Only in Dallas. Ed Oakley, the Democrat in the June 16 mayoral runoff election, is running on a platform of tax giveaways for the rich, highways in the parks and demolition of housing for the poor. And he's the liberal.
Tom Leppert, the Republican, is running on the divine right of kings. Leppert gets so starry-eyed when he talks about his own success in business, I feel like I should curtsy.
But Leppert's not my problem. I'm an ex-hippie pinko liberal Democrat bleeding-heart son of a bitch. My problem is Oakley. And maybe being in Dallas way too long.
Years ago I accommodated myself to the idea that Democrats and liberals in Dallas, in order to ever get elected, have to talk tough on stuff. Annette Strauss was a Democrat. When she was mayor, she was very anti-crime. I was OK with that. Who's for crime?
Then later Ron Kirk became mayor, and he was a Democrat. He came out against democracy. He said many of our major construction projects such as Central Expressway were being held up by needless democracy. It worried me, but I figured what's a Dallas Democrat to do?
Later Laura Miller became mayor. She's a Democrat. She came out against beggars. That made me real uncomfortable. But I lived with it.
Now we get to Oakley. He wants to give more of our tax money away to wealthy developers. He loves the idea of ramming a big, multi-lane, high-speed highway through the river park we're trying to build downtown.
Maybe there's some way I could force myself to swallow all that to keep the divine-right-of-kings guy out of there. But Oakley's pitch about fighting crime by demolishing apartment buildings: That one I just cannot get down.
I cannot swallow it from a Democrat. I keep telling myself, if this is what we have to do in Dallas to be Democrats, maybe we should become Whigs. Something just...else. You know, what's next? Taking all the old folks out to Lake Ray Hubbard in their wheelchairs and giving them a long push on a short pier? Democrats for Dunking the Geezers?
I have been re-reading some of Oakley's campaign mail. It's interesting. He actually nuances the apartment demolition thing a bit depending on which part of town he's mailing to.
In Hispanic areas, for example, he soft-soaps it a little. "In our neighborhoods, run-down apartments have become havens for crime," his mailer says.
In East Dallas, he makes it a neighborhood thing: "Ed Oakley is a neighborhood leader with a plan to take back our neighborhoods by taking down crime-ridden apartments."
In South Dallas, he mentions it but goes light. In Jewish North Dallas, he shows a flash of inner conflict: "Unfortunately on one occasion apartments were prematurely torn down, displacing some of our seniors. But some blighted apartments are magnets for crime and need to be removed."
Obviously a labeling problem.
But in Councilman Bill Blaydes' northeast Dallas district, where apartment-phobia is at fever-pitch, Oakley's campaign literature jumps into it with both boots down and fists in the air.
"Ed Oakley knows that blighted apartments are magnets for crime," his mailer crows. "You'll hear Ed say it at neighborhood meetings: 'Crime won't come down until those apartments come down.'"
Can't you just hear the crowd roaring? DE-MOL-ISH, DE-MOL-ISH!
The mailer quotes Blaydes: "Over the last three years, he's helped me get the votes I needed to take down 3,000 apartments in our area."
Yeah, a year ago I wrote about a deal that accounted for more than 1,000 of those apartments ("Looters," Dallas Observer, May 18, 2006). Only problem was, the demolition that Blaydes and Oakley helped facilitate had nothing to do with crime.
Timbercreek Apartments at Skillman and Northwest Highway was a peaceful, tidy, well-run community for working people. Mayor Miller alone voted "no" on a day when the entire rest of the city council voted to allow the scraping of all those apartments to make way for a big-box store, at Blaydes' and Oakley's enthusiastic behest.
If I wanted to really bore you, I could talk ad nauseam about the studies that show there is no correlation between apartments and crime. If you're really interested, Google the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and click on publications for a paper called, "Overcoming Opposition to Multifamily Rental Housing," by Mark Obrinsky and Debra Stein, published in March of this year.
By looking at crime rates in apartments versus rates in single-family neighborhoods and controlling for factors like employment and income, the authors effectively shoot down the notion that apartments are the "root cause" of crime, as Oakley likes to say.
I came away from reading their article with something that was, for me, more striking than the findings themselves. It's so obvious, when you compare Oakley's speech with the facts, what he's really doing: He isn't even trying to talk about crime. This is all demagogic manipulation through the utterance of bigoted code words.
I talked with Mike Daniel, a veteran civil rights lawyer and major figure in housing desegregation in the city (and a Democrat, I might mention).
Daniel said of Oakley's statements on the apartment issue, "The man is talking purely in thinly veiled overt racial statements."
In Oakley's standard stump speech, he often speaks anecdotally about apartment buildings where police have been called out several times in one night. Daniel recalled an old ally in the housing desegregation wars of the past: Daniel's ally was confronted at a public meeting by homeowners waving sheaves of crime statistics showing a high incidence of police calls at nearby apartments.
"They said, 'Here, look, we got the crime statistics,'" Daniel told me. "He said, 'OK, you've told me where the victims live. Are you suggesting that the white people who live in the single-family homes are coming in and victimizing these people?'"
Daniel said, "The fact that there is an incidence of crime at an apartment complex just tells you where the victims are."
Hey. That's a good point. If there is crime in an apartment complex, isn't the community's obligation to go in and protect the honest, decent, hard-working residents of that complex? I mean, isn't that true at least for Democrats? As Democrats, can we really be outside in a mob with torches screaming "DE-MOL-ISH! DE-MOL-ISH!" What's left for the Republicans to do?
And just while we're at it, allow me to touch on another Democrat/Republican thing. Whenever Oakley is pressed on how he would make the DE-MOL-ISH! thing happen, he always refers to the city's so-called TIF programs—a fancy term for big tax breaks for developers.
Presumably the city would create incentives for developers to go in and DE-MOL-ISH! apartment buildings they would not otherwise be inclined to take on. Beneath a picture of a bulldozer, Oakley's mailers promise to replace apartments with "privately developed, single family for-sale homes."
So I have a question: If we're going to use millions of dollars in tax money to make this happen, what's so private-enterprise about that? Why isn't it a tax-funded distortion of the marketplace?
You think I'm reaching? I spoke with Gerry Henigsman, executive vice president of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas, who told me he has two main problems with Oakley's rhetoric: 1) private multi-family housing construction is leading the Dallas economy upward, and 2) the most common, effective and stable remedy for bad apartment buildings out there in the real world has been redevelopment by the private sector—not Commissar Oakley on his Caterpillar tractor.
"What I don't like and I think is really unfair," Hennigsman said, "is when you paint the entire multifamily housing stock with the same brush."
Citing several areas around town where multifamily is being upgraded or rebuilt by private-sector developers, he said, "They're the ones that are leading the way. The truth of the matter is, most of the time what will lead the redevelopment of an area will be multifamily, because it brings in the rooftops that you then need to support the retail and commercial and that type of thing."
Even that is a little too Republican for me, because it assumes that knocking down poor people's apartments and replacing them with rich people's apartments is a good thing. I just have this sentimental, bleeding-heart notion that poor people should live indoors too.
I did a reality check with Ken Molberg, a lawyer and longtime leader and activist in the local Democratic Party. He gave me about the best justification I have heard for swallowing hard and voting for Oakley anyway:
"I start with the proposition that I don't want the same old bunch of backroom boys up in North Dallas deciding what happens in this city. I've seen it happen too many times over the years. And that's where I firmly put Leppert, without question."
He said that makes Oakley his only choice: "I do believe that this is a guy whose ear will be directed toward people who are very much concerned about things like I am, which is the environment. I don't claim that Ed is your top-notch environmentalist by any means.
"But I think he's a good solid listener, and he's a mechanic, and if you can get his ear, he will listen to you and he can do something with it."
Yeah. Then I talked to another lifelong Democrat who is a serious environmentalist. She said, "Oakley is the worst disaster for the environment who has ever served on the city council."
I asked her what she's going to do.
"I'm going to Taos," she said.
OK, here's how I plan to handle it. I'm going to put a clothespin on my nose. I'm going to wear a wetsuit. I'm going to hire a guy to put a gun to my head. And I'm going to tell him, "Take me to Taos too."
No? Wow. This is the worst election of my life.
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