Down the Trinity, Where Tom Leppert Misleads While Mike Rawlings Just Pleads the Fifth

Before we put the Trinity River toll road story down for another much-needed nap, we have two very important items of laundry to attend to. One is called Tom Leppert. The other is named Mike Rawlings.

First, did former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, lie or not lie about the project to the people of Dallas in 2007?

Second, what's the real reason Rawlings, a candidate for mayor, a member of the Dallas Citizens Council, won't commit for or against the toll road? Why does he always skitter and wave his hands like he's getting yanked by a neck chain?

Remember that Leppert and Rawlings both come from the same place politically: the Citizens Council, the private business group that has aggressively promoted this project from the beginning. And from the beginning our problem has been about leadership ducking the hard questions and getting too clever by half with the answers.

In a referendum in 2007, Dallas voters had to decide something about building a major new tolled highway downtown. The question was not whether to build it. It was whether to build it between the dirt embankments or levees that contain the flood waters of the Trinity River twice a year.

Was it a safe idea to put it out there, down between the levees? Would the highway itself flood? Would the extra mass of the highway between the levees push flood waters higher, like a brick in a bathtub, and maybe make the water go over the tops of the levees into downtown and West Dallas? Would sinking big piers into the levees for entrances and exits make the levees erode or fall apart?

Leppert's phrase repeatedly during the campaign for the referendum was "signed off." He said over and over again that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of national levee safety, had signed off on the safety of the toll road.

The Dallas Morning News, a ferocious advocate of the route between the levees, supported Leppert's view and ridiculed people who questioned it. But earlier this week -- almost four years after the fact -- The News in an editorial conceded that Leppert, not The News, had misled the public about the Corps' assurances. The Corps had not signed off.

Leppert then came back in a June 7 story by Michael Lindenberger in The News, insisting that the Corps had in fact signed off four years ago and that the charges of misleading the public were unfair. He told Lindenberger, "The top levels of the corps indicated we could get the project approved."

Leppert thinks he has a way with words: He never says yes or no to a direct question, for example. He says, "I'm very comfortable" with whatever answer he intends to convey.

But in this context his answer is not so clever. The question was: Did the Corps sign off, as in give its approval, to building the road between the levees? His answer means yes.

So what does the Corps say? When it comes to being cutesy with words, the Corps is worse than Leppert. That was one of the most disturbing lessons of The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer's documentary about the Corps and Hurricane Katrina. Shearer showed in sickening detail how the Corps will dodge, weave and say whatever it has to say to keep its own toes clear of the door.

In the case of the Trinity toll road, Corps officials may have tried to tell Leppert what he wanted to hear (yes, you can) while putting more qualified statements (no, you can't) on the record to cover themselves. As Shearer's documentary demonstrates, it sure wouldn't be the first time.

If that's what happened, the cleansing solvent here is daylight. Leppert needs to name the Corps officials who gave him the assurances he told voters he had received. If the people exist, there is no conceivable reason for their names to be secret. Leppert has every reason to make them public.

The Rawlings matter is almost as disturbing as the Leppert one. I was one of two moderators at a mayoral debate last week. I gave Rawlings what I thought was a chance to clear the air on his position on the toll road. He has been ducking it for months by saying he needs more information about the toll road, even though the damn thing has been intensely debated in this city for 13 years.

Rawlings, a bright man and good with words, weaved and dodged away from my question, saying again he needed more information. But at the end of the debate, former police chief David Kunkle, his opponent, asked him the same question again.

Only better. I listened to Kunkle framing it -- politely, firmly, without a centimeter of wiggle room -- and I thought, "He's a better reporter than I am." Then I thought, "No, wait. He's a cop."

Rawlings ducked and danced even more absurdly. His voice literally went up half an octave, and he started waving his hands in the air like a kid. All of a sudden I had a picture of him in my mind sitting in a windowless room under a naked light bulb saying, "You got nuttin' on me."

The question is simple. The toll road. Good idea? Bad idea? He will not answer.

I say he will not answer because he cannot answer. His campaign is supported by huge sums of money from the very people who have pushed this project from the beginning. Watching this grown man dance that night, I realized that Rawlings does not have freedom of movement on this question, which means he will never have freedom of movement on any of the questions that are important to the people who have paid for his campaign.

I like Rawlings. He's impressive. But this is where the rubber meets the road.

I know that Kunkle, as our chief of police, had to sit in meetings for years and listen to Leppert con people about the toll road. There wasn't a thing for him to do about it, because he worked for Leppert. And he's a cop. Good cops don't make end runs.

I think that's why he's running for mayor. It's not an end run. It's right down the middle. He decided to get out there on the field, pick up the ball himself and see how far he could get.

I do not have an opinion about which man should be mayor. You may not believe that, but it's true. I have a lot of opinions about Leppert, but I could be proved wrong in a flash.

Leppert could clear his name by naming names. Rawlings can prove me wrong in every single thing I have said -- and I wish he would -- by coming clean on his feelings about the toll road.

But if they don't, if both Leppert and Rawlings stick to their current course on the toll road, then I think we should all be able to see what that means. It means whatever we've been through for the last 13 years, we've got more of the same ahead.

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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

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