Mitchell Says No
A portrait for the museum. A Rembrandt. I'm looking at Mitchell Rasansky in a pool of light at the back of a darkened office, staring back at me glumly.
Here on Walnut Hill Lane across from Presbyterian Hospital, winter evening has fallen. The secretaries and administrative assistants of the world have all gone home. It's just city council member Rasansky and me, all alone in the semi-dark at the back of a suite of offices from which he runs his commercial real estate empire.
"I told you I would call you first," he says.
I wait a beat. With Rasansky you're supposed to.
"Made a decision."
"I am not gonna run for mayor."
Crap. Knew it. No, I didn't know it. I sort of knew it.
"Let me tell you why," he says.
Too busy? Too busy? For the last several months, Rasansky has been making noises about running for mayor in the May 2007 election. He spent 17 grand on a poll, which he says he's about to show me. Last September when he showed up for a panel at Temple Emanu-El, he was already running for mayor. Now he's too busy.
In fact he says he's way too busy.
"If somebody came along and offered $3 million for me to be mayor, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do it. I just wouldn't do it."
He says his city council district constituents want him to stay on as their council member for another term. "A lot of people call me in my district and say they don't want me to run for mayor. They want me to watch out after District 13."
I am choking back the impulse to ask exactly how many people have called to say they don't want him to be mayor because they want him to be their council member. But I also need to be honest about my own interests here. Why did I want him to run? Oh, I can answer that one easy: Good copy. Good for me.
Mitchell Rasansky would have been good copy because he would have brought up substantial issues. Do I mean wonk issues and conspiracy theories nobody but me cares about? No, not at all. C'mon, give me a break. I'm not just sitting here chewing paper, tattooing myself with a ballpoint pen and imagining plots all day. Maybe two hours in the morning, max.
Rasansky would have talked about real issues that people do understand and do care about and would love to have a chance to vote on through the mechanism of the mayor's election. I knew he was going to talk about that damned Trinity River Project, and I can't get over the suspicion that the Trinity River Project is part of why he got talked out of this.
He says no. "Get that idea out of your head. Nobody told me not to run. I just don't need it."
But a while later in the conversation: "Yeah, Jim, I would have liked to be mayor. No big deal. I'm not going to let my business go away and my estate go a little down for my children and my wife and grandchildren. I'm not going to do that. Am I wrong?"
I said he shouldn't ask me estate questions. I worked on one once, but it was all outdoors.
He said his wife really didn't want him to run. Certain people were coming up to her at the synagogue and saying, "If Mitchell runs for mayor, it'll be the worst thing he ever did in his life."
Not the kind of thing you want to hear in a place of worship.
He showed me his poll. In a field of relative unknowns, he was way out ahead in citywide name ID. Thirteen percent of people polled knew who he was, compared to 8.3 percent for council member Ed Oakley; 5.3 percent for banker and former council member Max Wells; 5 percent for lawyer Darrell Jordan; 4.5 percent for lawyer and legislator Rafael Anchia; and 2.8 percent for council member Gary Griffith. (Take the very low Griffith number with a smidge of salt: This was never going to be a Griffith-friendly poll.)
I spoke briefly with Rasansky's pollsters in New York, who gave me a hint why backers of the Trinity River Project may not have wanted Rasansky out there all over the hustings bringing up problems. The poll measured the Trinity River Project with voters and found very shallow support, almost disdain when voters were asked to rank the project in priority with other issues such as crime, streets and schools.
If that's what Rasansky's poll showed, other people must be looking at similar numbers. And Rasansky had already raised a particular and pointed possibility: He said publicly that it might be time to take some aspects of the Trinity River Project back to the voters in a referendum.
Think about it. Imagine you are one of the powers pushing this multibillion-dollar public works project for the last half-century, especially the six- to eight-lane freeway they want to build next to their own property along the river. And you have your own polls. You know the support is extremely thin. You do not want a candidate for mayor—extremely popular, even beloved in the city's heaviest-voting, most conservative district—out there giving people the idea they should have a chance to vote this thing down.
But a major impetus for a new vote of the people may already have presented itself anyway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced recently that the city's plan to build the new freeway on top of the mud levees along the river is a no-go in the wake of Katrina. That means the highway has to go out in the river bottom and up on bridges for most of its length, which changes everything, especially the money.
It may be that we're only going to have enough money and space for one or the other—the road or the park. And a choice like that screams referendum.
Last week I chatted with a bunch of mayoral candidates about the river as a mayoral issue. Thomas C. Leppert of Turner Construction (don't feel bad, nobody else has heard of him, either) is the public works establishment's candidate who is not gay. He said, "I believe that the project will generate significantly more benefits than people anticipate right now, and those benefits will be as much in the quantitative sense as they are in the qualitative sense in what it does for the city in the way it brings people together."
Ed Oakley, the other favorite of the public works construction crowd, said: "Jim, I will be talking about it. I am chair of the Trinity River Committee and I believe in it. I know you don't, but I do. It will be part of my platform."
Things got more nuanced the deeper I went in the stack of candidates. Darrell Jordan was keenly aware of the recent Army Corps of Engineers announcement. I asked him what he will say if it turns out we can't have both the highway and the park.
He said, "I think flood protection is the No. 1 priority. There are differences of opinion about how to accomplish that. But I think the park was an essential part of the deal that got the voters to approve all this, and I don't think the road particularly was."
Hey, you may not think that's a big deal, but I smell revolution in it. The people who want that road would ditch the park in a nanosecond if it came down to a choice between the two.
Max Wells brought up the r-word before I did, but not as anything he thinks is needed right away. He talked about the way the project has been expanded out into multiple so-called phases. He said before we get beyond the first two basic phases, we need to let people vote on it again.
Gary Griffith was the one who spoke to the road-versus-parks issue with the most passion. First, of course, he said he hopes it won't be a real issue. He wants the city and the Corps to figure out how both can be done within the available parameters.
"But if we were confronted with a road or parks, I will clearly be with parks, because that's what I have championed. That's been the centerpiece of my life as a park board member and as a steward of White Rock Lake, which I have taken very seriously."
All these guys hope they won't have to stake out a position on road versus park, because that's the kind of issue that sheds blood one way or the other. Go for the park, and all the big public works construction money lines up against you. But forget the park, and you risk looking like you've pulled a fast one on the voters.
At the heart of this dilemma is a quirk of history invisible to most people. Most residents of the city who were around eight years ago when the Trinity River Project was approved in a referendum remember it as primarily a park project, because that's how it was sold in a major advertising campaign. What they don't know is that it originated in smoke-filled rooms as a highway project to boost real estate values along the river. The parks were lipstick.
Rasansky knows all that. He was just independent enough to say it. I wish he had run. My motives, of course, are so transparent I won't even bother confessing. I just wish he had run.
In the end, this is all going to resolve itself naturally and the way it should. The river itself will tell us what to do. You know, when it's all said and done, you can only put so much lipstick on a river.
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