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Deaf Leppert, Sheriff Lupe Gets a New Foe and Breathing in Some Smelly Truth

"No, you're not Mayor Tom. Excuse me. Sorry. Thought you were the mayor. Hello ...?"
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Well, it’s time to admit the obvious. The Tom Leppert I thought I knew was a fake. Fake. Fake. Fake. Fake. Fake. As Elaine might say.

No matter how hard I picked on Leppert during the mayoral race, mocking the candidate for his packaged answers, trite stump speeches and odd facial twitches, he always took my calls and answered my questions. He refrained from personal attacks and ran an honest campaign that, while not chock full of ideas or details or vision or policy (you get the point), was still an open-minded, reasonably progressive enterprise that searched for votes in all corners of the city. I kinda figured that despite his being the Citizens Council candidate, he’d still be fair and curious and even unpredictable once elected mayor.

Turns out, I was right. For a few days at least. Because as we've chronicled countless times on Unfair Park -- like, just a few minutes ago -- the Trinity River toll road debate has brought out the worst in our new mayor, turning an otherwise smart, honest man into a calculating, disingenuous good old boy. How so? Let's recap after the jump, this being the last week before the vote on Proposition 1 and all.

It all began in July, when city council member Angela Hunt announced she had enough signatures to generate a vote on the fate of the toll road. Leppert rather loudly claimed there was evidence of fraud and asked for an investigation by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who had other things to worry about -- like freeing innocent inmates wrongfully convicted by his Republican predecessors.

Of course, it was ridiculous for Leppert to go public with his suspicions, particularly since the city secretary already certified that Hunt had enough valid signatures, no matter what. But it certainly looked like Leppert was hoping to, well, poison the jury, and Watkins wanted no part in the mayor’s little scheme. “This to me, on the outset, looks like someone is trying to determine the outcome of this election, “Watkins told The Dallas Morning News. “It's unfair.” Nothing ever came of it.

Leppert then handed out his committee assignments, and every single council member could boast of at least one leadership spot -- except Hunt, a second-termer. Leppert had no graceful explanation for his snub, trying instead to spin it as the incidental byproduct of his intricate decision-making processes. Nobody bought it.

Leppert seemed gracious enough at a Trinity River debate with Hunt in Oak Cliff, a noteworthy accomplishment considering she and former council member Sandy Greyson wiped the floor with him and his droll sidekick, former council member Veletta Lill. But perhaps after having Hunt rough him up in more debates, often shoving him into a corner where his every word drew groans from the audience, Leppert choose to strike back with his lowest moment yet: that well-publicized e-mail in which he belittled Hunt as nothing more than a nuisance:

“You line up all the funding and resources and start to bring this visionary project to life,“ Leppert’s message read. “But, then, one person shows up, late in the game, doesn’t like what everyone else has worked hard to develop, and launches a campaign to undermine all the good work, expertise and promises.”

Ultimately, it was nothing less than condescending for Leppert to portray Hunt as nothing more than a disgruntled voice in the wilderness. It strikes me as the worst vestige of the sexist corporate world I always figured Leppert was above.

Leppert also sat by and did nothing as Carol Reed personalized the campaign against Hunt. Leppert had told The Dallas Morning News that his side’s argument “has nothing to do with individuals at all.” Reed, who ran Leppert’s smart, upstanding mayoral campaign, had told me earlier she had no plans to make the debate personal, other than to use Hunt’s name as a way to merely remind voters who the players were.

Then, last month, everyone in Dallas, it seemed, received that infamous mailer with the foreboding tagline, "Don’t Let Angela Hunt send more than a $1 billion dollars down the river,” as though this entire vote were about stopping one person. That mailer, which mentioned Hunt’s name several times, was also baldly inaccurate: No one from the Vote No! Save the Trinity side could give The News’ Dave Levinthal so much as an itemized breakdown of the amount. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, meanwhile, has already made it clear that voting against the toll road doesn’t jeopardize any federal funding for the project. Indeed, President Bush took care of that today, all by his lonesome.

But let’s not get too worked up over facts. In hindsight, Leppert previewed his penchant for stretching the truth when he claimed during the mayor’s race to have moved a “$4 billion company to Dallas,” referring to his tenure as the CEO of Turner Construction. In fact, as we later reported, Turner Construction didn’t really make its presence felt in Dallas. The company’s public relations, sales and marketing officers remained in New York, while its new CEO and vice president work out of Manhattan as well. In fact, out of the company’s nine-person management team, only one worked in Dallas. Yet none of that stopped Leppert.

Were it not for the Trinity, we could probably credit Leppert for being a remarkably effective mayor. In just a four short months in office, he helped pass a budget that calls for 200 more cops, while only calling for a modest tax increase. He also proved to be politically shrewd by lining up enough votes to scrap the city’s controversial alarm policy, while still retaining the adoration of the council members who voted on the other side. He seems genuinely committed to helping revitalize southern Dallas, working particularly well with council member Dwaine Caraway on drawing attention to the area’s scattered nests of drug houses. The two, as others have already pointed out, make for an unlikely, if very good, team. We never saw Laura Miller work this way with a black council member.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Leppert’s side wins next week. Our mayor is a workhorse and can be a very charming, engaging presence. But I wonder if that’s the worst thing that can happen to him. For one, he’ll now have to deal with a permanent constituency of dedicated voters who are going to view him as nothing more than a Citizen Council pawn. Worst of all, though, is that if Leppert’s side wins, we’re actually going to have to try to build the toll road. We already know, thanks to Jim Schutze’s persistent snooping, that the price tag for the road will likely be a lot higher than what Leppert has consistently said it would be.

We also know that even if the road is approved, it will be at least 18 months, if not longer, before the feds review the environmental impact statements. Then there’s the entire issue of whether the road can be built in the first place, located as it is in a floodway.

I have two guesses: The first is that the Vote No! side ekes out a tiny victory next week. The second is that five years from now, there’s no toll road between the levees or any plan for there to be one in the near future. Our mayor will have lost for winning. If he’s our mayor then at all.

Sam I Am

Next spring’s Dallas County Sheriff’s race is going to be more crowded than Lower Greenville during an Avi Adelman vacation.

Sam Allen, a 60-year-old career cop, has filed to run against Lupe Valdez in the Democratic primary. Allen joins Pete Schulte, an attorney and former police officer as well, in the race to unseat the embattled incumbent. About 45 Republicans are running as well, but, as much as I like to procrastinate, writing about Republicans in Dallas County seems like a far less productive use of my time than logging on to ESPN.com.

Unlike Valdez and Schulte, Allen comes to the race with an extensive local law enforcement background. After a stint at the McKinney Police Department, he worked in Garland for nearly 20 years serving in a variety of posts, from patrolman to narcotics officer. He also served as the chief of police in Lockhart for two years before moving back to Dallas so that he could adopt his grandson. Currently, Allen is serving as the chief of police of the Lancaster Independent School District.

“I’ve been a career cop all my life, and I don’t need to be trained how to do it,” he says in a not-so-subtle jab at Valdez’s inability to pass the state’s law enforcement exam in May 2006.

Allen says he’ll work hard to alleviate overcrowding in the Dallas County Jail, which has failed inspection every year that Valdez has been in office while also being the unflattering subject of a federal lawsuit. He also insists he’ll do what he can to make sure that non-violent offenders receive a strict probation instead of serving time behind bars. The mentally ill receive the help they need, Allen says.

“I think Dallas has enough faith-based and mental health agencies around to be able to help those people,” he says. “Do we need to turn them loose on the public? No, but they don’t need to be in jail.”

Allen ran in the Democratic primary in 2004 but finished behind both Valdez and Jim Foster, which is sort of like losing an acting contest to both Jessicas Biel and Alba. But Allen says he wasn’t prepared to run a winning race last time. He says now he’ll have money to be competitive -- and to afford a campaign manager, former Don Hill advisor Saundra Lohr.

“The Democratic party should be looking for qualified candidates and not just supporting the incumbent,” Lohr says. “Do I think Lupe Valdez is vulnerable? Absolutely.”

Air Heads

I think most of you know this already, but let me write it anyway: The proposed Trinity River toll road will not improve air quality in Dallas. That should be pretty obvious. You can’t pave your way out of a smog and ozone problem. If you could Los Angeles, would be a refuge for asthmatics.

Still, everyone from Tom Leppert to my own council member -- the wide, soft and rangy Sheffie Kadane, who doesn’t look like he takes advantage of any world-class parks -- says the proposed toll road will improve air quality by reducing congestion.

At times, the road’s supposed environmental goodness seems to be its biggest selling point. Its backers have written it on mailers, argued it at forums and touted it before reporters. The problem is that people who know better, from city planning experts to environmentalists, say they’re wrong. Honestly, when I’ve asked various experts about it, they've acted like I questioned the shape of the earth.

“As far as ozone goes, there’s no benefit that I can see,” says Kara Kockelman, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “You’re going to induce more travel, people are going to take more trips because it’s not so congested anymore, and people are going to resume driving during peak rush hours.”

“I believe it’s a lot of hot air,” says Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. “The history of road building is that it always increases the volume of traffic and seldom reduces pollution.”

Some experts I talked to said that a new highway can sometimes reduce smog early on if it cuts down on the number of cars idling inefficiently in traffic. But that doesn’t help over the long haul.

“The empirical evidence would show that building a road to relive congestion is really a short-term solution,” says Ramone Alvarez, the senior scientist at the Texas office of Environmental Defense. “You might see some benefits early. You might see a little drop in congestion after the completion of the road, but that quickly disappears over time as people start driving more than they previously did.”

Of course, then there’s the whole issue of sprawl. One professor I talked to, who preferred not to go on the record, says that the day the toll road is approved, developers will start eying parcels on the outskirts of the city. They’ll plop down subdivisions of $200,000 homes in Irving, and then little strip malls will pop up to tend to the new subdivision. If you’ve lived here for, oh, five weeks, you know the drill. More and more people working in Dallas will be able to live outside of the city thanks to the toll road. They’ll be taking longer trips and clogging up roads. Then we’ll need to build another highway for them. Anyone know a good spot? --Matt Pulle

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