Last week, November 5, election day, there was one election you missed for sure if you do not happen to live in the part of Dallas affected by it. Come to think of it, you probably missed it even if you do live there. Voter turnout in that area was somewhere south of 6 percent.
And it was a rout anyway. In a special election to fill an empty seat on the school board, Miguel Solis trounced his opponent, Kristi Lara, by a margin of 2 to 1. Not exactly a cliffhanger.
But it was a huge and dramatic election — a scene right out of the movies. Let me tell you why.
For decades, maybe half a century, this city, like most American cities, has been mired in political catatonia concerning the public school system. Wave after wave of would-be reformers, most of them sincere, some of them charlatans, have rushed the walls of this mighty gray fortress only to be repelled by the boiling oil and cannonballs of the politically organized teachers unions and a minority leadership that was quick to cry racism.
So two big things came out of the District 8 school board race last week. Now we know when we talk about minority leadership, we need to say which. Most of the black leadership in the old segregation neighborhoods, still bitterly opposed to anything that might erode their influence on school hiring and firing, leaned toward Lara, whom they perceived as friendly to their cause. But Solis won his race with solid support from the League of United Latin American Citizens and other Hispanic leadership in a school district where 68.7 percent of the citywide student body is Hispanic.
The other big thing is this, and I do not say it to belittle anybody or hurt people's feelings personally: The vaunted political machinery of the teachers unions must need some oil. A lot of oil.
Their support for Lara brought her precious little in terms of votes and even less in money. Take away a couple of pissed-off rich supporters with axes to grind, and Lara was high and dry to the bitter end.
For the unions and black leadership, this was all about getting rid of Mike Miles, the school superintendent. Miles is pushing a program of reforms that would entail doing away with the time-honored seniority pay scale for teachers in favor of some form of merit pay. The hope was that Lara, considered a lock-cinch vote to fire Miles, would join four other anti-Miles votes on the nine-member board and provide the edge needed to send him packing before merit pay could become reality.
In addition to broad Hispanic grassroots support, Solis had the support of a lot of well-heeled business types in the reform movement. Maybe it was always a given that he would have more money. But in a low-turnout election like this one, money is not everything. What the unions promised Lara was more about boots on the ground and technical electoral know-how — knocking on doors, getting people to vote early and loading the old folks into vans on vote day.
I kept my ear to the ground pretty closely during the early vote phase of this election. I don't live in the district, but I'm just outside it, and a lot of it is in my part of town, Old East Dallas, or, as we call it, Dallas' Bay of Political Pigs, the land of close-fought elections and swordplay worthy of Johnny Depp.
Certain kinds of people in this part of town are accustomed to getting calls and door knocks from certain kinds of campaigns. I kept asking. They all kept telling me they were picking up only radio silence from the Lara campaign.
To whatever extent the unions did mobilize, it was a notably ineffectual effort, according to the final turnout and tally. Meanwhile, if it hadn't been for those two pissed-off rich people with grudges, Lara would barely have had enough campaign money to cover a good month's cell phone bill.
In the two periodic finance reports filed by both campaigns so far, Solis showed contributions at eight times the amount raised by Lara — $80,962 to $9,820. Of Lara's relatively paltry showing in cash donations, 60 percent came from the two pissed people, attorney Lisa Blue and retired real estate tycoon Don Williams.
Blue was Lara's lawyer in a failed lawsuit alleging Solis had not met residency requirements for school trustee candidates. That suit included a demand for $100,000 from Solis and the school district. It's hard to figure how someone thought it was a good campaign plan to go into the school district's pocket for a hundred large while running for the school board.
As Eric Celeste pointed out last week at D Magazine, Blue has a longstanding professional relationship with Lara's other big donor, Don Williams, a retired real estate magnate who lives in Santa Fe now. Williams is furious with Miles because Miles ditched an educational program for Dallas schools that Williams and his wife were championing. Williams has been up there in his Indian mud castle ever since, fulminating and stamping the ground like Rumpelstiltskin, telling everyone he wants Miles fired. And that, of course, was just what Williams and Blue and the unions and black leadership all assumed Lara would help do if she won.
There was a sad note in all this. Several weeks before the election I had lunch with Lara and found a lot of what she had to say about schools and kids and the future of our society quite interesting. My personal take was that she vastly preferred talking about issues rather than mud-fighting. She did not strike me at all as the type to plunge into a nasty knife-wielding lawsuit.
The suit accused Solis of living in the wrong district and faking his residency in order to run. About 10 minutes after it was filed, Solis piled up all the rent receipts and affidavits and other records anyone could ask for to prove the charge was bullshit. And yet the lawsuit went on, with Blue champing at the bit to question Solis under oath about his loyalty to Miles rather than his residency.
So whose fight was this, anyway? Was Lara herself even fully aware what it was about? A week ago I called Lara for comment on a blog item I was preparing about her lawsuit. She called me back three days later to ask if it was too late to comment. I said it was too late, sadly, given that the item in question had been published three days prior, which she seemed not to know. Hey, people get busy, especially when they are running for office.
I like Lara. She's smart and idealistic, an Occupy Wall Street type, which is my type. But when she called, I did attempt to chat her up a bit about Lisa Blue and the lawsuit. Blue is about as big a gorilla as exists anywhere in the Texas political landscape, and she's one of the larger gorillas in the nation. She's the widow of the late Fred Baron, best known for paying off Rielle Hunter, the girlfriend whose saga cratered John Edwards' political career.
When Lara and I chatted about it, she conceded to me that she really didn't know who Lisa Blue was when Blue first turned up offering pro bono legal services, the bill for which I assume we will see in some later accounting. We never got to the topic of Don Williams and whether Lara knew him from Adam before he turned up in her life as well.
So what was the lawsuit really all about anyway? Solis is a 27-year-old former school teacher now employed by a software company owned by a major backer of the reform effort. He lives in apartments, not castles. A reasonable expectation might have been that a young person in his position, looking at a lawsuit capable of ruining him financially and with a nationally known gorilla across the table, might think about folding his tent and calling it a day.
But he did not. Another thing that shows up in his campaign finance reports: two heavy-duty lawyers rushed forward as soon as the suit was filed and contributed $22,930 worth of their time to his defense. Many of his better cash contributions rolled in after the suit was filed.
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Two different important supporters of Solis, speaking to me not for attribution because they both had other business they didn't want associated with this battle, told me the Solis camp was already hearing and seeing what I thought I was seeing in the Lara campaign. Nothing. The big scary bad union-organized voter effort wasn't happening. Who knows why? It just wasn't there.
Solis' backers told me they saw the lawsuit as simple last-minute desperation thuggery — an attempt by the other side to bluff Solis out of the race because they knew they couldn't beat him at the polls. And here is where the screw turns and this election becomes huge.
I don't know whether this is entirely fair, but I do know that some partisans on the school reform side had been growing deeply frustrated with what they saw as a lack of courage among many self-declared supporters of reform. One person close to the center of the fight even described Miles to me as Gary Cooper walking down the main street of Hadleyville in High Noon with his gun on his hip while the shopkeepers and townspeople all wished him luck, then ducked inside for safety.
To whatever extent that was ever true or untrue, the opposite of it happened in the Solis-Lara race when Blue showed up with her lawsuit. The townspeople poured into the streets to get Gary Cooper's back on this one, and they won the damn fight. Two to one. An outcome that will not soon be forgotten. That's why this election was huge.