Price in Alcorn's expected bid for re-election as head of the Dallas NAACP. (Alcorn did not return phone calls from the Dallas Observer.)
Se-Gwen Tyler, in contrast to Richard Evans, is an upstart with no connections to the black political establishment and little experience in politics. "She's a free thinker," says current school board member Ron Price, who upset Gilliam last year in a close race for a southern Dallas seat.
Price is one of the few people who has publicly stated his concerns about one of the candidates' private lives. Richard Evans has a misdemeanor conviction for switching price tags at a food store, dating from when he was 18. He was also cited with misdemeanor "offensive contact" in 1993 for allegedly grabbing the crotch of a man with whom he worked. Evans fought the ticket in Dallas municipal court and was found not guilty during a trial before a judge.
A few weeks ago, Ron Price told a packed house at an election forum in a South Dallas restaurant that he didn't want to sit on the board with someone who had a history of grabbing other people's crotches. The election forum was later broadcast on KHVN-AM radio.
Price says that he "never did say the name" of Evans, but admits that "everyone knew who I was talking about.
"I said, 'I don't want to have to attend board meetings with a chastity belt to protect myself,'" Price says.
"Can I talk credibility?" he adds. "I'm for any candidate who is trustworthy. The key word is trust. To be a trustee, you must be trustworthy."
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Jurline Hollins cites rumors about Tyler's personal life in her newsletter--some of the same rumors that an Evans backer pushed on the Observer in an off-the-record conversation. (Again, without substantiation.)
All in all, the brutal campaign has left some community activists wondering why any quality candidate would bother to run for a seat on the DISD board.
"In a perfect world, we wouldn't be down to this kind of choice," says Dr. Lois Harrison-Jones, a former DISD associate superintendent who supports Evans because of his knowledge of educational issues, but admits she doesn't "know anything about his character."
"If this were a perfect world, we would like to have another Dr. Yvonne Ewell, who had a wealth of experience and career behind her. But we just don't have that.