Not Your Average Joe
I'm still getting used to the notion of Joe Wells as an elected official. But I don't think I'm having near as much trouble with it as he is.
It's kind of fascinating to see someone you've known for a long time, a familiar face, now suddenly in an unfamiliar light.
Joe, now the Dallas County treasurer, was one of several Democratic newcomers swept into local office last November on the anti-Bush tsunami. He and I have known each other casually for several years, because our kids attended the same high school and because of his involvement in environmental issues.
I was so dumb—I shouldn't even admit this—I didn't know he was the guy who got elected treasurer. I sat at a table next to his table at a political affair recently. I thought, "I wonder if Joe's still with the Volunteer Center of North Texas."
Then the M.C. introduced the elected officials who were present. And Joe stood up. I must have been gawping. He turned to me and held his hands out, like, "I know! Can you believe it?"
He's not the Lone Ranger in Dallas County. We have a new district attorney, district clerk, county clerk and county judge (the top county commissioner), all of whom were heretofore little-known private persons before the tsunami, not to mention more than 40 new court judges.
Any one of these could be viewed as more important than Joe—a fact he keeps reminding me of. I think he was hoping to shake me off by getting me to go tag after one of the other recently elected Democrats.
Unfortunately, Joe, you're the only one I knew personally, pre-tsunami. And this story, as well as being political, is personal. So I'm afraid you drew the black bean.
For the last several weeks I have been breaking off whatever I was doing every once in a while to go tag after Joe. And, I know: It's not really journalistic protocol to call him Joe, but I'm not quite ready to start calling him Wells. Sorry.
Joe is a big white bald guy, rangy, not fat, 58 years old with an open face, huge smile and a little bit of a self-effacing stoop as he approaches, always with both hands out like a ship's steward, as if he's got a towel over one arm and the main thing he has in mind is to get everybody into a dry deck chair.
We served on a committee together at Woodrow Wilson High School. He was a listener and solver, never a monkey wrench. I don't think I was a monkey wrench. I may have been a pair of pliers.
He was always very smart when I called him on environmental issues but very nervous about being quoted, referring often to his role in the nonprofit community and the need not to offend people by seeming too partisan.
He's had two jobs before this one in the last quarter-century. For 12 years he ran the main program that coordinates "community service" activities for people convicted of crimes, helping to refer 12,000 "volunteers" each year to some 600 approved nonprofit agencies. There was a lot of logistics in that, not to mention a clientele you didn't want to irritate unnecessarily.
Before that, he was administrative assistant to the late Dallas County Commissioner Chris Semos, who was one of the last of the old Democrats, back when they still had Democrats in Dallas County. Joe's father was a Democratic stalwart and well-known labor lawyer, one of the founders of the firm Mullinax, Wells, (Oscar) Mauzy and Baab.
In some ways Joe is the typical son of a flamboyant father. He's a great audience. But now there will be occasions when he will not be able to be the audience. Sometimes he will have to be the featured speaker.
Apparently I witnessed the first such occasion recently when I attended the potluck luncheon meeting of a club of about 25 county government retirees at Samuell Grand Recreation Center. Midge Austin introduced Joe. She was longtime secretary to former County Judge Roy Orr and also worked for Semos.
"I just want to point out," she said, "that Joe is the first elected official ever to deign to speak to our little group."
A round of appreciative applause clattered around the dimly lighted exercise room. Then Joe came bounding up to the microphone with both hands out, eyes wide, needing to get something straightened out right away.
"Well, I have to tell you," he said, "that since I got elected you are the first group that ever asked me to speak."
From the audience came this sigh—"Awwwww"—as if a puppy had just been splashed by a truck.
Then he launched into an awkward mile-a-minute ultra-fast-talking explanation of certain complex technological changes under way in the treasurer's office. It reminded me of that hypnotic fine-print blah-blah they do at the end of drug ads on TV. ("Maybehazardous whiledriving. Couldcauseneweyeballs toappearonbackofhead. Stonecoldpoisonous foroldladies.") It was only midday, but I thought I saw retirees beginning to droop and loop off toward the land of bounding sheep and cotton-puff clouds.
Finally he asked for questions, and suddenly everything changed. I think I will not go too far into the particular pension issue they asked him about here, only because it's pretty abstruse. It had to do with "adjustable rate" versus "fixed rate" pension plans and the ability of retirees to ask for adjustments in their plan to cover unanticipated inflation—very important to the people present.
Joe was totally on top of it. He explained the legal issues and the financial issues. He explained the legislative political issues in Austin, naming the house bill and the state bill that could affect their fortunes. He also explained how and why the proposed legislation would impact politics on the Dallas County Board of Commissioners.
If the law stays the way it is, the commissioners court has an excuse not to help the retirees. If the new legislation passes, that excuse goes away. He told them whom to call and what to say.
It was brilliant, and they were all sort of up on the edges of their chairs, I'm sure because nobody had ever laid it out intelligently and frankly for them that way before.
A man in the audience summarized and restated what Joe had just said: "Last year we went down before the commissioners court," he said, "and of course, they turned us away by saying, 'Well, there's nothing we can do, because we're on fixed rate.' But if this bill passes, they can't say that."
Austin said, "That's why we've got to put the heat on the state representatives to pass this bill."
I saw Joe's eyebrows shoot up, and he came back at the mike with his head cocked sideways. "When you put the heat on," he said, "I'd just as soon you didn't tell them who sent you."
They laughed, taking it for a joke. I don't think it was a joke. I think he really did not mean to take sides between the retirees and the commissioners, but he was not able to be less than completely honest with them about what he knew, and he knew a lot.
Midge Austin took back the mike at one point and said to him, "You and I worked together for 12 years for County Commissioner Chris Semos. I have been so impressed with you. Joe, I didn't know you were so smart."
Um, yeah. Well, I knew he was smart. But I'm like her. I didn't know he was so smart.
The man who had summarized his remarks for him spoke again. "We appreciate your honesty," he said. Now they really clapped.
Maybe everybody who's brand-new in office is like this for a while—awed by the responsibility, genuinely eager to please and to do well. But I see not a flash of narcissism, not an ounce of the darling child soaking up licks and kisses of the crowd, things I'm so accustomed to seeing.
And then there's this mile-a-minute fast-jabber absolute fascination with the minute workings of local government. You don't see that at your typical turkey shoot. I was even a little worried about it at first.
The treasurer's office is arcane in the first place. He's not the tax collector, and he's not the county clerk. The county treasurer, an office established and required by state law, is the in-house banker or chief financial officer for the county. Other branches of county government collect money, but all of that money must go to the treasurer, who counts it up, puts it in the bank or invests it and then cuts most of the checks, including payroll.
When Joe took me on a tour of the modest office space occupied by the treasurer and his 17 employees, you would have thought he had snuck me in backstage at Carnegie Hall. The only thing he didn't do as we slipped up behind each employee was put a finger to his lips for stealth.
"This is Steve Emery," he said. "He's the investment person. I came in the first day, and he let me watch him invest."
Oh, that must have been exciting!
"One thing he does is investment pools of the money that's available, so he earns as much revenue as possible overnight. He does these re-purchase agreements for like $90 million or $100 million or $127 million, and it's 1/365th of 5.25 or 5.27 percent interest, so that's one hunk of the investing. And then he's got $125 million worth of CDs."
On and on, rapid-fire, every single employee. He's already off on another employee, and I'm still back on 1/365th of 5.25 percent.
During the weeks I was following Joe around, I also attended a couple of commissioners court meetings to observe our new county judge, Jim Foster, and I called people I know in county politics to ask questions about the other tsunamians. The reviews on the new district attorney, Craig Watkins, for example, are what I would call nervously optimistic.
Watkins' decision to allow the Innocence Project to review DNA evidence in 354 questionable Dallas County convictions has probably earned Dallas the most and best public relations it's had since back-to-back Super Bowls in '78 and '79, including an incisive piece by NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn that made us look almost...well, you know, civilized. I'm not sure we even know how to handle that here.
I said to a knowledgeable judge to whom I was speaking not for attribution so he could be honest with me, "That's because of [state Senator] Royce West and the transition team around Watkins, right? I give Watkins credit if he's smart enough to listen to his team, but they're the ones keeping him on the straight and narrow, I assume."
"Nah, nah, Schutze," he said, "don't give the transition team too much credit. I call Craig all the time, and I talk to Craig. He's been over here in my office, and I've been over there in his. He's making his own decisions. He's a smart guy, and he knows where he wants to go."
I don't know anything specific about the new clerks—County Clerk John F. Warren or District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons—but I hear generally good things about them, and they seem sharp when I see them speak in the commissioners court meetings.
There is still the matter of Lupe Valdez, the first openly gay Latina Democrat elected sheriff of Dallas in...well, I have to think, in a really, really long time. She has been sheriff now three years. She still blames the criminally bad conditions in her jail on her predecessor, and she still hides from the press like a mouse from a mountain lion.
While I was shadowing Joe, I attended the "intubation" or "inculcation," some kind of weird ceremony, I forget what they called it, at the Dallas Bar Association downtown in which the Bar gave its blessing to all of the 42 newly elected Democratic judges in the county. I'm sitting there wishing I could say to the Bar Association, "Who asked you?"
And who should come in but Sheriff Lupe, all by herself, all strapped up in her tight-fitting blue Kommander Kooky uniform. Sits in the back, all by herself. Nobody comes over to say hello. She has this huge, goofy grin which must be directed at God, because nobody else is looking. And then I feel the thing I hate. I start feeling sorry for her.
Then we have the matter of...
That's as far as I could get when I would try to bring up Jim Foster, the new county judge, with other Democrats. They always cut me off: "Yes."
I say, "Isn't there still some uncertainty about..."
I say, "I wonder if there may not still be a certain question mark over..."
I ask. "Is there any concern about..."
Foster wouldn't talk to me. I couldn't get him to call me back. I promise to keep trying to establish contact in the years ahead.
But I watched him in commissioners court meetings. He is a first-time officeholder, owner of a small security company and a very reluctant chief official of the county. One of my Democratic sources corrected a story he said we had incorrectly reported on our blog. We said on the blog that on filing deadline day, when candidates had to file for office in the recent election, Foster was hanging around the filing window. A reporter thought he overheard Foster telling a fellow Democrat that he was waiting to see for what office no other Democrat filed so that he would know which one to run for himself. This, supposedly, was how he decided to become our new county judge.
"No, no, that was wrong," my source said rather painfully. "Your guy got it a little wrong. Look, this is not for attribution, right?"
"We sent Jim down there to file for county judge. He knew that's what he was supposed to file for."
"So what was he doing?" I asked. "Why was he hanging around the window until the last minute?"
"He was...hey, this is not for attribution, right?"
"He was hoping somebody else would file for county judge so he wouldn't have to."
Oooooooh! That explains a lot, actually. When I watch Judge Foster in commissioners court meetings, I have this strange sense that he is physically present but not by choice. In fact I get the feeling that if he could get away with it he would keep a paper bag over his head. With very teeny tiny eye holes.
He fiddles with papers. He fusses with a pen. He looks down a lot. He does attempt a remark now and then. He even made a quip at one meeting, not very funny, but all of the other commissioners chuckled dutifully.
Then an expression of concern came over him. "That was a joke," he said. "I was trying to be humorous."
They all nodded and smiled. "Yes," Commissioner John Wiley Price said indulgently. "We know."
Price is the brainiac at these meetings. The others tend to posture, pose and drift a bit on complex issues. Price is the whip. He knows how deep the natural gas wells will be drilled on county property if approved, which drilling technology would be used, who all the candidates are for the contract and what needs to be voted on when.
Once in a while, Price gets impatient. Not mean or bullying, really. Just impatient.
At one such moment while I was watching, Price blurted out an expression of barely impatient agreement with something odd Foster had just said. Foster, startled by Price's vehemence, jumped up, shouted, "Adjournment! Adjournment!" and scurried out of the room by a back door.
All of the commissioners stared blankly at each other—a quite pregnant pause.
I thought to myself, "It's really sort of too bad Sheriff Loopy isn't here. She and Judge Foster could leap into a patrol car together and blast off for Oklahoma with sirens wailing."
But seriously, folks. All in all, the Democratic tsunami is starting to look a whole lot better than certain skeptics—perhaps including myself—predicted the case would be when the tsunamians got elected.
Back in Joe's office...OK, let's do this thing. Back in Wells' office, I tried out some of my two-bit bubblegum philosophy:
Is it not possible, I asked Wells, that we will discover Democrats are better at governing than Republicans because they believe in government? If we owned a bank, I suggested speculatively, we would not hire a person to run that bank who did not believe in banking. I was about to go on...
"I don't know," he said. "That seems more like national politics. I don't know about that here locally."
Then he launches into this long, very fast-talking, very detailed speech praising his predecessor whom he just defeated in the election, Republican Lisa Hembry. He said he decided to keep all of her staff, including Chief Deputy Deborah Robison, because they were so good, in spite of pressure from friends and supporters to hire loyal Democrats. And he said some of his main goals in office are to carry out initiatives Hembry launched, including a unified, computerized receivables operation for the whole county.
"Lisa's very involved in the community," he said. "She's a good person. I criticized a few things that had happened that I read about in the paper. But she was a real formidable person to try to run against."
I asked him where he got most of his ideas when he was running.
"From her," he said. "I listened to her when we did interviews and things together.
"It was more that I was trying to say who I was and what my experience was. When I talked to her after the election, I told her my winning was just good timing for me. I told her I was a message for Bush that he didn't get yet."
That's one of his jokes—the line about Bush. I like it. But I don't know if I've gotten the message yet myself. Completely. But I am very interested in getting it.
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