Heard an interview with some actress on the radio recently talking about how she chain-smoked and behaved badly in college, causing her to lose a lot of weight and wake up incredibly beautiful one day. She said it gave her the confidence she needed to become a movie star.
I feel as though that's the story of East Dallas. Decades of bad behavior, irrational opposition to all authority, an appetite for a fight even when there was nothing to fight about, and all of a sudden East Dallas wakes up. It's skinny, it's sexy and it has a big Whole Foods store.
But that's also the challenge. Drive the streets south of Lovers Lane, and you will see plenty of evidence that the real estate development community is ahead of the game in East Dallas, packing in new stuff — good, bad and ugly — as fast as it can in anticipation of a bigger boom.
The better times ahead are a richly deserved, hard-earned reward for inner city neighborhoods, but the last thing a successful community wants to be is too nice.
Which brings us to the runoff race in City Council District 14 for the seat being vacated by Angela Hunt, who must leave the council because of term limits. Hunt's anointed and endorsed successor is Philip Kingston, a sole practitioner lawyer. His opponent in the runoff is Bobby Abtahi, also a lawyer.
In the past I have described Abtahi as a Manchurian candidate for the mafia, which, I should tell you, was unfair and more a comment on my own character than his. Note to self: Please, please, please, self, try to avoid jokes containing ethnic references.
Abtahi is a nice guy, Dallas-born, boy-next-door, went to UT Austin and SMU law school. I have sipped tea and ginger ale with him twice, and I have lunched with Kingston once. Kingston is a nice guy too, but as I have already set out, nice don't cut it in East Dallas these days. One question counts in this race. Which one of them is enough of a son of a bitch to protect East Dallas from sleazy exploitation?
When I sat down with Abtahi the second time, he challenged me on an assertion I had made on the radio to the effect that he consistently voted against neighborhoods when he was a member of the Dallas Plan Commission, which controls zoning questions. Abtahi was appointed to the commission by southern Dallas council member Dwaine Caraway.
We went through each of the votes I had cited as evidence of his anti-neighborhood bias, and I must tell you that he defended them all on grounds I found persuasive, mainly by pointing out that in most cases he had voted in concert with Hunt's appointee.
The other way-wide-of-the-road issue that crops up again and again in this race is a pledge Kingston signed saying he's a Democrat, after having voted in Republican primaries. All I know is that Kingston got a thousand bucks from Lisa Blue Baron, the rich lawyer who is kind of Glinda the Good Witch to Democrats, so I'm figuring that makes him OK with Democrats even if he did vote for a couple Republicans early on. I have never believed a young person should be tarred forever because of one or two heedless flings with Republicans, nor did I ask Kingston if alcohol was involved.
And anyway, who gives a shit? No, seriously, listen to me: They're both nice guys. They're both smart lawyers. They both want to serve the city and East Dallas. But none of that is what counts at this moment.
The question is who brung them? With whom will they dance? Let me give you an example of why that's important — the soccer-lights question at Ursuline, a private school for girls. I have no idea what it was really about, no dog in the hunt, no bias one way or the other. I saw some people on TV saying they had been blinded or were about to be blinded, something. That's all I know.
That vote on the City Council came down entirely to one thing — the will of the council member for that district. That's how it works. If it's an issue within a council district, the council person for that district has absolute say-so. Her thumb up or thumb down means all thumbs up or thumbs down. In this case the member from that district voted for the soccer lights and against the blind people, so the entire council voted against the blind people. Turn on the lights, hand out the canes. It's over.
So when things really heat up in East Dallas — or in North Oak Cliff or Oak Lawn or any of the city's other soon-to-boom districts — you can count on some kind of soccer-lights showdown at City Council where it will come down to the council member from that district.
When those questions come to the moment of battle, nobody talks philosophy. If there are people out there who have a chain they can pull tied to the council member in question, they yank. Generally speaking, when that chain is yanked, it's over. That's it. All she wrote.
So now we go back to Abtahi and Kingston and ask the truly important question: Who has what chains? When I said Abtahi was a blank-blank candidate for the mafia, I was talking about the Dallas Citizens Council, a private group that acts as a political broker for development and public works interests. I based that accusation in part on endorsements he had received from three former council members, all three of whom have been advocates and partisans for Citizens Council issues, two of whom were occupying paid patronage jobs at the time.
But in East Dallas, there is one big test question that pretty much clears the ground. Are you for or against the Trinity River toll road? Call it a litmus test if you like. The question is useful because it sheds light on the who-brung-you issue. A candidate chained to the Citizens Council cannot speak against the toll road. Lips. Are. Zipped.
I asked Kingston once. He said, "Against." Not a lot of nuance.
I asked Abtahi twice. The first time his answer was off the record. The second time, on the record, he said, "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 rehashing old wounds."
That was a pretty long quote, and I think I need to pause and translate it into East Dallas language. That quote means "For it." I told him that.
He's right. In East Dallas the knives and the memories are long. Therefore, not giving a simple declarative answer one way or the other on the toll road question will always be greeted by a great clanging and hissing as people unsheathe their scimitars. A too-long, non-declarative, all-over-the-map answer means you're for it. Scimitars!
Abtahi challenged me on my assertion that he's a Citizens Council lackey, more or less daring me to find the Citizens Council anywhere in his campaign finance reports. We agreed that the Citizens Council never makes contributions in its own name, only influencing members and allied groups and associations.
I said one evidence of the nature of his support is the amount, more than twice Kingston's in the two most recent reports, allowing Abatahi to hire Allyn & Co., a political ad agency and campaign consulting firm normally associated with establishment candidates and causes. His campaign manager, baby-sitting our interview from across the table, intervened to suggest that Allyn & Co. was only helping out because of personal friendship, an assertion so absurd that both Abtahi and I agreed not to dignify it with further discussion.
I found only four Citizens Council members or spouses of members in the ranks of $1,000-and-above donors on Abtahi's lists. But that's four more than Kingston has.
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Other people I found among Abtahi's $1,000-and-above donors were Donald McNamara, an investor/developer associated with the Bass family in Fort Worth; Mitch Hart, founding investor in Home Depot; Kenneth Aboussie, an investor/developer; Marc Andres of the Lower Greenville real estate family; Marshall Payne, an investor in Dale Gas Partners; Josh LeComte, a home builder; Craig Hall, developer; David Cain Jr. (Note: In the print version of this story, I incorrectly identified him as David Cain, a lobbyist for the Citizens Council and father of Cain Jr.); Gerald Stool, principal investor in FCS Construction; Robert Crouch of Arcadia Energy; Louis Corna, a lawyer who with several other big Abtahi donors is associated with Luna Ventures, which owns the land next to the Elm Fork Soccer Complex where Trinity East Energy wants to build a natural gas facility; and Susan Reese, pissed-off owner of a building on Lower Greenville where zoning was denied for a bowling alley under Hunt's regime.
Kingston's list had a couple of look-twice donors. One was Brian Loncar, the billboard lawyer we once accused of stealing our newspapers out of the news boxes. Gilbert Aranza, the Love Field concession king, is on Kingston's list, along with Don Silverman, a big-box retail developer, and Michael Montgomery, an oil and gas guy. I already mentioned Lisa "Glinda" Blue.
Confused? Please don't be. I'm sorry. It's my fault. Too much information. Remember, there's a magic key, a simple way to get to the bottom of it. Are you for or against the Trinity River toll road?
If you live in District 14, the Abtahi/Kingston runoff election is June 15. Please practice safe scimitar.