With Friends Like These...
For the moment, they're all pals, comrades-in-arms who have each other's backs--you know, the same ones in which they used to stick knives and other sharp things. Their pasts have not been forgotten, mind you; there's always someone with a shovel ready to dig up ancient history and use it to beat a new friend over the head. But everyone interviewed for this story, be it the well-heeled, well-connected political consultants or past and current council members or longtime community activists, insists the same thing: We're all getting along quite well. It's all peaches and cream. No, really. Seriously.
The Coalition for Open Government, the 2-month-old conglomeration of friends and foes representing the 14 members of the city council and other would-be and wannabe powerbrokers, is a motley mixture of local politicos bound by a single cause: to defeat Beth Ann Blackwood's amendment to the city charter, which essentially gives all of the city manager's powers to a suddenly invulnerable mayor. They don't all agree on just what it is they hate about Blackwood's proposal, and they certainly don't agree on what should come next if Blackwood is defeated--a stronger-mayor proposal offered up by the city council or nothing at all. Even their name is a little confusing: What, exactly, does a Coalition for Open Government have to do with a strong mayor?
But, for now they insist that isn't important. All that matters is killing the Blackwood proposal--whether that means pimping a council alternative or no alternative at all. Say whatever it takes, do whatever it takes, befriend whomever it takes.
"Whether individual people take a stand on different ways to defeat Blackwood or different ways to amend the charter, the one thing we hope we will be able to say to people is there will be an alternative on the ballot in November and there will be open discussion," says Carol Reed, the political strategist best known for running Ron Kirk's mayoral and Senate campaigns. "The best way to ensure that you can amend the charter in November with a better change than Blackwood is to defeat this thing in May."
Since its inception at Councilman Mitchell Rasansky's house on January 19, the Coalition for Open Government has done the requisite bad-mouthing of Blackwood's proposal in print and at the various debates and discussions held around town. Last week, they sent out attorney Darrell Jordan, one of the coalition's financial committee chairs, to debate Laura Miller in front of the Dallas Bar Association at the Belo Mansion--where Miller had home-court advantage, given the rows of "Vote Yes!" signs lining the front lawn. They've sent out former council members Alan Walne and Max Wells and Bob Stimson, among others, to debate Blackwood, Miller and their representatives.
And the coalition finds itself with powerful friends, including the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas chapter of the League of Women Voters and, most notably, the high-profile businessmen who make up the Dallas Citizens Council, which, on March 17, announced it would donate $200,000 to the coalition's efforts to defeat Blackwood. Reed and fellow consultant Pat Cotton say the money will be used primarily to pay for yard signs, mailers and radio spots, which will begin running a few weeks before the May 7 election.
And then there is Ron Kirk, the former mayor and former nemesis of Mayor Laura Miller. Kirk got involved in the anti-Blackwood effort only when members of the Citizens Council and Greater Dallas Chamber, among his biggest allies during his tenure as mayor, begged him to fight it. At first he tried to limit his involvement to getting the council members to draft their own alternative, which they presented last week. Then he accepted a few invitations to debate Miller, the first of which takes place April 7 at the Westin Galleria.
"People started calling me immediately, saying, 'Will you come debate Laura?'" Kirk recalls. "And I said no, no, no. And I'll be honest. I am just flying without protocol. I'm in a wonderful position. I'm doing what the hell I wanna do.
"The most important thing for me was in the middle of all this, I was going through a decision to make a change in my career. I changed law firms February 1, and my biggest deal was I was focused on getting my professional life in order and getting over the death of my brother. But I also happen to think Blackwood is horrible. It's badly drafted; it's too much power. You wouldn't want me to have that much power. Blackwood would be a disaster for the city."
But the anti-Blackwood faction is faced with a daunting task: Not only must they educate voters about Proposition 1, a 1,000-word charter amendment that reads like stereo instructions translated from a foreign language, but they must tell voters why it's bad for the city of Dallas. On this subject, there is not a single chorus, but a handful of verses sung by a choir of dozens.
Some will insist Blackwood must be defeated because it violates the Voting Rights Act, created in 1965 to give minorities a place at the table where once they weren't even allowed to clear the plates. Some will insist the language of Proposition 1 violates state law (even the mayor agrees there might be some conflict, though she says it's nothing that can't be fixed by a team of attorneys, which she would pick if and when the amendment passes). And some will insist that Blackwood's proposal shouldn't be allowed to pass if only because it was concocted in private and funded by Park Cities "tycoons," to use activist Sharon Boyd's word.
Still others will point to the vague, intimidating language of phrases like "orders of the mayor" and fear the worst--an elected monarch, a dictator in Dior. And even more simply believe emasculating the council will lead to "de facto disenfranchisement," as Kirk says, all but eradicating the gains made by minorities for whom 14-1 was a hard-fought victory. And some privately insist business leaders are for a stronger mayor but against the proposal because they do not trust Miller to do their bidding.
"Everyone came together to defeat Blackwood, and whether there are other agendas going on, that's their main thing," says Lynn Flynt Shaw, one of the coalition's co-chairs. "We're meeting to defeat Blackwood, and our meetings run smoothly. We don't have any arguments, because we're all on the same page. I know it's difficult for a journalist to believe, but that's the way it's working. Am I surprised? Not really. At the very first meeting, we were all told this was the deal, leave your egos at the door, and if you want to do something else, that's fine; just tell your city council person. But here we are."
Blackwood and Miller, who still claim not to be in cahoots with each other despite having once shared the same political consultant, have it relatively easy. They have a catchphrase: "Stronger Mayor, Stronger Dallas." With rare exception, only Blackwood and Miller have been pushing their proposal. The coalition has been countering with council members, past and present, and other barely recognizable faces.
Boyd, among others, initially wanted former mayoral candidate Jordan to act as the coalition's chair, not only because he's perhaps the best-known among its leaders but also because "he really does know how the city operates...and he's a real positive guy." Instead, the group settled on three co-chairs: former Councilman Alan Walne, who, during his tenure on the council, garnered a reputation for presenting a cogent case for an issue and then voting against it; local arts patron Shaw, wife of political consultant and Elite News columnist Rufus Shaw; and attorney Adelfa Callejo, chairwoman of the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations.
"The majority thought it was important for it to be tri-ethnic," Boyd says. "Those are just not my priorities. Mine are getting things moving. I wasn't disagreeing with them but wanted to get to the next place. But I am just an Indian in this one. Pat's the coordinator. She pulled it together. I am pleased to let somebody else take the arrows."
The strong-mayor movement--if that's what you call five wealthy businessmen, the attorney who pushed their agenda and the mayor who picked up a ball she wanted nothing to do with five months ago--has a popular, pretty figurehead on the podium, a mayor who, as a former Dallas Observer columnist, takes good notes during debates and strings together good sentences that make for great sound bites. When confronting Jordan last week, she said things like "City Hall doesn't work anymore" and damned the council's alternative proposal as nothing more than "the status quo with a little lipstick on it." (It's amazing Miller didn't point to Jordan and tell the crowd, "I can't believe you're listening to the guy who wanted to dome the Cotton Bowl.")
"It's easy for them," Kirk says. "I'd much rather have Laura's hand than this one. And they have a slogan: 'A strong mayor for a strong Dallas.' Any time you have to speak in sentences when your opponent in a debate gets to speak in a phrase, you're at a deficiency...This is a gut check for the city council. Forget motives and all of that, but I am a firm believer that you can get 30,000 people to sign anything. I know there are a lot of people who said, 'The petitions were done this way or that way,' and nobody was more critical of the petition process than the mayor. But you get 30,000 people to put something on the ballot, you better be scared to death."
Perhaps there need not be a single, unifying voice among the anti-Blackwood faction, and perhaps there need not be a commanding, fashionable front man for their campaign--someone like Kirk, who insists his involvement will be limited to a handful of debates. Maybe it's not even that important for them to push the council's alternative. Perhaps it's merely enough that the naysayers confuse the voters enough to get them to vote "no" come May 7.
The mayor certainly seems to believe the vote-no campaign is having an effect: She says her early polls, taken around the beginning of the year, showed a 14-point gap between those for and against the Blackwood proposal, with Proposition 1 the clear favorite. But now her polls show a decidedly different race: One-third of the city's for Blackwood, one-third's against it, and the other third hasn't made up its mind. The Dallas Morning News' poll, released almost two weeks ago, shows slightly different numbers (about 40 percent for, 40 percent against, 20 percent undecided) but winds up with the same conclusion: It'll be tight for both sides. For the moment, the entire city appears to be forgainst the idea of a strong mayor.
"For Laura to say we're confusing people is so insulting," says Boyd, Miller's former ally when they opposed the use of public funds to build the American Airlines Center. "It's elitist to think people who can go to their jobs every morning and feed their kids and get them to school and pay their taxes are so easily misled. If there had been any confusion and misleading, it was done by the Blackwood crowd and the mayor initially. We have been able to get the true message out...People get it. They do understand this was done behind closed doors, and it's bad policy to do government that way."
Out in the open, the city council, with the behind-the-scenes prodding of Ron Kirk and the Citizens Council and others, has come up with its own alternative. Last week, all 14 members agreed to a proposal that would allow the mayor to hire and fire the city manager, with whom the mayor would also draft the city's annual budget. But their alternative is far from a done deal: The council will take a non-binding vote on the proposal April 13 and then work like hell to convince voters it's a stronger-mayor alternative as opposed to a dolled-up version of the same-ol'-same-ol', as Miller keeps insisting.
And then there's the problem of how the black council members will vote on their own alternative, since they know most of their constituents want to keep things just as they are. Better a seat at a messy table than a spot on the floor.
"In the African-American community," Shaw says, "we don't have everything we want, but we at least know the system. If we give it to somebody who has not been a friend of the African-American community, then chances are we won't get anything, and that's not an option for us. If you're looking at Blackwood from the position that one person controls virtually everything and you're not friendly to that person, where do you think we'll be?"
"Yeah," Shaw says. "But right now, our whole mission in life is to focus on defeating Blackwood. On May 8 this coalition will no longer exist. If there are others that want to form something else to push another agenda, they will do that."
"Now, we're not each other's best friends and won't be after this is done," says Boyd, whose Web site www.DallasArena.com catalogs a litany of disparaging nicknames for current council members and a former mayor with whom she now finds herself allied. There's James "Beat that Indictment" Fantroy, Maxine "Brain Dead" Thornton-Reese, Lois "Finkelwitch" Finkelman and, of course, "Con Jerk," her favorite pet name for Ron Kirk.
"Everyone was watching to see if we'd be polite," Boyd says, "and, of course, we are, because we're grown-ups."
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