The other day in the daily paper, there was an item of a type I call a bathroom-wall story. By bathroom wall, I mean you read it and sort of get what they’re getting at, but there’s a lot of context missing, and you’re not sure why you’re reading it anyway. In fact, you might even be a little embarrassed.
By the way, this is not meant as a criticism of our city’s only daily newspaper. Not in the least. The rules of highly professional daily newspaper objectivity, which are strict, do not allow the daily newspaper to explain to you what bathroom wall stories are really all about. That’s where we come in — the weekly. We do the dish.
Ostensibly, the story dealt with a discussion Wednesday by the Dallas City Council of an ethical lapse by member Philip Kingston. After Kingston was ordered out of the council chamber, council member Lee Kleinman called Kingston’s lapse “going too far” and said it was “just wrong,” according to a story in The Dallas Morning News by Tristan Hallman, who is an excellent reporter.
Council member Adam McGough wanted even more stringent penalties imposed on Kingston than what the council was already considering, calling Kingston’s act “reckless disregard.” The angriest denunciation, however, came from council member Dwaine Caraway. I’ll get to that in a moment. As always, we need to sneak up a little on Caraway.
So what did Kingston do? He shot somebody, right? Stole vast sums of money? Oh, my God, not a Harvey Weinstein? Philip Kingston shot somebody, stole huge sums of money and then did a Harvey Weinstein? It seems so out of character.
No. Not true. None of that is what he did. As Hallman explained in his story, Kingston posted on Faceboook a video of himself sitting at his desk in City Hall, asking people to come to a fundraiser. You had to be a super-sleuth with a magnifying glass, a cape and a cap with two bills to figure out where Kingston was when he made the Facebook post.
Such a two-billed super-sleuth was one Barry Jacobs, retired lawyer and political ally of the guy Kingston beat handily in a recent run for re-election. Jacobs was able to ferret out something in the background that told him Kingston was in City Hall when he made his Facebook post.
It’s against council ethics rules to use City Hall as a backdrop or location for political campaign ads. Candidates shouldn’t be able to trumpet the city’s public trademark or use City Hall itself as a political platform for campaigns.
By this rule, no candidate, incumbent or not, should ever be able to do what Caraway did in 2012 when he hosted a 90-minute campaign rally in City Hall’s ceremonial “flag room” outside the council chambers, during which he showed a 20-minute hero film about himself before clamorous calls from the invited crowd insisted that Caraway be returned to office forthwith. All reported by Hallman, by the way.
The city’s Ethics Advisory Commission missed that one. EAC never said a peep. EAC tends to miss a lot of things — hundreds of millions of dollars unaccounted for in the Housing Department, serious allegations of contracting fraud at Fair Park, years of egregious environmental depredation in the Trinity Forest — the kinds of things we might assume Kingston had to be guilty of, judging by what some council members said about him at the recent meeting.
In fact, there’s almost no way to overstate what EAC doesn’t even peek at. If EAC were Harvey Weinstein’s only judge and jury, I’m sure it would find that Weinstein had only been trying to guess those ladies’ weight.
But there also is no way to overstate what EAC can find when it wants to. EAC totally misses Caraway’s campaign rally in the flag room, but a two-billed campaign crony of a defeated candidate comes in with a microscopic analysis of a Facebook post to argue that a rule has been violated, and EAC cries EEK!
This is where we come to the bathroom wall part. What on earth is behind all this? Why in the world was there such a monumental fuss about such an obviously trivial matter? “Going too far”? “Obviously wrong”? “Reckless disregard”? For a Facebook post? Come on. What’s going on here?
A couple of months ago, some polling results were passed around town dealing with who has the best shot at being elected mayor in 2019 or sooner, if sitting Mayor Mike Rawlings decides to vacate the post before his term is up. Even with some effort, I was never able to establish the provenance of the poll, so I couldn’t vouch for its accuracy. Therefore, I did not report on its existence.
But I know that the poll, whoever did it, inspired a lot of interest and excitement. In the progressive community, there was excitement because the poll gave a pretty strong margin of success to a potential progressive candidate. Among current council member Scott Griggs, former council member Angela Hunt and Kingston, the progressives shared a broad advantage over several more traditional establishment candidates. In particular, the poll showed a progressive candidate trouncing any of these current council members: Caraway, McGough, Kleinman or Jennifer Gates.
For all the attention it got from the progressives, I have to think the poll drew even more intense scrutiny from the other side, especially from the embattled stalwarts of the private Dallas Citizens Council. The Citizens Council has been fighting for a decade to defend its shrinking influence against the growing incursions of the progressives. If the young progressives ever take over the city, the Citizens Council probably fears they’ll start campaigning for the Citizens Council to shed its name with the rest of the city’s Confederate memorabilia.
But the poll results, interesting as they may have been, were but a few more grains of sand in the hourglass. The process of change in the city is incremental but irresistible. For that reason, the old establishment has been laboring for the last several years to stave off change, they think, by dirtying up Griggs, Hunt and Kingston.
In fact, to put the great Facebook post scandal properly into context, please remember the great coercion scandal two years ago in which Griggs was charged with a felony for allegedly yelling at a city employee. The mayor and city attorney continued to press the case even after the chief of police told them no crime had been committed. They only desisted after the supposed victim signed a sworn affidavit saying none of what was charged had actually taken place.
Please note a certain blood trail here. The coercion case against Griggs was a lie, but it was invented by people eager to see him put in prison and ruined as a lawyer for the rest of his life, in order to make him look bad to voters.
The ethics case against Kingston may look less vicious because the weight and consequences of the charge are less severe. But here is where the two things are exactly equivalent: Both represent a political reflex to commit damaging personal assault on an opponent, rather than just get out into the public square and debate him or her on the public issues.
Look at it in the obverse. Even given what those three have been put through, I can’t imagine any of them, Griggs, Hunt or Kingston, ever dealing with their opponents in the same way. They just wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t dream up a fake corruption charge to dirty up an opponent in front of the voters.
I don’t think it’s in them. They’re not that kind of people. But guess what else. I also don’t think they think they have to stoop. I think they believe that eventually they will supplant the old guard strictly on the issues. Why crawl if you can get there standing up?
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Oh, yes, Caraway. Everybody sort of loves Caraway, in spite of himself, because he has a kind of wonderful, unintentional candor. At the recent council meeting, Caraway confessed his real reason for wanting to see Kingston found guilty of a breach of ethics: Caraway was angry, he said, because Kingston had led the fight to slash a proposed budget item for the establishment and furnishing of new regional City Council offices at a cost of many hundreds of thousands of tax dollars.
Caraway wanted a new office in his district, paid for by the city. Kingston and Griggs thought regional offices were a waste of money. This kind of giveaway is typical, by the way, of the patronage the old establishment has always used to buy minority votes on the council. So, Caraway accused Kingston of …
Yeah, well, it was all right there, posted on the bathroom wall the next day … well, I mean in The Dallas Morning News: “Official Rebuke Handed Down”!
Yowza! The only thing it didn’t say was what it was about. So now you know. And very conveniently, it’s printed on paper.