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The Continuing Leppertness of Mayor Mike Rawlings

Chris Gash

For the last couple weeks I have been getting beaten about the ears by people working at City Hall with our new mayor, Mike Rawlings, who are mad at me over a couple columns I wrote saying the new mayor seems just like the old one, Tom Leppert.

They say they're not the same. They say I am unfair. Hasty. Judgmental. Same stuff I hear at home. They say Rawlings is a much better guy and a more interesting mayor than I give him credit for, and these are people whose opinions I respect.

One thing bothers me. They all want to talk to me about it off the record. I guess I get that. These are people who have to work with each other in a ticklish situation.

I can tell you that I am not talking about usual suspects — people you would think of immediately as Mayor Rawlings' obvious allies. We're more over on the other side of the aisle with this — people you might think of as his opponents on issues, which some of them have been.

What do they have to say that's worth repeating? I can break it down for you pretty quickly. The previous mayor, Leppert, they say, was secretive, not known for honesty, well known for vindictiveness. Rawlings, they tell me, is none of those.

He's a straightforward guy, they say. If he's going to vote against you, he tells you he's going to vote against you. He tells you why, and everybody can still be friends at a personal level.

The message I get from some at City Hall is this: They may be on the other side and lose some votes to Rawlings, but they still consider him to be a well-intentioned man who has personal integrity. He's politically naive, they say, which has caused him to get his saddle twisted a few times right out of the chute, but he offers a shot at meaningful coalitions and getting things done, so they want to wait and give him leeway before pouncing.

I still don't buy it. Rawlings does a college football hero thing on people — the big guy who's clever and makes sure he gets his own way, then comes up to you afterward at a party. All of a sudden now he's a big goofy kid: "Hey, I dunno, do I owe you an apology? Or what? 'Cause I dunno."

He knows.

Some of the people who have chatted with me about Rawlings pointed back to the so-called "flow-control" issue, a controversy over sending vast new volumes of commercial trash to the city landfill in far southeastern Dallas. Even the people who were on the other side of this from Rawlings — the ones who didn't want the trash to go there but who lost to Rawlings on the issue — give him credit for being honest about the real deal.

One who was willing to talk about that particular chapter on the record was Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, who supported his students in a protest at City Hall and who will lead an upcoming protest march demanding the city council rescind its decision to send more trash to the landfill, which is near the college.

"I give the mayor credit," Sorrell told me. "He had the integrity to be honest about the real issue."

The real issue is dump-truck fees. The city wants more of them. By passing a law ordering all commercial trash-haulers to take their trash to the city landfill instead of to commercial landfills in the suburbs, the city expects to harvest many more millions of dollars in new fees.

The city manager had tried to market the whole thing with a typically Orwellian public relations campaign about recycling — turning "trash into treasure" or some crap nobody believed. You know: "Garbage! You're gonna love it!" If it had gone on longer, they would have had TV ads with a bunch of guys in coveralls and hardhats out in the middle of the dump grinning maniacally and doing the monster mash.

But when it came to a vote, Rawlings said exactly what it was all about. It was, he said, "a business revenue issue." I was there. They just wanted the money. Screw the rest of it. I admit I was grateful not to have to hear the garbage-is-fun spiel again.

So how much credit does he get for being a good guy about a bad deal? Here is where the line must be drawn. Present at that September 28 city council meeting was a contingent of students from Paul Quinn, accompanied by Sorrell, who only asked that the council delay long enough to carry out a study. Sorrell and his students weren't saying don't do the deal. They were saying don't do something that will have a major and lasting effect on our part of the city until we know that you know what you're doing.

 

Rawlings cut off all of that. He said there would be no preliminary study. In fact, in his very candid fashion, he let it be known that he had a campaign promise to keep to a certain black pastor: Up to a million bucks a year from the new dump fees would go into an "economic stimulus" fund that Rawlings indicated would be connected somehow to that pastor's church.

It was a knife in the backs of the students. They thought the city council chamber was the place where this matter would be decided. That's why they were there. They didn't understand that an accommodation had already been reached with the pastor, Stephen Nash, whose church, Mount Tabor Baptist, is right next to their college. Nash rose at the council meeting and spoke in favor of bringing more garbage to his neighborhood. I have attempted to reach Nash about these matters. He did not return my calls.

Rawlings told me later, after I wrote about it, that none of the funds will flow directly to any pastors. Fine. But after hearing exactly the opposite at the meeting where the vote took place, I nevertheless feel confident that somehow, through the elaborately terraced rice paddies of life, water will find its level. Maybe that's just me.

I have to say that some of the people I talked to at City Hall for this column were in my camp. They agreed with me that Rawlings' personality may be unlike Leppert's — he's much more hail-fellow — but the outcomes are the same. Those outcomes have a lot to do with culture, and for illustration they point to the debate over city council redistricting.

The people who got screwed on the city council redistricting deal that Rawlings hammered out in a last-minute backroom session were the residents of the politically active neighborhoods in North Oak Cliff. Their part of town got chopped up to make for safer districts for incumbents south and east. Those are the only incumbents who need protection. All incumbents in the north are safe, always.

I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings in the North Oak Cliff neighborhoods that got chopped up, but they are referred to behind their backs at City Hall as "The Banshees." Nobody else wants the banshees in their district, at least not all of them, because they do all kinds of stuff that makes trouble. Like voting. They vote way too much. They have these incredibly high voter turnouts when everybody else south of the river has the decency to just let the old people in the nursing homes do the voting.

Neighborhood involvement: always in the way. Citizen activism: Oh, that's a toothache. And they're always innovating, coming up with all these embarrassing ways to make better streets and stuff. Banshees! Trouble.

In the redistricting stuff, the banshees of North Oak Cliff got the same knife in the back that students from Paul Quinn got. The deal was done behind closed doors with Rawlings leading the way, and it was the same old paradigm we have seen for decades in Dallas — the conservative status quo separationists of North Dallas joining hands with the conservative separationists of South Dallas to put the knife in the back of anybody of any ethnicity who wants to change the paradigm.

In this case the people with knives sticking out of their backs were Anglo and Hispanic. In the Paul Quinn case they were young and black. Same paradigm, same knife.

At 10 a.m. Saturday, a very interesting challenge to the old paradigm will take place: a march from Founders Park in Oak Cliff across the river to Ferris Plaza in front of The Dallas Morning News, led by the Paul Quinn students. They say they will be joined by a broad coalition of Latinos, Democrats and some of the city's most influential younger black clergy. I believe a certain number of city council members will take part.

This march will draw a certain line in the sand. Those people including members of the city council who want to give Rawlings the benefit of the doubt will have to make up their minds. How much doubt? How much benefit?

I have spoken to Sorrell about this march at some length. He does not characterize it as a march to confront Rawlings, but he does say it is a march against the old paradigm. The marchers will ask that both backroom deals be undone, the garbage thing and redistricting. They want a new approach in which activist committed citizens are at the table and given respect, not shunted aside and called banshees.

 

The people who want to give Rawlings more time say that there are outcomes I don't see, things that happen away from the cameras and the hoopla. They tell me it may look to me on the outside that everything has already been precooked but back in the political kitchen where they do the actual cooking, he's a straight-up guy.

Maybe. Or maybe they need to get out of the kitchen.


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