Dallas Politics Grows Up at Last as Challengers Stir the Pot

Maybe you shouldn’t read this. I could be off. You know how they say a watched pot never boils? I have been staring at the pot of Dallas politics for so damn long, it may have affected my thinking. I have even had moments of doubting the existence of the pot. That’s how out there it gets.

But I swear to you when I watched this recent City Council election I had the distinct impression I was seeing bubbles lifting up off the bottom of the pot. Something new, something happening. No, not a boil. Not even a simmer yet. But bubbles. Real bubbles.

In order for the bubbles to happen, other things had to happen first. Precursors. We had to have the arrival of a lot of young people of all stripes, political and ethnic, united by wanting to live in the city. Some of those people had to wander into elective politics, by choice or by accident. But that's not it, yet — not The Thing.

The Thing is organization. In American politics at every level, the only thing that can effect enduring change is organization. And before this election, Dallas only had one form of political organization capable of extending its reach beyond a single City Council or school board district election.

Since the 1930s Dallas has always had versions of the same political machine, called different things but basically the same thing. It's the top end of the social/business pyramid — a small group of people who can sway city elections this way and that. Now it's a small consortium of private organizations — the Dallas Citizens Council, the Breakfast Club, maybe the Salesmanship Club, the Chamber.

The basic footprint of power was probably the same in most of the country's newer cities throughout the previous century, especially in western cities where there just hadn't been enough history yet to afford development of multiple diverse, rooted, organized and competitive political organizations. There was always only one real power center in Dallas. Money. Business. Who and what else was going to rule?

That's why, in terms of politics, we just haven't had much. Real politics, public politics out in the daylight where people can see it happening, is like a prize fight. You can't just have one guy walking around the ring in his shorts, holding his gloves up in the air. Great for him, but that's not a fight.


n this election we saw the early stirrings of a competitive machine. Two sitting City Council members, Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, broke all the previous protocols and campaigned in a coordinated and orchestrated fashion for candidates in districts not their own. I can remember a day in Dallas when that would have been called communism. There might have been indictments.

Griggs and Kingston were joined in that effort by recent former council person Angela Hunt, who probably has the highest name identification of anyone in leadership in Dallas today. She sort of made them the Three Musketeers. And formidable.

They didn't always work in lockstep, but I would argue nevertheless that the biggest upset victory in the election, Mark Clayton's win without a runoff in District 9, was strongly influenced by the efforts of the new and still neonatal Musketeers.

The Three Musketeers spoke directly to what may have seemed a narrow single issue, that stupid underwater toll road the old dudes want to build alongside the Trinity River. But they were also speaking more broadly to a much bigger and potentially more powerful set of issues having to do with the kind of city we want Dallas to become, the kind of life we want to have in it.

Two extremely interesting new organizations appeared more or less at the sides of the Musketeers, if not directly behind their banner — The Dallas Green Alliance and The Coalition for a New Dallas. Each of these organizations was led by people with serious political chops, several of whom had already fought and acquitted themselves honorably against City Hall and the old Citizens Council cabal, taking scalps on contentious issues like The Dallas Arboretum's colonial ambitions for White Rock Lake, fracking in parks and preservation of the Great Trinity Forest.

All of that is probably inside baseball for most people in the city. Who dominates the City Council, what happens to the toll road, who gets his ticket punched at City Hall: Those are pretty arcane considerations. But when I look at those early bubbles in the pot, I can't help thinking how different life becomes for everybody when a place matures and becomes capable of sustaining real politics, real competition.

The easy fingerprints to find for the Citizens Council's exercise of power are in the campaign contribution reports. Right after the May 9 election I wrote about Rick Callahan, the incumbent in District 5, a region of far southeast Dallas where it would be hard to imagine any of the Park Cities-dwelling moneybags of the Citizens Council giving a fig about representation — if it weren't for the stupid toll road. Callahan, a staunch supporter of the stupid toll road — all the way across the city from his own district — managed to pull in a relative king's ransom of Citizens Council cash in the last month of his campaign after toll road opponents naively bragged that he might lose.

There you have it, you could say. That's how they operate. They see their interest. They write checks. But I really think that's the least of how they operate.

In a town with only one pyramid, there are no options. Find your way up the one pyramid of power, or stay at the bottom. In that kind of atmosphere, real power is wielded through social acceptance and the threat of exclusion. Where there is no other side to join, only mavericks stand alone.

That's a very tough position to maintain. I have watched people do it for 30 years, and I have enormous admiration for them. But in watching all of them — Lee Simpson on the council in the early 1980s, Laura Miller as mayor in 2002, Hunt on the council in 2005, a good many others in between — I have always been struck by how bitterly lonely their positions must have been on bad days.

When people piss off the pyramid, the pyramid fights back with a weapon that can have more bite than money. Shunning. Everyone knows who has been shunned. Nothing is more frightening to some people than the threat of shunning in a town without pity. A cosmological frostbite nips at the toes and nose. People start to feel like the little match girl out in the snow, staring in at the rich man's Christmas.

People like Simpson, Miller and Hunt do it anyway. They're the kind of people who can shake it off and stand their ground. But they are quite rare. In a one-horse town, most people see shunning as death.

Shunning is also probably an expression of human nature, good, bad and ugly. It's going to happen anyway, no matter what kind of community or political arrangement may be the context. People who have power will always get angry when somebody else comes between them and what they want. Their impulse will always be to turn their backs on the interloper, to shun.

But it makes a huge difference when there's a big house across the street with steaming beef on the table, chestnuts roasting on the fire and a sign out front that says, "Match Girls Welcome." A huge difference. People get more brave when they know there's another open door somewhere, another pyramid to climb. Competition and real alternatives breathe oxygen into a place.

Right after the election, Stephen Young wrote a piece for Unfair Park in which he analyzed the vote and was able to show that voters in the election were roughly evenly divided on the litmus issue of the stupid toll road. The numbers he showed were not far off from the results in the 2007 Angela Hunt referendum on the stupid toll road. Apparently we have been pretty evenly divided on the stupid toll road issue for a long period of time.

That means that in a truly competitive atmosphere that question is more or less up for grabs, and the best grab will go to the best organization. So far and unsurprisingly, that prize has always gone to the Citizens Council types, not because they were the best organization, but because they were the only one. From here on out, it won't be that easy.

Even beyond the specific and competing visions that different sets of people may have for the city's future, the mere fact of competition is about to make this a better place to be. You know that old saying, "People were more polite in the Old West when everybody was carrying a sidearm." Well, in politics, organization is the sidearm. Life will be better with more of them.

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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