Last Men Standing
Tom Leppert is a tall, thin 52-year-old from North Dallas who talks as if he has five more minutes to live. If you don't know by now—and judging by the dismal turnout in last Saturday's election, you probably don't—he and council member Ed Oakley are in the runoff to be Dallas' next mayor. Exactly a year ago, Leppert was the chief executive officer of Turner Corp., an $8 billion construction giant that doubled its revenue during his seven-year tenure. The company is now building a tower in Dubai that upon completion will be the world's tallest building.
On April 26, a Thursday two weeks and two days before the election, Leppert was far away from the oil fortunes of United Arab Emirates, attending a mayoral forum at Friendship West Baptist Church. Located on a quiet, hilly road on the southwestern fringes of the county, Friendship West is one of the largest black churches in Dallas. Its pastor Frederick Haynes worked with Leppert on the 2006 city bond campaign.
Haynes had already endorsed Leppert, giving many of the other candidates that evening a handy excuse to attend a debate in North Dallas instead. Max Wells, a banker and former mayor pro-tem, was one of the candidates who skipped the forum at Friendship West. In his place he sent Don Hicks, a former city council member and one of several black politicos who endorsed Wells. Seeming agitated, if not out for blood, Hicks wasted no time attacking Leppert for once belonging to the all-white Dallas Country Club.
"Anybody who, in 2007, wants to be associated with a known racist organization and then resign a few months before running for election, I don't have respect for him to be mayor," Hicks said.
A few months earlier, The Dallas Morning News reported on Leppert's club membership. For the Leppert campaign, it was a rare and fleeting burst of bad press. The News soon moved on and ultimately endorsed Leppert.
Hicks was trying to school the white CEO in front of the black crowd. In past forums, Leppert appeared agitated and uncomfortable when other candidates took a shot at him. This time, though, in front of a smart, engaged audience, Leppert wasn't fazed at all, choosing to ignore Hicks' comment. Instead, when it was his turn to speak, Leppert talked about how a nearby Chili's restaurant closed down, using it to show that reports of the southern sector's rebirth are partly exaggerated. Throughout the evening, Leppert talked about education, job growth, the Trinity River Project and, of course, economic development in southern neighborhoods, eliciting quiet but noticeable affirmations from the audience. Leppert talked about himself too, mainly trying to explain that he wasn't just a rich ex-CEO.
"I was raised by a single mom; my father died when I was young," he said. "She had challenges. She never had an education. From her I got an awful lot, and I learned an awful lot. I got the good sense of the importance of a work ethic. She had to make the utility bills; she had to make the rent check."
At the end of the forum, when the candidates gave their closing statements, Hicks again took a swipe at Leppert. "This is personal with me, why I support Max Wells," Hicks said. "I haven't found anything in his background that would offend my ancestors."
Leppert again refused to respond to Hicks' jab. "This election is all about possibilities," he said. "You look through the southern sector and see if the investment is there and if we created jobs. I bring a very different skill set than anybody else up here."
When the candidates were finished, Leppert and wife Laura stuck around and talked with people in the audience. Wealthy North Dallasites rarely appear comfortable outside their natural habitat, but the Lepperts seemed happy and at ease at a black church in southern Dallas. Hicks, meanwhile, left the forum as soon as it concluded.
Last Saturday, Leppert coasted into the runoff against city council member Ed Oakley, trouncing the deep field in the voter-rich council districts in North Dallas. But what made Leppert's victory all the more impressive was how well he did in the largely black and Hispanic districts in the southern sector. He finished no worse than third in any southern sector council district, easily beating Wells, who had the hefty support of the black establishment, in all of them. Leppert even beat Don Hill, the respected black mayor pro tem, in a few council districts south of the Trinity.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Leppert led the field in mayoral fund-raising, allowing him to sprinkle the southern sector with billboards far ahead of his competitors. But unlike Wells, who spent $800,000 of his own money for all of 8,600 votes, he also clearly connected with voters across the city. Casting himself both as a savvy business leader and the self-made son of a—one more time now—poor, single mother, Leppert never got thrown off message. At every forum, even as other candidates and their proxies would jab him, Leppert proceeded as if they weren't there, choosing instead to explain how his successful tenure as the CEO of Turner Construction was a good prelude to leading a city like Dallas. His message wasn't profound or fresh, but it clearly resonated with the segment of the electorate that wanted a change at City Hall.
"I live in a world that has nothing to do with words," he said at a forum. "It's about generating results."
On the ground, Leppert ran Spanish billboards in Hispanic parts of town, participated in the Cinco de Mayo parade and visited large and small black parishes. With the help of talk show host Willis Johnson, a friend of Hill's who joined Leppert's campaign as a consultant, Leppert met with black firefighters and neighborhood leaders. He dropped by track meets and participated in mayoral forums in southern Dallas that his fellow North Dallas competitors skipped.
"The last thing I would want to do is to position myself to be a successful candidate and not a successful mayor," Leppert says. "If you take that view of it, you want to run as strong as you can throughout the city."
Leppert's campaign flouted many preconceptions about politics in Dallas, the most important being that elected officials such as Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Republican Congressman Pete Sessions, who backed Griffith, have any kind of sway over elections. Price, along with former council members Al Lipscomb, Diane Ragsdale and Don Hicks, campaigned for Wells, appearing with him on targeted mailers and radio spots. Kathy Neely, considered the top political consultant in southern Dallas, and a favorite of Price, also joined the Wells campaign, earning $12,000 a month for her services. But the so-called Price-Neely machine flopped like a Waterworld sequel, barely delivering 1,500 votes for Wells in the black council districts. Leppert, without the support of the old guard in southern Dallas, received nearly double Wells' vote totals. Leppert also trounced Griffith in Republican strongholds, where Sessions figured to have influence. Turns out, not so much.
Prominent Hispanic leaders such as Domingo Garcia and Hector Flores also failed to deliver for their candidate, Hill. Leppert ran even or better than Hill in several Hispanic areas, including the Oak Cliff-area council district of Elba Garcia, Domingo's wife.
Like Leppert, Oakley performed well outside his natural base in North Oak Cliff. Nobody would think that council District 13 in Northwest Dallas would be Oakley country. It's heavily Republican; Oakley is a Democrat. It's socially conservative; Oakley is gay. Its well-liked council member, Mitchell Rasansky, prides himself on being a fiscal conservative; Oakley, meanwhile, has never met a tax break he didn't like. But Oakley, though a distant second to Leppert in District 13, finished ahead of avowed Republicans Wells and Darrell Jordan in the nonpartisan race. Oakley also ran well in Lake Highlands, where he had the endorsement of outgoing council member Bill Blaydes, and parts of North Dallas, where his proposal to raze aging and crime-ridden apartment complexes hit home.
Nearly all the top-tier candidates for mayor hoped to make it to the runoff by bringing out their bases and gobbling up votes in the neighborhoods where they live. Only Leppert, Oakley and Wells made concerted efforts to reach voters across Dallas. Leppert ran a very modern, efficient campaign. After he entered the race in November, he quickly raised a half-million dollars within five weeks. After Christmas, Leppert's campaign sent out a five-page mailer to voters introducing him. He also ran a television spot where he talked about how he helped his, um, single mom by working as a janitor in high school. He also paid for 70 billboards in southern neighborhoods, which featured an inspiring quote from Frederick Haynes.
"Everybody was talking about how we had no base; well, we went and got ourselves a base," says Carol Reed, Leppert's campaign manager.
Oakley didn't need to get himself a base. He already had one. As a prominent city council member who helped craft the city's $1.3 billion bond package in 2006, Oakley had a decent number of votes before Leppert sent out his first mailer. An astute, savvy politician, Oakley is well-liked among the politically active neighborhoods in Oak Cliff, both inside and outside his district. He is also beloved by gay voters and Stemmons Corridor business owners who appreciate his unflinching support for the Trinity River public works project. With a decent base on hand, Oakley ran more of an old-fashioned campaign than Leppert. He and his supporters knocked on 70,000 doors, sent out a slew of mailers and seemed to smack a yard sign on every right of way and empty store lot in town. Although Oakley raised nearly as much money as Leppert during the most recent reporting period, he waited until the final days to air television spots.
"Not at one time were we worried," says Latrisa Rogers, who worked for Oakley. "Everybody was so confident throughout the campaign."
At mayoral forums throughout the city, Oakley barely made a presence. Unlike Hill and Leppert, captivating speakers, Oakley rarely distinguished himself among the field. There was one forum where, apropos of nothing, he talked about water main replacement. Overall, Oakley took credit for his view of the city's good fortunes, including the boom in downtown construction.
"I believe we're going in the right direction," he said at one forum. "If you believe we are, then vote for me."
Oakley and Leppert are a study in contrasts. While Oakley sometimes loses himself, if not his audience, in the details of City Hall realities, Leppert often ignores them entirely. Throughout the campaign, Leppert has talked about the need to improve public education in Dallas, making it one of his three centerpiece issues. (The others are crime and economic development.) But the mayor of Dallas has no real authority over the Dallas Independent School District. He can't set a budget, hire a superintendent or suggest a curriculum. So although Leppert says all the right things about public education—at one forum Leppert said, "Education saved my life"—all he can promise is that he will use his symbolic authority to get things done.
"I feel very strongly that the mayor has to use the bully pulpit to drive the issues that make a difference," he said. "Everything begins with education."
In contrast, Oakley talks in the dry prose of local government. He'll explain to you about how the latest bond program was divvied up and why and knows how long the runways are at Red Bird Airport. If you get him excited, he'll explain how leadership can emanate from council committees.
The odd thing about Leppert and Oakley is that their views on the scope of local government don't correspond with their party identifications. Leppert, the Republican in the field, believes that government can overcome entrenched realities to transform schools, neighborhoods and businesses even if he's typically short on specifics. Oakley has a more modest view of what City Hall can do for you. It can spur development in neglected parts of town, but otherwise, it can't make Dallas more like Austin.
"Make no mistake, as a city all we do is provide services," he says. "We treat your water. We pick up your trash. We provide public safety."
Neither Oakley nor Leppert have the type of rousing, grand message that draws people to the polls. But they know how to win over those who show up. Right now, that's all that counts.
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