The Elite Eight, or: Get Your Mayoral Brackets Ready!

Edward Okpa: If you aren't gonna take him seriously as a mayoral candidate, then we will. Of course, look what happened to the last guy bestowed that particular honor.

On Tuesday the Northwood Republican Women's Club hosted a mayoral debate at a Luby's on Hampton Road. OK, not so much. Actually, the group located their forum in their natural habitat at the Bent Tree Country Club in a posh neighborhood in North Dallas, where the middle-aged females sat in a large, earth-toned dining room huddled around oval tables decorated with balloons.

The forum was relatively uneventful, if largely useless -- right up Unfair Park's alley. Candidates introduced themselves and later answered randomly selected questions pulled from a box. Most of the queries were either vague or irrelevant to the candidate's potential abilities, tending to reflect hot-button, Bill O'Reilly-type issues, including one asking the candidate's opinion on the local judge who ruled that a lender failed to properly communicate with a debtor in her native Spanish. Of course, a Dallas mayor can't do a thing about a judge's decision, and whoever the questioner was had to know that. Most likely she just wanted to vent.

If the forum included some highlights, they were unintentional. I left right after the conclusion of the debate, and who did I see a few steps ahead of me? Don Hill, the African-American favorite who probably figured that time spent trying to court the vote of a North Dallas Republican woman could be put to better use. So he took off in his BMW, which, as we all know by now, he's earned the right to drive. This is as good a time as any to point out that the silver sedan isn't exactly James Bond's BMW-- more like an older, bulkier model dating back to the time when the German automaker seemed like they were trying to copy the Honda Accord.

Anyhow, the mayor's race is no longer in its early stages; for some, it has already ended. With less than two months to go, here's the first-ever Unfair Park unofficial, unscientific and unreliable ranking of the top eight most electable candidates. As always, we reserve the right to be completely and indisputably wrong.

1) Don Hill: There are a lot of ifs with Hill, but if the FBI investigation remains a minor issue -- and I haven't heard a candidate bring it up so far -- and if state Senator Royce West works hard on his behalf, he has to be the front runner. Hill's been extremely impressive in every forum I've been to, able to split the difference between showing off a vision and displaying a knowledge on the mundane inner-workings of local government. Plus, with all the contested council races in the southern sector, his base will turn out.

2) Max Wells: He's growing on me a little. Just a little. At the first forum, hosted by the Dallas Police Association, he seemed grumpy, tired and sad, like when he refers to himself in the third person. In his mailers he doesn't look a day over 90. Unlike my more esteemed peers at The Dallas Morning News, I think Wells' age -- he's 73 -- can be an issue, not because he was born in the 1930s, although that doesn't help, but because his style and mannerisms seem a little antiquated. He's very much a traditional politician, prone to sucking up to whatever audience is before him.

But Wells seems to be sharpening his message, and the former North Dallas council member has a ton of support in the southern sector -- including from some of the black council members who served with him 10 to 15 years back. That means something. These are guys who can turn out the vote for Wells. Still, I'm conflicted. He hasn't come close to winning the three debates I've seen. Let's just move on.

3) Gary Griffith: People smarter than me have Jordan, Leppert and Oakley ahead of him. But if you care about what's behind my "thought process," here it is: In a low turnout race, I just have to give this spot to a council member who has a natural base over relatively unknown candidates who have never held office. Griffith is beloved in his White Rock Lake-area district, where he is known for being a very responsive, meticulous representative. He's smart and thoughtful but lacks the commanding presence of some of his rivals. He seems to get overshadowed at some of these forums. If he has enough money and can stay on people's radar, he can position himself as a candidate with some political experience who is not too tied to the usual way of doing things at City Hall -- sort of a cross between Hill/Oakley and Leppert/Jordan.

4) and 5) -- or is that, 5) and 4)? -- Tom Leppert and Darrell Jordan: Leppert has money and a great resume and some Southern sector support to go with his natural base of fans in the business community. He's starting to look a little more relaxed at these forums, but people I talk to think that someone with no experience in politics will have a hard time beating a crowded field full of veterans. Others though say that the very polished, pro-business Leppert is the prohibitive favorite. So take from that what you will.

As for Darrell Jordan, at the only two debates that have mattered so far, the ones hosted by the realtors and the police, Jordan has probably won them both. He's very impressive in person and is the second-wittiest candidate in the race, after Sam Coats. But doesn't it seems like Jordan and Leppert will cut into each other's support among business-friendly North Dallas types?

6) Ed Oakley: Some people put him a lot higher, but I'm not feeling it. Again, all the usual caveats apply: I'm not particularly smart, I'm often wrong on these things, and I bought my first suit three months ago. So if you're an Oakley supporter, don't lose a moment of sleep at this unofficial ranking. Other people would probably put him in the top three. He's a well-known, influential council member with billboards all over the city. He has supporters among blacks and Hispanics in the southern sector and gays in Oak Lawn, all of whom could be form a reliable base in a low turnout election.

But I think his unyielding support of the Trinity River Project and his frequently stated dismay over losing the Cowboys will put him at odds with the nuts-and-bolts voters who may prefer someone like Griffith or Coats. Meanwhile, the big-project business crowd will seem more likely to scatter between Jordan and Leppert. Finally, at these debates he often has trouble articulating any type of vision, opting instead to explain the workings of the Dallas City Council as if he were giving us an exclusive glimpse of a glorious institution as opposed to the slippery, arbitrary one that that we currently have.

7) Sam Coats: The most intriguing candidate in the race and the only front runner -- if you can call coming it at No. 7 a front runner -- to express grave reservations about the Trinity River Project. (Jordan only comes close.) Self-effacing and witty, Coats is playing up his Democratic roots at a time when his party has taken control of the county. He stands out among the front runners for almost never giving pre-fab answers. Although he's a long-time corporate executive, Coats may represent the business community's biggest fear, since he'll take a business position -- and not a missionary one -- when developers come for tax breaks. I can't think of anything bad to say about him, although I'll try harder in the weeks ahead -- especially if his sitting on the TXI board becomes an issue, and, if what we're hearing is true, it just might in coming days. Let's go with this for now: I don't know how much money he'll be able to raise, nor do I see how a rather soft-spoken, unknown candidate can separate himself from a crowded pack.

8) Edward Okpa: A Nigerian-born developer who helped seal a $50-million project on Main Street, Okpa is a fun, smart voice at these forums, serving as a needed respite from the white, middle-aged front runners and the 7-year year incumbent Don Hill. He has the resume to be mayor of a city like Dallas, having enjoyed both a successful real estate and civic career, but till now, at least, The Dallas Morning News paid the unremarkable, not-a-candidate-no-more Zac Crain far more attention. That had best change. Pronto. --Matt Pulle