City Hall

If Ted Nugent and Greg Gianforte Want Civility, So Do I — After We Settle Up

Ted Nugent, some years before his conversion to civility.
Ted Nugent, some years before his conversion to civility. Lenny Francioni Wikipedia Commons
Everybody’s for civility now. So am I. Newly elected Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte called for civility shortly before seeking a soft sentence, which he got, for assaulting a man who had asked him a question he didn’t like.

Aging rocker Ted Nugent called for civility after the recent congressional baseball shootings. This is the same man who told President Barack Obama to suck his machine gun.

Me, too. I agree with Gianforte and Nugent. Civility is all about timing.

I think we need more civility on the local scene. I would like to see more civility immediately following a Dallas City Council vote to kill the Trinity tollroad, right after the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board tells the all of the suburbs to kiss off and the next day after the mayor’s gentrifying developer friends in West Dallas get taxed to protect the poor rental families they are driving out of homes in droves.

Frankly, if I only had two choices for the rest of my life, be governed or be entertained, I might lean toward entertained.

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To paraphrase something a man used to say in cheap wine ads on TV long ago, my motto is “no civility before its time.”

In a speech during the City Council inauguration ceremony Monday, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings urged incoming members to start practicing civility right away: “We must signal to those who elected us that we reject the politics of division, fear, rage and personal attacks.”

Standing at the back of the room when the mayor spoke those words was Khraish Khraish, the West Dallas rental property owner whom the mayor and The Dallas Morning News repeatedly have slimed as a slumlord.

“Jim, the mayor’s speech was fine,” he texted me from the ceremony, “but coming out of his mouth it was the epitome of insincere political claptrap.”

Put yourself in those shoes. Khraish and his partners have launched multiple efforts to protect poor West Dallas tenants from an eviction crisis driven by new, tougher housing codes and gentrification. Khraish is selling more than 100 homes to former tenants and conveying half a dozen houses to elderly tenants who can’t qualify for mortgages under an arrangement called life estates.

The mayor and the city manager have come up with not one thing — nothing — to help hold together neighborhoods threatened by gentrification. Yet Khraish is the slumlord. And the mayor wants civility.

In calling for civility, the mayor seemed to conflate it with regionalism, doing so barely 24 hours before a serious showdown in which an especially sleazy assault by the suburbs threatened the city’s interests.

Thank goodness the next day, Tuesday, when the board of directors of Dallas Area Rapid Transit met in a special called meeting, the city’s appointed members were able to just barely shoot down and stave off a disastrous borrowing program that would have spelled potential ruin for an entire swath of downtown Dallas.

This is how close it was: Had the Dallas City Council not moved successfully last month to remove a single turncoat member from the DART board, his one vote Tuesday would have tipped the board vote in favor of a billion-dollar borrowing plan for a new rail route to serve the suburbs.

Had that happened, DART would have maxed out its credit so badly that it probably would not have been able to afford to put a new second line through downtown in a subway tunnel, given the federal cutbacks President Donald Trump is expected to impose. Instead, the badly needed new second rail line through downtown — which DART has to build soon to keep the whole system afloat — would have to be a cheap-fix surface line through downtown traffic.

We already have one like that. A second surface line downtown would serve as yet another land-fouling, traffic-snarling, corrosive discouragement of downtown development for decades.

Fortunately for the city, a fistful of urban-minded members of the DART board were able to summon just enough votes Tuesday to deprive backers of the borrowing program of the two-thirds majority they needed. Five members of the board saved the city’s bacon. So, no, this was not a question of civility. This was a question of survival.

The mayor said in his speech Monday: “We can debate regionalism versus ‘Dallas first.’ But it is a false choice. We all live in Dallas, in Dallas County, in our region, in Texas, in the U.S.A., in the world. That is our reality.”

No. It’s not a false choice. It’s a real choice. A hard choice. Some of us live in Dallas, the city. Some live in Dallas, the suburbs. Our interests do not merely diverge. They collide, as they did Tuesday. Calling it a false choice, schmoozing it over with platitudes about regionalism is just a way to throw the game to the suburbs. In moments like this, disguising real conflict with talk of civility is a con and a cheat. When we need to fight, we need to fight, not make nice and lose.

The truly sleazy thing about the special, hurry-up DART board meeting was that it came 24 hours before the Dallas City Council was to appoint new members to the DART board, which happens today. In other words, the suburban interests were trying to get the DART board to sign on the dotted line for the billion-dollar loan 24 hours before the Dallas City Council would appoint new members who might oppose the loan.

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No civility before its time.
Everett Collection
But everybody loves civility. Last weekend, The Dallas Morning News published an op-ed essay by a former suburban city manager, Ron Whitehead of Addison, offering a curious proposal. The Dallas City Council, Whitehead seemed to suggest, needed to do the right thing and appoint people to the DART board who could not be counted on to do what the Dallas City Council wants them to do.

“Everyone is watching to see who the Dallas City Council will name to the DART board this week,” Whitehead said in his piece. “Will Dallas appoint members who always favor the council's position, or will it select representatives who will do what is right for the entire region? This is why many of the suburbs didn't join DART originally.”

I am a little thrown by that last line. Are you? This is why the suburbs didn’t join, why? OK, I’m not even going to try to parse that one here. I think it comes out of that same soft, smoky realm where people call for civility as a way of saying they would like their competitors to be nice, to be polite, to just do the right thing for once and throw the game.

In his speech Monday, the mayor said, “We must ask ourselves: Do we want to be governed, or do we want to be entertained? Do we want to be thoughtful about finding solutions that are best for all of Dallas, or do we want to motivate our base?”

OK, I guess I get that. I mean, frankly, if I only had two choices for the rest of my life, be governed or be entertained, I might lean toward entertained. But I see what he means. The problem I have — maybe it’s nit-picking — is this: Speaking as an American, I don’t really want to be governed. I want to govern. I want City Hall to do what we tell it to do.

What we tell it to do should be to stick up for our interests, and where our interests clearly collide with other interests, I want City Hall to fight for our interests.

Rawlings quoted Lincoln:

“Lincoln’s thought gives us guidance in our governance of our great city. He said: ‘Let us neither express, nor cherish, any harsh feeling toward any citizen who, by his vote, has differed with us. Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.’”

I agree 100 percent. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any way we can ask Mr. Lincoln how he feels about a subway downtown — thanks a lot, John Wilkes Booth. So, just as with civility and regionalism, I’m all for the bonds of fraternal feeling. When the time is right.

I wish it could be after we win. I accept that it might be after we lose. But I know it’s not before we play.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze