You know how people always rearrange themselves a little bit on an elevator every time someone gets on or off? Think of political Dallas as one big elevator ever since former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle announced last week he's going to run for mayor in the May election.
Shuffle shuffle. Nudge-nudge. People looking all slit-eye sideways at him over their shoulders, trying to see what floor he's headed to.
Is this the beginning of something cool in Dallas? Or not?
You didn't notice, but in the last year I have been experiencing moments of fleeting optimism, good will and even some incidents of reduced paranoia. I just assume, whenever those nice moods hit me, that it's early onset dementia. I can get back to a normal mood by concentrating on something like the hit-and-run death of a beloved childhood pet.
But then every once in a while I am still nagged by this sense that Dallas might actually be moving in a good direction. Consider a few factors, and then we'll come back to Kunkle.
You may be a tax-hater, in which case I shouldn't bring this up, but there was a fascinating little seed of change in last year's city council vote to hold the city's property revenues level by raising the rate slightly. When city council member Angela Hunt joined the majority in favor of that rate increase, she created a union, however temporary, of the mostly white relatively affluent inner-city neighborhood movement with the black and Hispanic minority caucus on the council.
That never happens in Dallas. At least, it never used to happen. On all of the big city-wide issues, sometimes known in City Hall parlance as "white-people deals," the minority council members have always voted with the old white downtown oligarchy and against the middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
Why would the minority council members vote with an elite downtown business body and against neighborhoods, including their own? Because the Dallas Citizens Council and its members are still the overwhelmingly dominant source of campaign money for minority council members.
It goes like this: In all important local campaigns, the Citizens Council hires Carol Reed, its favored political consultant. Reed hires Kathy Nealey and Willis Johnson, her favored minority political consultants. The three of them distribute money to candidates and a network of minority clergy—all perfectly legal, mind you.
From that point forward, the deal is done. The minority council members can do whatever they want and raise any kind of ruckus they want on issues in their own districts, so long as those issues are not white-people deals. But when it comes to things the Citizens Council cares about—that tax hike, for example—the minority members are expected to tow the company line.
In this case they did not. In September of last year, Hunt joined three Hispanic and four black council members to form an eight-vote majority in favor of keeping city property tax revenues at the previous year's level. Because property values had fallen, the council had to raise the tax rate slightly to keep revenues flat.
For me, none of that was the interesting part. Arguing with people about taxes is like arguing with them about their moms' virtue. What do you expect, the Yale Debate Association?
The intriguing things were the willingness of the minority council members to buck the Citizens Council and the perception of Hunt that her own constituents would rather pay a nickel more in the property tax rate than endure further decay of the city's basic infrastructure.
But that's not enough to make me feel dementedly happy yet. No, the really scary sensation of well-being—the one that gives me the true willies—comes when I turn away from City Hall and contemplate the city itself. I think the chemicals are causing a kind of rose-colored distortion.
In spite of these terrible economic times, Dallas continues to bloom at its heart, from North Oak Cliff to east of downtown around Baylor Hospital, further east in the Henderson Avenue area, north along the Uptown corridor, south into the Cedars.
Well, the city blooms in a circle around the heart, anyway. The heart itself still has problems. Downtown seems to suffer from some kind of chronic a-fib.
The places in the city that boom and bloom have one thing in common. They are centers drawing the kind of people who just like being in the city, who don't want to be separated, rated and gated. It's all about people who like the mix.
None of this is unique to Dallas. It's all stuff that Christopher Leinberger, author of The Option of Urbanism, and others have been writing about and predicting for cities all over America. Leinberger calls it "Seinfeld America"—a place where people like the idea of living stacked up on top of strangers more than living on a cul-de-sac with their cousins.
In fact, that's probably exactly what's wrong with downtown. Still domineered by the old culture, downtown has been redeveloped as a kind of high-rise gated community. So it's boring.
So what does any of this have to do with Kunkle? Maybe not much. Maybe a whole lot.
The Citizens Council candidate for mayor is current council member Ron Natinsky. Natinsky first came to city politics as a North Dallas neighborhood activist a couple decades ago, but he has spent every year since then kissing up to the Citizens Council. He will carry two burdens into the May election.
First, the tax rate debate left him with very strained relations with the minority council members—a serious obstacle for him in seeking the minority vote in May. The Citizens Council apparatus will work to overcome that barrier with a flood of cash—a strategy that has always worked like a Swiss watch for them in the past. But will it again? We shall see.
Maybe worse for Natinsky is his close identification with all of the big-ticket white-people deals pushed by the Citizens Council during Natinsky's tenure, especially the expensively failed Trinity River Toll Road and the failure of the city to maintain safe flood-control levees along the Trinity River.
The toll road, a multi-billion-dollar venture never built and now languishing, is especially bad for Natinsky, because it rings a bad note in his own conservative North Dallas base. If this were '86 and North Dallas were Soweto, Natinsky could view the toll road as a burning tire around his neck.
I don't believe toll-road foe Angela Hunt will run for mayor, even though she is still mentioned as Natinsky's most likely challenger. She is not saying, pinching her cards tight. She has until March 12 to decide. Hunt has impressive money-raising abilities and the best name ID in the city. She could still jump in. My bet is no.
Every time I talk to her, she's got that darned baby with her. It's her first. I don't want to be sexist, but I have a hunch she'd take the kid over a mayoral campaign.
If so, that would leave Kunkle to challenge Natinsky. Kunkle has already said he will not go to the usual establishment sources for campaign money and will not hire the usual suspects as campaign consultants.
That alone is major.
His campaign treasurer is Steve Wolens, a one-time one-man powerhouse (and Democrat) in the legislature and husband of former mayor Laura Miller. Kunkle has been telling people he will wage a strictly grassroots campaign, but the Wolens-Miller connection means he won't have to root around too hard in the grass to find the money. Wolens-Miller is its own political money machine.
When Wolens' name first showed up on Kunkle's filing documents, I heard some concern in both South and East Dallas. Miller left office closely identified with big white-people deals including the toll road and fake suspension bridges over the Trinity River designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
But not a whole lot of concern. A Southern Dallas activist said to me last week: "Wolens had his own name with us, before Laura, and we know him to be his own man." A prominent East Dallas activist even hinted that Miller could achieve absolution over the toll road by pointing to changed circumstances since she left office.
And that's just what Miller did when I called her last week. She wouldn't talk about the mayor's race, but she said the lack of funding for the toll road and the crisis with the levees, taken together, mean the city needs to change its priorities.
I knew Kunkle as chief. He was the best police chief I ever saw in Dallas. I do not know him as a candidate for elective office. He and Natinsky both have a lot of emerging to do, out there in the harsh glare, before any of us makes up his or her mind about them as mayor.
We really don't know. I certainly have had to learn the hard way that some of the things I think I like—neighborhood activism, for example—can turn into monsters. Unchecked and full of righteousness, people will ride roughshod over the interests of private property and privacy itself. I think of the whole campaign to clean up problem apartment buildings in Dallas, which at times has devolved into government seizure and ethnic cleansing.
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We need to hear Kunkle and Natinsky talk about all of those things. That's what campaigns are for.
But Kunkle has said already that he will lean away from "big-ticket items" (read, toll roads, fake suspension bridges) in favor of more pragmatic approaches to the city's needs (fix the streets, hire more cops).
What that offers—maybe, just maybe—is the promise of a coalescence, a coming together of all the good things we see blooming, and truly a better place to live.
But it's still just the elevator. We're all just checking each other out. And I may actually need to get off here on the seventh floor, if you don't mind, and take a pill.