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Is Mike Rawlings Leppert 2.0?

Jen Sorensen

OK, all you Mike Rawlings fans: I sure hope you like your new "progressive" Democrat mayor, the man who was going to make such a big difference at City Hall. Because it sure looks like the same weird old Dallas plantation to me.

Look, I admit it's just my own view. I spoke with Rawlings about this. Obviously he disagrees. In fact, he thinks I'm full of it. He says I'm misconstruing what he has done in office, and that I indulge in wacko conspiracy theories. Otherwise, we had a nice chat.

I will get to his version in a moment. But first, since this is my show, my version. Which is: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The previous mayor, Tom Leppert, was a big white business guy selected to be mayor by the private Dallas Citizens Council, a group whose very existence in Dallas never fails to shock newcomers. He was a Republican.

Rawlings is a big white business guy selected by the same Citizens Council. He is a Democrat. How much difference was that ever going to make?

Let's talk about reality, of which we have seen two recent demonstrations. One was Rawlings' behavior in the all-important question of Dallas City Council redistricting. The second was the deal he cut to haul more trash into an already beleaguered part of town.

Both things demonstrated the same principle: The Citizens Council works with anybody it can buy off and control, and against anybody it can't. That usually winds up being an alliance of big white business guys in North Dallas, more white business guys in the Park Cities and elderly black preachers in southern Dallas. On the other side: progressives, Hispanics and new black leadership, wherever they live.

If it were a lawsuit, it would be styled Plantation v. Future.

First, let's look back on the so-called Dallas Redistricting Commission, which we now know should have been called the Joke Window-Dressing for Public Consumption Only Redistricting Commission.

For months it dragged on — an impenetrably dense Soviet-style puppet show in which earnest citizens deliberated ways to draw rational, fair and compact city council districts based on the 2010 Census numbers.

But when we got to the rubber-meets-the-road moment — when the council actually had to vote on something — Rawlings ducked into the back room with the black council members and — whack! whack! whack! — they cut the same old plantation-style deal they've cut so many times before.

Screw the Hispanics. Screw the progressive whites in North Oak Cliff. Screw anybody, as a matter of fact, who doesn't fit the same old paradigm.

What we wound up with is a redistricting map that ignores all three of the most salient facts in the 2010 census data: a notable decrease in white population in the city, a notable decrease in black population and a notable increase in the Latino population.

I defy you to find one of those facts, just one of them, anywhere on the redistricting map that Rawlings and the black council members carved up for themselves in their back-room séance. You can't. It's not there.

Now for my second Joel Chandler Harris-style story about doin's on the old plantation down at Dallas City Hall. At the end of last month, Rawlings successfully urged the city council to support a plan by City Manager Mary Suhm to divert large volumes of commercial waste from suburban landfills to the city-owned McCommas Bluff Landfill in southeast Dallas, near the intersection of Interstate 45 and I-20.

Why does the city manager want more trash? Rawlings spoke for her. The city wants the increased income, he said, from tipping fees charged to commercial trash haulers. "This is a business revenue issue," he said.

The Citizens Council's deal with the city manager is always simple: Don't raise taxes. Scratch around wherever you have to scratch for the money you need, but do not raise taxes.

Ah, but in this case, there was a political hurdle in the path of the mayor and the Citizens Council. Students at Paul Quinn, a historically black college on rolling wooded land near the landfill, had organized against the city manager's campaign to bring more trucks full of garbage to their neighborhood.

Paul Quinn is emerging as one of the more interesting institutions in the city, in part because of green, forward-looking innovation. The school recently plowed its football field into a farm plot and knocked down disused buildings to make space for more cropland. It's even pursuing development of a fresh-food retailing operation tied to its curriculum.

In the weeks before the vote, Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell lobbied the city council. He didn't oppose the plan outright, but he wanted more time to study the impact on the neighborhood. He told the council he thought the decision was being rushed, that they were green-lighting the trash parade before they even knew what kind of productive win-win alternatives might exist.

 

Sorrell and the Paul Quinn students challenged the mayor, the city manager and the Citizens Council by presenting them with opposition that actually came from the affected community. The manager and the mayor promptly set up a million-dollar-per-year "economic stimulus fund" for the area around the landfill, neutralizing the opposition with a slice of the trash pie.

I don't think this fight is over, by the way. The Paul Quinn students were not impressed by the buy-off offer from the city and remained adamant in their opposition. But the ministers went the other direction. The new more-trash policy was praised by the head of the most influential southern Dallas black clergy group, with pointed references to the promised fund.

That's just more disappointing than I can convey. Here was an opportunity to bring these college students into the center of things at City Hall, to learn from them and recruit them as a valued leadership cadre for the city's future. There may even have been an opportunity to create significant green economic innovation in a seriously blighted part of the city. It would have been nice to hear more about that before a vote was taken.

Instead, the city did a deal to hold down taxes by choking the landfill with more trash, the preachers got a handout and the students got the back of the hand.

That's a typical Citizens Council deal, just like redistricting. It's more of the same. More of the bad old days. A rejection of the future.

I told you I talked to the mayor. I was frank about what I was writing. He was frank in his response. He said first that none of the Southeast Oak Cliff Economic Stimulus money is going to preachers.

"I have established a steering committee," he said. One of the committee's top priorities for the fund, he said, will be "making sure we deliver the grocery stores and other development that the neighborhoods need."

He said decisions about spending the fund's money will "stay at the city council level," assuring those decisions will be aboveboard and public.

He also told me I was wrong about redistricting. He said my interpretation of the final map — four black seats, three Latino, seven white — is based on a wrong analysis of the numbers. Instead, he said, we are looking at Dallas' first majority-minority city council at the next election in 2013, which is what he was going for.

"For the first time we have eight winnable minority districts," he said. "A majority of the city council will be minority. Four will be Latino and four will be African-Americans."

He said even my riff about the population numbers is wrong because I'm counting the wrong numbers: "The growth in (Latino) population is in total population, not in voting age population," he said.

And then finally the mayor implied in a very polite way that my stuff about the Citizens Council is, well, Loony-Tunes.

"I won't opine on the conspiracy theory," he said. "You know how I feel about that. I just don't think the facts bear out what you say."

Those are all good points. But I do disagree about the redistricting maps — I squinted real hard, but it still looks like four black, three Latino, seven white seats plus a white mayor to me. But that argument takes us so far out into the Wonk Zone that we'd need oxygen tanks.

I also don't agree that my feelings about the Citizens Council amount to a conspiracy theory. The Citizens Council has always been pretty obvious about its role. Donna Halstead, their hired executive director, was front and center in all of the redistricting debates. It's a matter of public record that both Rawlings and his immediate predecessor were Citizens Council members and drew their principle financial support from its members.

I've never thought of the Citizens Council's role in civic affairs as conspiratorial. It's about control and whom the Citizens Council can count on for support, but it's also about culture. You see it in the close connections between Citizens Council members and the city's most powerful elected black official, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. It's a relationship that has everything to do with personal comfort levels.

It's the people who fall outside the Citizens Council's comfort zone who get screwed: white people who want to live in old neighborhoods, young black people not comfortable with the old ways, almost all Hispanics. Together they form a demographic defined by its exclusion from the old Citizens Council pattern.

It's not right — it's a serious mistake, in fact — to imagine that the leadership of the Citizens Council, the membership, their allies in the old political structure of southern Dallas and the mayors and council members they elect are conspirators. They're the old Dallas doing what Dallas always has done, doing what the old Dallas sincerely believes is best for everybody.

 

Rawlings, though, offers a new wrinkle — a mayor from the old mold, but a Democrat who defends the outcomes in Democrat-sounding terms. The problem is that the outcomes are exactly the same. The bell rings up at the Big House, and everybody lines up the same way they always have. A Citizens Council Democrat doing the strumming or a Citizens Council Republican: It still sounds like that same old banjo to me.


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