Rock Star

We can deal with a rock star mayor. It's all those council members with sticky fingers who are the problem.
Illustration by Mike Simmons

On the one hand, I'm afraid to call anybody, because everybody I call tells me he or she is thinking about running for mayor. The field of people considering the 2007 Dallas mayor's race is starting to look like the Turkey Trot, the city's annual Thanksgiving Day run.

If this keeps up, we're going to have more candidates for mayor than we have taxpayers. Everybody's got a groundswell, to hear them tell it. Seems like the ground doesn't have to swell too much. More like a ground bump.

On the other hand, there's something about this outpouring of democratic self-love that I like and trust a lot more than what I'm hearing from the smart guys. They say none of these mayoral wannabes, even the better-known among them, stands a snowball's chance in Dallas. Instead, the next mayor, like the last two, will have to be what the consultants call "a rock star."


mayoral race

Sex appeal. Sizzle. Electricity. Comes into a room Clinton-style and sucks all the air out of it. That's what the big money's looking for.

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"It's not charisma," one very well-known Dallas-based political consultant told me in return for my promise not to name her. "Charisma is something else. This isn't that. This is something I call magic."

Current Mayor Laura Miller has it. Her predecessor, Ron Kirk, had it. I remember when Kirk was brand-new in office. A city council member whom I knew pretty well at the time appeared on the same stage with Kirk at a jam-packed event in a big high school auditorium. The council member had planned on taking him to task on certain policy issues at the next city council meeting.

"When he left, it was like watching a rock star," the council member told me. "The kids and the teachers were reaching out, just wanting to touch him. I decided I wasn't going to be the first one to criticize him."

We've had two rock stars in a row, the consultants tell me. It's too late to go back to Uncle Elwood.

The line I get consistently on money is a million bucks per candidate: That's what it will cost next year to run a credible campaign for mayor. There's enough money out there to fund several candidates at that level or less. But when the Turkey Trot comes across the Houston Street Viaduct and the limelight comes on, only the stars will twinkle.

I hate that. It turns politics on its head. It's why we can't get no satisfaction. You could look at the whole rock star thing and say it's why we got Ron Kirk. The city's first African-American mayor ran on a platform of racial healing but devoted his greatest energy in office to doing favors for the old land-and-construction oligarchy behind the Trinity River project.

Or you could look at it and say it's why we got Laura Miller: a two-fisted muckraker by trade, she ran against pretentious big-ticket public works projects but devoted her greatest energy in office to doing favors for the old land-and-construction oligarchy behind the Trinity River project.

Is there a pattern here? Is the rock star thing maybe not a great way to know what we're getting? It makes me want to go back to those guys with the ground bumps.

The smart money knows about the rock star phenomenon, because the smart consultants know, and they tell the smart money. That's what's behind this whole hoopla in the last couple weeks with state Representative Rafael Anchía. A couple Sundays ago, The Dallas Morning News ran a front-page story--one of its classic communiqués from the inner sanctum--under a headline, "In Anchía, many leaders see the next Ron Kirk. They say state rep has clout to be first Hispanic mayor."

I wanted to pick up the phone and call Gromer Jeffers, the reporter, and say, "Gromer, the only problem I see with this headline is that fewer people in Dallas know the name Rafael Anchía than know the name Noam Chomsky."

Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT and creator of the theory of generative grammar, is not a candidate for mayor of Dallas. I just threw his name in to make an obscure point. I did not call Gromer Jeffers, because I was afraid he might tell me he was a candidate for mayor.

So who is Anchía? Former school board member. Succeeded influential state Representative Steve Wolens in the Legislature when Wolens bowed out. Nice guy. Very bright.

Real good-lookin'.

Unknown in most of the city. In terms of City Hall, never been there. No track record on city issues at all.

Real good-lookin'.

The Morning News story was one of those Pravda-style communications where you have to read between the lines and then go out back of a building and whisper with your comrades about what it really means. In it, former Mayor Kirk went on and on about what a great candidate Anchía would make and how much Anchía reminds him of himself.  

So what does that mean? That means Anchía has the support of the Dallas Citizens Council, otherwise known as the old land-and-construction oligarchy behind the Trinity River project.

Do we see a pattern here?

But the same story said Anchía has strong support from Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, long associated with the tougher, more aggressive edge of black politics in the city. I called Price. I wasn't afraid to call him, because I already knew he was not a candidate for mayor. He said his own enthusiasm for Anchía was in no way part of an agreed-upon strategy with Kirk and the Citizens Council types.

"Just the fact that we're on the same page, I don't know whether it's scary or what, but I've never talked to Ron about this," Price said. "We've never had a conversation about any of this. It's just interesting to find out that we're on the same page."

I asked what page they were on.

"In the final analysis, my view is always going to be about who can be the kind of icon who can grow the basic tax roll," Price said. "When you grow your base, you give everybody relief. Infrastructure to me becomes the bottom line."

Infrastructure. That would be...let's see here...oh yeah, the Trinity River project.

I believe Price is absolutely sincere in saying he thinks Anchía would make a great mayor. I also think Price is thinking about running for Congress. Those river boys ain't bad friends to have at a time like that.

But here are two things I find confusing in this sudden outpouring of Anchíaism, especially from the Citizens Council, which I think of as a pretty conservative group most of the time, a little to the right of Australopithecus.

Anchía is a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, flag-waving liberal.

He has a strong position in favor of immigration reform, pretty much pro-amnesty. He has ridiculed plans for a physical barrier along the border. "The reality is," he told one reporter, "we probably will need more undocumented workers to build that fence than we have currently in the United States." And Anchía has been courageous and outspoken in favor of gay marriage.

If he runs, people working for other candidates have already told me they will run against him as a flaming liberal, far out of step with vote-rich Australopithecus North Dallas.

The other thing that confuses me is that I spoke with Anchía just last week, and unless he was doing an Academy Award-winning performance on me, he sounded like a man who genuinely and sincerely was not sure he wanted any piece of this. He chatted very briefly and in broad terms about city issues, but then he said he and his wife had just been blessed with a new baby girl, and he really had other things on his mind.

"You are taking me down a road that requires a lot of conjecture now. I don't know that I'm prepared to go there. I would ask, let me first figure out whether I'm a candidate or not or whether I'm going to continue in the state Legislature, which is a job I really, really, really do enjoy.

"I think I owe it to my family to be available and supportive and participating in the meetings at 1 a.m. right by the changing table so that my wife can feed and be comfortable. You can probably tell by the exhaustion in my voice I haven't been sleeping a lot, and that's really where I'm going to leave things."

I believe him. I don't think he wanted it last week. Of course, that was last week.

But what exactly is the process by which the smart money--few of whom probably know Anchía, none of whom would buy off on his personal politics--persuades him and themselves that they should all get married? I can tell you what the process is. The smart consultants tell the smart money: "You got the money. He got the magic. Marry him, you both win. He'll get you in. You don't really care about that liberal hoo-ha, do you? All you care about is the project.

"Look at Kirk. Look at Miller. You'll get him where you need him to be. But first he'll get you where you need to be: downtown, runnin' 'round with a mayor in your pocket."

I like the ground bumps guys, because there's something sort of funky and wonky about them. They actually want to talk about the issues, and they actually think you want to listen.  

I certainly don't think Anchía is a lightweight or a showboat. He isn't at all. Everybody I talk to who's worked with him in the Legislature goes on about how smart he is. But you know, they say Mick Jagger is smart too. And who the hell cares?

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