Two more things about the Dallas City Hall corruption trial. Then I'm done. I almost promise.
I'm having trouble with something. Many people I talk to who know Don Hill, our former mayor pro tem recently convicted on seven of nine corruption counts in federal court, feel sorry for him. I do understand why. And I do not despise him or think he's a no-good son of a bitch. I just have trouble with the feeling sorry part. Let me explain.
The people I talk to tend to think he's guilty and got what he deserved—he's facing 95 years when Federal District Judge Barbara Lynn sentences him, probably early next year—but they feel terrible for him.
Let me give you an example. I talked to a guy who had to go into City Hall to do business with Hill toward the end of Hill's 10-year tenure on the Dallas City Council. This person wouldn't talk to me for attribution because he still has to represent a major local organization before the council on a variety of issues.
He didn't tell me exactly what he was talking about to Hill, but I got the sense that his issue, like most of what goes on at City Hall, had a real estate element. He told me that he found Hill "very impressive and very bright" in terms of his ability to grasp complex political issues involving lots of players and factors.
I have the same impression of Hill. He is capable of being really good at political leadership, which is its own quite specialized métier, its own art or craft or both. People who haven't taken part in politics or watched it up close for a period of time sometimes don't appreciate how special are the skills it demands.
What Hill had—still has, I guess, if he ever gets a chance to practice it outside a federal penitentiary—is the ability to see and understand lots of competing and disparate interests as they converge on a single point of contention. And he can treat everybody with respect.
Not everybody has that. In fact, not that many people have it. Most people see life as the good guys (that's us) versus the bad guys (that's them), and they don't understand why the bad guys don't just go die.
In the trial, Hill came across on FBI surveillance tapes as sharing the basic pathology that brought down the other four defendants in the dock with him (of 14 charged, six have pleaded guilty and three await separate trials). Like the rest of them, Hill thought it was OK to thwart the public interest as long as somebody he liked made some money out of it. As such, when he does get sent to the pen he will be joining many people of similar bent.
The basic principle, difficult for many to grasp, alas, is what I call, "My TV set, your TV set." You have to know the difference. The people's property and prerogatives belong to the people. You can't just gob onto them. It's like somebody else's TV set. That belongs to somebody else. You can't have it. If you're supposed to spend the tax money on housing for the poor, you can't spend it on yourself instead. This is a very difficult and complicated concept, I know, and I'm sorry I brought it up, and I almost promise never to do so again.
Don Hill didn't get it. That's why a federal jury found him guilty, along with four confederates including his wife. But that doesn't mean he couldn't have figured it out. He is smart. He is talented. A good life and career have been wasted here.
The other thing I hear about Hill from people who have been through the City Hall wringer is this: It's a lot about the money. Dallas pays its council members $37,500 a year in salary for a job that can easily eat up 100 hours a week. This means that serious middle-class people with families cannot really afford to serve.
You wind up with three kinds of people on the council: rich people who don't have to earn a living, poor people, and poor schlubs in the middle, trying to make a go of it on $37,500. It's those middle grounders who get into trouble.
In my three decades of watching City Hall, I know every step in the dance. First there's a sort of sniffing-out period. People who want something out of a council member slide up close to him and see if he's interested in a quick lunch. Maybe a longer lunch next time. Maybe an invitation to the ball.
Some people have street smarts about this. It's kind of like your first day in prison. Don't accept a carton of cigarettes from a large, one-eared man whose tattoos look like they were put on with a dinner fork. It's not a gift.
But some people don't have street smarts. I can tell how far along they are in the process by how much their suits have changed after six months on the council. Even if they're still buying their own suits, it's always a bad sign when they start trying to look like bankers.
Whose bank we talkin' about here?
Even honest middle-class people who do have street smarts and do have integrity get into jams on the council because we middle-class folks tend to have a lot of strings attached to us. We're all dependent on something, usually a job, maybe a small business or a piece of property. And if the people who want to pull you around by the nose can't do it with expensive desserts, they will look for your strings and pull on those.
All of a sudden your law firm has changed its mind: They do want you to bring in new business and show up at meetings after all. Or clients start melting away from your PR agency. Or the city decides you've got the worst rent houses since Charles Dickens. I have seen all of that happen. It's the dark side of politics. If you've got a vulnerability, somebody at some point will go for it.
None of that excuses Don Hill. Far from it. But it does help explain.
I went to lunch recently with Neil Emmons, who is going off the city plan commission after filling out his term limit. Emmons, an appointee of District 14 city council member Angela Hunt, has watched all of this from way on the inside.
"You've got to give council members a decent salary," he said. "But then you also have to provide them with independent staff capable of doing legislative analysis."
And that's another piece of the puzzle beyond the money. Every week the city secretary delivers to council members their briefing books for the next week's full council meeting or briefing session—a huge binder that can be 12 inches deep, stuffed with arcane complex matters, some of which have been deliberately hidden in corners of the agenda where someone hopes they will escape close scrutiny.
Sometimes simply getting through the book for the next week would require parking oneself at the kitchen table with the book and two telephones all day Saturday and half of Sunday, which would mean skipping the barbecues and receptions and worship services and middle-school graduations to which you have been invited. So you don't do it.
All of this—the corruption, the salary structure, the lack of independent staff—goes to explain the outcome, which is a City Hall that shuts out the city's middle classes. You wind up with two players in control—the business interests with money to give and the hungry people on the council who are willing to take.
It's how the American Airlines Center got built, how the Trinity River project got passed, how the downtown convention hotel got done, how the strong mayor reform was defeated. It's why we can't have community gardens or neighborhood farmers markets.
Everything is controlled by a partnership of the very rich with the very poor. The rich get jewels—monumental theaters and opera centers downtown, fake suspension bridges over the river, things to make us look good in The New York Times. The poor get crumbs, but they go for crumbs. Their price is their price. The people who get priced out of this system are the ones in the middle, the ones who want all those boring things like better public schools, pothole repairs and clean city parks.
And, yes, on some of these issues we have had referendums—votes of the people. So what? It turns out referendums are controlled by money and advertising. If you want to see the world as run by referendums, look to California. There is a reason our founding fathers devised a system of checks and balances instead of just checks.
But here the checks always go against the middle class, and since I am from that tribe, barely, I tend to get all bitter and mean about it. I have described the city's downtown business leadership as the "World's Biggest Ball of String Gang," intent on building something fancy and big out on the highway in order to cause strangers passing by to have respect for us. And I have described the South Dallas leaders who do deals with them as crooks and Quislings.
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Harsh. Too harsh. I almost promise to do better.
But look. The system we have now works for certain people and not for other people. The strong mayor reforms championed unsuccessfully four years ago by former Mayor Laura Miller offered the first bite of a better apple—a way to get City Hall's nose turned around for a change.
Look at the people who fought against it most vigorously— Don Hill, who ranted and raved behind closed doors against Miller's proposed ethics reforms, and the Dallas Citizens Council, the private business group that wrote six-figure checks to support the counter-proposal.
Don Hill and the Citizens Council, sittin' in a tree, K-I-SS-I-N-G. I said people I talk to feel sorry for him. I do not. That's why.