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The Choir Boy Mayor

Aloof and uncomfortable early in the campaign, Leppert hit his stride in, of all places, southern Dallas.
Mark Graham

Tom Leppert likes to snack on bran muffins and Grape-Nuts. He listens to contemporary Christian music. Punctual and disciplined, he schedules breakfast meetings for 6 in the morning. He doesn't swear and is irritated by those who do.

"I've been with him since August," says Willis Johnson, his campaign consultant. "I've never heard him use any profanity."

What the hell?

On Saturday, Tom Leppert was elected mayor of Dallas, trouncing three-term city council member Ed Oakley. Just a month earlier, Oakley finished a strong second behind Leppert, cruising into the runoff with hope and confidence. But after a series of missteps, including a series of nasty and misleading campaign ads, Oakley's campaign began to disintegrate like a wayward comet whizzing toward Earth. In contrast, Leppert's political machine, ably directed by Carol Reed, was a paragon of corporate efficiency. Disciplined, polite and well-funded, Tom Leppert's campaign was a mirror image of the man himself.

But if Leppert initially seemed to be the demure and docile creation of Roger Staubach and the Dallas Citizens Council—the pro-business group that has been pulling strings in local politics for decades—he emerged as someone a lot more interesting as the campaign wore on. For all the support that Leppert had among the powerful and wealthy in North Dallas, he ultimately proved his mettle in churches, nursing homes and storefronts in the long-blighted neighborhoods south of the Trinity. Whether it was accepting an invitation to visit a homeless shelter that his supposedly progressive opponent scorned or just walking through an Oak Cliff neighborhood after its challenges were explored in a mayoral debate, Leppert showed a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness that few would have ever expected from someone fronted by Staubach.

"His interest in homelessness, low-income housing, affordable housing, economic development—was very genuine and very sincere and pretty well-informed," says Larry James, the president and CEO of Central Dallas Ministries. "It was clear to me that he had done his homework."

When the campaign began, Leppert couldn't stop talking about how he was the former CEO of Turner Construction, a company "several times the size of the city of Dallas." Often appearing aloof and uncomfortable at early mayoral forums, Leppert's view of campaigning was to read aloud from his résumé.

"I moved a $4 billion business to Dallas," he said in his standard rapid cadence. "I look forward to sitting across the desk from any business leader in the world and saying, 'Not only do I think you should move your business to Dallas, I've been in your shoes and here's what I did.'"

But as the campaign wore on, Leppert talked a little less about himself and a little more about his platform. His were the standard priorities of education, crime and economic development, particularly in the southern sector. Although he eschewed details or proposals or tough choices—OK, that's a lot of things—Leppert related well to people in the audience. Using anecdotes as effectively as the most seasoned politician, Leppert often talked about a pharmacist in Oak Cliff who kept on getting robbed but couldn't get the police to respond. But don't just feel sorry for him, Leppert would say. Think about all the elderly residents in the neighborhood who won't have anywhere to go to fill their prescriptions.

He didn't just luck upon stories like that. Leppert was everywhere in southern Dallas. Don Hill, who finished one spot out of the runoff in last month's general election, explained to reporters that he endorsed Leppert over Oakley, his longtime political ally, in part because he kept on seeing Leppert in his neighborhood. While some of the establishment candidates of yore treated Oak Cliff and Fair Park like exotic outposts, often relying on stand-ins south of the Trinity to make their case, Leppert did this bizarre thing. He talked to voters one on one.

"Not one day passed where Tom didn't do something in the southern sector," Johnson says. "Whether it was a forum or a visit to a South Dallas nursing room or a tour of Joppa or walking Council District 5, whether it was meeting with the black chamber or black contractors or pastors, the guy just blanketed the area."

It didn't hurt that Leppert ran a focused campaign, never wavering from his intent to refrain from personal attack ads. Aides say he never lost his cool even when Oakley's overmatched campaign team ran a series of TV spots baldly distorting Leppert's record at Turner Construction. (The Dallas Morning News would call the ads nasty and inaccurate.) Rather than run a blistering counterattack, which would be par for the course in a big-city mayor's race, Carol Reed had Leppert appear in a folksy TV spot where the casually dressed candidate gently brushed off Oakley's false claims and then noted that negative ads were not what Dallas needs. Leppert came out looking like the bigger man, while Oakley's campaign took a battering in the press, much to the delight of Reed.

"I used to wake up in the morning and wonder, how stupid do they think I am and how stupid do they think people are?" Reed says. "You cannot sustain something that's not true."

On the ground, Leppert carved a new approach toward campaigning in southern Dallas. He was never going to beat top-shelf council members like Oakley or Hill in their backyard, but he made it close enough to give him a clear advantage heading into the runoff. How he did that is one of the more remarkable things to come out of this campaign.

Like Leppert, Max Wells was another avowed Republican candidate from North Dallas. He also had the backing of a good chunk of the establishment and $800,000 of his own money to play with. A former mayor pro tem, Wells enlisted the support of the vaunted old guard of the southern sector, people like Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, former city council member Don Hicks and political consultant Kathy Neely. In contrast, Leppert went with a fresher generation of leaders, from political consultant Johnson, who had never worked on a citywide campaign before, to pastors Frederick Haynes and Ricky Rush, who, unlike some of their fellow clergy, were unsullied by any real battles with outgoing Mayor Laura Miller. That new team helped Leppert batter Wells and his old guard south of the Trinity and put Oakley on notice that he couldn't take southern Dallas for granted. Unlike nearly all of his North Dallas competitors, Leppert actually talked and listened to individual voters south of the Trinity.

"At the NAACP function the other night, Tom was there without handlers," says Ken Carter, who worked on the Don Hill campaign. "He will speak with everyone and will meet with everyone."

Leppert, of course, didn't win any southern Dallas council districts. No one expected him to. Oakley is well-liked in his Oak Cliff district and beyond, where politically active neighborhood groups admired his attention to real-life stuff like parks, roads and libraries. But Leppert ran surprisingly well in the southern sector, winning a number of precincts, even in Oakley's District 3. That showing, on top of his dominant performance in North and East Dallas, gave us the Leppert landslide.

In fact, Leppert didn't need southern Dallas to win. Given how reliably voters in North and East Dallas turn out, pundits, politicians and consultants probably place too much emphasis on the political power of council districts in West Dallas, Oak Cliff, South Dallas and Pleasant Grove. But that only makes Leppert's engagement of the city's oft-neglected neighborhoods all the more noteworthy. It says that he's likely to be more inclusive and curious than anyone could have expected when they first saw him in public.

There was much about Leppert's campaign that was frustrating. He showed a thorough lack of interest in the mechanics of local government, and his defense of the proposed Trinity River toll road was often disingenuous. He didn't exactly run on the power of his ideas either. While other candidates, such as Darrell Jordan and Wells, offered specific proposals on how to reduce crime, Leppert merely talked about hiring hundreds of new cops without giving details on how the city would pay for it. Now that he's elected, no one can say what exactly he's going to do because he never really told us.

But we're starting to know more about Leppert's engaged and personable style, which may prove to be a good fit in our weak-mayor form of government. A few Sundays ago, Leppert paid a visit to Concord Baptist Missionary Church in Oak Cliff. At the end of the service, the pastor, Brian Carter, looked at the congregation and was surprised to see Leppert was still there. Carter didn't endorse Leppert but thanked him for coming anyway.

"Tom did that at every service he went to," Johnson says. "He didn't shake the preacher's hand, kiss the baby and leave. He stayed for the entire service, and people noticed that."


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