Politicians Uniting Behind the Trinity Toll Road

If Mayor Tom Leppert wants city employees to stay neutral, why does he send them political polls?

How about that amazing line-up of politicians and business groups put together by Carol Reed, the political guru running the Vote No! campaign for the November toll road referendum?

The entire city council except for Angela Hunt. The entire county commissioners court. The entire congressional delegation. The United Brotherhood of Politicians.

The only way for Dallas to avoid perdition, they all say in unison, is for voters to vote no in next month's referendum and stick with plans for a toll road between the flood control levees downtown.


Trinity River project

How, in the United States of America in the 21st century, could so many local politicians agree so vehemently on so narrow a position? Think about it.

They are not even necessarily for the toll road. They are only for the toll road between the levees in the new river park downtown.

Half of what they say is against the toll road. If the toll road doesn't go inside the park between the flood control levees, they say it will be too expensive, too ugly, too bad for development; they won't keep trying to get state and federal money for it; they won't keep asking their wealthy friends for donations for it.

To hell with it, if it doesn't go inside the park between those levees.

Isn't that curious? Among this many local politicians, wouldn't you at least expect some back-and-forth about where to put the thing?

And then suddenly the FBI brings us this other news about our local politicians and the way politics gets done in Dallas. This just in: It has to do with money.

Five years ago, before The Dallas Morning News turned totally Pravda on this issue, it reported that a city-hired consultant had found almost no economic value to the city from the toll road but considerable value in the proposed park between the levees.

"The proposed Trinity toll road is not likely to spur significant economic development in downtown, Oak Cliff or most areas up or downstream, according to a study commissioned by the Dallas City Council," a story by Victoria Loe Hicks reported.

Hicks quoted one of the consultants as saying: "The park is where the maximum benefit comes."

Hicks reported: "Under any scenario, the poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Rochester Park, Cadillac Heights and Joppa can expect no noticeable economic boost, the study suggests."

Ah, but there was one neighborhood that did stand to benefit enormously from a toll road, according to Hicks. "Conversely, there is likely to be one major economic winner, regardless of which alignment the council chooses. It is the aging warehouse district where the new highway would intersect Stemmons and State Highway 183.

"Without the tollway, that area would see little or no development, the study predicts. With the tollway, it would be a good candidate to sprout sleek, suburban-style office campuses."

And, uh, who exactly are we talking about there? Well, Hicks laid that out too: real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and oil and real estate billionaire Ray Hunt.

Crow is the man who funded the hiring of "blockers" in an unsuccessful attempt to foil the TrinityVote petition drive for the referendum. Hunt is the guy President Bush has suggested in recent weeks may be de-stabilizing Iraq by signing less than legal oil contracts with the Kurds.

If you possess the means to de-stabilize Iraq, do you think you could de-stabilize Dallas? I don't believe you'd even have to give people money. Just look at them.

From the very beginning to this very day, Crow, Hunt and Robert Decherd, CEO of Belo Corp., which owns the Morning News, have been stalwart funders and supporters of the toll road between the levees campaign.

My argument here is that Reed's wall-to-wall March of the Politicians doesn't look like normal political discourse because it's not. It's top-down social and business chain-yanking—big people doing the yanking, little people doing the squealing.

Two weeks ago there was a flap over e-mails between city staff and hired guns running the Vote No! campaign. In response to open records requests, mainly from Angela Hunt and from Dallasblog's Sam Merten, the city released a boxful of documents depicting a relationship way beyond cozy.

The issue here is simple. City employees are banned by law from working in or with political campaigns. Some city employees take the law seriously. They all remember the mess former Mayor Laura Miller got in for asking a city staff member to find a podium for a political event.

Whenever I call Chris Heinbaugh, the mayor's chief of staff, he literally doesn't want to forward my message to the mayor if my question is about the toll road. I have to go through the mayor's political spokeswoman, Becky Mayad, who does not work for the city.

Apparently other city employees are less virginal. E-mails between Trinity Project director Rebecca Dugger, a city employee, and Craig Holcomb, a hired campaign operative for Vote No!, were...well, how to put this delicately? Pretty embarrassing.


Planning their appearances together before citizen groups, Holcomb asks Dugger, "Can we partner?" Dugger e-mails back, "I would LOVE to partner with you."

Holcomb asks, "... can I get a hard copy?"

Dugger coos, "Anything for you."

It's not just these two, and it's not just e-mail. A cabal of city employees and Vote No! campaigners meet regularly for coffee and pancakes. They call themselves, "The kitchen kabinet"—isn't that darling?—or "KK" for short.

Donna Halstead, executive director of the Dallas Citizens Council, a private business group that meets in secret (Kool Kitchen Kabinet?) e-mailed City Manager Mary Suhm, giving her a copy of a Vote No! political poll and instructing her to get back with comment.

Mayor Tom Leppert shoved the same poll at Suhm again in an e-mail with a terse note, "As discussed..."

I visited with Suhm about it in her office. She said Leppert had received a request from the Vote No! people about the accuracy of facts in the poll. She said she did not reply to Leppert's request, because she found no facts in the poll on which to comment.

"I didn't send a response back. There wasn't anything to comment on."

So Halstead and Leppert are peppering Suhm with testy e-mails demanding that she involve herself in a political poll, and she simply refuses to reply? I hope that's true.

I have a confession to make here. I got stuck sitting in a chair in a City Hall office some weeks ago, cooling my heels, and whose voice should I hear coming from a nearby cubicle but that of Rebecca Dugger?

It's an unmistakable voice, believe me. Dugger was being interviewed by a reporter about the project—somebody who didn't know much.

Of course I jumped up and left the room, rather than eavesdrop, because I am a gentleman. Oh, wait, I forgot. I'm not a gentleman, am I? I'm a reporter for the Dallas Observer. So in fact I sat right there and eavesdropped like a son of a bitch.

You know what impressed me? I was struck by how honest and neutral Dugger was in that interview. The reporter asked her about one of the mayor's standard lines—that if the toll road goes out from between the levees there won't be any toll road money to pay for digging the lakes.

Dugger said there will be plenty of money for excavation of the lakes, probably from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will be piling new dirt on top of the levees nearby to make them higher. "We'll have our lakes either way," she said.

She has always been honest with me. But in public appearances Dugger comes across like an advocate for Vote No! with all the standard scare-tactic lines. What if the rich people get mad and refuse to help pay for the fake suspension bridges across the river? Is that enough to de-stabilize Dallas?

Something happens when people get bullied in this town. Pushed, pulled, tugged and nibbled. It all starts at the top and rolls downhill, and the farther down the heap it goes the nastier it gets.

Isn't it interesting that the Morning News, in its recent story about the e-mails, forgot to mention the one in which Leppert pressured Mary Suhm to break the law by consulting on a political poll? Instead the News gave Leppert several paragraphs in which to pontificate about his own virtue.

They quoted him as saying, "My view is everybody is doing their best to play this thing as neutral and down the middle as they can."

Yeah. Except for him. If he wanted Suhm to be neutral, why did he push her to comment on a campaign poll? Heinbaugh told me he would give the mayor a copy of the stack of e-mails I took to Suhm on a Thursday and the mayor would contact me on the following Monday. That was two weeks ago. Never happened.

The line-up of politicians endorsing the Vote No! position is impressive. Carol Reed is a political mastermind. Her goal is obviously to create a kind of social shunning reaction focused on Angela Hunt alone.

Reed still has a hill to climb. In recent debates, former North Dallas city council member Sandy Greyson has been impressive as a spokeswoman for the move-the-toll-road camp. In the audience, giving moral support to the move-the-toll-roaders have been community leaders as diverse as Donna Blumer (arch-conservative) and John Loza (arch-liberal).

But I also think Reed faces a more subtle problem. A certain creeping creep-out factor is at work here. When I look at Carol Reed's line-up, I just don't feel like I'm listening to the speeches at an All-American Labor Day Picnic. It's more like the All-Falsetto Soviet Army Chorus of Everybody Who Can Be Squeezed.


Very impressive. But it makes me want to crawl under my bed and never come out.

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