Ahhhh, yes. The philosophy department of the University of Morning News. The Dallas Morning News editorial page has been weighing in very weightily on the recent outcome of the District 9 Dallas City Council runoff election--a result we here at the Dallas Observer might otherwise have tossed off as a head-stomping mud-hole shutout.
The Morning News and its new favorite mayor both had endorsed Roxan Staff, former president of the school board, for the Place 9 council seat representing the Lake Highlands/Lakewood part of East Dallas, a generally affluent and conservative clime. Staff, in fact, was to be the centerpiece of the mayor's "slate" of city council candidates. But, oh, the best-laid plans of mice and mayors: The voters in District 9 elected Gary Griffith by a whopping margin.
That's what I want to philosophize about: Hey, mayor! Where'd ja get that slate idea, anyway?
But first, if you don't mind, please allow me to do the weighing-in thing, too. It seems so distinguished. I wish I smoked a pipe. I don't have a green tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, but I can get sort of the same look by taking off my shirt. It's the best I can do in a pinch (don't you dare!).
On the surface, the two candidates seemed very alike. Griffith, who defeated Staff by 61 percent to 39, is a loyal wired-up Republican. Staff's a loyal wired-up Republican. (The race is nonpartisan.)
He's a former member of the city park board. She's former president of the school board. He's a longtime civic activist and volunteer. Ditto her. He big Bushie. She big Bushie.
The weigher-inners at the News have sort of forgotten their own big miss on this one and have concentrated instead on the mayoral factor. Miller, after all, defeated her own opponent in the May 3 general election by 56 to 40 percent--a solid rout. But Miller endorsed three candidates in the May 3 general election for city council, and all three of them lost.
Not all of them lost by the same mud-hole stomping margin as Staff. Incumbent Mark Housewright lost the race in the new Place 3 in North and Southwest Oak Cliff to fellow incumbent Ed Oakley by 55 to 43 percent, more in the range of your average head-whipping landslide.
The third mayoral endorsee, Miller's friend and ally Sharon Boyd, lost the Place 6 race in far west and Northwest Dallas to former council member Steve Salazar by 60 percent to 33. There is a vernacular term for that kind of defeat, but we can't print it here, even though we are not even close to being a family newspaper.
In its focus on the Staff-Griffith May 31 runoff, the News has floated a couple of pipe-smoke theories. One, stated in a formal editorial, was that voters love Laura but believe they need a system of checks and balances between Laura and the council. I call this the "voters as very astute students of political science and constitutional history" theory, and I think all of us who vote should feel extremely flattered and pipe-smokerish. Puff puff!
Another Morning News theory, espoused in an op-ed column by Hank Tatum, whose writing I very much admire, was that voters held Staff responsible for a general lack of niceness on the school board when she was there, which may have been unfair because she was one of the nice ones, in which case there is a danger that leaders in the future may decide just not to lead anymore if people are going to unfairly blame them for not being nice when they were the nice ones. And I think this is, from his own point of view, exactly what happened to Saddam Hussein. (Extreme case.)
One of the things I did this week was whip up a little two-bit spreadsheet with results that I found interesting. I know that turnout in runoffs is always much smaller than in general elections, but this district really didn't come back. The turnout for the runoff was barely 51 percent of the turnout in the general election. Laura Miller got more votes out of District 9 in the general election than the total number of people who voted in the runoff.
More than a half-dozen precincts had turnouts less than a third of the turnout in the general election. In Precinct 2212 in Lake Highlands, 9 percent of the voters came back. The tough part for Staff was that she tended to take only a third or less of the few voters who did manage to show up. So, a third of less than a half: You begin to get the picture.
Griffith did much better, obviously. He wound up with a tally in the runoff that was 92 percent of what he took in the general, in which he had placed a close second. Staff wound up with only 56 percent of what she had received before. Lesson drawn: 90 percent of second place beats 50 percent of first place. (Don't work on that one too long.)
I talked to the campaign managers on both sides, interviewed both candidates and talked to the usual motley crew of observers, fixers and hit men. My own conclusion, along with virtually all of the people I talked to including both candidates, was that this was a typical city council race--so local that the issues came down almost to block-level politics, so personal you'd have to know who dated whom in high school to really get to the bottom of it.
Griffith's campaign was run by Clayton (C.P.) Henry, who obviously did a masterful job in the nuts-and-bolts areas like direct mail and phone banks. But Staff's campaign was run by Lorlee Bartos, one of the smartest political heads in the city. It's not a case of a really slick campaign vs. a really bad one, as in what we saw in the recent mayoral contest. This was pretty even in that department.
Staff, who was composed and gracious in her Lakewood living room a week after the debacle, expressed some respect for the effectiveness of Griffith's campaign machinery. She had no particular sour grapes to offer me. So, in other words, I went away hungry.
Griffith had a large force of very committed volunteers working for him, many of them drawn from the Forest Hills area across Garland Road from White Rock Lake, where Griffith had helped create a neighborhood master plan to preserve large lot sizes; from up and down Garland Road, where he had helped devise an improvement plan; from Lakewood, where people were grateful for his help establishing a dog park and getting a new access trail built between White Rock Lake and an adjacent play park, and so on and so forth.
Staff and her husband, Randy, also had very loyal and devoted volunteer help from people drawn to them because of her role on school issues and their joint role in helping clean up the sleaze bars around Bachman Lake in Northwest Dallas.
C.P. Henry told me Griffith beat Staff because his neighborhood stuff outweighed her neighborhood stuff, and his campaign capitalized more effectively on his record.
"I think Gary Griffith won the election for three reasons," Henry said. "Number one, Gary Griffith, as an involved community volunteer on both the park board and the Plan Commission and other community activities, had a record of real results. Number two, we had volunteers who went to the absolute maximum amount of effort to get out our vote...And number three, we had a very strong strategy to get out our votes."
Neither candidate believed the Morning News theory of a Laura Miller effect. Staff said in her living room: "Laura didn't hurt me."
Over coffee at the Lakewood Starbucks, Griffith agreed the Morning News had awarded the mayor a role she may not have deserved, good or bad. "I think they overanalyzed this race, and it's not that complicated," Griffith said. He listed his neighborhood accomplishments (the dog park, again) and said he thought those were the deciding factors.
So let me tell you what I think. I'm looking at this spreadsheet--big Laura Miller tallies in the general election, pathetic turnouts in the runoff--and I think Laura Miller is no Richard Daley. If you want to run a slate, you better have a machine. At the very least you had better have a real political organization.
What Laura Miller has is what every successful mayoral candidate in Dallas has had in my 25 years of watching this stuff: a better ad agency than her opponent's. She runs citywide. It's all airy-fairy TV-land. There is no hardwiring in place to power a real connection between citywide ad-agency campaigns and curb-and-gutter council district races. She can't get people in Lakewood to believe that they had better vote for her slate or they won't get their dog park. That takes a machine and either a strong-mayor form of government or a mayor who controls a majority of the council.
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The experience of democracy is still fairly young in Dallas. Single-member districts date only to 1975. No one has ever knitted together a grassroots political organization that could raise its head above the neighborhood level. Most can't get off their own block.
Miller is brilliant at what she does--the stand-up, news conference, quick-on-her-feet, charm-alarm, 6 o'clock-news, sound-bite kind of stuff. But the fact that she even thought she could field a slate just shows how much she doesn't know about on-the-ground bottom-up grassroots politics.
Half the people who voted in District 9 in the general election came to the polls because they had seen her on television. By the time the runoff came around, they were watching some other reality show.
By the way, I hate dog parks. I call my philosophy Dogparkstenchalism. It's a litmus issue. And now, with your permission, I shall put my shirt back on. Thanks for letting me weigh in. And puff puff!