Strike me dead, this city has a soul after all. City Plan Commissioner Neil Emmons just pulled off a brilliant political and parliamentary coup, leading the plan commission to an 11-3 vote that just may revive the issue of renaming Industrial Boulevard for Cesar Chavez.
Today, to the obvious surprise and consternation of plan commission chair Joe Alcantar, Emmons introduced a motion to reject city staff’s recommendation that Industrial be re-named “Riverfront Boulevard.” Only Alcantar and members Tom Lueder and Michael Davis voted against Emmons.
But first, a little background -- and forgive me if this is all inside baseball or old news to you, but context is key. Because, as you no doubt recall, the city conducted a poll to find out what new name the public would favor for Industrial Boulevard -- part of a ditzy plan to make things seem fancier along the Trinity River downtown. The votes came back overwhelmingly in favor of naming it for United Farm Workers founder, the late Cesar Chavez.
Mayor Tom Leppert and West Dallas city councilman Dave Neumann immediately decreed that the street could not be named Cesar Chavez. They said the street needed a new name that would help “market” the area where the city is investing huge sums in a river reclamation project.
What they didn’t say -- because they didn’t have to --was that they thought the name Cesar Chavez would un-market the area because it’s too Mexican.
The initial response of the Mexican-American leadership on the council was very light on the cojones. Eager to suck up to Leppert and the big Anglo political money, Latino council members seemed willing to absorb this slap in the face.
Emmons got involved when people started talking about other streets that could be named for Chavez. He suggested we name the Dallas North Tollway for Chavez, since it doesn’t have a real name now and runs through what used to be Little Mexico. Emmons told me before I left for vacation three weeks ago that he was shocked and moved by the response to his idea.
First, he was shocked by the racism of the white people who attacked him for it. But he was also deeply moved by the importance of the issue to young Latinos. He told me he couldn’t think of a single thing he could do as a citizen volunteer that would be half as important as signaling to a generation of young Mexican-Americans that this city is proud of them and of their heritage.
Leppert and Neumann clearly thought they had settled this issue, because as members of the city council -- a “superior body” -- they had declared the Cesar Chavez name dead in the water. But by law, street name changes have to begin at the the plan commission.
The issue still goes to city council. But now it will take a two-thirds majority of the council to overrule the plan commission. I have a suspicion somebody is already counting votes on the council and believes the Riverfront Boulevard name can be killed.
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In addition, Emmons engineered a maneuver today called “cinching the vote.” Immediately after winning support for his motion in one vote, he called for another vote. By law, the same body can only reconsider a motion two times in a given time period. By getting it reconsidered and passed twice, Emmons headed off any efforts by Leppert and Neumann to arm-twist the plan commission into un-doing today’s vote before the matter goes to council.
At today’s meeting, African-American plan commission member Michael Davis made an angry, crazy, rambling attack on the Latino citizens who had spoken in favor of the Cesar Chavez name change. How times have changed. In its offensiveness and petulance, Davis’s speech was at least the equal to any of the old white-guy bigot speeches I used to hear at City Hall decades ago.
But Emma Rodgers, another black commission member, followed immediately with a gracious and touching speech about the wonder of this moment and the gladness of heart she felt at seeing somebody at City Hall show conscience and compassion.
Emma Rodgers is Dallas. Not Davis. That’s what I think. And right now I love this city. --Jim Schutze