When It Comes to Doing Deals in Dallas, Leppert Must Remember That History Never Forgets
For most people, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert's campaign to open up the bidding process for concessions at the city airport must seem open and shut. He wants the bidding to be open. But the door is shut because the concessions are in the hands of politically connected people. For insiders and people who have watched Leppert closely, his position is almost laughably hypocritical. But that view probably needs some 'splainin'.
Leppert is pushing to have bidding for concessions at Love Field opened up -- as opposed to giving no-bid contracts to longtime concessionaire Gilbert Aranza and to State Rep. Helen Giddings. A peripheral figure in all this is U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has an interest in concessions at the regional airport through a blind trust.
What the insiders plainly see in all this is one Willis Johnson, sticking out like a sore thumb. I have said here before that nobody says anything bad about Johnson personally, although there's probably a good deal of envy directed at him. He's just doing his job. But what a job!
Johnson is Leppert's political adviser and handler for Southern Town (the not-white sector of the city). He is also a sub-contractor at the regional transit agency and the school district and just about everywhere else in the local public sector.
He is also a registered lobbyist for an African-American airport concession company from Atlanta. Johnson has been here on the blog claiming his client is interested only in Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and that he, Johnson, has no personal interest in the Love Field contracts. Johnson's employer reiterated that claim yesterday.
Leppert's problem in all of this is his own heavy-handed history of steering public contracts to and through Johnson. I wrote about this in some detail in March 2008 right after the mysterious double gun death of Dallas writer Rufus Shaw and his wife, Lynn Flint Shaw.
Flint Shaw was chair of "Friends of Tom Leppert," Leppert's principal political fund-raising arm. She was also a key liaison between Southern Town and the rich white Park Cities arts community.
In the column I wrote after the still unexplained deaths of the Shaws, I revealed that I had been given access to a series of emails Flint Shaw had sent to Leppert, telling him bluntly that, in exchange for her and Johnson's help with his election, he was to channel any and all contracts for persons of color through Johnson.
"Willis is the guy," she told Leppert. "He is the 'go-to' person in all things southern sector and African-American." She referred in her emails and letters to an "inner circle" in Southern Town who were to control all public patronage.
The Shaws were found dead of gunshots in their home just after Flint Shaw had the rug pulled out from under her in a fraud case exposing her to some possible jail time. Dallas County D.A. Craig Watkins, rather than covering for her on the fraud charges as would have been done in the old days, turned her case over to an outside D.A. Next thing we knew, the Shaws were dead; the cops said it was double suicide; their personal computers got lost; and the cops said there was nothing more to investigate.
But Leppert still worked hard to carry out Flint Shaw's instructions and put Willis Johnson out front as the gate-keeper to the inner circle. At one point Leppert commandeered the headquarters of DART, the transit agency, to hold a convention for minority businesses interested in contracting with DART. It's not even Leppert's agency, but he arranges the meeting. I went. There were hundreds of hopeful minority business people there. And guess who ran the meeting? Not Leppert. He stood on the sidelines. The go-to guy running the convention was Willis Johnson.
How could the message be more clear? You want to get your foot in the door here or anywhere else in Dallas? Go to Willis. He's the man. The only man.
No wonder people are jealous.
Since then, lots of people in Southern Town, both black and Hispanic, have told me that the Leppert-Willis machine works for them. They're happy. And who wouldn't be?
Take the case of Arcilia Acosta, wife of a city employee. She had a little company. In 2005 her company bid in the open fair-and-square process at DART for a $5.6 million contract for "pre-construction services." She got the job. What's wrong with that? Open bidding, right?
Sure, but the opening job she got through open bidding wasn't squat next to what she got later without ever presenting another bid. Over the next three years, she received "contract modifications" raising the amount of her contract to $429 million.
Suweeet! Wouldn't you say?
So if Leppert has such a well-oiled machine for handing out the moolah in Southern Town, why is he in such trouble all of a sudden with the minority members of his city council? I think it's because he has committed The White Man's Mistake.
By signing up Willis Johnson, Leppert clearly thought he had signed up everybody in Southern Town. But it doesn't work that way.
First of all, some "minority" business people, if we can still even use that term in a city that is increasingly of color, don't think of themselves as denizens of Southern Town. They think of their place as downtown. Take Gilbert Aranza, for example, the main concessionaire at Love Field and a target of Leppert's venom.
Aranza is a former director of the Dallas Citizens Council, or, as I sometimes get really mad at myself for forgetting and calling it, The Dallas White Citizens Council. It's not. Just "Citizens." But you catch my drift. A guy like Aranza isn't going to go hat in hand to kiss Willis Johnson's ring in order to get business.
Furthermore, even among the people who do think of themselves as belonging to Southern Town (they would call it "the Southern Sector"), there are many and diverse centers of power. State Rep. Giddings isn't going to take too much grief from Willis Johnson, and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson isn't going to take any at all.
It's not hard to see why Leppert made The White Man's Mistake. Up until now, most of black leadership has been happy to give him what he wanted on deals like the Trinity River and the convention hotel, in exchange for what they wanted.
But those are just white people deals. In the view of Southern Town, who cares? If white people like fake suspension bridges, great. Build a dozen of them and then go jump off. Just keep that gravy coming.
But the airport concessions are not white people deals. And Leppert has made a huge political miscalculation by thinking that Willis Johnson had the heft and the clout to push past people like Giddings, Congresswoman Johnson and Aranza.
And please don't start telling me how he's a naive and demure white virgin from that realm of purity and innocence, the business world. He's been at this poker table playing for stakes from the beginning. He just didn't think anybody else had any cards.
Wrong. Everybody's got cards. That's why they call it a card game. As opposed to a stick-up. It's a simple mistake to avoid. Let's say I'm a white guy and I want to run Dallas. I look around at white Dallas, and I figure, "Wow, there sure are a lot of different white people here. I guess I need to get busy and figure out who all the different ones are and what they want out of life." So why would I look around at Of-Color Dallas and say, "I need to just find one of these people and put him in charge of all the rest?"
If it doesn't work on one side of town, why would it work on the other? I'm just saying. As a matter of practical politics and poker, why not assume everybody's got cards? Helps you bet smarter. And right now, Leppert needs to get smarter.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.