Can Trinity Toll Road Hatred Help Progressive Dallas Pols Build a Coalition of Sanity?

Don't call what's being built here a "slate." In Dallas politics, "slate" is a bad word, thanks to decades of domination by the old guard Citizens Council that still leave a bitter taste, and lingering memories of the battle to put power into independent single-member council districts. But with six council seats up for grabs this May - and more interest than usual in the races because this election could finally drive a stake in the Trinity toll road's heart - incumbent Philip Kingston sees a chance to bring something new to the council table: real, honest-to-God open debate about new ideas beyond toll roads.

It only sort of looks like slate-building.

While the never-ending fight over whether to build the Trinity toll road has gotten the press this election, many of the road's opponents see that issue as a proxy for a problem that's plagued City Hall for years -- the idea that debate is something to be avoided rather than embraced. Challenging the city staff or the mayor on big, citywide issues is, in a genteelly Southern way, Just Not Done, or at least not often successfully.

"There's a tradition of what I would call the traditional power structure trying to suppress debate," Kingston says. "If the attitude of council members is, 'I basically accept what I'm told by the traditional power structure and by the manager's office,' then there's no point in having a council."

The six members coming off the council in May because of term limits -- Vonciel Jones Hill, Dwaine Caraway, Carolyn Davis, Tennell Atkins, Sheffie Kadane and Jerry Allen -- could have been counted on to back the toll road. With two citywide referendums supporting the road and backing from the mayor and assorted power players, however, their six votes were pretty much academic until August 6. That's when City Attorney Warren Ernst, responding to a question from Councilman Scott Griggs, Kingston's ally, informed him and the rest of the council that they could, to use a phrase Kingston's fond of, shoot the toll road in the head. Before then, Griggs, Adam Medrano, Kingston and Sandy Greyson -- the four anti-road votes on the council -- had been told repeatedly by city staff that the toll road was a done deal. There was a contract with North Texas Tollway Authority, signed in 1999, and a contract was a contract.

"It was regularly reiterated to us that the bottom line was that we had a contract with the NTTA and we couldn't get out of it and we had to fulfill our obligations under the contract," longtime Trinity toll road opponent and former council member Angela Hunt said just after Ernst's memo became public in September.

The memo, the open council seats and a growing list of former road supporters switching sides opened up a slice of daylight. A map to eight votes against the road was coming into focus.

Eight council votes. That's what it takes for anything to get done in Dallas city government. The city manager's office works for the side that can get there, as former Observer columnist Laura Miller could testify from her days on the City Council at the turn of the century -- first as a council member and foil to Mayor Ron Kirk, then as mayor herself, when she was foil to pretty much everyone else. In 2014, she told the Observer's Jim Schutze about an early interaction she had with the then city manager.

"'Laura, I work for the eight-vote majority on the council,'" she remembered Ted Benavides telling her. "'Part of my job is counting the votes ahead of time. I have done that. You will not be in the eight-vote majority on this issue. I must prepare the way for the council members who will be in the eight votes, because they will carry the day, not you.'"

Having enough votes to get the city manager's attention would help Griggs and Kingston avoid situations like the transportation-for-hire fight that dragged through the second half of 2013 and most of 2014. It started with an item, placed on the council consent agenda -- the part that gets voted on without debate -- in August 2013. Changes to the city's rules governing taxi and limo services drafted by City Manager A.C. Gonzalez would have essentially outlawed the app-based ride service Uber, much to the delight of its competition at Yellow Cab, which had helped Gonzalez draft his original Uber-killing changes. Kingston happened to catch the changes when he got his weekly memo packet from the manager's office on a Friday afternoon. He called Griggs, and they pored over the proposal. Two days later, they got the item pulled from the consent agenda. Eventually, Greyson would lead a team that wrote a completely different ordinance, one tolerable to everyone but Yellow Cab.

Still, there's only so much Griggs, Medrano, Greyson and Kingston can do in their roles as the council's outsider bloc. Those memo packets are pretty thick, after all, and they're only four votes, barely enough to perturb Gonzalez or Rawlings on issues whose most interested stakeholders include politically wired companies like Yellow Cab or the construction companies supporting the toll road.

And that's where the not-really-a-slate comes in. What if some of the candidates who dislike expensive unfunded toll roads shared other interests on big picture issues like transparency and transportation, on neighborhood preservation, and on the city's approach to dealing with regional issues? What if the minority wing on the council gave them a hand? What would happen then?

Someone's hackles might rise, that's what. Like we said, "slate" appears to be a fighting word in Dallas elections. (The fact that except for Miller Dallas' mayors tend to rule thanks to a coalition of strange bedfellows made up of Citizen Council types and southern Dallas council members is just a coincidence, one supposes, and definitely not a formal s-l-a-t-e.)

In the six open districts, three candidates line up closely with anti-toll road gang of four, both on the road itself and their vision of how the city should operate. Joe Tave, a DeSoto High School government teacher, is running for Hill's District 3 seat. Hasani Burton, who's served on the Landmark Commission and Preservation Dallas, is running for Davis' District 7 spot. Mark Clayton, who owns an Allstate insurance office and has been active in Casa Linda neighborhood causes for years, is running to replace Kadane in District 9. Tave and Clayton live in districts ripe for turnover because of changing demographics and residents' frustration with Hill and Kadane. Burton faces an uphill climb against Tiffani Young -- a political consultant who's been endorsed by both Caraway and Davis -- but could benefit if his opposition to the toll road gives him a bump.

In an uncommon move for council incumbents, Griggs and Kingston and have endorsed Tave and Clayton. Kingston has taken things even further, block-walking for Clayton in District 9 and giving the maximum $1,000 to Clayton's campaign. It's not like Kingston donates to candidates willy-nilly, either; the donation to Clayton was Kingston's first in a council election since a 2011 donation to Hunt. To gauge what that means, consider that Mayor Mike Rawlings and his chief opponent, lawyer Marcos Ronquillo, at odds on the toll road, are not making endorsements in council races, according to the Morning News (at least not openly). On a council in which every member is king or queen of his or her patch, and the bread-and-butter issues are streets and gutters and zoning, not big-picture issues like regional transportation planning, open endorsements are tricky business for incumbents. Griggs' and Kingston's endorsements could net them some council allies, or they could make for some frosty council get-togethers if the other guys win.

Which might explain why Mari Woodlief, Rawlings' chief political consultant, was so quick to toss out the S-word when talking about what Kingston and his allies are up to. Candidates who get help from incumbents are vulnerable to being co-opted by outside forces, she says.

"One of the really great things about the Dallas City Council is that it's non-partisan, that on any given issue, you can build a coalition and there's no limitations that are really set by labels. That's what makes it work," Woodlief says. "The concept of running slate candidates that will vote as coalitions on the council is counter to that and it's counter to the city council being effective and making progress."

She's counting on voters recognizing that candidates being supported for their toll road opposition might not be the best representatives for their districts otherwise.

"The whole concept of single member districts is for a council member to go to City Hall and represent their district," Woodlief says. "I think voters are pretty smart, that they'll understand that these are slate candidates, either single-issue slate candidates or slate candidates who are recruited and are running with the backing of a coalition on the city council."

Tave, who is making his third run for council, bristles at the suggestion that he's part of a slate or that he's being guided by anything other than doing what he feels is best for his district -- and he's a guy who got endorsed.

"No it isn't [fair to say that I'm part of a slate]. I think it's part of that mentality that people have, particularly in North Dallas, that everybody who comes to represent southern Dallas on the council is somebody who doesn't know Robert's Rules of Order, or that somebody's after something, that people in the southern sector don't have the ability to think, to know and to understand what's going on," he says. "I've never been approached by Scott, Philip or anybody [about being part of a slate], because you don't dare insult me like that."

In East Dallas' District 9, Clayton says joining Griggs, Medrano and Kingston is about protecting and promoting what his potential constituents care about.

"[Woodlief's comments] are incredibly obtuse. If you have a difference of opinion with her then you're forsaking your district? When she's wrong on an idea, why can't she just say, 'Hey, I've been enlightened' instead of sticking with a tired old chorus that's proven to be something that most people don't want," he says. "I think we're absolutely representing our district, and my district doesn't want that road."

That doesn't mean May's election is just another vote on the toll road.

"This is a referendum on ideas, he says. "People package it with the Trinity because it's easy to absorb, but this is really a referendum on philosophy and ideas about where you want your city to go, he says.

"Do you want it to go in the same direction it's always gone, which is a slow erosion into basically a truck stop for the suburbs or do you want it to go in the direction where you're truly going to see a walkable, urban city that people want to move back into? Say what you will, but the only way you're going to get the kind of jobs that you want is making the city a place that people want to move to. Jobs go where people go."

Call it a slate or call it something else, what the toll road opponents see is a chance for new ideas about how to build a city -- ideas that have been getting traction in the last few years -- to get more secure foothold. There will be debate and coalition building. Maybe even, if we're lucky, more transparency. You know, functional democracy.

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