A few weeks ago I had coffee with a guy from another state who was here looking into some local political issues. At one point he kind of bent forward across the table and said in a lowered voice, "I understand there used to be some group here called 'The Dallas Citizens Council' who controlled City Council elections from behind the scenes."
I said, "Yes. There still is."
Trinity Toll Road
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Then for the next full minute we did, "No!" "Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" If anybody was eavesdropping from a nearby table, we must have sounded like college students gossiping about who was doing it with whom, which, in a sense, we were. Still doing it.
In my visitor's mind, the name Citizens Council was associated with the old white citizens councils that sprang up in the '50s and '60s to fight integration, as the more genteel downtown faces of the Klan. That's not technically fair to the Dallas Citizens Council, which was founded in 1937 before the race-based citizens councils came along. But the visitor remarked that in most cities the organization would have changed its name by now anyway.
Far from that here. In fact, in advance of next summer's City Council elections, the Dallas Citizens Council has jumped out from behind the curtain in a new, much more aggressive posture, having formed a political action committee called the Dallas Citizens Council Community Engagement Committee.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have expanded the reach of the court's landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, apparently knocking down most state and local restrictions on campaign contributions by political action committees.
Donna Halstead, the longtime executive head of the Citizens Council, stepped down from that post earlier this year to take over running the PAC. In what I'm sure is an indication of the transparency we can expect from the PAC, Halstead failed to respond to my efforts to reach her at home or at work.
The Citizens Council has been grilling people who are declared candidates for City Council in the upcoming May elections, most of whom received a two-page questionnaire some weeks ago. After a few eyewash questions ("What are the biggest three challenges facing the city of Dallas?"), the questionnaire gets down to brass tacks: "Do you support the Trinity Parkway? Why or why not?"
"Trinity Parkway" was the advertising term used in campaign literature 15 years ago to get voters to approve what the Citizens Council really wanted — a multi-lane, high-speed, limited-access toll road along the Trinity River through the city center. Linked to plans for the redevelopment of key landholdings downtown, the toll road has always been, is now and will always be the Citizens Council's premiere piece of business.
I was able to speak with several candidates who had filled out the questionnaire and then showed up for a subsequent oral examination by an inner committee of the Citizens Council. All spoke to me only on condition of anonymity, citing their desire not to incite the further wrath of the Citizens Council even if they already knew it would be supporting their opponents.
Those whose positions on the toll road were in any doubt all told me they took intense drubbings on the issue. Those whose positions were well known but negative said their inquisitors were not interested in hearing their thoughts.
This is a key point in time. Critics of the road have fallen into a false sense of security, certain it will never pass muster in the final scrutiny of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is not expected to rule on the flood safety aspects before 2014. The critics also have assumed the road, whose cost is now between one and two billion dollars over any existing budget, can never be paid for.
Both assumptions are wrong. The Citizens Council-types have been engaged in intensive back-room maneuvering for state and federal funds through a powerful but little known entity called the Regional Transportation Council, or RTC. Hand-in-glove with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, another regional planning agency, the RTC is lining up chess pieces to divert funding from things like the downtown Dallas "Mixmaster" freeway interchanges to pay for the toll road instead.
They just might make it.
The Corps of Engineers was tough on flood control issues for about five years after the massive levee failures in New Orleans in 2005. Corps officials told cities across the country they might have to rebuild existing levees at enormous costs. In 2009 the corps said scientific analysis had shown the Dallas levees were worthless, incapable of protecting the city from even the lowest levels of flood threat. That finding was a huge blow to the Citizens Council's plans, which involved building a new expressway inside the Trinity River levees, a scheme that would reduce the effectiveness of the levees, subject them to greater stresses and even pose the danger of cave-ins.
But the corps caved in first. Faced with intensive congressional lobbying by a consortium of angry cities determined to go after its budget in Washington, the corps announced two years ago it had started looking at levee safety in a whole new way. The Trinity River levees, which it had previously deemed dangerously dilapidated, were now miraculously way better than they even had to be, safe for eons to come.
To me, that was like this: Your doctor tells you it's cancer and you've got six months to live. You tell him if that's the case you're going to have major challenges getting your financial affairs in order and you're just not going to be able to pay him. He calls you back the next day, says he's re-examined the blood work, and you're actually cancer-free and in great shape, so go ahead and write that check.
Are we suspicious? Not the Citizens Council. They're overjoyed. The candidates I spoke with told me they had the impression the Citizens Council scents victory on the toll road just around the corner and may even have put together the PAC just to make sure the City Council doesn't do anything to screw it up.
Most of the City Council is already solidly in the pocket of the Citizens Council. White conservative North Dallas candidates and incumbents tend already to be first cousins with it. The entire black caucus on the council depends on the Citizens Council as its major source of political money and looks on the toll road as an irrelevant white people's issue anyway. Of Hispanics, only the outgoing Pauline Medrano has ever shown a shred of independence.
That really only leaves three members capable of directly bucking the Citizens Council — North Dallas member Sandy Greyson, who is running unopposed, East Dallas member Angela Hunt, who is termed out and cannot run, and North Oak Cliff member Scott Griggs, whose district was gerrymandered to force him to run against Delia Jasso, an incumbent Hispanic. In effect the only districts in play on this issue are Hunt's Place 14 and Griggs' and Jasso's Place 1.
You might think the Citizens Council could just let those two go, in a false display of tolerance for democracy. But then you'd have to think again.
In the Griggs-Jasso race, Jasso already has a solid Citizens Council poker hand in the form of endorsements by former City Council members Craig Holcomb and Ed Oakley. Those are two of three names that would never appear in the endorsement list of a candidate not pre-cleared by the Citizens Council. In District 14 candidate Bobby Abtahi has the Oakley and Holcomb endorsements and adds the name of former council member Veletta Lill to his hand, giving him three of a kind.
I have met with Abtahi. It was an off-the-record conversation, so I can't provide details. I can say that he is a very nice young man with good manners who struck me as pretty much the Manchurian Candidate for the Mafia. Well, I really mean for the Citizens Council, but same difference in relative terms, this not being New Jersey. All I can say is that if East Dallas elects this guy, the neighborhood groups just need to pack it in. It's over.
Here is what really struck me about the descriptions I heard of the Citizens Council interviews. According to the candidates, the small subcommittee doing the interviews just couldn't leave it alone. Even when candidates made it plain they were against the road, the inquisitors kept drilling them.
Several told me they tried, of course, to avoid getting everybody all in a huff during their interviews, but when it came to the toll road there was no avoiding it. The Citizens Council types weren't letting anybody out alive on that one.
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This is a fairly simple equation in the end. The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allows companies and individuals to drop millions into campaign coffers and remain largely hidden. We can't see yet who's putting money into the Citizens Council PAC, but we can look elsewhere to see who their buddies have been.
In 2012 the Dallas Citizens Council gave $150,000 to a "specific purpose committee" formed under Texas election law to raise campaign money for passage of a city bond election. Its partners on that deal were HDR Inc., a construction services company; Garver LLC, an engineering firm; Walter P. Moore & Associates, civil engineers; Atkins North America, engineers; Othon, Inc. engineers and more of the same ilk.
Nothing really nefarious there. These are people who make money off public works projects. But the regrettable thing, looking ahead, will be a City Council whose every single member is in their pockets. Clearly if the Citizens Council has its way with this PAC, we meager little citizens won't have even a single member we can go to on issues in which the Citizens Council already holds the chain.
So I picture myself back in that same cafe with that same out-of-town guy next June, telling him about it. He says, "No!" I say, "Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" We may go on for hours.