Absentee Minded

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Here's an offer you can't refuse: For less than $12,000 paid to the right people, you can buy the early and absentee ballot vote in eight precincts in Southern Dallas--just enough votes, it turns out, to win you a $125 million taxpayer subsidy for your new sports arena or a $246 million city bond issue for your next big public-works construction job.

On November 6, when the 2012 Olympics referendum arrives, a similar handful of precincts could yield the margin of victory for a venture that will provide taxpayer guarantees for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of private development.

Wouldn't you pay?

Dallas kids itself that it doesn't have machine politics. Dallas politics, in fact, are a gumball machine, with big prizes obtainable for pennies.

The key to the Dallas machine, as with any machine, is disciplined voters: voters who can be counted on to turn out and vote the way their leaders tell them. Those voters in Dallas happen to be African-American--not white, not Mexican-American.

But it would be a grave error to assume that only black people play machine politics or that the machinery is even especially beneficial to African-Americans. The Dallas system has become a pay-to-play game, and often the very people who wag fingers and accuse black campaigns of corruption are out there on the sly trying to make the same gumball machine work for them.

Like most people who follow local politics, I have been generally aware for at least the last five years, since the beginning of the campaigns for the downtown sports arena referendum in January 1998, that a certain system seemed to be in place. After the arena subsidy passed by a hair's breadth and again the following summer when the Trinity River bond proposal squeaked through, all the usual local analysts pronounced that Southern Dallas had carried the day.

It always seemed an odd alliance to me--African-American voters in some of the city's poorest precincts and the zillionaire developers who seek major public subsidies for their private-gain ventures. But I really had no idea just how odd the whole arrangement was until a recent series of events brought me face to face with my own naïveté.

You will forgive me: I'm a columnist, which is a subset of reporter. And in order to get to the meat of this business, I have to do a little mea culpa.

Just after the June 2 Dallas City Council runoff election, I wrote columns reporting that workers in the Dwaine Caraway campaign had engaged in an unscrupulous absentee voter effort. While that is certainly true, I now know that I missed a very important balancing side of this story.

Texas law is very loose on absentee voting. It is not against the law for a campaign worker to show up at someone's doorstep the day a mailed absentee ballot arrives from the county elections department, urge a voter to vote for a candidate and then "assist" him in filling out his ballot.

Toward the end of last May, in the waning moments of the Dwaine Caraway-Ed Oakley runoff for District 6, City Councilwoman Laura Miller called me up in a huge lather: She told me that Dwaine Caraway was "going to steal this election with the absentee vote."

District 6 is a long skinny kite, anchored in Southwest Oak Cliff, stretching up through West Dallas almost to the city's northwest corner. According to the 2000 census, District 6 is 44 percent black, 39 percent Latino and 15 percent white. The politics of District 6 tend to be driven by North Oak Cliff, Dallas' own Jerusalem, where various ethnicities choose to live close to each other and not get along.

Miller told me there were 1,600 absentee ballots out there hovering in the political ozone, mailed out by the county but not yet voted on and mailed back. She said those 1,600 ballots were being ginned up by the Caraway campaign in order to illegally pad the vote for Caraway on election day.

In addition, thousands more applications for absentee ballots were walking out the door of the county elections department every day--boxes of them--under the arms of paid operatives. Caraway, Miller said, was using political hacks to scam absentee votes from elderly people in African-American neighborhoods.

Caraway's opponent Oakley, a white, openly gay man, had won the endorsement of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the black community's most influential leader, who also happens to be a way-back sworn enemy of Caraway. Caraway, meanwhile, was believed to have offended Latino voters with some off-the-cuff remarks on a black cable TV show about too many Mexicans moving into the 'hood.

Miller's fear was that Oakley would win the vote on election day but lose the election in the final count because of the bales of scammed absentee ballots that Caraway's operatives would deliver at the very last minute. To Miller's great frustration, she said, Oakley was refusing to counter the Caraway effort.

I called Oakley soon afterward, and he confirmed to me what Miller had said: People were urging him to go out and scrape up absentee votes of his own to counter the Caraway effort, but he just wouldn't do it. He told me he had campaigned on the up and up; he thought absentee efforts were scummy; and he wasn't going to go there, even if it meant losing.

I walked the streets of District 6. The voters I interviewed told me terrible tales of political operatives showing up at their houses and pressuring them to turn over their ballots. They said the operatives all wanted them to vote for Dwaine Caraway.

But there was this mystery: When I asked the same elderly black voters who they really wanted to vote for, they all said, "Dwaine Caraway." I wasn't able to figure out at the time why people were being railroaded into voting for the man they already wanted to vote for. Now I know.

One end of the story here is that Oakley won. He beat Caraway soundly, by 748 votes out of about 5,000 in the June 2 runoff.

But there is another end. In losing the overall vote, Caraway also lost the absentee vote. The county elections department is still unable to provide a precise tally, but Oakley appears to have taken about 60 percent of the absentee vote.

That raises an obvious question: If Dwaine Caraway, that bad, bad man, was out on the street with this huge absentee vote effort that Laura Miller was all jacked out of shape about, why did Ed Oakley beat him in the absentee count?

Here is what I missed: Ed Oakley, that nice, nice man, beat Caraway in the absentee vote because the really sophisticated absentee ballot effort--a clever computer-assisted use of lists, voting histories and election materials timed to coincide with a long weekend when county election officials would be off on holiday--was Ed Oakley's absentee campaign.

That's right. Oakley's absentee campaign.

The thousands of ballot applications walking out the door of county elections headquarters in the last weeks of the campaign were carried out by the Oakley campaign. Operatives working for Oakley had mounted an absentee effort that was good enough to pull the rug from beneath the Caraway operatives.

And that's what all the frenzy was about: The Caraway operatives were in a panic when they showed up to collect the old folks' ballots, because Oakley's crew had been there ahead of them.

Caraway insists that he never sanctioned an absentee effort and that if one took place, it was a rogue campaign carried out without his moral or financial support. Oakley says basically the same thing. So on the issue of whether they accept responsibility for the efforts of their own campaigns, we have a draw.

Both plead ignorance.

Nothing in my July 7 column about the Caraway effort, "The Real Cheaters," was factually incorrect. I stand by every word. But the fact that Oakley's effort happened at all, and that I wrote my columns about that bad, bad Dwaine Caraway without even knowing that the nice, nice Ed Oakley's campaign had done its own absentee effort, puts a big tall pointed dunce cap on my head. With twinkle stars on it.

I'm glad this happened, because in the process of working my way toward the truth about the Caraway-Oakley absentee ballot shuffle, I discovered a much larger reality, one that shapes the politics of the entire city. The manipulation of African-American early in-person voting and absentee by-mail voting is a major element in the way all citywide elections are won in Dallas.

It's why the taxpayers gave $125 million to the promoters of a new arena downtown. It's why we have a multibillion-dollar eight-lane freeway project in the Trinity River bottoms where we were supposed to have sailboats. It's why the city is going to vote YES on the 2012 Olympics in a citywide referendum November 6.

The reality is that the early vote in majority-black precincts in Southern Dallas is the city's only disciplined vote. Especially in citywide elections on issues that are not entwined in the internal politics of the black community, the Southern Dallas African-American vote has a history of responding obediently to the call of leadership.

Carol Reed, the political consultant who runs Mayor Ron Kirk's campaigns, who runs all of the big citywide referendums for the business establishment and who will probably run the Olympics campaign, is keenly aware of the value of the Southern Dallas early vote.

Reed, whose firm collects a $2,000-a-month retainer from the mayor (down from $4,000 a month two years ago), works from a stylish suite of offices above McKinney Avenue. She's a Californian who can have a strong sense of humor, but today, sitting at a conference table, she lays out the early vote question in strictly businesslike tones:

"In big referendums, I run a strong early vote program. This is no different from any kind of business you're running. In marketing, you go where you have the biggest chance of getting a yes vote."

Reed, who directed the campaign of the city's first black mayor, bristles at the suggestion that there is something wrong with pitching hard to the black community on projects like the arena, the river or the Olympics. "Basically, what it is now is that we are in a city where you have to campaign all over the city."

She suggests obliquely that the forces who were opposed to the arena and the river deal and who will be opposed to the Olympics referendum don't ever get black votes because they never campaign in Southern Dallas.

It's an interesting contention, worth examining more closely. In a long, up-and-down telephone chat, Sharon Boyd, the Web-page gadfly who was a principal leader of the anti-arena campaign in late 1997, angrily denies Reed's charge.

Boyd and I speak often. We're phone friends. She tells me that her anti-arena campaign wasn't able to attract black supporters because all but a very few of the black people who responded to her call for volunteers wanted money.

"They all wanted to be paid, and we didn't have the money to pay them."

She says her white volunteers were not about to walk the streets of Southern Dallas. "Some of these houses are houses you don't feel real comfortable going up to," she said. "The white volunteers are not going to go."

That's a wobbly way to defend against a charge of racism. But the fact is that people experienced in Dallas politics, both black and white, tend to support some of what Boyd claims.

When I asked if the white opponents of the big-ticket projects shouldn't come to Southern Dallas to argue for their ideas, longtime African-American political activist Sandra Crenshaw laughed at me. If they come, she suggested they bring their money, not their ideas.

"The leadership responds to money," she said. "Sorry."

Crenshaw describes the political system of Southern Dallas as an apparatus left behind when the last white Jim Mattox labor-left Democrat left town. Deprived of a philosophical or partisan base, exploited on issues like a fancy new sports arena with little immediate relation to the lives of elderly black voters, and taken over by people who depend on it for their livelihoods, the machine is more a business than a political organization. Crenshaw suggested that my idea of white people coming south to preach their philosophies was naïve.

"Some white people have tried what you're talking about. [Political consultant] Lorlee Bartos has gone on out there and tried to do what you're talking about, but she gets beat up so bad, called a bitch and run out of the community, that I don't think she wants to come back. You're messin' with people's money, honey."

Bartos, who ran Annette Strauss' campaign for mayor in 1989 (Strauss won with 73 percent of the vote), also helped the anti-river bond forces in 1998. In an interview in her East Dallas living room a few blocks from majority-black neighborhoods, she confirms some of what Crenshaw has told me.

"I was called a racist because I wouldn't pay walking-around money. I remember what I was told by people in the Strauss campaign. They said, 'It's simple. You just write a check and send it to the preachers.' But I refused to do it, and for that I was called a racist."

People at the top of the pecking order put money into Southern Dallas politics through the use of middlemen. Unfortunately, almost no financial records of the arena or river campaigns exist today because the city rushed to destroy them soon after the elections, using an exception in the law that allows purely municipal election records to be destroyed much sooner than in elections where there is any state or federal issue. But by looking at other elections where records have been preserved, the pattern emerges.

The main conduit for funds to Southern Dallas in all elections is political consultant Kathy Nealy, who has been a mainstay of Mayor Ron Kirk's campaigns, for example. I asked Carol Reed, Kirk's campaign guru, what Nealy does for those campaigns.

Reed smiled and said, "Ask Kathy Nealy."

I asked Kathy Nealy, who gave me a genial answer about "grassroots community-based organizing." So I asked specifically about the $29,790 the Kirk campaign paid her for "Election Day Expense" in 1999.

It turns out election day expense is the traditional "walking-around money" that Bartos had refused to pay. Nealy told me it's a legitimate and necessary part of campaigning in Southern Dallas.

"Election day expense is a little different in our community," Nealy said. "You have what they call card-pushers, handing out literature, who have to be out there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You have to pay people to go door to door, and you also have to pay poll watchers to be at various locations." (Poll watchers are monitors for a candidate or group. They stand and watch the process inside a polling place, but they are not the people who sit at the table and check voters off on a signature sheet.)

At what I am told is a typical pay rate of about $100 for a 12-hour shift, the money paid to Nealy for Kirk's 1999 election day expense would have funded an army of almost 300 people on election day alone.

When the 1998 Trinity River bond campaign came along, an older and wiser Bartos says there was one reason and one reason alone why the mainly white opposition element didn't go south much with its campaign.

"We didn't have the money," she says. "It's that simple."

In spite of all that, experienced activists in the black community say black voters can't help coming to certain conclusions when they never see the white anti-establishment forces show up in their neighborhoods.

Longtime Southern Dallas political consultant Jan Gore, who worked for the pro-arena forces, says the white people who have opposed the big-ticket referendums, typified by Boyd, don't get black votes because black voters interpret their absence as fear and their fear as racism.

"You can't be afraid to come into the black community and expect to get black votes," Gore says on the telephone. "One of the best-kept secrets is that you can come into the community, and nobody's going to cook you for dinner."

Reed wins Southern Dallas, Gore says, because Reed shows, whether it's through Kathy Nealy or someone else.

"Carol Reed knows what she's doing."

Everybody in this business has at least two edges on his or her sword. Jan Gore is no exception. While she believes the black vote in Southern Dallas must be respectfully courted, her own respect for it has limits.

In Southern Dallas, especially among the elderly citizens who constitute almost all of the early vote, Gore sees voters who are too tractable, too meek in their obedience, not brave or rebellious enough--a phenomenon she attributes to the city's history of plantation politics.

"One of the things I have said from the '60s is that every big city that the civil rights movement passed by has struggled from that point on. It's like wandering in the desert for 40 years. If we had had a strong Birmingham-type civil rights movement and burned down two or three things, we would probably be better off today."

The point Jan Gore wants me to get is that the elderly black absentee vote is either a buried treasure capable of carrying you to victory or a land mine capable of blowing your legs off, depending on who you are and where you step.

Different people, of course, see different blocs. Reed objects to the characterization of the black elderly vote as the city's only solid, reliable bloc.

"Nobody says anything about [former council member] Donna Blumer's [far northwest] district being the big 'anti' voter base," Reed says. "The people I see coming from that base are mostly white, very angry and, I think, very cynical. They come out in droves."

But that base, Gore argues, operates from its own inchoate, restless, vaguely irrational inner push--frustration over city services, a sense that City Hall is crooked, that they're giving away the store to Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks, all of this perhaps spiced with a seasoning of racism directed against the mayor and black council members.

The point is, you can predict North Dallas. What white leaders such as Laura Miller tend to do, Gore says, is put their fingers in the air, guess which way North Dallas is moving and then go get in front of it.

What makes the black early vote trickier is that on some issues, especially on "white people" issues like the arena about which few elderly people in Southern Dallas really give a rat's tail, the elderly black vote can be turned on a dime by leadership. Especially when someone knows how to pluck the harp of the city's deeply entrenched plantation politics, the elderly black vote can be used to protect the big-ticket gang (the sports team owners, the public-works contractors, The Dallas Morning News) from the angry middle-class white vote.

The numbers involved may seem minuscule at first glance--a few hundred here, a few hundred there--but these figures grow more formidable when stacked against the steep odds the big-ticket promoters must overcome in order to push their projects to victory. Even Carol Reed describes the 1998 yes vote on a city tax subsidy for the arena as an extreme squeaker that she pulled off only by generating voter turnout on election day.

"Going into election day," she says now, "I was a dead person."

The backers of the new arena--mainly the sports team owners who stood to reap $125 million in tax subsidies from the city--spent $2 million on the election, against $80,000 raised by the anti-arena camp. For that, they lost the white vote by 14 percentage points and the Latino vote by 12 points. But they won the black vote by 56 points.

Even though whites voted at twice the rate of non-whites, the math at the end of the day gave the team owners their $125 million by an incredibly narrow margin of 1,642 votes out of 124,118 votes cast.

Before I talked to Jan Gore about the absentee campaign for Ed Oakley, I went back through the arena election and put some of the numbers into a simple spreadsheet. Like a geologist's seismograph, the spreadsheet looks beneath the jigsaw surface of the city's 760 voter precincts and shows the outline of a mother lode.

Beginning just south of Fair Park and running due south to Corinth, Southerland, Ledbetter and Simpson-Stuart roads, through council districts 7, 4, 5 and 8 (Chaney, Thornton-Reese, Hill and Fantroy), are 11 magic precincts where the early vote alone contributed more than 1,400 votes--almost 90 percent of the margin of victory. Early vote includes both mail-in ballots and votes by people who show up in person at early voting centers. The official count does not separate the two.

But both the mail-in and the walk-in votes in Southern Dallas are very orchestrated, operatives agree. Voters tend to expect help either with the mail-in ballot or a ride to the early voting place.

In those 11 mother lode precincts, 80 percent or more of the registered voters are African-American, and 90 percent of those who voted early voted in favor of the arena.

In the arena election, there were no 80-percent-plus Hispanic precincts that produced early yes votes. There was one 80 percent or higher white precinct: It produced exactly one early yes vote.

The black organized precincts are where the votes are. In Precinct 3515, for example, in the crook of South Central Expressway where old South Dallas runs into the Bonton area, almost 8 percent of the precinct's 1,500 voters voted early, delivering 217 votes in favor of the arena--about 13 percent of the total victory margin. One fine morning recently, I took a walking tour down Colonial Avenue, which runs down the spine of Precinct 3515.

This is homeowner and longtime-resident country. Squeezed between old two-story houses are brand-new ones being offered at $120,000. Lots of old people live here. I walked a list of addresses I got from the county showing every house on Colonial where someone had received a ballot by mail in the recent June 2 city council election. At each house, I said, "This is none of my business, but when you vote by mail, who picks up your ballot?"

Lewis Bizzell was out front on a metal chair, surrounded by old tires and some kind of machinery parts. He gave me a gap-toothed smile through a mask of wrinkles and said, "Well, you said you were a reporter. I guess that's your job, asking people what's none of your business."

He told me the same thing most people on Colonial told me. His ballots are picked up by "Felicia."

Doesn't know her last name. I do.

Felicia picks up those ballots like clockwork, at the home of Beulah Mae Cain, the home of Vernia Mae Ellis, the home of Allen Baston, at almost all of the houses up and down Colonial where elderly people vote by mail.

You may actually know Felicia a little bit yourself. In a terrific story on ballot fraud in The Dallas Morning News three weeks after the city council runoff, Scott Parks reported how the woman known only as Felicia had run off with a blind lady's ballot. The blind lady wasn't even sure she had voted yet when Felicia took her ballot and disappeared.

Later the lady's ballot was not counted because an official election committee determined that an apparent forgery had taken place on some of the paperwork.

Felicia is Felicia Petrie. I have not met her, in spite of trying for a month. I called many times and left messages with her co-workers. I even went to her office to try to find her but was met by her boss instead. Petrie works for Democratic state Representative Terri Hodge, who confirmed to me that her employee was the "Felicia" of Parks' story.

Hodge is on the state elections committee. She is a major power whenever the subject of absentee vote reform comes up in Austin. She also works as a paid political consultant in charge of absentee vote campaigns. For example, she picked up $4,000 from the James Fantroy campaign in the recent council elections.

I suspect that Felicia had nothing to do with forging a signature on the blind lady's ballot envelope. Why? Because now I know how you do this stuff. If you send the county a stack of applications for absentee ballots on which you have forged voters' names, you make photocopies of all your apps. When you go out to collect the ballots, you shuffle your photocopies into walking order.

Every time you hit a house, you look at your copy of the application. If you see that you forged a signature on that app, you know that you have to get the ballot away from the voter unsigned, so that you can forge a matching signature on the ballot envelope.

A master in this business who spoke to me on a strict not-for-attribution basis theorized that Felicia allowed the blind lady to sign her own ballot because Felicia must not have had a copy of the forged app.

"She's a seasoned worker," my source said. "She wouldn't make that mistake."

The larger point here is that a tiny handful of very organized precincts in black Southern Dallas can generate the margin of victory in a major citywide referendum, and they can do it in response to the direct prompting of a tiny coterie of black leaders.

Another master of Dallas early voting efforts who was willing to speak to me on condition that his name not appear in a story explained the inner commerce of early voting and choice precincts like the ones I had found with my spreadsheet. Over the years, he said, individual operatives have staked out their "personal" precincts where they send in applications to vote at home for people, then visit the people and assist them in voting, then either mail the ballots for the people or take them to be stockpiled at a central location.

"You have certain people who have done certain precincts for many years," he said. "There are groups of people who do this, and everybody knows that a certain precinct belongs to so-and-so."

It's a version of things that was repeated and confirmed to me over and over again by people familiar with the process. Tony Garrett, who often works for state Representative and former city Councilman Domingo Garcia, told me of operatives he knows who send fruit baskets and Christmas cards to their regular voters.

The term of art here is "vote" as a transitive verb, as in "Felicia votes the people on Colonial Avenue." Some of the operatives best known for "voting" people in specific precincts are ferociously possessive of their turf and proud of their work.

Representative Hodge, who dips her shoulders and jabs with one hand like a welterweight when she's mad, met me at her office in a restored one-story '30s-looking commercial building near Baylor hospital. I think her eyes were beginning to get shiny when she told me, "I will carry the election law book in my car, and until the law changes and says it is illegal to vote senior citizens at home, I will be voting them."

So the prime precincts are there. And somebody is going to "vote" them.

Jan Gore says that's the point that Ed Oakley, for whom she worked in the council runoff, didn't seem to get. If you run in black Dallas, you cannot afford to ignore the organized precincts.

Gore says: "The fear is, who is going to vote these people?"

You or your opponent. Somebody pushes the button. In fact, because of the money involved, there may be people out there trying to gather up absentee ballots long before the candidate has had time even to think about it.

One bright morning, I go to the catalog section of the central library, the preferred meeting place of a former city council member, political consultant and force majeure, Sandra Crenshaw. I ask that we remove our meeting to a table upstairs in the Humanities Department, because all of the loony tunes on the first floor are making me nervous.

At our quiet table upstairs, Crenshaw winds up giving me a whispered rundown on all of the scams that go on in absentee voting. She tells me that she does not engage in absentee campaigns anymore because of legal risks involved, but she is very familiar with people who do and how they do it. Much of the game turns on the "72-hour list"--a list the county elections department is required by state law to publish every day of the names of people to whom ballots were mailed three days earlier.

"Once you see the ballots going out on the 72-hour list, then you deploy your team to those addresses," she whispers.

The game is to get there ahead of the other side and vote the people for your candidate. She holds up the palm of one hand like a ballot and pretends to scribble on it with the other. "Most of these old people, it's real easy. If you're working for candidate X, you say, 'Oh, yeah, you want to vote for Candidate Y, yes, ma'am,' and then you just scratch in the circle by X and seal up the envelope."

"Sometimes they'll ask, 'Well, what do the Democrats say?' So you just say, 'Oh, the Democrats are all for the arena.'"

Another favorite trick, she says, is to tell elderly voters that coloring in a certain dot on the ballot is a way to vote "straight Democrat," even in city council races, which are nonpartisan.

She also explained to me some of the madness at the end of the Caraway-Oakley campaign in which vote brokers were out there badgering old people to vote for Caraway even though the old people already wanted to vote for him. Crenshaw said that many of those brokers probably were operating without Caraway's knowledge but in competition with each other, trying to gather up ballots in order to hoard them and later sell them en masse to Caraway. Or to Oakley.

"Say the broker goes to Caraway with 1,500 ballots," she whispers. "He says, 'These votes are for you. I want $3 apiece for them.' Caraway says no. So he takes them to the other candidate. 'These votes are for Caraway. I want $3 apiece for them.' If the other candidate pays, the broker throws the ballots away."

Crenshaw even claims that in the recent city council race, one candidate's campaign was in such disarray that a vote broker was able to sell the same bundle of votes to him twice by working through different middlemen.

The person who put together the absentee effort for that nice, nice Ed Oakley was Jan Gore's son, Terrence Gore. Terrence Gore is a computer consultant who ran two years ago for city council but was defeated by the incumbent, Barbara Mallory Caraway, who is Dwaine Caraway's wife.

I certainly did not find my way to Terrence Gore, by the way, because either Ed Oakley or Laura Miller told me about his effort. They said not one word. The person who showed me that piece of the puzzle was Dwaine Caraway.

Beginning the day he lost the runoff election and continuing for the next month and a half, Caraway spent his time poring over official records of the election. Then he called me, as the author of the Bad, Bad Dwaine Caraway column, and asked me to meet him in his campaign office in a one-story commercial building on Corinth, next door to a cell phone place.

Caraway unlocks the front door and shows me into a big empty room with campaign posters on the wall. At one end of the room is a long table covered with documents, neatly stacked in order of presentation.

"Here," he says, showing me a receipt from the top of the pile. "This shows Terrence Gore going into the election department on May 19 and signing for 1,000 blank applications. Then on May 23, he picks up another 1,000 apps."

Caraway shows me his next piece of evidence: a receipt for 278 applications for ballots, filled out and signed by voters, delivered to the elections department on May 25, a Friday. That means Gore sent in 278 applications in one bag. The next paper he shows me is a list from the county elections department showing that all of those 278 applications were processed that day and the ballots mailed by the end of the day.

Now we have an interesting situation. According to state law and normal practice, the elections department would have published a list on the following Monday, 72 hours later, of all those 278 addresses to which it had sent ballots. But because of the long holiday weekend, the list could not be published until Tuesday.

What difference does that make? It makes 24 hours' difference. Sandra Crenshaw already has explained to me that everybody in Southern Dallas watches those 72-hour lists of people who have been sent ballots like hawks so that they can run out and try to vote the people on the list before the other team gets to them. In that kind of closely fought battle, a 24-hour blackout is a huge advantage.

So this Terrence Gore guy must be pretty slick.

Gore meets me in his office in the Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, a business incubator program run by the Dallas County Community College District in a handsome brick campus on Corinth Street in old South Dallas. His small two-room suite is stacked with unpacked boxes and phone equipment on the floor.

Gore, who is black, tells me he believes the starting place for people who want to manipulate the elderly African-American home-bound vote on referendum issues is the fact that most of the elderly really couldn't care less about those issues in the first place:

"On the arena deal, most people didn't care. They weren't ever going to go to any Mavericks games, and they didn't understand the ramifications of the money."

In the meantime, he says, the elderly voters do like to be coddled by the people who come to collect their ballots, who may be the only visitors they see for weeks or even months.

"There is a control factor that goes on. The elderly voters are catered to like children, and, when it comes to voting, they behave as such.

"They'll tell you, 'Oh, I just gave my ballot to so-and-so, that's the way things are done.' And you say, 'No, Miss T, that's not the way things are done.' They say, 'They're going to put whoever they want in office anyway.'

"They're so used to these people coming by, you know what? They don't even bother with the trouble of filling the ballots out, especially the ones with poor eyesight and hearing. And the people just prey on them like vultures on a dead horse. It's sickening."

Gore believes the passivity of elderly black voters has allowed big-ticket promoters to "vote" them in ways that are contrary to their true interests. He worked against passage of the Trinity River bond package, which won narrowly in a May 2, 1998, referendum, by trying to explain to black voters how the project would hurt them.

"I told them why it's a bad deal. I spent a lot of time talking about the money that could have been used to build more parks and municipal venues in Southern Dallas. I told them that you have to look at whether the city cares about you."

But when the votes were counted, the pattern was an almost perfect mirror of what happened on the arena vote six months earlier. Whites and Hispanics voted it down decisively, but the mother lode precincts in Oak Cliff and Southern Dallas voted it up by 75 percent and better--enough for the Trinity River proponents to squeak it through with a margin of 2,357 votes of 73,675 votes cast.

Sandra Crenshaw has testified under oath in a legislative hearing that the average price of a brokered absentee vote in Southern Dallas is about $5. Other sources I spoke to for this story said the price can float up as high as $10 or as low as $3, but that Crenshaw's number is a good average.

That would put the cost of the margin of victory in the river election at less than $12,000.

In between bites from a fast-food sandwich he brought with him to our meeting, Terrence Gore explains the 24-hour edge. He timed his operation to the holiday weekend so that he and a team could go out and get the ballots voted and mailed before the hoard of opposition operatives and free-booters descended on them.

"We upset the structure which most of them were counting on," he tells me. "We set it up so that we knew what the mailman was going to do; we knew when the ballots were going to hit; and we could get the ballots all processed and returned before the list even comes out."

Processed means "voted."

He says he and his people voted the old folks properly, never took possession of a single ballot, gave everybody stamps to mail them in themselves, did it all strictly legally.

That's his view. But how does Dwaine Caraway view the same operation?

"They overstepped every bound of the law they could," Caraway tells me in his campaign office. "They over-assisted, and in situations where they could not control the voter, they threw the ballots away."

Terrence Gore tells me the Oakley campaign was aware of his efforts but did not pay him. He says he worked for Gore as a volunteer based on his conviction that Oakley was the best candidate for the community. His mother, Jan Gore, says the campaign paid her $800 to cover expenses in several areas, including paying the team that went out with Terrence to vote people on Memorial Day weekend.

I call Miller and say, "Laura, what about the Terrence Gore deal? When you all were telling me about that bad, bad Dwaine Caraway, you never mentioned Terrence Gore."

She says, "I don't know Terrence Gore from Adam. I might have met him at the victory party. If Terrence Gore went off and tried to get absentee ballots, I don't know anything about this."

But later in the same conversation, she says, "I had some sheets that showed Terrence Gore had picked up 1,000 apps. I was looking at these sheets, and I said, 'Is this Terrence Gore guy working for Dwaine or for Ed?'"

So apparently there were discussions.

In fact, Oakley's campaign manager, David Marquis, tells me on the telephone: "When we talked about Terrence's plan, the tone was that Ed and all of us wanted to be sure that everything he did was on the up and up."

Up and up we go.

So I call Oakley.

"I was furious about it," he tells me. "I didn't even understand the vote-at-home program until we got in the runoff. I refused to be a part of it. I refused to pay these people. They said, 'Give me $5,000, and I'll give you 5,000 votes.'

"They sold the same votes four or five times."

And Sandra Crenshaw only claimed the votes were sold twice.

"That was the whole deal," Oakley tells me. "They said, 'If you don't do this, you're not going to win.' I said, 'Fine, then I won't win.'"

But later in our phone conversation, Oakley tells me: "The effort we did in-house was because we realized that if we didn't do something, we were going to be behind the curve. We came in every night, and I called my precincts, to everybody over 65 who had not voted, and I asked them why they hadn't voted."

But to know who has voted absentee and who has not on a daily basis, you have to be reading those 72-hour lists every day. Yeah, he says he did actually learn some things during this period of his life. From whom?

"Part of these conversations, I was having with Laura. I was told that Terrence went down and picked up a box of applications.

"After I said we're not doing this, I understand he went down and picked up another box. On top of that, I understand someone else picked up two boxes."

4,000 apps!

I ask Oakley: "Were you aware that Terrence Gore was carrying out a concerted absentee vote program on your behalf?"

"In our minds, I didn't. I can't tell you what they did, because I don't know. He was going to print out all those apps and just mail them out to every senior citizen. My God, you don't do that. Because, you send out 2,000 apps, I don't want to use the word, 'control,' but you don't know who you are sending to."

That's right. You need a really tight list, so you only send apps to the oldsters you know will vote for you, not for Caraway. Pretty slick, for a hand-wringing guy who knows nothing about all this nasty business. In fact, Gore has already shown me how he used his computer to hone the list down to voters of the right age, voter history, address and demographic profile to make them possible Oakley supporters.

But the important thing about the Oakley effort is not that some newspaper columnist got snookered. Forget me, forget Oakley, try to forget Miller. This is the big lesson:

Terrence Gore went out into the field, and, for peanuts, he turned the political apparatus of Southern Dallas on its ear. He and his mother helped get a white gay guy elected in a deeply conservative majority black and Hispanic district.

Pretty good trick.

Early in the runoff, Caraway was endorsed on television by a typical photo-op alliance of virtually all of the old preacher/leader walking-around-money types in the black community. Their failure to deliver any kind of decent turnout for Caraway is an illustration of the limited power of the machine. It can't generate a whirlwind. It really only delivers the old folks. And in the Caraway-Oakley race, the Gores effectively neutralized even that power.

If nothing else, their accomplishment means that the majority white anti-establishment forces who stand off in far North Dallas or Kessler Park and wag their fingers, refusing to engage Southern Dallas politics, guarantee their own failure.

Carol Reed is right. Times have changed. Campaign citywide, or lose. It's that simple. Some paid hack may call you a bitch and try to run you off. But the voters themselves--the old people I talked to on Colonial Avenue--are charming and decent, and they care about their votes. In order to find that out, you have to visit them.

Sure, the machine ensures that all of the money and juice of City Hall will go to the big-ticket boys and that the streets and the gutters will never get fixed. But if you want your streets and gutters fixed, what do you do about it? You do what Terrence Gore did.

Attack the machine.

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