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As Minority Council Members Play the Race Card, the Mayor Goes All In on Court Reform

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Maybe it is like watching them make sausage, but at least you have to give them a tip of the hat when they get the sausage right. The mayor and the Dallas City Council put themselves through a bruising debate yesterday on municipal court reform and in the end came up with the right answer, mostly.

See also: - Nothing Changes at Municipal Courts Without Approval from the Ticketmasters - City Council's Municipal Court "Reform" Smells a Lot Like Bad Patronage

Kudos. Now, uh ... would you mind wiping yourselves off?

Mayor Mike Rawlings switched sides in an ugly weeks long battle over a campaign by the racial/ethnic minority wing of the council to reinstate three judges ousted after a yearlong effort to clean up the city's chaotic court system. Rawlings, who had voted two weeks earlier to endorse the addition of three new judgeships to accommodate the fired judges, jumped sides and voted against it yesterday. He was the swing vote both times.

In all of this, East Dallas council member Angela Hunt has taken a full dose of what progressives tend to wind up with in this town. She has been the target of bottomless accusations of racism from minority council members pissed off because Hunt opposed a smelly deal to give jobs to some of their buddies. It's a weird thing here: Nobody gets race-carded worse than the perceived liberal who won't do the dirty.

Hunt stuck her ground. She argued from the beginning that the entire court reform effort was mocked by the efforts of former municipal judge and council member Vonciel Hill to jam three individual judges back on the bench by hook or by crook.

Hunt got backing from council members Jerry Allen, Sandy Greyson, Scott Griggs, Sheffie Kadane, Linda Koop and Ann Margolin. That's the white wing, in case you didn't notice, certainly not the way Hunt would have hoped for the teams to form up.

But that was hardly her fault. It was more the fault of council members Hill and Dwaine Caraway, who have construed the battle as race-based from the beginning. Play the card, that's how things line up.

But if Hunt has been stalwart and steady on this issue, Mayor Rawlings is the one who has agonized. I talked to him about it at the beginning of the week, and it was impossible to mistake the tone of genuine concern he had for this issue and any issue that splits the council on ethnic lines.

Rawlings said he felt there were legitimate compromises to be made that could get the courts fixed or improved without bringing the council to a standoff at the color line. But that changed.

Rawlings made it plain yesterday that one of the issues raised by Hunt had moved the question to a point beyond a simple Solomonic splitting of differences. Hunt has made much of an issue we talked about here Tuesday -- the off-screen role of Randall Scott, a lawyer with a huge traffic ticket practice in the municipal courts, in helping the bounced judges get their jobs back.

I told you Tuesday that this was the real story inside the story. The city courts run the way they do at least in part because of the power and influence of a handful of traffic ticket lawyers.

Some commenters took my piece as a suggestion that the courts are corrupt. Please let me correct that impression. Not corrupt. Just sleazy.

When a traffic ticket king like Scott comes to the defense of beleaguered judges -- representing them in a suit against the city as he is now, for example -- he is only protecting and enhancing his own business interests. Can't really blame a guy for that. But you can blame the judges. In yesterday's debate, Vonciel Hill went on and on about what a great guy Scott was and how when she was on the bench and got sued by the city, Scott represented her all the way to the Supreme Court.

Wow. Hunt raised the question of what the judges have been paying Scott for all this legal work. Wouldn't we love to hear the rest of that story? How about some canceled checks?

The mayor jumped back over the rope and voted for a compromise at the end of the day to reinstate one judge, Cheryl Williams. Williams gets good marks as a judge from the lawyers I talk to. Maybe that vote was worth it for the peace.

But I need to offer one additional point. I said here earlier that the tendency of wealthy white mayors supported by the private Dallas Citizens Council has always been to bend to minority wishes on some of these dirty jobs and contracts questions in order to harvest their votes later on Citizens Council issues -- basketball arenas, toll roads, you name it. You're not going to talk me out of that. I still think it's the over-arching pattern. What this flap over the judges illustrates, however, is that the minority council members are hardly a bunch of victimized virgins in the deal. In fact they will pull out the card and the knives if they don't get the deal.

I always remember in 1987 when campaign runner Lorlee Bartos, working for mayoral candidate Annette Strauss, refused to carry pay-off money to the preachers in Southern Dallas; the preachers went to Strauss and accused Bartos of racism.

This is truly a weird town. Where else can a died-in-the-wool, committed, white, progressive liberal be accused of racism ... and take it as a badge of honor? Somebody needs to write a book about Dallas called, Alice in Wonderland, The Racial Version.

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