Saturday's Election Results Mean the "Old Establishment" in Dallas Is Weakening

Saturday's election tells us that opposition to the toll road is not merely stronger than ever but closer to the mainstream.
Saturday's election tells us that opposition to the toll road is not merely stronger than ever but closer to the mainstream.

What was Saturday's City Council election about? It's a tale of two candidates, both of whom won election.

In his most recent campaign finance report filed May 9 and covering his last month of fundraising, District 5 southeast Dallas candidate Rick Callahan, an incumbent, took in just over 30 grand.

Even though he represents an economically modest to poor district at the city's periphery, his last-minute donor list is a who's who of the downtown business and political elite, especially those committed to building an expressway through downtown along the Trinity River.

In a report covering the same period, District 9 candidate Mark Clayton, an outsider and newcomer who scored a stunning upset in the historically conservative Lake Highlands area, reported less than half Callahan's tally -- a little over 14 grand. His donor names read like the invitation list to a subtly different party.

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Downtown hitters on Callahan's list: Tim Byrne of Lincoln Properties, $1,000; political action committee for public works construction company CH2M, $300; another PAC for Mary Kay CEO and a die-heard toll road booster Richard Rogers, $750; Developer and Crow family in-law Henry Billingsley, $500; retired banker and Dallas Citizens Council stalwart Ron Steinhart, $500; public works construction contractor Henry C. (Peter) Beck III, $500; retired TXU chairman and Citizens Council stalwart Erle A. Nye, $500; Former Citizens Council chairman Tom Dunning, $300; Citizens Council stalwart and former City Council member Alan Walne, $500; public works construction contractor Arcilia Acosta, $500; the official PAC of the Dallas Citizens Council, $1,100. And more like that.

Clayton's list reads more like the guest list for a wedding behind Wild Detectives bookstore between two musicians whose parents were commercial real estate brokers: East Dallas activist Larry Offut, $250; developer and Lakewood stalwart Rob Richmond, $500; the Stonewall Democrats, $500; symphony hall namesake Morton H. Meyerson, $500; and some more.

Not all hippies by any means. More like a lot of fairly conservative civic-minded activists who simply don't happen to be beholden to the Citizens Council and that damned toll road.

Coverage of the election Saturday night and Sunday by the city's only daily newspaper was typically, frustratingly and predictably mixed. Dallas Morning News reporter Brandon Formby did a straight-up job analyzing the outcome, finding that, for the moment at least, voters have created an altogether novel and sort of amazing circumstance on the council: for the first time since 1998 when voters authorized a package of "improvements" for the Trinity River downtown, supporters of a proposed big honking expressway on top of the river have been reduced to an ignominious tie in terms of their council votes.

That's right, you heard me. Instead of the overwhelming majority of support on the council enjoyed for so long by the proposed toll road -- 14-1 when former council member Angela Hunt first started fighting the road almost a decade ago -- the ratio of supporters to no-votes is now even, six to six. The final ratio will be decided by three run-off races June 13.

And here is the real lesson of those campaign finance reports, repeated throughout all of the races in this election: Support for the toll road comes entirely from the forces of yesteryear -- downtown moneybags propping up incumbents like Callahan who can't raise serious money in their own districts and will lick any boot for outside assistance.

But the new strength of the anti-toll road caucus on the council is not exactly attributable to newcomers. Clayton is new to the council but drew a lot of support from experienced players and donors. I think his support casts light on what may be a growing fissure within what we think of as the establishment in Dallas.

On his list I see names of people who have to be thinking to themselves, "I'm establishment, and I'm conservative, and I'm pro-development, and I'm for growth, but that stupid toll road is just bullshit."

Oh, and did I mention that the coverage by the News was also disappointing? Yeah, lest I forget, I must mention a piece on the opinion blog by editorial writer Rudy Bush, under a headline, "Scott Griggs has apologized for incident at City Hall, and that should be the end of it."

This is about criminal coercion charges brought against City Council member and anti-toll road leader Scott Griggs, accused days before the election of violently threatening a city employee in a dispute over the online posting of notification for a special city council meeting about the toll road.

Bush reported yesterday he had learned that Griggs has since apologized to the employee. Bush wrote:

"The fact is that council members who use their power to bully or berate staff need to understand that isn't acceptable.

"The other nonsense that needs to be pocketed here is the idea that this was some sort of trumped-up conspiracy to silence Griggs and keep voters from going to polls. As if.

"Let's hope that Griggs and any other council member who might think of screaming at staff have learned a powerful lesson about making city hall a good place to work. And let's hope the rest of us upset by all of this can look at it for what it really is and hit reset and learn our lesson about decency."

But those are not the issues. And that is not the nonsense. Griggs was charged with a felony carrying a 10-year prison sentence and loss of his law license based on an argument in early April in the city secretary's office. The charges came on the same day that Griggs and council member Philip Kingston won a long, difficult battle with the city manager forcing him to release a trove of emails about the toll road project.

The suspicion about these charges was not exactly that Griggs was charged days before the election as part of a conspiracy to prevent him from campaigning for anti-toll road candidates. Let's look a little more closely at what did happen.

Mayor Mike Rawlings was pushing hard for a special called meeting of the council to endorse the recommendations of his "Dream Team" on the toll road, thereby neutralizing the issue or greatly defusing it in the election. Griggs and Kingston had been battling the mayor's office for a while on the way the meeting was to be noticed.

They believed the mayor was deliberately shortchanging the notification process in order to prevent them from putting together a meaningful compromise that might have killed forever the idea of a huge freeway on top of the river. On the day of the shouting, Griggs believed he had been lied to by the city secretary's staff and shown forged documents.

The back and forth that day involved City Manager A.C. Gonzalez and City Attorney Warren Ernst, concerning an issue important mainly to the mayor. Griggs won on the release of the information he was seeking but lost on the question of proper notification of the meeting.

Rather than a deliberate conspiracy to influence the election, the charges against Griggs have always smelled more like a stupid expression of anger over Griggs' role in both the information and the notification matters -- over his entire history, as a matter of fact, as a thorn in the side of the mayor on the toll road issue.

The charges are weird. The whole process smells wrong. Before anybody -- least of all a journalist -- starts waving the sign of the cross over it and declaring it resolved with a simple apology, much more needs to be known about the roles of top officials, very much including the mayor.

If somebody pushed felony charges to settle a garden variety, two-bit, back-corridor political score, then that person probably should be criminally charged. I'm no lawyer, but official oppression sounds about right to me.

It does not sound to me as if the apology is going to end all of this today or anytime soon. I spoke Sunday with Griggs' attorney, Larry Friedman, who said he has prepared a civil suit simply to get people under oath and preserve the record.

So my argument for Bush is just this: Stop trying to make it be over. Why do you want it to be over so badly? Who appointed you to trivialize this? Why do you see yourself as trivializer-in-chief?

I've been back-and-forthing about it all weekend with a former colleague, Kim Pierce, a freelance food critic for the News and veteran general assignment reporter, a person whose story sense I trust. She told me she thought I was off-base last week by suggesting that Morning News writers were putting their thumbs on the scale on the Griggs story.

I wrote to her:

"Brandon Formby has done a great job as usual. I think Rudy and others leapt to a conclusion that will eventually prove false -- specifically that the charges against Griggs had no relation to the election. All they had to do was leave that alone until more was known. Instead their message expressed what has always been an unfortunate theme, urging people to be less skeptical, in effect to pay less attention and take less ownership of issues. Is that a conspiracy? I think it's probably about 25 percent official agenda at the News, 75 percent fear of the ball -- a reflexive tendency to back away from blood. I think journalists should be hunters. The News thinks they should be sous chefs. Maybe that's more cultural than conspiratorial."


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