Every once in a while, somebody says something so wholly at odds with evident truth, so totally contrary to known facts, so diametrically opposed to obvious reality that we just have to stop and do big, loud forehead slaps on ourselves.
Last week, Dallas City Secretary Rosa Rios, bristling at the suggestion she was out to get a member of the Dallas City Council, told The Dallas Morning News, “My office doesn't do witch hunts. We base our information on facts. ... I don't make my decisions for political purposes.”
Where to start? There is no city official more at the center of the political witch-hunting business than Rios. She may think she’s running a shamanistic location service, but, believe me, she is Witch Hunter No. 1 at Dallas City Hall.
Rios kept tabs for a year on the attendance record of City Council member Philip Kingston. Last week, she finally came up with a long enough list of supposed unexcused absences to trigger a penalty clause in the city charter. She says Kingston must pay the city back $8,000 because his absences have exceeded 10 percent during a set period of time.
Kingston says she’s wrong on the numbers, and he is demanding a recount. He serves on the police and fire pension board, where he put in hundreds of painful hours this year helping to oversee a reform of the pension system; he attends council committee hearings for committees he doesn’t belong to; the job pays $60,000 a year; he’s a lawyer with a law practice; and like every other council member, he spends way more than 40 hours a week on that job.
But forget that. I’m not even here to defend him on this one. He can defend himself. And, by the way, if he broke the rules and she caught him, then he has to pay. You either don’t do the crime, don’t get caught or pay. That’s how it goes in the land of rules.
I am sitting here slapping my forehead over the bald effrontery of Rios telling the Morning News she doesn’t do political witch hunts. I imagine her office as having a big, red, flashing neon sign over the door that says, “POLITICAL WITCH HUNTS DONE HERE.”
It was her office, you may recall, that launched the “Scott Griggs yelled at somebody” campaign two years ago, in which a bizarrely unnamed mystery complainant alleged that City Council member Griggs had yelled at somebody in the City Secretary’s Office and needed to be imprisoned for felony assault.
What sort of got lost in the brouhaha at the time was the underlying factual situation: Rios and her staff were trying to help the mayor and city manager fake some documents so the mayor could get a council vote he wanted on the Trinity toll road. And, may I mention, whenever you hear the words, “Trinity toll road,” you need to look for trolls and goblins galore creeping out of the bureaucratic underbrush. For 20 years, the Trinity toll road has been the greatest source in the city of misbehavior by old, rich white guys and their obsequious, sharp-clawed, gimlet-eyed minions at City Hall.
You may not recall how the Scott-Griggs-yelled affair ended. The charge was that Griggs had raised his voice in a heated conversation with a female member of the city secretary’s staff and that said raising of the voice constituted an assault on a public servant. David Brown, Dallas police chief at the time, tried to tell Mayor Mike Rawlings and then-City Manager A.C. Gonzalez that raising one's voice was not a crime. I personally thought it was a civic service.
But Warren Ernst, who was then city attorney, tried to end-run the thing by carrying it directly to the former Dallas County district attorney, who was, at that time, in a hospital. The effort finally fell apart when the woman at whom the alleged voice-raising had been directed signed a sworn affidavit saying nothing had happened and she was not going to say under oath that anything had happened. Must have seen a lawyer.
I need to offer some larger political context for what we’re talking about. Kingston and Griggs are part of an informal but growing group of local elected officials who stand in opposition to the old-rich-white-guy cabal on a number of issues. The assumption of everybody I know who pays any attention to local politics is that the new group will soon achieve a majority on the council, and one of them will run for mayor against the old establishment and win.
When that happens, I am here to tell you that, for a long while you absolutely will not notice that anything has changed. The new group is extremely nonradical. Its goals for the city include things often associated with younger voters, like more diversity, less inequality. But they see those ideals as the most efficient means by which to achieve other, more pragmatic goals.
Those practical outcomes are things you might assume the old elite would find worthy, like better neighborhoods, better schools, fewer potholes and maybe a bus system you could actually count on to take you places you want to go. Those all sound like things the old guys should sign up for, right?
Ah, but no! They do not sign up. They do not recognize any commonality of interest with the new, younger civic progressives. Why? Because, for them, it’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about control and ego, rank and personal grandeur. If the new people achieve any rank or grandeur, it must be because they’re stealing it from the old guys.
So after the new group takes over — and it will within the next couple of years — you may not notice much change. It will seem like the city’s just doing what it should have been doing all along, running a better city.
But look closely. After a while, you will also notice this pattern of extremely small-minded personal vendettas, like what we have seen in the Griggs-yelled campaign and the Kingston-skipped campaign.
For a road map to that, we need only look to the heavily bankrolled but unsuccessful anti-Kingston campaign carried out in the recent City Council election cycle. An entire fraternity-house load of old, rich white guys wrote fat checks to support a direct-mail campaign worthy of a U.S. Senate race designed to convince voters in Kingston’s district that he was a known voice-raiser and upsetter-of-betters.
The thing that saves us in all of this is the old money-arrogance-I.Q. algorithm — MAIQA — by which more money and more arrogance make people less smart. What the MAIQA crowd failed to take into account, as it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars shipping out mailers warning East Dallas voters that Kingston was a known voice-raiser and upsetter, was that East Dallas only votes for voice-raising upsetters. It was like the group was working for him. He wound up slaughtering its candidate.
In all of this, we maintain this tattered, mud-splashed absurd fiction that the City Hall staff members are somehow nonpolitical when, in fact, they spend most of their time and effort skulking the corridors of City Hall looking for opportunities to curry favor with the old, rich white guys by bringing voice-raising charges against the upsetters.
Right now, we’re in a strange period of hiatus while the new city manager, who came from out of town and doesn’t know anything yet, tries to make up his mind which side to skulk against and which side to skulk for. Trust me. He’ll get there.
But Rios suffers no such uncertainty. In fact, given her personal history, she knows exactly what her fate will be if the upsetters ever get in. Think of her as a small, football-shaped shadow sailing through the goal posts of regime change. She knows which side her bread is buttered on.
The old regime is determined to use its latent advantage at City Hall to dirty up whichever member of the new group it thinks is the most likely candidate for mayor against it. For a long time, it was former council member Angela Hunt, an eminently collegial and genteel person whom the regime relentlessly painted as a crazy bitch.
Then it was Griggs, one of the smartest people ever to sit at the council rim, a person possessed of manners that could be called courtly, whom it tried to put in prison for voice-raising.
Now it’s Kingston, who never backs down from a fight but always brings facts and arguments to the table with him rather than personal invective. They tried to take him down for being an upsetter, but that backfired, so now he’s a known school-skipper. For a school skipper, he sure seems to have learned a lot.
This is about arrogant, not-very-smart people with money declining to talk about real issues, using personal cheap shots and gotcha in place of argument because that’s how they roll. And then they send a Rosa Rios out front to do the dirty for them.
Rios is a political witch hunter in a high-stakes game. We all know who gets melted first if she fails to melt the witch.
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