A Paranoid Theory About the May Bond Vote That You Should Embrace

Mayor Mike Rawlings (right) said last week he opposes a May bond election because his friends who typically support bond elections "will not be writing those checks."
Mayor Mike Rawlings (right) said last week he opposes a May bond election because his friends who typically support bond elections "will not be writing those checks."
Eric Nicholson
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As I see it, I don’t just have a tendency to be paranoid. It’s my job — a nasty one sometimes, but somebody’s got to do it.

I am still sort of obsessed with a completely inscrutable move last week by a majority of the City Council, pushed by the mayor, to kill the May bond election. The election would be about basic stuff — streets, sidewalks and parks — and not, for once, about using tax money to bankroll some crazy silk stocking boondoggle.

In fact, the day after the vote last week, that was my paranoid theory: The mayor doesn’t want the city to run up its credit card on basic infrastructure because he and the Park Cities posse have some other World’s-Biggest-Ball-of-String public works absurdity up their sleeves again, something they’re not quite ready to unveil. So they want to hold off and stick whatever it is on a bond election in November.

What keeps me awake at night is not the worry that I might be a little paranoid but that I’m probably not being paranoid enough. Last week, for example, after I had already written my piece speculating that the Park Cities posse must have some new project up its sleeve, I woke up asking myself: “But why November? What is it about November? If it’s the Trinity toll road or some other boondoggle they have in mind, why would it make such a huge difference to put the bond election off by a mere five months?”

Hmm. I’m not sure it would. That’s what I mean about not paranoid enough. My theory feels like it’s a half-quart low. Delaying the bond election by five months doesn’t really move the dial enough to be commensurate with the kind of very long fuse they typically attach to these really big boondoggles.

The Trinity toll road, for example — a proposed multi-lane expressway on top of the Trinity River through downtown — is a boondoggle they’ve been trying to get done for decades. If they were going to play with the bond election date to help that poor dog, they’d have to delay it at least five years until after the Chinese debt matures and they take over the country. The Chinese might like that toll road better than we taxpayers do.

No, I decided, lying there in the night, it has to be something more specific about November. So what is it?

We talked last week about the reasons the mayor and his supporters on the council cited for not doing it in May, none of which made even superficial sense. The mayor, for example, said one his reasons was that the bond rating agencies keep knocking down the city’s credit rating.

True. But as City Council member Philip Kingston pointed out, one of the big reasons they keep knocking down our bond rating, as the ratings agencies have said very plainly each time in their reports, is that we haven’t kept up our streets. So the mayor’s answer is to put off keeping them up?

At the hearing on it last week, Kingston put Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan through some paces on the rate at which the streets turn to rubble. Under Kingston’s close questioning, Jordan conceded that the city does two different things, fix streets and totally replace streets.

Every month that goes by without a vigorous repair program in place, more streets deteriorate out of the condition that can still be repaired and into the condition that requires total reconstruction.

The absolute zaniest reason offered last week for not getting a bond passed in May came from Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, who said that there wasn’t enough money in the proposed bond package for streets, therefore we shouldn’t vote for any money at all for streets. Rough translation: “Children, I am worried that I don’t have enough food for your dinner, so I have decided not to give you any food at all.”

Now, listen. It’s OK for you to poke fun at paranoia. We paranoid people are used to it. But you should also give us a little credit. We recognize crazy when we see it. In fact we have a secret salute that we do when we pass each other, but I’m not allowed to tell you about that.

After Gates spoke, City Council member Scott Griggs said the obvious thing that is not crazy. He said if not enough of the money in the proposed $800 million bond package is devoted to streets, then the solution is to devote more of the money in the package to streets. Not kill the package.

Griggs’ words had the effect of highlighting the basic craziness of what Gates had said. Yes. If not enough, then more. Not none.

Paranoia 101: Generally speaking, when people say something transparently crazy but you don’t think they are crazy themselves — and I don’t for a minute think Gates is crazy — it means they have something else up their sleeves. But if the move to kill the May bond election is not a move to facilitate some other big as yet unannounced bond project, then what is it?

The private Dallas Citizens Council and other friends of the mayor who write checks to support bond elections tend to embrace bond proposals that include things they can understand, like a Super Mario bridge for their own shopping mall.
The private Dallas Citizens Council and other friends of the mayor who write checks to support bond elections tend to embrace bond proposals that include things they can understand, like a Super Mario bridge for their own shopping mall.
Dallas Observer

Obsessing about that meeting over the weekend, I finally remembered something else Kingston had said at the hearing. He said based on the historical record, a November election would attract a different electorate to the polls than will show up for the May council elections: “The voters who voted for instance in November of 2015 were 65 percent Republican, very out of step with the actual electorate of the city of Dallas.”

It’s an interesting theory, and I talked it around a bit to people who help me with my paranoia. Some of them said that taking the bond proposal out of the May council election definitely would change that election, because it would deprive it of its one citywide question.

On the other hand, scheduling a citywide election in November might open another door. And here, I am relieved to say, I have lots of company. Many people think Mayor Mike Rawlings will leave office before his second term ends in 2019, mainly because that has been the pattern for establishment mayors in the past. They typically like to pass the post to an anointed successor, so they want to leave in a way that doesn’t toss the hat out into messy general ring of things.

If Kingston is right about electorates, a special election in November to consider the bond and to replace a departing mayor would put the mayor’s post to voters who are more conservative and less progressive than some of the candidates who could be expected to vie against a candidate anointed by the old establishment.

This does happen to be the first moment when reasonable non-paranoid people can look at what’s been going on in the last couple of years and predict that a progressive candidate might even prevail. Is that a sugar-plum vision that dances only in the dreams of the progressives? Or do the mossbacks of the private Dallas Citizens Council see it, too? After all, the mossback types can afford not just dreams but polling. So what is the polling telling them?

Some of the folks I checked in with pointed to a political consequence of putting off the May bond vote that may be significant whether a new mayor must be elected in November or not. They suggested I should not entirely abandon my initial paranoia about the nature of the bond proposal.

It’s a “meat-and-potatoes” bond. It doesn’t have the kind of bells and whistles the old guard gets enthusiastic about — the public works boondoggles that benefit their development deals.

Lots of people were creeped out by the mayor’s remarks at the hearing to the effect that he was against the May bond election because he had been told to oppose it by the people “who write the checks” for bond election campaigns. Many listeners took those remarks to be an unintentionally candid description of how things really work, and how they should not. The establishment may not want its most staunch supporters on the council to have to fight a bond proposal on the ballot in May when they are running for re-election. North Dallas members Lee Kleinman and Gates, for example, represent districts where voters are frenzied in their hunger for street repairs and other infrastructure. They are both popular in their districts, but maybe they could be defeated by pro-street-repair upstarts.

At any rate at the end of the day and in the pit of my paranoia, I feel safe saying that the mayor’s stated reasons for his opposition to the May bond vote make no sense at all. I actually don’t think it’s paranoid to suspect something else may be afoot. It’s common sense. I suggest we all keep looking for it and watching out for each other. I will do the salute if you will.

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