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Don Hill Goes Down the River with Sam Coats and Angela Hunt. Say What?

Don Hill, we love your style -- goin' all aginner eight days before the election. Love it. Fabulous. Keep it up. You're now officially Jim Schutze's kind of guy.

A mere afterthought in the mayor’s race just a few weeks ago, the Trinity River Project -- specifically, the fate of the Trinity Parkway -- has taken over the election, just as Baron Davis took over the first round of the NBA playoffs. Amazing, the seemingly arcane question of whether or not a toll road should be constructed inside the levees of a tiny, muddy river may determine who leads the ninth-largest city in the country. How is that possible?

In an election in which everyone started off saying the same things and most of the candidates make Wick Allison look like Stephen Jackson, the Trinity River Project and Angela Hunt’s petition calling for a referendum on the planned toll road has caused the only significant stir in the race. It did this very afternoon, when Don Hill went to City Hall for a press conference during which he made a rather startling announcement.

Today, the mayor pro tem announced his support for Hunt’s petition by signing the danged thing. He had been flirting with doing so for weeks. Last month, at a forum near Love Field, he said that he voted for the parks and the sailboats, not the high-speed toll road. But it wasn’t until today that Hill unequivocally threw his signature on and support behind Hunt’s petition.

“I think we need to own up to the fact that it has changed,” he told Unfair Park this afternoon. “And because it has we have to be able to trust our citizens to make their case.”

Dallas Morning Views -- the blog of Dallas' Only Daily's editorial board, which has supported the toll road just as a good father supports his drug-addled child, which is to say faithfully and without question -- tried to dismiss the significance of Hill’s stance by saying that he was only signing the petition and not actually signaling his dislike of the city’s current location for the toll road. But if some of the editorial writers did this thing where you call somebody and try to understand where they are coming from -- it’s called reporting -- here’s what Don Hill would have told them about the toll road, because it's what he told us:

“I disagree with the mayor that this is what we voted for in 1998.”

“The truth has to be recognized that because it is substantially different than what we talked about in 1998, the citizens need to go back and talk about what they want and a vision for the Trinity that makes sense.”

“From a Southern sector perspective, nobody is excited about a toll road.”

I don’t know if Hill’s support of Hunt’s petition is heartfelt of politically calculated. Certainly, taking the agin-it position has helped another mayoral candidate break out of the pack: Sam Coats, the former CEO of Schlotzky’s who no one had heard of when the campaign began, garnered a heap of publicity for his exuberant support of Hunt’s petition. He spoke out against the toll road early in his campaign, but when Hunt began her petition effort a few weeks back, Coats began to surge.

Suddenly Coats signs popped up in people’s yards, and local blogs hemmed and hawed about him -- chief among them Unfair Park, we're well aware, thank you -- while ignoring some of the other high-profile candidates. Soon voters discovered that Coats' distrust of building a high-speed, non-access toll road through the middle of a park was actually emblematic of his campaign: smart, independent and populist, if occasionally short on details.

Perhaps both Coats and Hill are trying to establish themselves as contrarian candidates -- Hill, a little late in the game, perhaps. After all, who would have thought that eight days before an election, a frontrunner would think he could get a leg up on the competition by saying he didn’t like the location of a toll road. Still, what does this say about how people view the city’s progress on the Trinity River Project? And what does it say about this mayor’s race?

OK, now it’s time for your top seven.

1. Don Hill: Every week after I list Don Hill as No. 1 one on my list, people far smarter than I tell me I’m wrong. He has no support north of the Trinity because of the FBI investigation and little south of the Trinity because he has Al Gore’s Tennessee problem, which is to say that the mayor pro tem has taken his natural base for granted these past eight years. That's what politicos say. Like they know. But Hill's also got to face the obvious: Other candidates -- among them Coats, Tom Leppert, Ed Oakley and Max Wells -- are out there trying to carve up the Southern section as though it were a Thanksgiving turkey at a soup kitchen.

I listen to Those In The Know because, well, they claim they know what they are talking about, while I probably don’t. But then I ask them a question: OK, who should I put number one in my unofficial and unreliable poll? And then, all of the sudden, these smart and honorable people who dutifully remind me of my ignorance can’t come up with a better alternative. So I return to my guesses and my hunches. I wish, dear Friend of Unfair Park, I had more for you than that. But I don’t. And so you’ll have to settle for this explanation for the 23rd straight week:

As I see it, Hill is a lock to win all four council districts represented by African-American council members. Maxine Thornton-Reese, James Fantroy and Leo Chaney are all endorsing him (along with state Senator Royce West, who represents those areas), and the fourth is Hill’s current district, which he has won four times. Having garnered the endorsements of the Tejano Democrats and Hispanic leaders such as Domingo Garcia and Hector Flores, Hill should come do well in Hispanic districts -- first or second in Steve Salazar’s West Dallas-to-Northwest Dallas district and second in Oakley’s North Oak Cliff-area district and first or second in Elba Garcia’s Oak Cliff-area district. He should finish in the top three in Pauline Medrano’s West Dallas District. Even if Hill gets his ass kicked in the voter-rich districts of Lakewood, Lake Highlands, North Dallas, how does Hill not get the 20,000 votes needed to make the runoff? What other candidate has as good a chance to win or come in second in seven out of 14 council districts?

I’m not putting Hill at No. 1 one purely because of math. Hill has been a stud on the campaign trail, and, along with Coats and Leppert, he has been one of the few stars of the race. He can work a room, he knows the issues, and he can espouse a vision for Dallas without leaving the land of specificity.

2. Tom Leppert: Leppert makes a great first impression and has an incredible resume. He was a very well-regarded CEO of a huge $8 billion dollar construction company -- even if he never made it a Dallas company like he said he did. He’s won the endorsement of The Dallas Morning News and has the unofficial backing of the Dallas Citizens Council. In the southern sector, he has the support of the influential Reverend Frederick Haynes. He’s running a very smooth campaign.

Now, we’ve taken some shots at Leppert -- on Unfair Park and in the paper -- and Leppert still takes our calls and still takes our questions. He doesn’t express irritation or anger and instead simply explains where he is coming from in a very matter-of-fact way. If you think this is just a smart way to campaign, fine, but many candidates before him would have lost their patience by now. I think this says a lot about him and his campaign.

3. Max Wells: Wells will run very strong in Far North Dallas, Lake Highlands and Lakewood. If John Wiley Price comes through for Wells in the Southern sector (and I have my doubts), Max Wells is in the runoff. (If he doesn’t, then Price will have a worse summer than Dirk.) Wells started off kind of slow in this campaign, but I think he’s coming on strong. Kind of like the Mavericks, only the exact opposite.

4. Sam Coats: It wouldn’t surprise me of Coats made the runoff, with Hill, Leppert or Wells. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if he came in seventh behind all the viable candidates. This is called "hedging your bets.” My apologies to Howard Fineman.

I do think Coats' early backing of Hunt was huge. It helped him stand out as the one old guy who is not married to the old way of doing things at City Hall. And once people started paying attention to him, they realized that he had a lot to say about other issues, from historical preservation to illegal immigration.

5. Gary Griffith: All signs from early voting suggest that turnout will be low again this year. No more than 100,000 total votes. So Griffith’s cafeteria campaign -- a full serving of Lakewood, a side of East Dallas, a side of Lake Highlands, a gravy bowl full of North Dallas Republicans and, of course, a cheese platter -- is going to make him viable. Everybody likes to dismiss Griffith because he has been a non-factor on the campaign trail and as a council member he didn’t distinguish himself as a leader. Actually, those would be two good reasons to dismiss a candidate. What am I doing putting him fifth? Ok, let’s just move on.

6. Ed Oakley: For an alleged frontrunner with tons of dough, Oakley's running a ridiculously backwards campaign: No TV ads until now, nothing YouTubey like Coats, no independent stances, no anything interesting at all. Like Griffith, Oakley hasn’t done anything to pick up new votes since the campaign has started, but I keep on saying this and I won’t stop now: Oakley is probably the savviest campaigner of the bunch. He knows which precincts to target and which ones to ignore, and he’s probably working harder than anyone, other than Leppert. So I can’t write him off just yet.

7. Darrell Jordan: He never found that one issue to distinguish himself from all the other candidates. On the Trinity River, he’s neither in the Leppert-Oakley camp or the Coats and now Hill camp. On crime, he’s just as pro-police as all the other white guys, only, unlike Wells, he hasn’t come up with a viable plan to pay for hiring the hundreds of new officers he wants to put on the payroll. He doesn’t have Leppert’s presence or money, and he doesn’t have Griffith’s built-in constituency. In a smaller field, the personable Jordan would have fared better, but in a race of 245 candidates, 240 of whom are elderly white males, I don’t know what Jordan did to stand out. Maybe he should have tried to take it to the basket instead of settling for threes...oh, wait, wrong topic. --Matt Pulle

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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