Last March, at a mayoral forum at Hotel Palomar, the fire alarm began to blare as candidate Tom Leppert spoke. Instantly, as if he knew it would ring all along, his opponent Darrell Jordan quipped that Leppert must have set off a lie-detector test. The audience chuckled. Leppert smiled uncomfortably and resumed his talk, even as the alarm continued to wail.
In fewer than six months, Leppert has gone from an out-of-work chief executive with almost no roots in Dallas to a prime spot in next week's runoff against Ed Oakley. He's done it by being the most disciplined candidate in the race. While his opponents in the general election switched positions and tactics nearly every week, sprinkling their messages with light, self-deprecating touches, Leppert is often so humorless and robotic he makes C-3PO look like Chris Tucker. Whether he's talking to a Republican women's group in far North Dallas or an African-American church in Southwest Dallas, Leppert remains the same: A pro-business, pro-development candidate who believes that his non-political background is what's needed to revive a city that's not quite as good as it can be.
"Are you happy where we are?" Leppert asked the audience at a mayoral forum at Paul Quinn College. "Highest crime rate, education going the wrong way, and we've talked a lot but we still haven't created economic opportunities."
If you haven't been paying attention to the Dallas mayor's race so far, here's an easy primer: Oakley and Leppert agree on the major issues; they differ in where they came from and how they see the city. Leppert, the well-regarded former CEO of Turner Construction, is trying to paint himself as the reformer in race, unschooled in the divisive ways of City Hall. Oakley, a Democrat, fills the unlikely role as the establishment candidate, making the point that Dallas is on the right track thanks to his leadership on the council.
"I want to be the mayor of Dallas for one reason," Oakley said at a mayoral forum this spring. "I have the leadership skills to coalesce this council and continue in the direction we're going."
As a three-term council member who was almost always on the winning side of a vote, Oakley has no choice but to run on the record of City Hall. So it's no wonder that to hear him tell it, Dallas is in the middle of a magnificent renaissance as council initiatives have led to a merry parade of development downtown. The owner of a small contracting company, Oakley took a lead role in crafting 2006's $1.3 billion bond package and chairs the council's influential Trinity River Committee. Perhaps more important, he understands the arcane processes of local government and has tried to sell that knowledge as something just shy of divine providence.
"I'm not bragging, but I've been there, and what I bring to the table is that I know all the inner workings of City Hall, and I know how to make it hum for the city of Dallas," he said in an interview early in the campaign. "I know exactly where to start. I just know it. I'm like 'Give me the test. I know it all.'"
He's right about that. At forum after forum, Oakley will go through the budget items in the city's last two bond packages and talk about how individual items—libraries, police substations, whatever—have affected particular streets in Dallas. So when Leppert talks about hiring more police officers without saying how he will pay for them, Oakley jumps on his opponent. He simply becomes indignant.
"I have the budget book in my car," Oakley told Leppert at a televised debate hosted by Channel 11's Tracy Rowlett. "I'll give it to you, and you can look through it and see what you'll cut."
As a relative newcomer to Dallas with zero political experience, Leppert is trying to paint Oakley's knowledge of government as a bad thing. In turn, he's selling his own message, which is conspicuously short on details, as something approaching an evangelical crusade.
"Do you want a mayor who focuses on City Hall and knows all the intricacies there?" Leppert asked at a recent forum. "Or do you want a mayor who is going to reach out, reach out to communities and reach out worldwide to make sure we have opportunities and can articulate the issues that will identify the success or failure in our city for the next 10 years?"
Leppert's main selling point is that as a former CEO of an $8 billion construction company he has the skills and the personality to run City Hall. Often he boasts about how his old company is "several times the size of the city of Dallas," making you wonder why exactly he's interested in the mayor's office in the first place. Leppert's tenure at Turner, however, is rather remarkable. He doubled the company's revenue in two years while winning it recognition for its extensive work with minority contractors. That background has clearly helped him win support not only with the Dallas Citizens Council but with community leaders in southern Dallas, who think he has the know-how to bring jobs and retail to their long struggling neighborhoods.
Oakley, taking a page out of Karl Rove's notebook, has attacked Leppert's strength, ridiculing his tenure at Turner in a campaign commercial and Web site. In both spots, Oakley selectively criticizes a handful of Turner's projects that did not go as planned. In contrast, Leppert has not attacked Oakley in any way, other than to run a spot defending himself from his opponent's ad.
Oakley's commercials did engender a lot of attention from the press, and while we may not know whether they hit their mark for a few more days, they did create an obvious rift between the two candidates. Unlike the more pleasant general election, the runoff has become an affair far more bitter, with each candidate fighting particularly hard over endorsements, which become more influential in a low-turnout race. The two candidates, who now regularly spar during their joint appearances, clearly don't like each other, often not so much as shaking hands before or after a debate.
But while Oakley and Leppert may not be Dallas' version of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the two candidates have interchangeable positions on nearly all the major issues facing the city. For example, they're both about as pro-development as humanly possible. In his six years on the council, Oakley has repeatedly voted to give tax breaks to wealthy businessmen like Ray Hunt. He's been one of the most vociferous defenders of the council's penchant for awarding tax increment financing, which has the entertaining effect of driving Dallas' fiscal conservatives batty. Leppert, meanwhile, is hardly a detractor of the council on that front. In an interview, Leppert couldn't name a tax increment financing deal the council handed out that he opposed.
"Chicago has 130 TIFs," he said this spring. "They have been very aggressive. We're in a world where if we are going to be successful we have to be competitive and build the tax base."
The candidates also lament the loss of the Dallas Cowboys to Arlington, want to put more cops on the street and oppose, with all their might, Councilwoman Angela Hunt's proposal to put the high-speed Trinity River toll road to a citywide vote. In this mayor's race, those who view the business community with suspicion—from their involvement in the Trinity River project to their dealings downtown—have no one to vote for.
Leppert and Oakley have a few distinct stances cleverly calibrated to win votes. Leppert talks about improving public education in Dallas even though as mayor he will have zero institutional control over the school district. Oakley, meanwhile, has introduced a plan to raze aging apartment buildings and use tax increment financing to construct mixed-income housing in their place. Oakley's plan, unlike just about anything else he offers, is noticeably short on details, particularly on what exactly happens to the poor people his plan would displace.
Although not without their flaws, Oakley has been an effective politician and Leppert a successful CEO. If there is a problem with your 2007 Dallas mayor's race, it's how uninspiring it has become. From Oakley's mean-spirited attack ads to Leppert's seemingly willful ignorance of how City Hall works, the two candidates aren't doing a whole lot to earn your vote, other than being the only two still standing. Incredibly, Oakley and Leppert have emerged from a pack of 11 largely accomplished candidates without having a whole lot to say.
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"I don't want to see Dallas do well; I don't want to see Dallas improve," Leppert said at a recent forum. "I want to see Dallas make a quantum leap."
For Leppert, that's a typical platitude: something so vague and generic nobody could disagree with it. Oakley, in contrast, almost never speaks in clichés, although you sometimes wish he would.
"The experience I bring from having spent 15 years down there, and I'm considered now an insider, which is news to me because I was ever considered only what I considered a person who has experience, I can bring that experience to bear in the parts of the city that have been underserved. That's the reason I'm running."