The Zac Factor
Steve Blow, a metro page columnist in The Dallas Morning News, wrote a column last week about the mayoral candidacy of former Dallas Observer music editor Zac Crain. I sometimes enjoy Blow's stuff, which has a comforting kind of good-old-boy twang to it, like a mouth harp on a hay ride, even if it's hard to figure out the point. I also had been thinking about Crain's run and had just interviewed him over lunch, as a matter of fact, so I thought maybe I'd try to explain what I think Blow may have been trying to say but couldn't quite get out.
I think Blow wanted to say that even though Crain, a candidate for the May 2007 mayoral election, is extremely, in fact, unbelievably, young at age 32, and even though he is a former music editor and columnist for the Observer, he does appear to have an honest job now (associate editor of an airline magazine); he has a legally wedded wife and a child and a home in which he keeps them; and the fact is that under our political system in the United States he does have a legal right to run for mayor.
Blow makes a very salient observation, I think, when he points out that the current mayor is a former Dallas Observer columnist. So you can't just go out and lock Zac Crain up.
I agree, and I agree so much that I would even like to build on Blow's point. I should mention that a number of interesting people have declared their candidacies for mayor, formally or informally, and I intend to talk to and write about most of them.
First, the population thing. We tend to be very ethnocentric in my business, so we're always telling you how the electorate divvies up ethnically. But let's talk about something other than ethnicity.
When we start to look at Dallas in terms of age groupings, some interesting shapes emerge, Zac Crain-wise. First off, the young voting age cohort, from age 20 to 34, makes up 27 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census 2005 American Community Survey. The next group, from 35 to 54, makes up another 27 percent.
The working geezers between the ages of 55 and 64, among whom I proudly count myself, make up only 8 percent of the population. Another 8 percent is in the age group between 65 and 84 that is retired and/or living under a bridge, hoping their children will drive by and toss them out a jar of peanut butter, of whom I look forward to being a member someday soon. If anybody's listening, I prefer crunchy.
I think you can split the second group in half: You can take the 35- to 44-year-old group and add it to the Zac Crain cohort, because the 35 to 44 people simply haven't faced the awful truth yet and still think they are young. So that would give us 42 percent of the city who are either young voting-age people or voting-age people who think they are young.
When Crain and I had brunch at Barbec's on Garland Road last week, it was clear to me he had been noodling these numbers or numbers like them. But the number that seemed to have struck him most clearly was 100,000—the 12 percent of voting-age residents who actually vote in mayoral elections.
On the one hand, he doesn't like it. "You have a tiny fraction of people who are being manipulated by an even tinier fraction of people," he said.
On the other, he clearly sniffs at least a squeaking amount of opportunity in it. The smaller the turn-out, the less to turn the tide.
At least half a dozen people have lined up to run next year, and half of those will have the million bucks apiece required to put on big media campaigns. So let's say that's $3 million aimed at cracking the egg three ways.
Crain suggests he can have a shot by bringing new voters into the game—people who are sort of like him. "Not necessarily a 32-year-old married father," he said, "but someone who shares some of those values, who is starting to pay attention to the city.
"If you can get close to 30,000 of those people and put them into the mix, well, that changes everything. All the people with a million dollars are going to be trying to carve out a piece of 100,000 people, so if you put 30,000 into that, it's a whole new ball game."
My first inclination was to doubt he had it right. When I got back to my office, I looked up the last election in which a former Dallas Observer columnist had staged a coup, Laura Miller in January '02, when she led a field of five. A whopping 132,000 people voted in that one, from whom Miller took 64,000 votes or 48 percent.
But in that election Miller only had two well-funded opponents. Next year Crain could have three or four, which would divide the pie into smaller slices. Maybe 30,000 votes would put him in a runoff.
And I know what all the veterans will be saying about now. Oh, sure. Everybody's going to go get the youth vote. Everybody's going to wake up the Hispanics. Sure, someday the Democrats will win elections again too. Right?
Right. In the national midterm elections three weeks ago, 2 million more people under the age of 30 voted than in 2002, according to the University of Maryland's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. A total of 10 million young voters showed up at the polls and contributed 13 percent of total votes cast, as opposed to 11 percent four years ago.
But in a generally conservative town such as Dallas, does it make any difference if the electorate skews younger? I haven't been able to find any local studies that would answer that question, but the national data indicate that as Dallas gets younger, it will cease to be so conservative.
A week before the midterm election, the Harvard University Institute of Politics released a report that accurately predicted the record turnout by young voters. The Institute polled young voters for their opinions and found them to be anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War and majority pro-Democrat.
The veterans can also tell me that's all national stuff and has little or no bearing on local matters, especially in an election that is nominally non-partisan. I would argue there are still very important ways in which young people see the world and their city very differently from geezers.
I asked Crain what he thought about the Trinity River Project, our multibillion-dollar public works campaign along the river in downtown, which is very heavy on new freeways and decorative bridges.
"It's a fuckin' mess," he said.
(Note to Zac: Do not use the F-word in interviews with reporters. Ask Laura Miller about that one.)
He went on a little about how uninteresting most of it seemed to him, especially the decorative bridges. As he spoke, I remembered a New York Times article my wife had recommended last October, "Vacation Homes: Seeking Birds, Not Birdies," by Joanne Kaufman. In it, Kaufman tells how second-home developers are having to retool—away from the golf-course communities that appealed to the Greatest Generation and toward places where people can be close to hiking trails, kayaking and nature.
I looked up that story later. There's a great quote in it from a guy telling how it's often wives who lead the way to these places, but their husbands eventually become converts. "There are men," the guy said, "who start off by saying: 'Arboreal toads? Hey, buddy, my tee-off time is in half an hour,' who then say, 'Oh, when are you going out again to look for the toad eggs, because I want to come.'"
Toad eggs versus tee-times. In the course of things, that could be bigger than Bush versus Kerry. My point is that something like the Trinity River Project might look entirely different to a Zac Crain constituency than it does to Laura Miller voters.
See. The mistake was not in voting for a Dallas Observer columnist. It was just that we needed the rock writer instead of the City Hall reporter.
Crain does bring a touch of the Observer perspective—and that does make me proud of him—which has to do with looking in from the outside and not wanting to get roped in. I think that same perspective was a lot of what propelled Miller's candidacy and makes even more mysterious her eventual conversion to the Dark Side.
Crain said: "The first thing I want to do is probably work on getting more cops." He said he understood that there's a big police pay lawsuit and that people at City Hall always cite the suit as the reason they can't do anything about beefing up the police force.
"It seems like people just kind of hide behind that and don't come up with any creative ways to get around it," he said.
He's right. That's a good solid issue. He might not even need my thing about the toad eggs.
So Steve Blow was correct, as far as he went. It is legal for Crain to run for mayor, even though he is not bald or losing significant bone mass.
But I would go further. I don't call him a front-runner. I'm not betting any money on him to win. But things are moving out there in the body politic that could change all of that suddenly. Remember the Dallas County tsunami.
I'm saying he's more than legal. He could even be viable. So don't write him off. Not yet. I'll let you know. (Steve, you don't owe me a thing. Glad to help. Ever try those fiber tablets?)
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