How a Blogging Mechanic Helped Take Down Richardson's Mayor

How a Blogging Mechanic Helped Take Down Richardson's Mayor

On the evening of April 28, the typically sleepy chambers of the Richardson City Council were aboil. Hundreds of agitated residents pressed into the auditorium, so many that police refused entry to several dozen, who were ushered into a separate room to watch a video feed of the proceedings.

Mayor Laura Maczka, her pink jacket a lonely splash of color against the sober gray suits of her male colleagues behind the dais, opened the meeting, as usual, by inviting citizens to address the council during the open microphone session. Her studied composure couldn’t quite mask the apprehension in her voice.

For the next 45 minutes Maczka listened impassively as speaker after speaker -— mostly neighbors from the tony neighborhood of Canyon Creek — stepped to the microphone to excoriate her for supporting the Palisades, a large mixed-use development planned for a plot of mostly empty land along Central Expressway. They also lobbed pointed accusations that Maczka’s relationship with the project’s developer, Mark Jordan, was suspiciously cozy.

Some of the speakers were circumspect, complaining of Maczka’s “unethical actions.” Others, like Will Silverthorn, were more specific. He described a “flirtatious and romantic relationship” between the two and wondered aloud: “What if the developer and the mayor were to become married? As new rumors have surfaced, on blogs and through word of mouth, this could in fact be the case.” His father, Chris Silverthorn, predicted that soon “the mayor and her boyfriend [Jordan] will be living in a loft apartment in Uptown.” A neighbor, Jenny Clark, scornfully referred to Jordan as “your boyfriend/employer” and bemoaned “your lack of moral integrity. The city of Richardson deserved better, and we couldn’t have gotten worse. Shame on y’all.” At one point Maczka paused the proceedings to remind audibly seething members of the audience that the council was attempting to conduct a business meeting, prompting Clark to caustically interject from her seat, “Like your business meetings with Mark Jordan!?!”

Maczka had been publicly silent on the topic, both during a month-long investigation into her relationship with the developer and before, and most observers expected her to remain so. But later, Maczka again interrupted the proceedings; she had something to say. For the next 10 minutes, she delivered an impassioned monologue that variously claimed vindication, pleaded for sympathy and chided her neighbors for their prurient intrusions into her personal life. She defended her vote for the Palisades as a principled stand to ensure Richardson’s future economic viability. She described a litany of personal struggles — a recently finalized divorce, a recurrence of melanoma, the potential foreclosure of her home — and worried about the impact this public furor would have on her three teenage sons. “I think what people tend to forget, even now, is that there are three kids in the middle of this whose family has been forever altered.”

David Chenoweth sat in the back of the council chambers, quietly drinking in the spectacle. With his overalls and shaggy mop of pine straw-colored hair, he looks like he might have wandered in from the set of a Beverly Hillbillies remake, but his redneck affectations belie his newly achieved status as Richardson’s go-to source for local political scoops, gossip and innuendo. He, as much as anyone, had driven and popularized the narrative of Maczka as an amoral politician who, through calculation or naiveté, grew too close to a developer and mired herself and the city in scandal. His homespun blog, “Just My 2 Cents Worth,” had been tracking developments in the investigation closely in recent weeks. The next morning he posted video of Maczka’s speech under the headline, equal parts admiring and sardonic, “An Oscar Worthy Performance.”

*****

Until about a decade ago, Richardson had no politics to speak of. Council seats were sinecures held for decades, generally by aging Rotarians with ties to Texas Instruments. Mayor Gary Slagel had occupied the city’s top elective office since 1991 and had the clunky aviator eyeglass frames and clashing blazer-slacks pairings to prove it. Public business was handled with the efficiency of a collegial corporate boardroom. As evidence of their success, leaders could nod proudly to the coveted AAA bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, the gleaming corporate campuses of the Telecom Corridor, Richardson’s above-average schools, parks and library. Voters didn’t disagree. No incumbent had been unseated in close to two decades. A couple of council elections were canceled for lack of challengers.

And until about a decade ago, David Chenoweth was just a mechanic, cheerily oblivious to politics and the machinations of city government. “Didn’t know, didn’t care,” he says.

Chenoweth arrived in Richardson in 1959 at age 3, just in time to pick up the small-town sensibility and prairie drawl before those were subsumed by Dallas’ suburban explosion. His father worked a blue-collar job as a transmitter repairman with Collins Radio, which, along with TI, was one of the twin corporate engines of the town’s booming Cold War-era economy. Chenoweth still speaks with reverence of the company’s founder, Art Collins, for preserving the money-losing field services department — and thus, his dad’s job — in the face of corporate “bean counters” pushing for increased profits at the expense of customer service.

An indifferent student, Chenoweth graduated from Richardson High School in 1975 and puttered around before stumbling into a career as a mechanic. He discovered he possessed a knack for fixing cars, just as he discovered later that he had a knack for computers. His hobbies include creating and maintaining email servers and teaching himself coding. His tastes, like his ambitions, are modest. Longtime political allies say they’ve never seen him wear anything besides overalls, though Chenoweth swears he wears mechanic’s shorts in the summer. His favorite restaurant is Southern Recipes Café, current home of the waitress he’s loyally followed from diner to diner for 20 years. When he orders the grilled cheese and French fries, she knows to fetch the cold ketchup from the refrigerator.

Chenoweth’s political awakening began in 2005, when he learned Richardson was threatening eminent domain against TC Shaved Ice, a drive-through kiosk in the parking lot of the Canyon Creek Shopping Center. A developer was planning to replace the dying strip mall with upscale shops and apartments, and the city was using its authority to clear out the few remaining businesses on the grounds that doing so promoted economic development. Chenoweth was surprised and unsettled to learn that the government, so long as it could provide a fig leaf of justification, could seize private property and hand it over to a developer.

TC’s owner ultimately agreed to sell, but Chenoweth’s interest was piqued. He became a regular at City Hall, where his borderline comic informality puzzled officials. “He came in and he had some bib overalls on, and I thought, ‘Who is this country bumpkin?’” recalls Jim Henderson, a Chenoweth ally who was a member of Richardson’s City Plan Commission at the time.

At first, Chenoweth was impressed by the City Council, its besuited members exuding efficiency and competence. The more he watched, though, the more his opinion soured. He was curious about the lack of meaningful debate on most issues and how the council nevertheless always seemed to vote in lockstep, suggesting that the real decisions were being made outside of public view. He was also troubled by Slagel, the longtime mayor. For years, Slagel’s software company had operated out of StarTech Early Ventures, a city-funded launching pad for high-tech startups. He had moved his company there around StarTech’s establishment in the late 1990s. Slagel maintained that he paid rent and there was nothing untoward about the setup, but critics complained that he appeared to be using his position with the city to benefit his business. Eventually, CapitalSoft relocated to another headquarters nearby. In early 2006, the Chicago Tribune reported that CapitalSoft had finished fourth among companies bidding for a $2.5 million software contract with Illinois’ toll-road authority, which was supposed to entertain the top three bids. But the company won the contract not long after donating $5,000 to the campaign of Governor Rob Blagojevich, who would later be convicted of trying to sell President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat. The agency defended its choice of CapitalSoft, but canceled the contract not long after Blagojevich’s bribery scandal went public.

Chenoweth fell in with a small but obsessive contingent of Richardson gadflies. One, William Gordon, was pursuing a quixotic, years-long lawsuit against the City Council for meeting in executive session, a ubiquitous practice sanctioned by state law but forbidden by a quirk in the city charter. Another, Nathan Morgan, delivered such stem-winding tirades during the council’s open-mic sessions that the council passed a five-minute limit on speakers, colloquially known as the “Nathan Morgan rule.” Cheri Duncan-Hubert was so angered by the city’s removal of a water spigot her family used to water a tree in a grassy island in her cul-de-sac that she has spent the past several years on a crusade to uncover fraud and waste in city government.

Mechanic Dave Chenoweth improbably turned his blog into a force in Richardson politics.
Mechanic Dave Chenoweth improbably turned his blog into a force in Richardson politics.
Paul Chenoweth

The group was a font of arcane grievances, from the cushy salary of the golf pro at the city-owned course to the administration of the water and sewer funds, but their complaints were united by a common theme: Richardson’s city government, they believed, had been hijacked by an oligarchic cabal of businessmen bent on maintaining power and stifling dissent.

They weren’t necessarily wrong. The Richardson Coalition, a political action committee spearheaded by local power-broker Charles Eisemann, has been the dominant force in Richardson politics for the better part of a decade, a small-time political machine whose candidates have a perfect 17-0 in council races. But the gadflies’ theories sometimes blurred into delusion. Destiny Herndon-Delarosa, who blogged irreverently about Richardson politics for several years, remembers someone seriously suggesting the Richardson Coalition could be responsible for a wheel that rolled loose from her car following a botched repair job. Once, she jokingly blamed the coalition for a yeast infection; her listener didn’t get it.
Chenoweth was different, less prone to fantastical conspiracies and appreciative of yeast-infection humor. He, like the others, pored obsessively over city records in search of skullduggery, but his quest was leavened by an unmistakable sense of mischief. The others treated politics as deadly serious. Chenoweth approached it more as a sport.

He began contributing regular comments to Herndon-Delarosa’s blog posts. They were long, well-researched and thoughtful. Soon, she offered a suggestion: “Dude, just start your own blog.”

Chenoweth hesitated. He wasn’t sure he had the writing chops, and he didn’t know if he could find enough material to fill a blog. Trial and error would hone his writing skills, whittling his prose down to tight packets of bemusement mixed with indignation. He would also quickly grope his way toward an inexhaustible supply of blog fodder: Eisemann and the Richardson Coalition.

*****

If Richardson’s telecom-fueled affluence were to take corporeal form, it would be Chuck Eisemann. Born in San Antonio, Eisemann arrived in Richardson via TI, where he worked for eight years during the late 1960s and early 1970s, eventually climbing into upper management. He left the company in 1974 to establish Industrial Relations International, Inc., a global consulting firm. He branched out into banking in the 1980s, helming Canyon Creek National Bank until it merged with the Bank of Texas in 1999.

Along the way, he climbed to the pinnacle of Richardson civic life. He is a generous patron of the arts, a godfather to the Richardson Symphony and the namesake of the Eisemann Center, the city’s $43 million performing arts complex. He is a prominent booster of UT-Dallas, Richardson’s hometown university. In 2001, the Richardson Chamber of Commerce, whose board he has also chaired, named him its “Citizen of the Year.”

Eisemann makes an unlikely political boss. He is scrupulously polite, even when declining an interview request from a reporter who just cold-called his cell phone while he was trying to give instructions to his pool guy. With his sandy hair and pressed slacks, he looks less like a Boss Tweed than like he strayed from the herd of office workers who flood out of Richardson’s offices at lunchtime. And yet, over the past several years, Eisemann has developed a reputation as a ruthlessly effective political schemer with a vise-grip on City Hall.

Eisemann has long been an influential behind-the-scenes figure in Richardson political circles, but his emergence as the chief bogeyman of outsiders like Chenoweth can be traced to May 2007, when a new City Council convened to pick one of their own to serve as mayor. Eisemann, like most everyone else, took for granted that Slagel, the longtime mayor, would cruise to a ninth straight term. Instead, the council’s new blood -— a trio of outsiders who had quietly block-walked and bootstrapped their way into office — led a successful vote to seat Councilman Steve Mitchell as mayor.

Slagel, visibly shaken, stammered that he planned to resign from the council. He later reversed the decision and stayed on the council, but his abrupt dethroning served as a wake-up call to Eisemann and the establishment. It was no longer enough to let palatable candidates rise to the top organically. To restore Slagel to mayor’s chair — and thus to restore order to city government — palatable candidates would need to be identified and supported, their opponents crushed.

In the wake of Slagel’s ouster, Eisemann convened a powwow of business and civic leaders to discuss strategy. That discussion led, in October 2007, to the formation of the Richardson Residents for Responsive Government political action committee, better known as the Richardson Coalition. The group ushered in a new era of professionalization in Richardson politics. The PAC collected nearly $40,000 in the lead-up to the 2009 election, an enormous sum by Richardson standards, all but a few hundred dollars of which came from Eisemann, entrepreneur James Von Ehr, and former council members and their families. It hired political consultants, conducted voter surveys, put together a slate of candidates and spent freely to get that slate elected. Shortly before the vote, it dropped what would become its trademark: a glossy, full-color mailer heaping plaudits on its favored candidates while declaring challengers unfit for leadership, their bios helpfully branded with cartoon frowny faces.

Coalition-backed candidates easily swept the May races. Chenoweth and his allies responded by forming a PAC of their own, the Richardson Citizens Alliance, in hopes of regaining a foothold in the 2011 council elections. The group managed to outspend the coalition, but the effort was doomed by hapless candidates and bumbling execution. The shortcomings were on full display in the RCA’s TV ad, which featured two genuinely grouchy old men and two poorly trained actresses complaining about city government over curiously idyllic B-roll footage of Richardson parks and amenities. Once again, it was a coalition sweep.

Eisemann never involved himself publicly in the campaigns, but he made his influence felt. He personally vets prospective council members to determine who is worthy of the coalition’s backing. Outsider candidates recount chilly meetings in which Eisemann or Eisemann’s people discourage them from running. He doesn’t countenance dissent, as former councilman Amir Omar learned in 2012 when he bucked the coalition and declared his support for a referendum for the direct election of Richardson’s mayor. Omar recalls Eisemann pulling him aside at a black-tie gala and angrily scolding him for his apostasy. When Omar ran for mayor a few months later, the coalition unleashed a vicious mailer implying, falsely, that Omar was $10,000 behind on his child-support, when in fact he had been dutifully making payments on time.

Through the coalition, Eisemann has been able to shape city government in his own image: polite, fiscally disciplined, business-friendly. He doesn’t involve himself in the day-to-day operations of the city, but he has ready access to Richardson’s top staff and elected leaders. One of Chenoweth’s more gleeful blog scoops came late one afternoon in June 2013, when he spotted Slagel, retired city manager Bill Keffler and the mayor’s husband disappearing after hours into the Bank of Texas branch where Eisemann has his office. Chenoweth published photographs of their license plates the next day under the playful headline, “Secret Coalitionist Meeting?”

Once, Eisemann almost spoke to Chenoweth. Chenoweth, whose blog was increasingly devoted to conspiracy theories about Eisemann and the coalition, was sitting at a council meeting. Eisemann, passing in front of his seat, paused and looked down, as if to say something, but Chenoweth pretended not to notice. After a moment, Eisemann walked away.

*****

Chenoweth’s sensibilities have matured since the early days of “Just My 2 Cents Worth,” which were marred by, among other ugliness, an undercurrent of knee-jerk Islamophobia, heaped on councilman Omar, and misogyny, including calling Maczka “arm candy.” But by the 2013 election, when Omar and Maczka faced off for the mayor’s chair, he’d shed much of his sophomoric side and focused on the issues. That led him to support Omar, who, through two terms of solid work on the council and sheer personal magnetism, had overcome the dual stigma of Muslim heritage and prior coalition backing to win over Richardson’s political dissidents. Chenoweth became an enthusiastic Omar partisan, launching broadsides portraying Maczka as an amoral schemer bought and paid for by Eisemann. But these subsided once Maczka trounced Omar in the election and Chenoweth turned his focus back to more quotidian matters, like watchdogging the water and sewer funds. Then came the Palisades.

Richardson is mostly built out, with precious few pieces of undeveloped land. An exception sits along Central Expressway opposite DART’s Galatyn Park light rail station, where several dozen grassy acres fronting one of the region’s busiest transportation corridors sit empty. In 2013, a commercial real estate developer, JP Realty Partners, brought forward a plan for an ambitious mixed-use development with upscale shops and restaurants, plentiful office space, townhomes and several hundred high-rise apartments, all radiating outward from a central park. JP Partners’ principal, Mark Jordan, a veteran real estate investor from Plano, declared that the Palisades were going to be his legacy.
Neighbors in the Canyon Creek and Prairie Creek neighborhoods adjacent to the site were nearly unanimous in their hatred of the plan. More than 300 wrote letters opposing it, specifically offended by the inclusion of so many rental units. At rezoning hearings, alarmists predicted the apartments would send the pleasant neighborhoods into a death spiral, as increased crime and overcrowded schools eroded property values, inviting blight, and in turn feeding more crime.

Maczka fanned the smoldering outrage by swiftly abandoning her no-more-apartments campaign pledge and declaring her support for the project. Her support remained steadfast as the project swelled in size, from 60 to 80 acres and from 600 apartments to more than 1,000. Her about-face baffled neighbors – until, that is, it became clear that Maczka and Jordan were tighter than most mayors and developers. Maczka has declined to release some phone and email records of conversations with Jordan, requested under open records laws, on the grounds that they are personal in nature. But WFAA reporter Brett Shipp obtained and published some of the unreleased emails through other means. In one exchange less than a week before the initial December 2013 vote on Palisades rezoning, Maczka playfully invites Jordan on a jaunt to NorthPark. After forwarding an email to Jordan from the Canyon Creek Homeowners Association, detailing their position on the project, just after midnight on December 3, Jordan responds, at 3:36 a.m., that he’s heading into the office to get some work done. “U can totally bail and work,” Maczka replies shortly before 7 a.m., advising Jordan that she has better plans. “Killing me!” Jordan replies. “I have been blown off before but never like this…”

“Not blowing u off. Trying to be nice and give you the out!” she writes, adding an emoticon with its tongue sticking out. “I on the other hand have a dart pass for me and a friend…and need some things from northpark. Go re-read dork, I said YOU can bail. I’m playing today!” To which Jordan replies, “Love to manipulate! Now I’m excited. I’ll meet you at my GW2 building (we can park there) after your meeting and we can jump on dart there.”

In another exchange, sent shortly before the council’s initial vote on Palisades rezoning, she has Jordan fill out a constituent’s questions on the Palisades project. “See my answers below in RED,” he writes. “Don’t forward this to anyone. Just put it in your own words.” Later, Maczka ribs Jordan after enduring a contentious meeting with opponents of the project. “Last night the Prairie Creek mob hit me hard … I was taking bullets for you.”

Maczka declined requests for an interview. Jordan didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment. But in April, Maczka doubled down on her support of Jordan’s project. Shortly after filing for a second term as mayor, she acknowledged in an ethics filing that she’d taken a job with Jordan’s property management company. Rumors that had been percolating quietly suddenly boiled to the surface in volatile open-mic sessions at council meetings and on Chenoweth’s blog. Recently, he broke the details of the Palisades’ economic incentive deal with the city with the headline “Mayor Laura’s Boyfriend Scores a $47,000,000 Plus Payday.”

Chenoweth, among others, called for her resignation. Maczka refused to step down but announced in a Facebook post that she planned to decline a second term in office following the election in May, which only inflamed the situation. Maczka, who’d been waffling about whether to run, had filed for reelection two months earlier, beating the February filing deadline by a couple of hours. Since she was the only mayoral candidate on the ballot, her refusal to take office meant the task of picking the next mayor would fall to the council — a stark regression to the way things were done before 2012, when voters overrode the objections of Eisemann and the Richardson Coalition and overwhelmingly approved a referendum to directly elect the city’s top official.

The final weeks of Maczka’s tenure as mayor played out with all the agonizing slowness of an opera death scene. She took pains to ignore the controversy, though at times this became impossible, as when Shipp ambushed her with the vaguely flirtatious emails following a council meeting. (She offered a squirming explanation that the NorthPark trip was a way to check in on the infrastructure around Richardson’s DART stations.)

Public anger climaxed with the venom-soaked opening of the teeming April 28 council meeting. Compared to that, the substantive portion of the meeting -— the delivery of an official ethics investigation into Maczka’s conduct —— was anticlimactic. The city initiated the investigation as a response both to the public revelation of Maczka’s employment with Jordan’s company and to several citizen complaints — according to the city’s attorney, the first such complaints in Richardson’s history — accusing Maczka of an illegal conflict of interest on the Palisades votes. Fort Worth attorney George Staples was enlisted to conduct the review of Maczka’s actions and determine whether she broke any city or state ethics rules.

Staples read the entirety of his report in the charming but soporific drone of a tenured history professor at an old southern college. His report — predicted and denounced by the angry open-mic speakers as a “mirage of an investigation” — cleared Maczka. Specifically, it found no evidence that the votes she cast in favor of the Palisades between December 2013 and September 2014 had been influenced by any consideration of personal economic benefit, whether in the form of cash, gifts or the promise of a job. Staples did not investigate the nature of Maczka and Jordan’s personal relationship, as ethics laws are concerned almost exclusively with economic conflicts of interest and say nothing about whom a mayor can or can’t befriend, date or flirtatiously email. The formerly packed council chamber was half empty by the time Staples finished delivering his report.

*****

At the end of May, Maczka was replaced as mayor by City Councilman Paul Voelker, by all accounts a competent if uncharismatic public servant. A few days later, neighbors noticed an enormous wooden real estate sign had appeared in front of the Palisades property along Central Expressway. “50 Acres Available” it touts. “Up to 2.5 Million SF of Office.” At the bottom it gives the contact info for the leasing agent: Laura Maczka.

Chenoweth still entertains a vague hope that anti-establishment forces can translate lingering resentment over the Palisades into concrete political gains in 2017. Something similar happened in the 1980s when Canyon Creek, furious over generous zoning concessions along the nascent Bush Turnpike given to the oil-baron Hunt family, ousted several incumbent council members. Already, though, the scandal seems well on its way to becoming a tawdry footnote in Richardson’s otherwise orderly political history. If the scandal was going to lead to a political shakeup, it would have happened in May when it was still fresh. But while several hundred people who cast ballots expressed their displeasure by not voting for mayor, coalition-backed candidates coasted to victory in the two contested council races.

And the opposition will soon be without its guiding spirit. Chenoweth recently retired from Northaven Auto. He’s preparing to sell his house and plans on leaving Richardson by the fall. He has a place in East Texas just outside of Gilmer, 18 piney acres with an oil well and a “hillbilly mansion,” as he calls his used mobile home. His brother lives on the plot of land next door. His parents and a sister are in nearby Longview.

“I’m gonna go play with my tractors on my tree farm,” he says. Right now, the land is a scrubby mess. Chenoweth plans to clear out the brush, leaving the oaks and larger pines, and plant rows of loblolly pines. In 15 to 25 years, they’ll be ready to harvest and sell to timber companies, though Chenoweth doubts he’ll be alive long enough to make any money. He’s in it for the exercise and the agricultural tax exemption, which cut his property tax bill this year from a couple thousand dollars to about $58.

He’s considering turning over “Just My 2 Cents Worth” to some of the jilted neighbors in Canyon Creek. He plans on making a clean break from politics, but he can’t quite bring himself to let the blog die. “The name’s already there, and the name carries on.”

Email the author at eric.nicholson@dallasobserver.com.


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