This wasn't the hardball question, the kind a reporter slips in at the end of a dull conversation, hoping to catch the city council candidate off guard. But it stumped District 4 hopeful Elijah McGrew. The patter stopped, all the easy talk in that soothing baritone voice about fixing streetlights, enforcing city codes, and strengthening the ordinance governing sexually oriented businesses.
"How do you make a living?"
A brief silence, then McGrew's favorite answer: "That is so interesting."
Yes, it is. And McGrew, 41, known for his much-publicized campaigns against fleabag motels and topless clubs, quickly decides he doesn't like the drift of this interview. "My goodness," he says. "Are you gonna put me in front of the paper as the 'Deadbeat Candidate'?"
Hmmm. It does have a sort of ring to it. And it pretty much sums things up.
After all, the city secretary's roster of council candidates lists McGrew's occupation as "unknown." And Dallas County records show a misdemeanor assault conviction, five guilty pleas to driving without a license, and six evictions from various apartments resulting in $2,253 in judgments against McGrew. (McGrew disputes three of those evictions, saying he never lived at those complexes, and says he "took care of" what he owed in one of the other cases.)
Fits my definition of deadbeat.
Then there's the matter of the car, a big old prairie schooner over which neighborhood activist Mary Lou Zijderveld sued McGrew in small-claims court. Zijderveld says he agreed to purchase her 1978 Buick Park Avenue for $800, paid $100 down, then made himself scarce.
The activist, who befriended McGrew while the pair picketed Northwest Highway topless bars, never got another penny from him. But she did start receiving McGrew's traffic and parking tickets, since he never bothered to register the car in his name.
If that weren't bad enough, sometime in 1998, McGrew simply sold the car to one Jose Trevino, according to county records.
McGrew's explanation for the missing Buick: "I was, you know, just test-driving the car."
Of course. But gee, didn't Zijderveld want it back some day?
"No," McGrew says. "She said 'Well, look, Elijah, you can either bring the car back or keep it or sell it,'" he says.
Zijderveld agrees that she did say something like that in exasperation after McGrew had "test-driven" the car for an entire year.
"It's so interesting," McGrew adds. "It's so interesting. If I was wealthy, I would pay my debt. When you get in politics, it's crazy how people come out of the woodwork and say things like that. And deep down inside, she knows that I'm a good person."
From there, the conversation shifts to a muffled plaint about poverty, further assertions that he's an essentially decent guy, and talk about how he'll pay back Zijderveld once his campaign is over.
McGrew contends that he's the "most informed guy" in this year's council races, thanks to years of research for his Local Political Candidates Society, which distributes information about city council members and candidates. That organization has become his full-time pursuit, he says, even though he doesn't get paid a dime for it.
A few days later, McGrew follows his lament with a string of accusations against Zijderveld, including some of a highly personal nature. "I'm getting tired of getting beat up," he says.
Zijderveld, a retired state employee who lives near Bachman Lake, isn't impressed. "I used to feel sorry for him," she says. "He kind of came across as the victim--someone who's pulled himself up by his bootstraps. But he's just a low-life. He loves to whine like a child."
It's the time of year when spring rains flush small furry pests and assorted other vermin from their hiding places. And it's the time of year when a curious array of southern and West Dallas residents--among them opportunists, deadbeats, and the mysteriously underemployed--suddenly get the notion that they're qualified to serve on the Dallas City Council.
Some of the folks who fit in one or more of those categories may actually end up sitting at the horseshoe, if history is any indication, selling out their needy districts through sheer ignorance or neglect.
The reason is simple: It's the money.
While single-member council districts brought a new measure of democracy to Dallas, a steady stream of underqualified candidates has plagued southern Dallas council races.
McGrew, running for the Pleasant Grove seat Councilman Larry Duncan will relinquish because of term limits, isn't alone in possessing a scrawny resume. Check the lengthy list of southern Dallas candidates on file at the city secretary's office, and you will find an inordinate number of no-names, sell-outs, and individuals who have no recent acquaintance with the working world.
You can blame this, in part, on Dallas' failure to pay its council a living wage. Council members make $50 per meeting day, a figure unchanged since the 1960s. Voters have refused seven times to increase that meager compensation, with the last attempt losing badly in 1997.
There's no question that the city's policy hits hardest in southern and West Dallas, where few, if any, people are independently wealthy. A family breadwinner can't afford to serve on the council and net an average of only $300 a month.
"Council members work 60 to 80 hours a week, and that's a lot of work," says Hector Garcia, chairman of the City Plan Commission. "They're forced to either be supported by someone else, live in poverty, or have their businesses go into bankruptcy."
Or resort to some dodgy survival tactics that usually go unquestioned in poorer districts. Councilwoman Donna Blumer found out about one such practice soon after getting elected in 1993. Supporters would hold cash fundraisers for candidates' personal needs--sort of like a church "love offering" for a visiting preacher. The candidate simply pockets the proceeds, and like those so-called love offerings, common in black churches, it's doubtful the money is ever reported, either as campaign contributions or personal income.
Blumer says practices like that make council members more vulnerable to pressure from wealthy contributors seeking influence in southern Dallas.
Regardless of who's pulling the strings, those who have served Dallas' poorest southern and West Dallas districts have often done so ineffectively. Today we have Councilman Steve Salazar, a guy who's distinguished himself for little besides scribbling silly cartoons during council meetings. Of course, the man does work for a living and has a family to support.
No obvious excuse exists for four-term Councilwoman Charlotte Mayes, who hasn't had any visible effect on the careless code enforcement in her South Dallas district. Or Councilman Al Lipscomb, under federal indictment for allegedly accepting bribes.
Opponents of council salaries have argued that a city manager system, such as Dallas', lays all the work on the shoulders of city staff. The reasoning falls apart when one examines the continuing stream of unflattering reports from the city auditor's office showing just how many city departments are failing to do their jobs.
Councilwoman Veletta Forsythe Lill, who, by all accounts, works extremely hard for District 14, has noticed another dynamic: Constituents expect hands-on attention from their council members. And many are under the mistaken impression that they're paid like county commissioners, who make a generous $91,000 a year, plus a car allowance.
"If you figure out what $1.5 billion private corporations pay their boards of directors, that's what the analogy should be," says Lill, who supports instituting a modest salary for council members, "at least a little above a poverty wage."
That the hardest-working council members put in full-time hours or more is beyond dispute.
On Friday nights, city security officers dump a plastic-wrapped "agenda book," containing information for upcoming committee and council meetings, at the doorstep of every council member. "I start hyperventilating because it's so much stuff," says Councilwoman Laura Miller. "We're inundated with paper. Our weekly junk, it can be 7 or 8 inches tall."
Miller sees a sinister design in this "wallpapering." That's how city staff "numb you," she says. "They blanket you with paper hoping you never get to it."
Says Lill, who puts in "60 to 80" hours a week on council business: "You're never not sinking from the paper."
While some council members report to meetings with their agenda books still tucked in the plastic bag, presumably untouched, Lill says most of her colleagues work hard.
District 13's Donna Blumer says she spends "easily 40 hours a week" on council work--reading agenda books, attending council and neighborhood meetings, answering constituents' calls. "You cannot survive down there unless you do your homework," she says.
At one time, Blumer opposed pay for any politicians. "But once I got there, I realized how time-consuming it was, and the toll it took, particularly for men who were breadwinners in their families.
"I've felt the pinch myself," she adds. "My husband has had a stroke, and I took a part-time job."
Blumer was the chief proponent of 1997's ballot measure to increase council members' per diem pay from $50 to an inflation-adjusted $212. "I sold it to the council, and everyone was enthusiastic about it," she recalls. Everyone but Dallas voters.
The timing couldn't have been worse. Just weeks before the election, former city council member Paul Fielding pleaded guilty to felony charges of extortion and mail fraud.
Voters rejected the increase in council pay, small as it was, by a wide margin.
Blumer envies a system such as Houston's, where council members make about $43,000, a "part-time" salary that's pegged to a percentage of the annual pay for a Harris County state district judge.
Houston arrived at its salaries through unorthodox means. Voters rejected several charter amendments in the 1960s and '70s calling for council pay. So in 1977, state legislators sneaked through a bill with a rider allowing pay for council members in Texas cities with populations above 1.2 million--a provision obviously tailored just for Houston.
Such a tactic probably wouldn't work today, where any Joe can pick apart bills on the Internet.
But it wouldn't take much to get the question of council salaries on the ballot for Dallas' next municipal election in 2001. A simple majority of council members could pass a resolution, though Councilman John Loza recommends that the issue go through a citizens charter review commission, something that didn't happen on the last go-round.
Loza, in fact, elicited laughter when he attended a National League of Cities meeting in September and told people that the ninth-largest city in the United States didn't pay its council members. It isn't funny for Loza, who still works as a lawyer yet somehow manages to come to council meetings fully prepared.
Miller pledges to press for council salaries if she's re-elected to her Oak Cliff seat on May 1. She says council members quietly support the issue. "There's historically been a reluctance to push it because they think it seems very self-serving," she says.
Miller says she can circumvent that charge, because if she serves another term, she vows it will be her last. Any change in compensation would go into effect after she's gone.
The question is whether Mayor Ron Kirk will lend his support to any such effort. Early in his tenure, Kirk openly backed council salaries, spokesman Justin Lonon says. But "regardless of what the mayor thinks about salaries, the voters have spoken emphatically in the past, and he's not sure it's time to revisit it again."
Tim Dickey gets impassioned whenever Kirk's name comes up. His jaw clenches. He speaks in jagged sentences. He thinks about the time when he was one of Channel 5's Public Defenders and asked the mayor who had financed his recent trip to South Africa.
"I got a foul-mouthed speakerphone reply--'What's with all these goofy fucking questions?' I was shocked," Dickey says. "I'm foul-mouthed too, but not in inappropriate circumstances. It's not so much the language, it's the bullying attitude."
Earlier this year, Dickey, 46, now a television producer, hankered for the opportunity to go downtown and look Kirk in the eye "when he starts his foul diatribes."
Dickey had decided to challenge Barbara Mallory Caraway for the District 6 council seat, which encompasses parts of West and North Dallas. He had learned his way around City Hall by serving on the Human Services Commission, analyzing policy and punching holes in the information provided by city staff.
He figured it wouldn't take much to better the record of Mallory Caraway, who he claims hasn't done anything to protect his Bachman Lake neighborhood.
"I don't think she's a policy person," Dickey says. "I think she mainly wants to ride a float in parades and wave at the crowds."
Only one obstacle stood in the way of Dickey's run for city council. The money. But he came up with a plan: He would work as a freelance television technician, scheduling jobs whenever the family trough got low.
It all seemed pretty much settled, with his wife and two kids behind him, when Dickey received unexpected news in February. The home-improvement show he produces for cable television, Your New House, was renewed for another season and expanded from 30 to 60 minutes.
"It was a huge professional success to have it renewed and expanded," Dickey says, and suddenly, all the timing for a city council run, all the urgency, just seemed to evaporate. He couldn't justify walking away from an outstanding in-hand opportunity.
If Dallas offered even a modest salary for its council members--say, $30,000 or so--Dickey says he would have forgone the job and run. And he figures numerous other city commission members, well qualified to move up to the council, have made the same calculations and realized they couldn't do it either.
The people left to serve, he says, are the parade queens, the wealthy, and the women Laura Miller indelicately refers to as "the housewives." (She counts herself among that group.)
These days, Dickey still fantasizes about staring down Kirk, about having his voice heard on issues such as the arena, which he calls Dallas' biggest policy blunder in a generation. "Print this," Dickey says, still chafed about Kirk. "I think he's just a bully who throws his toys out of the pram when he doesn't get his way."
Surveying his own working-class district and its proliferation of nightclubs and topless bars, he gets even angrier. About the money. "Dallas needs to stop whining about the level of city council representation and do something about it," he says. "To say no to paid politicians and all that hokey-pokey BS, it's dinosaur thinking.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Get real, Dallas. Why do you expect council members to sacrifice their first-born to make the city better? It's ridiculous. It's silly. Do you really think that Dallas is such an uncomplicated village that anybody can go down and do the job?"
Anybody like Elijah McGrew.
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dallas Observer staff writer Rose Farley.
Want to whine like a child? E-mail Observer Editor Julie Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.