Last fall, Willis Johnson, a radio personality and political consultant, kept on running into city council member Don Hill. Johnson saw his friend playing golf, socializing at a banquet and working at City Hall. Each time, Johnson asked Hill the same question, "Don, what are you going to do?"
The popular city council member said he hadn't decided if he'd run for mayor. Hill, the most prominent African-American on the city council, was under investigation by the FBI for his role in an alleged web of bribery at Dallas City Hall. Although the law enforcement agency has yet to disclose any evidence of wrongdoing on his part, Hill figured it would be difficult to campaign under a cloud of suspicion.
Hill could never give Johnson a definitive answer. So when Tom Leppert, a former construction CEO, asked Johnson to come on board as his campaign consultant, Johnson said yes. Now he's introducing Leppert to black leaders and likely voters, helping Leppert's efforts to carve up Hill's base of support in the city's southern sector.
"Don is just good on the City Council," Johnson says. "But he could never tell me if he was going to run."
If Hill loses this year's mayor's race, he can blame it on the FBI. Nearly two years and running, the mysterious federal inquiry of developer Brian Potashnik and his relationship to city leaders such as Hill seems to have no timeline or finish line. The FBI won't talk about it. None of Hill's rivals bring it up either. But to Hill, the FBI investigation, even if it were to vanish tomorrow, has already made its mark by making him wait until this past February to enter the race, months after most of his competitors. That's given the field hope they can do well among the southern sector's coveted black neighborhoods in Fair Park and South Oak Cliff.
"The southern sector does not belong to Don Hill," says Rufus Shaw, a political analyst for DallasBlog.com. "I wouldn't bet $50 that Hill takes 75 percent of the black vote."
Hill will have to do well at home, since his campaign is not likely to play well on the road. Conservative voters in North Dallas aren't likely to warm up to a black candidate from Oak Cliff, who may or may not have ethical issues. In addition, four of Hill's rivals—Leppert, Darrell Jordan, Max Wells and Sam Coats—hail from voter-rich North Dallas. A fifth, second-term council member Gary Griffith, can count on a strong base of support from his East Dallas-area district. Then there's Ed Oakley, a well-liked Oak Cliff-area council member, who will naturally compete with Hill for southern sector votes while also positioned to run decently in the north. Lake Highlands council member Bill Blaydes has endorsed Oakley.
Were it not for the FBI investigation, Hill could have entered the race last summer and locked up the support of influential ministers and politicos. Hill has not only been an effective, well-regarded council member, he's been on the opposite side of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller in a series of City Hall showdowns. That's won him the undying respect of many blacks in the southern sector with a deep dislike of Miller.
Hill has also outshone his rivals on the campaign trail in both charisma and his grasp of local issues. But Hill's late entry into the race, if not his FBI issues, have roiled what could have been an unstoppable candidacy. In Dallas politics, where alliances exist to satisfy ambitions, you can increase your own power by jumping on the winning bandwagon early in the race. While Hill's campaign stumbled out of the gate, several natural allies of his backed other candidates, including Johnson and former city council member Don Hicks, a one-time supporter of Hill's. Other prominent blacks are sitting this race out, including Shaw and his wife, DART board member Lynn Flint Shaw. While no one really knows if they would have lined up behind Hill if he jumped in the race earlier, and without the stigma of the investigation, his late start couldn't have helped.
"He decided to enter the race because he knew he did nothing wrong," says Saundra Lohr, Hill's campaign manager. "The [late] decision to enter the race cost us in fund-raising and in key endorsements, but we are not looking back."
Hill's supporters say the math is on their side. The 20-year Oak Cliff resident has won the endorsements of his three black colleagues on the council: James Fantroy, Leo Chaney and Maxine Thornton-Reese. Their three districts and Hill's represented nearly 20,000 votes in the 2003 mayor's race, more than one-fifth of the total turnout. In the 2007 mayor's race, with seven viable candidates looking to divvy up around 100,000 votes, Hill's strength in the southern sector makes him a strong favorite to make the run-off.
But others say that Hill's council endorsements are meaningless. Fantroy is seriously ill; Reese has tuned out of local politics; and Chaney doesn't have any type of coattails. Other than an endorsement from state Senator Royce West, Hill doesn't have the top-shelf black politicos on his side.
"They don't bring volunteers. They don't bring money. They don't bring expertise. They don't bring consultants," Shaw says.
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Interestingly, the candidate who has the machinery to run well in the south is a white guy from North Dallas, former Mayor Pro Tem Max Wells. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, one of the most powerful black politicians in North Texas, has endorsed Wells. In addition, Price's longtime sidekick Kathy Neely is working as a political consultant for Wells. Like Johnson did for Leppert, Neely has introduced black voters to Wells, having organized at least five town hall meetings where people could talk to her candidate.
Leppert has also garnered key support in the southern sector. The Reverend Frederick Haynes, who is the pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church off Interstate 20, has endorsed Leppert. Haynes, whose church has 8,800 parishioners, was credited for helping turn out the black vote for the Democrats in their November sweep of every county-wide race.
The question is whether these endorsements matter. Or maybe that's not the question at all.
"It tickles me that many people are making a big deal that so many black people are in different camps," says Willis Johnson. "I think that's great. Why not be in every camp? Are all white people voting for Tom Leppert? Absolutely not."