Don't You Wish Your Mayor Was Hot Like Me

On June 26, 2005, on a Sunday morning after church, attorney John Barr called 80 of his firm's lawyers to a meeting at his office in Oak Cliff. Everyone was invited except Don Hill, who was unaware his colleagues were gathering to discuss his future. A few years earlier, Barr had hired Hill after he opposed him in a case. Barr was impressed by how the labor lawyer and city council member sought an amicable resolution to the matter rather than dragging it out in litigation. On this morning, however, Barr was ready to fire Hill.

You couldn't have blamed him. Earlier that week, FBI agents arrived at Barr's law firm with search warrants. Dallas police officers blocked the street while the local news media watched intently. A helicopter circled overhead. The authorities had come to comb through Hill's law office in search of records tying him to developer Brian Potashnik, who was at the center of an alleged web of corruption at Dallas City Hall. For Barr, a reserve police officer for decades, the FBI knocking on his door was not exactly what he had in mind when he employed Hill.

Barr's firm had no ties to Potashnik, and nobody accused it of any wrongdoing. Still, the tough, outspoken attorney, who successfully defended former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles on two indictments, didn't want his firm's clients scared off by Hill's starring role in City Hall's latest ethical melodrama. Besides, it wasn't clear that he was worth the trouble. Although a talented, well-liked lawyer, Hill often saw himself as a city council member first and an attorney second. Once, he was late to a conference with the president of a Mexican airline because he was meeting with elderly women in South Dallas. The women were in the midst of a crisis: One of their neighbors chose to park his car on his front yard, often running over the ladies' flowers as he drove in and out.


Don Hill

To many, Hill's obligations at City Hall, where his influence as city council member often eclipsed that of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, made him less of a lawyer. The firm's secretaries sometimes had to call him two or three times to remind him of a meeting with a client, fearful that he'd be too focused on his council job to remember his appointments. It wasn't that Hill was a bad attorney. Barr says that he's never seen a lawyer do a better job of reconciling angry parties in a lawsuit. Clients prefer a quick and agreeable settlement to years of costly litigation, he says.

But Hill's real passion was for city government, even if it didn't pay the bills. Now his political life was on the verge of damaging his professional life. At the meeting, Barr gave the attorneys a simple option: "If anyone wants him to go and feels strongly about it," Barr remembers saying, "he's out of here."

The attorneys at Barr's firm take home a percentage of the firm's earnings, so if someone is not billing enough hours because he's keeping cars off of South Dallas lawns and, by the way, he just happens to be in the crosshairs of an FBI investigation, that's not good for anyone's business. But the lawyers wanted Hill to stay.

Now Hill is facing a different election. He is one of the front-runners in the race to be the next mayor of Dallas, even though the FBI investigation, which first came to light nearly two years ago, continues to trouble his campaign. He also has more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes. But just like that June morning, Hill has his supporters, including Barr, who is now working as his campaign treasurer.

"The city manager runs the town, not the mayor, but what Hill has is an ability to bring people of different viewpoints to a commonality of interests," Barr says. "If the people of Dallas want to vote for Don Hill because he's going to be efficient at running the government of Dallas, then the hell with them, that's not what he does, but that's not what the mayor does either."

What exactly does the mayor do? In Dallas, that's not particularly clear. Unlike mayors in nearly every other major American city, the mayor in Dallas can't set a budget, fire a police chief or negotiate single-handedly with a developer. Instead, the mayor is just one of 15 city council members—the first among equals, goes the tired refrain—whose authority is more symbolic than real. That's why someone like Hill, whose own treasurer complains about his lack of organization, can be a top-tier candidate. He doesn't have to manage the city, just help those who do.

"Is this the guy you want running your restaurant? Hell no," Barr says. "He doesn't have business acumen, but he does have an ability to bring people together to resolve conflict."

If Hill inspires a mix of confidence and unease, the other candidates aren't any better. From influential city council members such as Hill and Ed Oakley to highly regarded corporate executives such as Tom Leppert and Sam Coats, this race has a fine collection of résumés and biographies, but right now, at least, that's all.

With less than a month to go, the candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves, apparently by attempting to trot out the most compelling life story.

"I was raised by a single mom," Leppert said at a recent forum. "My father died when I was young."

Most people hesitate before talking about the death of a parent, but Leppert has made his father's untimely passing a regular part of his stump speech. He's casually mentioned it at forums in East Dallas and Oak Cliff; he brought it up in an interview at the West Village and used it in the first line of an ad. The best-funded candidate in the race, Leppert goes to great lengths to cast himself as anyone other than a politician, but who other than a politician would treat the death of his father as a talking point?

Let's not pick on Leppert. Everyone else seems to think that the way to be elected to a position of symbolic authority is to bask in the symbolism of folksy anecdotes, personal narratives and painfully awkward testimonials.

"I moved to Dallas in 1961. I have had a love affair with Dallas since then," said Max Wells at an East Dallas forum the night of the NCAA men's basketball championship game. "All of you here must have a love affair to be here, and to show you how much of a love affair I have, I'm an Ohio State fan."

All righty then.

It's not surprising that this sizable field can't produce a breakout candidate whom most people can isolate as being, if not superior, then at least substantially different from his competitors. This promises to be a low-turnout election that will almost certainly result in a runoff. Because of those dynamics, everyone's strategy is to play it safe, be nice and don't act too differently from everyone else lest you attract the wrong kind of attention. In other words, don't act like Laura Miller.

"This morning I saw five ducks cross a road where I live, and I thought to myself, 'That reminds me of the mayor's race,'" says Dallas City Council member Mitchell Rasansky. "Everyone is doing the same damn thing. I can't tell one duck from another."

There are times on the campaign trail when you can tell Hill apart from the gaggle. At forums across the city, Hill often flashes the engaging, affable personality that saved his law job nearly two years ago. He loves to share credit for City Hall's triumphs—or at least his view of them—with other members of the council, including Oakley and Gary Griffith, his opponents for mayor. He doesn't try to scare prospective voters with dire warnings of crime, unlike Wells, who at one forum at an East Dallas church told voters that none of them wanted to be the last one to walk outside to their cars. Hill hasn't even made crime the centerpiece of his campaign, preferring to emphasize economic revitalization. He's focused particularly on the business opportunities that will stem from the inland port, the southern Dallas facility he helped start that will process cargo arriving from the deep-water ports of Mexico. Hill's is a platform borne more of hope than fear, based on the belief that development and job growth can do more to combat gangs, drugs and violence than any other plan.

"I know that many people—including my friends at the Morning News—feel that our No. 1 issue is crime," he said at a recent forum. "Our No. 1 responsibility is to provide you with a safe environment, but my vision is to be what this city has traditionally been—a city about business, a city about logistics.

"Yes, we can have more officers," he added. "But really it's about economic development."

Perhaps more important, Hill, unlike his competitors, has the gift of being able to deliver a clear and consistent message, no matter which group he is addressing. He says that of all the candidates, no one has played a greater role in the city's apparent good tidings—from the forests of cranes downtown to the city's dropping crime rate. You can debate his view of Dallas' fortunes—although none of his polite rivals have chosen to—but at least Hill is running for office representing something, even if it's the status quo. And no other candidate is a better emissary for the established way of doing things than Hill, a mayor pro tem who is on the winning side of just about every fight at City Hall, from defeating a referendum that would have increased the mayor's power to defeating Miller's plan to deny a tax break to oilman Ray Hunt.

"The message that I have, and the message that you have given us, is that you believe we're going in the right direction," he said at a recent forum. "I come here not representing great change but come here representing that we're going in the right direction."

But is this the best Dallas can do? A stay-the-course candidate caught in the crosshairs of a protracted FBI investigation? The problem is we don't really know, because nobody else is distinguishing himself, except perhaps for Roger Herrera. An attorney with a rap sheet, Herrera recently suggested during a debate that one way Dallas can deal with its water sustainability issues is to urge hotels to discourage their guests from throwing their towels on the bathroom floor. Still, at least the boyish-looking Herrera is willing to eschew time-worn platitudes about his love for Dallas in favor of a more desperate pledge of devotion.

"I am offering you the next eight years of my life," he said at a forum in Oak Cliff. "They are probably the most productive years of my life. Please take me up on it."

You can gain at least a partial understanding of the 11 candidates by dumping them into four rather broad categories. You have a pair of status quo candidates—council members Hill and Oakley, who are promising to keep Dallas surging, which it is if you listen to their view of things. You have three candidates from outside City Hall—two avowed Republicans in Leppert and Darrell Jordan and loyal Democrat Coats—who each claim that they have a new way of addressing the city's old problems of crime, education and southern sector development.

The third category is rather murky. It includes two candidates who have City Hall experience—second-term city council member Griffith and former Mayor Pro Tem Wells—but don't have as rosy a vision of the city's fortunes as Hill and Oakley. But unlike the outsider candidates, Griffith and particularly Wells stress their familiarity with the mechanics of local government.

Finally, the last group of candidates includes those who have little chance of winning. This is in part because of their complete lack of credentials (Herrera and homeless transgender candidate Jennifer Gale), their lack of money (John Cappello and Edward Okpa), or their lack of any type of coherent, understandable message (all of them). In fact, what's most depressing about this marginalized cluster of mayoral aspirants is that none of them are using their long-shot status to raise issues that the mainstream guys are ignoring, except the ties that bind mankind.

"I care what kind of person you are," Herrera told prospective voters in Oak Cliff. "We're all human beings; we all have humanity in common."

In fact, the candidates seem to have just about everything else in common too. They are pro-development and anti-Farmers Branch; they want to hire more police officers and encourage growth in the southern sector. They blame—most of them at least—Laura Miller for losing the Cowboys and don't credit her for defeating TXU. We could go on, but you get the point. In the 2007 mayor's race, the candidates don't have dramatically different takes on the issues; what divides them is how they see the city.

To hear Oakley and Hill tell it, Dallas is in the midst of a renaissance. Cranes are flocking along Woodall Rodgers Freeway, beckoned by a kind and business-friendly council. Crime is down, and job opportunities in long-blighted southern neighborhoods are on the way up, thanks again to city council members who finally focused on this long-neglected swath south of the Trinity River. Dallas doesn't just have the potential to be a great city, it's already there.

Hill and Oakley have to take that position. They've been leaders of the current council and have prevailed in just about every fight at City Hall, usually at Miller's expense. Oakley and Hill can't run as change agents when they're as responsible for the status quo as anyone. It's an odd state of affairs when Oakley, who is openly gay, and Hill, who is openly black, are running as the face of the establishment, while aging white guys such as Leppert and Jordan act like they're the ambassadors of change and reform.

In fact, Hill and Oakley are running on almost identical platforms: Dallas is on the upswing, not because of local and national economic trends but because specific council initiatives helped development in and around downtown. New high-rises and shopping centers are helping grow the tax base, which last year allowed the council to pay for 150 additional police officers.

Hill and Oakley also point to how the council crafted a record-setting $1.35 billion bond package that the voters approved overwhelmingly in November. The package, which followed a $555 million bond initiative in 2003, will raise money for flood control and the city's aging infrastructure, with nearly 30 percent going toward upgrading shoddy streets. Council members also tacked $71 million onto the city manager's original package to fund various pork projects in their districts, although none of Oakley and Hill's rivals sees fit to criticize that.

"I helped set the policy and draft the two bond programs that put the city back on the right road," said Oakley during an interview at his office on Industrial Boulevard. "We're winning. We're winning the battle on attracting new businesses, new retail, new housing."

They're not winning, however, on many other fronts. To take just one, Dallas is around $10 billion behind on deferred maintenance, which, among other things, accounts for why parts of Dallas will flood after a few hours of heavy rain. If the council's policy of giving tax breaks to every developer who waddles up to the trough is a good thing, then why can't we pay for basic infrastructure needs?

There is a time and a place to debate how and when a city should award tax breaks, but apparently that time and place are not at any point during this campaign. Nobody in the mayor's race is challenging how the council rewards so many developers, allowing Oakley and Hill to boast about the cranes without holding them accountable for the roads.

"I think the average citizen wants to hear that we're not throwing money away in this city," says Rasansky, who along with Miller is a frequent dissenter on most tax abatement deals. "And we're not hearing it."

That's good news for Oakley and Hill, who instead of having to fend off tough questions about how the city council does business can generously share credit with each other for helping lead popular council initiatives. They're both amiable men; even when they tweak the other for taking too much responsibility for a particular project, it's with a friendly and good-natured jab, like two frat boys joking about who got drunker at Saturday's kegger. In fact, there are times when the two have identical messages.

Here's Oakley at a forum at Dallas Methodist Medical Center in Oak Cliff:

"I believe we're going in the right direction. If you believe we are then vote for me."

Here's Hill at a forum at the Bent Tree Country Club in Far North Dallas:

"What I think is that you want to go in the direction we are going. I represent that."

So how exactly are they different? The two don't go out of the way to outline their divisions, but if you parse Hill's statements on the campaign trail, he's trying to cast himself as the most effective leader of a most effective council.

As the mayor pro tem who consistently delivered southern sector votes for former Mayor Ron Kirk and against Miller, he may be right—at least about the leader part. Hill, whose district ranges from Oak Cliff to Pleasant Grove, can also rightly boast that he has been a catalyst for development in the southern sector. Along with state Senator Royce West, who is endorsing him, Hill helped bring the University of North Texas campus to the Dallas/ DeSoto line. Although he may not be able to run a restaurant, he can conceive of far more complicated enterprises. Hill took before the council the initial plans for the inland port project, a transportation trade hub that could mean thousands of jobs.

The Dallas Morning News reported that when Hill took credit for the inland port at a mayoral forum—often he talks about how he drew up the plan on a napkin—his competitors didn't disagree. Instead, they congratulated him.

Oakley, meanwhile, claims that he was a leader of the council as well, taking part in every important battle in City Hall over the last five years.

"I've helped craft a vision for this city, and I want to move it forward, whether it's economic development, the inland port, the American Airlines Center or the Trinity River project," says the Oak Cliff-area council member. "The mayor appointed me to important committees because she knows once I get my arms around it I can build support in the council."

But if you're happy with how the city is going and agree with the council's love affair with developers, why exactly would you vote for Oakley over Hill?

Council member Bill Blaydes, who is endorsing Oakley, brings up the elephant in the room of every mayoral forum.

"Mr. Hill, though I like him as a friend, still has a federal indictment hanging over his head, and I do not want to see the city of Dallas embarrassed any further," he says, though Hill has not been indicted. "It still has not been settled; it may be settled in Don's mind but not the rest of the world."

The gray-haired Tom Leppert, the white-haired Darrell Jordan and the almost no-haired Sam Coats make unlikely rebels, but in the context of this year's mayor's race, where everyone is kind and gentle as a Swiss nanny, that's the role they're filling. Or at least trying to. The three, all of whom live in North Dallas, have no City Hall experience, and as a result they are slightly more critical of how Dallas operates than their competitors on the council. It's a balancing act for each of them. If they don't criticize the city council then why should anyone vote for them? If they do, well, that's not very nice, and they risk alienating their North Dallas friends and donors, who often benefit from the council's largesse.

Although the three aren't natural campaigners, they are a remarkably accomplished group. Leppert is the former chief executive officer of Turner Construction, a private company that last year was responsible for $8.6 billion in construction. Coats, a short, unimposing man who somehow managed to run five marathons, is a corporate turnaround artist who served as the CEO of Schlotzky's restaurants and a top executive at Braniff, Southwest and Continental airlines. The best orator of the three, Jordan, is a former managing partner of Godwin Gruber and one-time president of both the Dallas Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas. Jordan also served on the board that tried unsuccessfully to bring the 2012 Olympics to Dallas, which is as good a clue as any of his inherent optimism.

Other than the fact that the three outsider candidates will one day have very impressive Wikipedia entries, they don't have much else in common. Leppert is the most aloof of the three, if not all, of the candidates. His rivals, who are rather chummy with each other, have tweaked him on the campaign trail more than anyone else. Initially, their mild attacks caused part of Leppert's face to twitch involuntarily, but he seems to have that under control lately. Now Leppert repeatedly tries to set himself apart from the scrum as being the only one who has "led a large complex organization," which he says is a good prelude to being mayor of a city such as Dallas.

At a real estate forum at the Hotel Palomar in March, after Leppert bragged about his CEO experience yet again, Griffith nudged Coats, whose business credentials are every bit as impressive as Leppert's, and the two chuckled like kids in the back seat of a car laughing at their dad's affinity for soft rock radio.

Coats, a former lawyer, says his business experience, while broader than Leppert's, is only marginally relevant.

"I've run more companies than Leppert's even seen. I've been on the board of publicly traded companies and private companies and nonprofits, and I've been CEO of a bunch of different companies," he said in an interview last month. "I've done all that stuff, but I've told everybody the CEO of this city is not the mayor; it's the city manager. Even though I have the skill sets of a CEO, that's not how I'm going to approach the job.

"I want to be the choir director or the orchestra leader—someone who gets people to come together."

That, in essence, is the basis of Coats' campaign: If Miller was a rock star, he'll be the kind and meek choir director who can work well with others. But Coats also brings an independent streak that is unique among his serious competitors. Of all the candidates running for mayor, only Coats says that he plans to re-evaluate the Trinity River project, particularly the controversial decision to build a high-speed toll road in the middle of the downtown park.

"I will support the project, but I will not give carte blanche to putting a road inside the levee," he said at a forum in Oak Cliff. "There are logical inconsistencies there, and I can't be bullied, blackmailed or bought not to look at it again."

It says something about this year's mayor's race that the short, soft-spoken Coats, who has been married 46 years, is the maverick of the field. Coats isn't even that opinionated, declining, for example, to take a stand on one of the most divisive issues that came before City Hall in the last four years. In 2005 Mayor Miller fought to deny billionaire oilman Ray Hunt a generous package of tax inducements to keep his firm in downtown Dallas. Hunt used his sidekick John Scovell to pit the council against the mayor and got his way, making off with more than $6 million in incentives. Other than Rasansky, no one on the council voted with the mayor. While Coats has tried to cast himself as the most independent candidate in the field—and often makes an effective case for it—he doesn't take a real stance on the Hunt giveaway, preferring to differentiate himself not by substance but style—or in this case, sound.

"It's a matter of tonality. I think Laura and I have a different tone. She's very bright and has done a lot of good, but she's also more aggressive," he says. "I approach things more from a mediator's point of view."

Leppert's campaign is run by the princess of darkness, Carol Reed. The political consultant typically represents the favored candidate of the pro-business Dallas Citizens Council, and while Leppert says that he's his own man, he's dutifully carrying their water, particularly as it flows through the Trinity River project. Unlike Coats and Jordan, who have expressed misgivings about parts of the project, Leppert is aggressively pro-Trinity, opposing council member Angela Hunt's proposal to put the toll road, now $600 million over budget, before the voters.

Although a graduate of Harvard Business School, Leppert was never your conventional CEO. Under his direction, Turner Construction did a billion dollars' worth of business with minority contractors—although at least some of that was federally mandated—while also spending $13 billion on green construction over a five-year period. He was also pretty good at what he did, helping double the size of the company during his seven-year tenure.

"He is an effective CEO who is liked," says Matt Papenfus, a vice president and general manager of Turner Construction, who worked with Leppert. "He is able to implement change but not turn things around to do it."

As a condition of taking the job at Turner, Leppert relocated the company from New York to Dallas. That's a commitment to the city that he hopes overshadows the fact that he's only lived inside the city limits since 2003.

"I moved a $4 billion business to Dallas," he said at a recent forum. "I look forward to sitting across the desk from any business leader in the world and saying, 'Not only do I think you should move your business to Dallas, I've been in your shoes and here's what I did.'"

Although Leppert has effectively cast himself as a savvy executive and has raised more money than his peers, he's trying to campaign as more than your typical big business candidate. In fact, while Leppert's first two stated priorities are fairly generic—crime reduction and economic development—his third emphasis is on education. In any other city, that would be normal, but in Dallas, the mayor has no formal role in the school district.

"In the end, what we have to do is have an educational system where people want to stay in Dallas or they want to move back," he said in a recent interview. "I can ask this question in the north or the south, and I get the same answer: How many people know families who have moved out of the city of Dallas because of education? And people will raise their hands."

Of course, Leppert would be a little more convincing on this issue if his own children attended the Dallas Independent School District. Instead, he sends them to the Episcopal School of Dallas. Asked how he could persuade parents to keep their children in DISD when he and his wife choose not to, Leppert gives a pat answer about his commitment to education.

Leppert's rivals, particularly Jordan, have seized on his education platform as being unrealistic, if not irrelevant. Jordan says that the city has no specified role in DISD other than to make the neighborhoods surrounding local schools safe and clean. Besides, he says, the person in charge of education in Dallas is DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. No one else has much of a say. "He doesn't need interference from another political body second-guessing the decisions he makes," Jordan remarked at a forum in East Dallas.

Jordan, arguably the most well-liked among his fellow candidates, is running a fairly standard campaign, at least for Dallas. His No. 1 issue is crime, and he argues in favor of hiring 200 to 300 additional officers over the next few years as well as buying new crime-fighting technology. But unlike Wells, who is arguing in favor of a sales tax increase to generate more money for the police department, Jordan doesn't have a plan to pay for his plan. He says it will pay for itself.

"They have statistics that show if you increase your police force by 25 percent you pay for that in decreased crime," he said in a recent interview. "[Former New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani clearly demonstrated if you can reduce crime and foster a feeling of security among the citizens, you will more than offset the cost of hiring the police officers."

At some of the earlier forums, Jordan may have matched Hill as the most impressive candidate in the field. With a commanding courtroom voice, Jordan was well-versed and persuasive on a range of issues, from a 30-year-old lawsuit that hinders the city's ability to hire new officers to why the city should spend additional money to refurbish the Cotton Bowl. But in this crowded race, it's not clear how exactly Jordan stands out from the pack. He's not the City Hall insider, the maverick or the business candidate. So who is he?

"These are all capable, qualified men," he said at a recent forum. "So what distinguishes me?"

Jordan's answer seems to be that he's old. Here's how he explains, in part, why voters should choose him over Tom Leppert.

"I have been here during the good times and the bad times of this city. He wasn't here in 1963 when we felt the pain of the Kennedy assassination and we had to answer to the country and the world that we were not bad people," he explained in an interview at his campaign office. "He wasn't here when the Cowboys were winning and we felt good about things again, and he wasn't here during the boom of Reagan when we thought the cranes downtown were birds of Texas."

At various forums, Jordan has also cast himself as the only candidate who has law enforcement experience. Jordan served as a prosecutor under former District Attorney Henry Wade, but what he doesn't say is that was nearly 40 years ago—or right around the time Roger Herrera was born.

If anything, Jordan seems too much of a gentleman. That's helped him raise a lot of money and made him a formidable candidate, but it doesn't always come in handy on the campaign trail. After lightly criticizing Leppert's education platform, he's largely laid off him since. Like the other candidates, he hasn't brought up Hill's IRS or FBI problems. Jordan says it's because Hill is a "very likable guy." Other candidates may be laying off him for strategic reasons, he explains, but "I think in my case it has more to do with my personal feelings."

The one unabashedly critical statement Jordan delivered in the campaign came when he told The Dallas Morning News that, as mayor, Miller deserved a D-minus. It was a strong remark that succinctly hinted what kind of mayor he'd be. But after an interview with the Dallas Observer during which he praised much of what occurred during her tenure, Jordan revised his grade. "If I were being asked today to give my grade it wouldn't be a D-minus," he says. "She deserves a middle-of-the-pack grade. A C-plus."

"Max Wells has a proud record of community service," said none other than Max Wells at a Dallas Police Association forum in February. At the beginning of the campaign, Max Wells talked a lot about Max Wells, referring to himself in the third person more often than an NFL wide receiver.

As the campaign for Dallas mayor began in earnest last month, Wells seemed like a relic. Not looking a day over 85, he appeared tired, acted grumpy and struggled to stay on the same stage with more dynamic candidates such as Hill, Leppert and Jordan. Even worse, Wells often campaigned like an old-school pol, shamelessly pandering to whatever crowd he was addressing.

"You're the best people in the world to represent," he told a Republican women's group at a forum in Far North Dallas in his old council district. "You make my life easy."

But for Wells, a funny thing happened on his way to the shuffleboard court. He dropped the third person, started to smile and, perhaps most important, found a way to carve out a rather distinct identity in this race. As easy as it is to make fun of Wells' age—he's actually 73—he can run from two different vantage points. As the founder of a community bank and vice president of Sterling Bank for the Dallas region, Wells can compete with Leppert for the support of the business community. Also, as a council member from 1988-1997, including mayor pro tem during those final two years, Wells can say that he knows the mechanics of local government.

"I know this city. I know this school district," he said at a recent forum. "I worked with three mayors, Annette Strauss, Ron Kirk and Steve Bartlett. I know what works; I know what doesn't work."

At various forums, the new Wells says that as mayor he'd follow the example of Strauss, whom he portrays as a gentle, supportive leader. His affinity for this type of leadership style sets him apart from Jordan and Leppert, who cast themselves, through their words and mannerisms, as conventional big-city mayors in a city that doesn't allow for such.

"Annette Strauss used to call every council member every Sunday and ask them, 'What are you working on and how can I help you?'" he says. "She is the model for a weak-mayor form of government."

Since the Observer and its blog Unfair Park have mocked Wells for the crime of being 73, let's give him a cheesy campaign blurb he can use in his next mailer:

"While just about every candidate talks a good game about hiring more police officers to fight crime, only Wells has a plan to pay for it."

—Dallas Observer

Wells is that rare political candidate who will broach the idea of raising your taxes to pay for a campaign promise. Specifically, he is proposing a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase and earmarking the revenue, which could total as much as $100 million annually, for the police department.

But let's not get carried away here. There are parts of his candidacy that are positively old-school, the least of which is his back-scratching coalition of rich businessmen—Hunt has endorsed him—and old black leaders from the southern sector. In Dallas, there is an age-old alliance between those seemingly disparate groups: The wealthy business types win political support from black council members for their various projects in return for promises of southern sector development, if not donations to their churches and campaigns. Wells knows he needs both groups to win, which is why he doesn't see anything wrong with touting his ethics plan—"more sunlight," he says—while defending the ethically challenged Al Lipscomb, the former southern Dallas council member who has endorsed him.

Wells also won't risk alienating the Hunts of the world with his philosophy on tax giveaways to businesses.

"Let's not see how much money the rich guys get," he said in a recent interview. "[Rather] let's see if it's good for us."

Like Wells, Gary Griffith can claim to know how City Hall works without having to tie himself to the current regime. In 2003, Griffith was elected to District 9 council seat in a runoff, winning just a tad more than 4,000 votes. Less than two years later, he began to think about running for mayor after Dallas lost the Cowboys to Arlington.

"It was clear to me the city needed a leader in the mayor's office that could bring Dallas together," he says. "We had to create a more businesslike atmosphere at City Hall, end our bickering and get to work."

A former teacher who now runs a small public relations firm, Griffith is trying to convince voters he'll make a good mayor by persuading them he's been a good council member. At several forums, Griffith has used nearly all of the time allotted to him by talking about how he's arranged meetings in his Lakewood-area district between neighborhood groups and police, and about how crime in the area has dropped by nearly 40 percent. Sometimes, he'll simply list all the new businesses that have relocated to his district.

"My message is I want to do in the rest of the city what we did in District 9," he said in a recent interview. "Strong tax-base growth, significant reduction of crime, a commitment to a vibrant quality of life."

Although Griffith is beloved in his district, which is stocked with campaign signs, his council colleagues regard him less generously. In 2005, when the council debated whether Hunt should receive tax giveaways, Griffith managed to anger both sides when he skipped the vote.

"I've known Gary for many years and consider myself a friend," says council member Bill Blaydes. "Sometimes he has a hard time making a decision because he doesn't want to upset one side or another. I don't think our next mayor can be like that."

It's a refrain you hear all the time from the consultants. You can't make the runoff without doing well south of the Trinity. With nearly all of the contested council races in the southern sector, North Dallas candidates have to pick up a share of the vote there if they want to make the runoff. Otherwise, they might as well hand one of the top two spots to Hill.

With endorsements from every black council member in the southern sector, Hill could conceivably make the runoff without ever crossing downtown. But several candidates are hoping to carve up Hill's base, including Oakley, who represents a largely minority district in Oak Cliff, and Wells, who is being endorsed by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Even Leppert, who is whiter than a Matchbox 20 single, should run strong in the south. He's won the endorsement of the influential Reverend Frederick Haynes and has enlisted the help of radio personality Willis Johnson as a political consultant.

"My role is to get Tom in front of as many key people as possible," says Johnson. "We've been to citywide revivals, we've been to a South Dallas nursing home, we've met with ministers, we've been to track meets, we've met with the black firefighters' association."

In 2003, when a polarizing Miller was up for re-election, only 94,000 people turned out to vote. The number looks to be even lower this year. Although the race for mayor is crowded, there is not a single candidate, other than possibly Hill, whom people feel strongly about.

The math for the upcoming election is startling. There are seven candidates in the field who have a decent chance to win. If turnout is less than 80,000, which some observers predict, someone can finish in the top two and move on to the runoff with 15,000 votes. Even if turnout is strong, 25,000 votes will likely guarantee a runoff. That also means that the difference between the lucky runner-up and the third-place candidate could be 1,000 votes or fewer.

The math of a small-turnout, big-field election suggests that the way to make it to a runoff is to cobble together a winning coalition of votes without offending any slice of the electorate that may show up to vote. That way at least you have the illusion of control. It's kind of like fishing from a crowded spot; you go about your business trying to catch what you can, without worrying about anyone else or scaring anyone else's fish, lest you scare off your own.

On April 2, six of the candidates for mayor gathered for a mayoral forum at the auditorium of the Dallas Children's Theater in the Skillman-Abrams corridor. The Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hosted the event, and its members asked the questions. What could have been a compelling, important debate, however, turned into a clumsy, pandering contest.

"I may be the only candidate here who has a Hispanic campaign manager," Griffith said. "He is doing a superb job."

Not to be outdone, Wells then named nearly a dozen Hispanics who are supporting him, taking special pains to accent their last names. He also pointed out that a Hispanic contractor designed his Web site. Hoping to one-up Wells, Leppert told the audience that he was the only candidate with a separate Web site in Spanish. Jordan, though, topped them all.

"I am remiss in not acknowledging my son-in-law Rudy Rodriguez," he said, more or less out of the blue. "His support means a lot to me."

As well it should. Jordan, like his competitors, can't leave a vote unturned if he's going to make the runoff. As they see it, nice guys really do finish first, or close enough.

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