If you were a Martian visiting Dallas for the first time, you might have trouble even believing how obscure the issues are in City Council elections here, as if we were always voting between one guy who ties his shoes left to right and another one who goes the other way. And I do admit, sometimes you need mining tools.
A candidate endorsement editorial in The Dallas Morning News this morning cites as one of its reasons the consistent refusal by the opposing candidate to take a position on a major urban highway that has already been approved by the voters twice and the City Council many times, that will probably never come back up for a vote and, oh, by the way, also will never be built because of astronomical costs. Let's see, what are we forgetting? Oh, yeah, if they did go ahead with it the road would be underwater twice a year, and the people in their cars would go glug-glug-glug.
So the guy won't take a position on a road that won't be built because people would go glug-glug-glug. And we care, because ...?
Because the News, in a bizarrely anomalous display of good thinking, is right this time. The refusal of District 14 candidate Bobby Abtahi to take a position on the Trinity River toll road is the one truly salient issue that shows what he's really all about, which is trying to cover up what he's really all about. The News says this morning, "Abtahi has continued to refuse to take a stand on the Trinity toll road ..." Then they endorse his opponent, Philip Kingston.
By the way, just to make everything even more Alice-in-Wonderlandy, Kingston, whom the News also endorsed in the May general election, takes a clear position on the toll road that is the opposite of everything the News' editorial page has fought for over the last 15 years. He's foursquare against the road. The newspaper is four-hundred-square for it. But they endorsed him anyway because at least he had the guts to say what he believes.
Abtahi won't do it. He will not say where he stands on the toll road. And, again, if the toll road is such a stupid non-issue anyway, why do we care what he refuses to say about it? Ah, well, time to don your mining helmet, Mr. Martian. There's real truth and significance buried in here somewhere, but we'll need picks and shovels.
District 14 used to be the old hippie gentrification re-do part of town, now heavily McMansioned and more sedate with every passing fiscal quarter. Property values have soared in recent years much to the amazement of the city's old moneybags elite, who always considered it a slum full of nutballs. As such, District 14 has seen many bitter political battles, sparked mostly by explosive friction between the district's cultural values and the worldview of City Hall. District 14 is diverse and wants to be walkable. City Hall, still dominated by the elite, still sees paradise as a George W cul-de-sac with a guard shack out front.
So the single most important issue in a District 14 council runoff election like the one we're going to have June 15 is worldview. Do you have a truly District 14 worldview? Or are you going to sneak into office and work for the cul-de-sac-ers?
So, OK, I know we're still excavating here, but aren't we getting a little closer to actual meaning? All right, now let me dig out two more shovelfuls here. District 14 hates the toll road. I could explain, but it would take too long.
Second shovelful: If you're working for the old elite, you cannot under any circumstances ever say you are against the toll road. Ever. And I pause now for a question.
Mr. Martian, you ask me: "If you've got a sub rosa agenda anyway, like sneaking into office as a kind of secret agent for the elite, why wouldn't you just lie and say you're against the toll road? It's not coming up for another vote anyway. It's glug-glug-glug. So just cross your fingers and do a little fibski."
I've got a surprise for you there, Marty, but I'm going to leave it to the end, or otherwise we'll never get to the end. The point now is that if you are secretly the handmaiden of the old elite, you cannot even fib and say you're against the toll road, because, even though that might be a rationally strategic move, this is not a strategic or rational issue. It's a religious issue. What religion? The Religion of Totally Crazy.
Yes. Crazy. Totally. The fanatical devotion of the old elite to the dream of an underwater toll road through downtown surpasseth all understanding and will guard their hearts and minds forever in glug-glug-glug.
A candidate who submitted to the interview process at the Dallas Citizens Council, the weird, private, quasi-fraternal organization with a scary name that is the high monastery of old elite belief, told me not for attribution that one of his/her interviewers described opposition to the toll road as "evil."
It's a highway. Or not. How do you get to the belief that opposition to a highway is "evil"? By being totally insane.
So here's the deal. We can find out easily if Abtahi is truly an agent for the old elite but doesn't want to say so for obvious reasons by asking him where he stands on the Trinity River toll road.
One more shovelful: It's not about the toll road. It's about whether the old elite has implanted a chip in his head.
So I met with Abtahi for a second time recently -- I write about this in my upcoming column in the paper this week -- and I asked him for a second time face-to-face where he stands on the toll road. Keep in mind, he already knows I think his refusal to answer the question directly is the single most important issue in the upcoming runoff election.
Here is his answer: "A lot of this, and I will admit, there are these feuds and these battles that have happened I guess over the last even maybe 30 years or 20 years that I wasn't a part of, and I'm not privy to. I see that as maybe the greatest thing that's holding our city back, that we have this, I don't know whether it's just, so-and-so doesn't like so-and-so because something happened 20 years ago. I see myself as kind of the next generation of leadership that is looking forward to things that matter and not re-hashing old wounds."
Stop. Thirty. That's it. That's his answer.
Now for my last shovelful, the surprise: I think he's opposed to the toll road. I can't tell you why, because it's based on information I received in off-the-record conversations with people who would know. But I'm pretty sure I'm right.
But that's not what's important here, Mr. Martian. The toll road question is not about the toll road question. It's about his inability to answer the toll road question and what that tells us about who's his daddy.
Let me toss out one last handful of iron ore here. In my second meeting with Abtahi, I realized that I really do like the guy. He's bright, personable, and I hope he has a future in city politics.
But he sold his ass this time. They own him. And even though they should be able to see what they're doing to him by refusing to let him answer this question, they will not let him wriggle off the hook. Why? Because they're totally crazy.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
So now, what to do? Should we feel sorry for Abtahi and vote for him out of pity? Well, you've got to really weigh what you think you can count on over the next two years from a guy who during the election couldn't even say out loud what he really believed, even though he knew not saying it was killing him.
Finally, very weirdly and shockingly, even The Dallas Morning News is right, even seeing that the toll road question is not about the toll road question. I happen to think that's intriguing. And so you see, Mr. Martian ...
Hey, where'd he go? I see an odd vapor trail in the sky above me. Oh, look, he left a note. "Sorry, looking for planet with better politics."
Oh, sure. Martian son of a bitch. He's in favor of the toll road, isn't he? I told you this was crazy crazy stuff.