Dallas Politics Less About Nice Versus Mean, More About People Versus Money

The Abtahi/Kingston rivalry has roots deeper than mere personality, or it would have withered years ago.
The Abtahi/Kingston rivalry has roots deeper than mere personality, or it would have withered years ago.
Daniel Fishel
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The Dallas Morning News ran a piece earlier in the week about a bad-blood feud between Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston and Bobby Abtahi, president of the Park and Recreation Board. The story made it sound like a nice guy versus mean guy thing.

Make no mistake. At least on the basis of casual social acquaintance, Bobby Abtahi is what most people would call a nice guy, and Philip Kingston is not always. Depends how much value you put on that.

Abtahi ran against Kingston for the District 14 East Dallas City Council seat in 2013 largely on the basis of being a nicer person. For context, District 14 is easily the city’s prickliest, most politicized province. Had East Dallas voters wanted to choose the nicer guy, I think Abtahi would have taken it in a landslide. Kingston beat him in a runoff by 9 percentage points, which in a local election is a landslide — the other way.

This year, a political newcomer named Matt Wood opposed Kingston. I am not taking anything away from how nice a guy Abtahi is, but I think a lot of people would agree that Wood is even nicer. I’m sure that’s why Abtahi supported Wood against Kingston.

Kingston beat Wood by an even bigger landslide — 13 points. It’s enough to make me wonder if East Dallas voters — and as an ancient resident, I include myself — are very nice at all. I suspect not, depending on the issue.

But what does "nice" mean, anyway? In Abtahi’s case when he ran for council, he pulled off the pretty nice trick of drawing most of his financial support from the Trinity toll road gang — Pete Schenkel, Erle Nye, Ronald Steinhart, John Scovell, Craig Hall, Donald Petty, people like that. But District 14 was overwhelmingly anti-toll road. So Abtahi refused to take a public position on the toll road during the campaign. Nice!

Oh, I’m sorry. I always forget. Not everybody has lived in Dallas for 100 years, so you may not know what I’m talking about — toll road.

The Trinity toll road was a huge public works program to build a high-speed, multilane, limited-access, tolled highway along the river downtown, between the flood-control levees in the area that is underwater twice a year during our spring and fall monsoon rainy seasons. After a 20-year debate, the city council finally scuttled the idea for good just a few week ago on the basis that it's monumentally, yelpingly, jumping-up-and-down, armpit-scratchingly stupid.

In 2013, Abtahi said he thought it would be too divisive for him to say how he felt about the toll road. I wrote at the time that his answer meant he was a Manchurian candidate working for the yelpers. We’ll come back to the whole Manchurian thing here in a minute.

I am sure the helpers — Schenkel, Nye, Steinhart, Scovell, Hall and Petty — thought Abtahi was extremely nice because he effectively met the definition of nice according to the old power structure, which all of those gentlemen represented. In their world, nice was going along to get along.

Well, actually, for a young man starting out as Abtahi was in 2013, it was more like doing as you were told. That was really really nice — almost as nice as Wood four years later.

One thing to know about the old-school definition of nice, however, is that it has an expiration date. Nice ends abruptly and sometimes brutally when people do not do as they are told. Case in point: The old power structure attempted in 2015 to gin up fake felony assault charges against Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs. Not nice at all!

Griggs, who represents District 1 in North Oak Cliff, bordering the Trinity River, had caught the mayor and city attorney faking documents as one of their last crazily buttheaded attempts to get the toll road done.

Why would the old establishment have been so desperately determined to do something that would have been howlingly, head-bangingly, mouth-spittingly moronic? Well, I’m sorry. I’m just too nice a guy to go there. You’ll have to ask some mean person, like Robert Wilonsky at The Dallas Morning News, about that. Let bygones be bygones, I say. I’m sure I must have said that at some time.

All of the charges against Griggs eventually were thrown out on the basis of them being fiendishly, blindingly, ear-splittingly, hair-loss-causingly cretinous. But that’s all I am going to say about that.

Wilonsky had a great piece, by the way, in The Dallas Morning News the other day about a single rag of land the city paid $5 million for nine years ago because the geniuses behind the toll road thought it might come in handy later for access or something. If you want to know the total amount of money squandered on the underwater toll road idea, you’ll have to go all up and down the river and dig through countless land transactions and public works projects, completed and planned, to see how much money the city, state and federal government have thrown away on this utterly idiotic fiasco.

Look at those East Dallas people standing behind Kingston and Wood in their recent contest: The voters look way meaner than the candidates.EXPAND
Look at those East Dallas people standing behind Kingston and Wood in their recent contest: The voters look way meaner than the candidates.
Jim Schutze

If you did that, in the end you would come up with some very major multiple of Wilonsky’s $5 million. Times 10? Oh, way more. Times 100? Easily.

And here’s the thing. There was always another option: put the road outside the levees, where it doesn’t flood. Hey. Talk about a lightbulb moment, eh? Inside, floods. Outside, no floods. Never had the lightbulb. As our president might say: Sad!

Here’s the scarier thing. The underwater toll road was only one idea. The next one was giving away Fair Park, the city’s beleaguered, 131-year-old, 277-acre exposition park in a poor neighborhood south of downtown. It’s where the State Fair of Texas takes place once a year. The rest of the year, the “park” looks like the set for a post-apocalyptic movie in which a race of alien corndogs invades Earth.

It needs help. The neighborhood around it needs even more help. And there is kind of no point in doing one if you don’t do the other.

The biggest problem, however, is the fair, a good-old-boy establishment affair, almost like a fraternity. The fair takes over the whole park once a year, so nothing permanent or year-round can be done to improve the rest of the park for the rest of the year.

Speaking of alien corndogs, the mayor’s idea is to totally lock in and protect the fair, as is, forever; give the park to a friend of his; and then stick the city with some 20 million bucks a year to maintain it for the fair. Kingston, in what the old establishment took for a very un-nice thing to do, got the city attorney to agree that such a deal would be against the law.

Yes, I know. It seems sort of like getting the city attorney to agree that it would be against the law to stuff tax money into your jeans and then go spend it all on a tootsie. No kidding, Sherlock. But as I have tried to convey, a lot of this stuff doesn’t take place in your higher intellectual realms.

Right now, the park board, of which Abtahi is president, is locked in a very non-higher-realm stalemate over an effort to open up the whole Fair Park makeover business to a transparent bidding process versus making sure the mayor’s buddy gets it after all. When a citizen asked Abtahi to take a clear position on it, he said, “Why do there have to be good guys and bad guys? Why can't we just want different things?”

At that moment, he was wearing a “yes” sticker on his coat for the mayor’s giveaway plan. I guess he forgot to put his hand over it.

If this were a movie, it would be Return of the Manchurian Candidate. Generally speaking, whenever you have a clear yes-no question — thumbs up, thumbs down, green light, red light, a or b, spare the lion or spare the man — all nonresponsive answers must be taken as Manchurian. There’s got to be a reason for ducking an answer, and it’s never going to be a good one.

Kingston is not always nice. But he is responsive. He is never Manchurian. I don’t know how that goes over in the rest of Dallas because almost all the rest of Dallas remains more or less nice for now. In East Dallas, the polls seem to show that people are less concerned about niceness, more concerned about half-wittedness. But you know what? It could be catching.

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