Last year was a good one for Royce West. In May 2006, the large and imposing state senator from southern Dallas helped break a deadlocked state Legislature, playing a vital role in passing a landmark school finance law, a measure that had the surprising advantage of pleasing all sides in the debate over how to pay for public education.
West also bet on the winning horse for Dallas County district attorney, backing Craig Watkins, who shook off bad press about his slate of unpaid debts to upset the heavily favored and funded Republican Toby Shook. Then, in a self-assured performance that would impress Forest Whitaker, West starred in a television ad for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, helping the little-known former congressman carry Dallas County while lifting a gaggle of anonymous and thinly qualified Democrats below him to office—though not Bell.
On election night, when the party faithful gathered at the Adam's Mark Hotel downtown, the 54-year-old West served as the evening's host, gleefully mimicking Johnny Carson's clubless golf swing as the incoming results hinted that a landslide was beginning to rumble. He played a key role in the Democrats' Dallas uprising, producing radio and TV spots to help lead the party's decisive get-out-the-vote drive while dipping into his considerable campaign chest to fund the party's fight.
Now everybody in the room looked to West. The unabashed Democratic loyalist during the party's two decades in exile was now the face of their Napoleonic return. Reporters chose the state senator to explain the party's victory, and he obliged, telling The Dallas Morning News, "We now have the leadership of this county." Within weeks, West would select and lead Watkins' transition team, largely choosing his own friends and allies to help reshape the most important office in county government.
"He's the big dog in the party now," says former Democratic U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, who thinks West would be a viable candidate statewide. "He has a little bit of LBJ in him. He is a consummate political strategist and has a huge web of influence."
If 2006 was good for West, 2005 might have been even better, albeit for different reasons. That year, West's tiny law firm billed nearly $580,000 to the Dallas Independent School District, where West and an occasional associate represent the district when fired employees appeal their dismissals. West also did good business that year just south of Dallas at the Wilmer-Hutchins school district, which in the fall of 2005 didn't have enough money to open its doors. District voters rejected a referendum that would have increased the property tax rate, and the Texas Education Association shut the district down for good just weeks before the start of the school year.
West, a graduate of Wilmer-Hutchins High School, tried to use his stature on the Senate's Education Committee to keep the district alive, pleading with the state for one more chance. He lost but didn't exactly come away empty-handed. In 2005, West collected nearly $180,000 from the district as its delinquent tax attorney, bringing his law firm's cumulative earnings from both school districts that year to close to $760,000. Not a bad year at the office.
His fee from Wilmer-Hutchins was especially sweet since, in 2002, the district's trustees had voted to end their relationship with West after the Texas Comptroller's Office criticized his work in an audit. After West met with board members behind closed doors, trustees re-did their vote and retained him as their tax attorney.
"Royce West only did what he was allowed to do," says former Wilmer-Hutchins trustee Ann Walker. "I can't say anything bad about him. He was given the thread, and he just unwound it."
Whether West is manipulating political leaders or spawning them, one thing about him is clear: He's in the middle of just about everything that matters, wielding power, influence and charm on behalf of the state, his district and himself, if not necessarily in that order. As a Democratic senator in an overwhelmingly Republican state, West has been extraordinarily successful politically, helping pass legislation affecting just about every college-bound student in the state and playing a starring role in some of the biggest debates in Austin. He also helped create the University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas, which could turn the bleak and underdeveloped surrounding area into a thriving college and commercial district.
Now that the Democratic Party has taken control in Dallas County—with a crew of unheralded neophytes learning every day on the job—West's savvy and status will more or less be on permanent display. The November elections ushered in a slate of obscure candidates, who largely owe their victories to straight-ticket voters who pulled the Democratic lever out of disgust over the war in Iraq. After the other senior Democrat in the county, the capricious John Wiley Price, endorsed several Republicans, West went from one of several leaders of a marginalized party to the chief of the new ruling class, with his experience likely to overshadow the slim profiles of the freshly elected for years to come.
"Does it enhance his stature? Of course it does," says attorney Ken Molberg, the senior member of the state Democratic executive committee, on the effect of last November's elections. "He's a top-tier Democrat. No doubt about that."
Some people used to call West the most powerful black politician in North Texas. Nobody says that anymore. Instead, they take out the word "black." Within a few years, they may remove "north." Party leaders such as Molberg and Coggins say that West is positioned for a statewide run whenever he's ready—a comment that would have prompted people to wait for a punch line just a few months ago.
But while this is a different time, West is not exactly a different politician. He's still a creature of the slippery world of Texas politics. That will come in handy if he runs for governor, but for now, it takes some of the luster off his accomplishments. For all that West has done for his district, if not the state, the legislator is just as much of a good old boy as the North Dallas establishment his prominence threatens.
Like his peers in the Legislature, West has found creative and questionable ways to raise and spend campaign funds. Specifically, West the candidate pays West the attorney for his office space, creating the type of awkward, self-regulated arrangement that drives good government types nuts. He's also taken tens of thousands in donations from TXU while his son helped handle the electric utility's public relations. Then there's the whole Wilmer-Hutchins imbroglio that even West's friends say could come back to frustrate the state senator. As the district suffered one demoralizing setback after another—from epic cases of mismanagement to student-teacher cheating scandals—West could do nothing but watch Rome burn. And collect his attorney's fees.
In 2004, Wilmer-Hutchins nearly disintegrated financially, failing to meet payroll at least twice. The district closed three schools while its bank, Wells-Fargo, asked to sever its relationship. That year, West collected $174,000 in attorney's fees from the district, yet his critics say that he continually failed to collect outstanding property taxes that could have helped Wilmer-Hutchins.
"I don't think he did a good job at all," says former Wilmer-Hutchins board member Donnie Fox, who claims that West's law firm often seized property from elderly residents without proper notification. "And the sad part about it is he's a Wilmer-Hutchins grad. It's terrible."
This is a familiar arc in American politics: The young, trailblazing candidate becomes a comfortable creature of the establishment once he's solidly in power. West's public life has traced that path and veered off it. For all his trappings of wealth and status, West still has the common touch, even if he sometimes uses it for his own advantage. Constituents laud him for waging tiny neighborhood fights that a legislator of his stature could easily avoid—and when he fights he usually wins. Maybe for West, it was better to become the establishment than to challenge it.
"It would be silly for that man not to achieve," says former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb. "He is a successful lawyer and a successful politician who has not forgotten his community. I hope he becomes a multimillionaire."
Before Lipscomb was convicted of 65 counts of bribery in federal court in 2000, he was a respected and important civil rights leader. It's hard to imagine that these days. Although his bribery conviction was later overturned, Lipscomb remains a sideshow, although he is planning another run for office.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, as the black preachers in Dallas sold out to the white North Dallas business community, taking their money and patronage in exchange for keeping an imagined peace, Lipscomb was one of only a scattering of Dallas black leaders who knew how to fight. He first noticed Royce West when Lipscomb was helping integrate the board of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district. Before Wilmer-Hutchins was mismanaged by blacks, it was mismanaged by whites, who complemented their incompetence with bigotry. To Lipscomb, a young and talented West was a reminder of what he was fighting for: a school district that could tap the potential of its best and brightest. West played football and basketball for the Wilmer-Hutchins Eagles. He took his classes just as seriously and even ran—and lost—for student body president in high school.
"You had a star athlete who was also good in his studies and didn't fool around with anything," Lipscomb says. "You just knew he was going to be successful."
As a lawyer, West did pro bono work for the South Dallas Information Center, Lipscomb's civil rights organization that doubled as a social ministry. West provided a range of legal services, from helping the group's protesters to meeting with parents whose sons were arrested.
Lipscomb didn't get much of an education and resents many blacks who did, but to him West is different because he fights the same fights Lipscomb did, only armed with a law degree and perched from a seat of power.
"He has a personality that's winnable; it's not false, it's real. It's penetrating," says Lipscomb, accelerating his cadence like a runaway train as he boasts about West. "You can feel it. I don't care if you're from Fish Trap Road or North Dallas, he's the same no matter what."
It says something about West that he could draw plaudits from both Lipscomb and Paul Coggins, the former U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Lipscomb. If one salutes West for having the common touch, the other praises him for having sway over elites.
"When he wants to get something done, he knows who to call and who to mobilize," Coggins says. "He gets results, and that's what counts for a politician."
In 1974, West became the first black student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington. He also previewed his knack for business, starting an apartment referral service for many of the school's commuter students. According to UTA's alumni profile of West, the apartment referral service, which helped fund the school's budget, was so successful that the state attorney general closed it after local apartment finders complained. At school on a football scholarship, West played wide receiver and was good enough to be elected into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.
West earned two sociology degrees from UTA, a bachelor's in 1974 and a master's in 1979. After that a newly married West worked his way through law school at the University of Houston and then did a short stint as a prosecutor at the Harris County District Attorney's Office. West soon returned to Dallas and worked for famed District Attorney Henry Wade, ultimately becoming the office's first black chief felony prosecutor. That was no small feat. Among other failings, which we now know include convicting innocent men on shaky testimony, Wade's office published a manual on how to exclude minorities from juries.
"That thought process prevailed for I don't know how many years," West says.
Guarded in his interviews with the Dallas Observer, West doesn't talk much about how he was treated at the district attorney's office, other than to say that a fellow prosecutor once called him the "N-word."
"We had a little physical disagreement when he said it," West says softly. "I don't think he said it again."
West wouldn't elaborate, but longtime friend and mayoral candidate Don Hill did.
"He decked the guy. He knocked him out," says a chuckling Hill, who has known West since college. "We laugh about that because that's not what you do. You don't put yourself in contempt by hitting another lawyer. He has a reputation as someone who will not be intimidated and will stand up for what he believes."
In 1984, 10 years after West served as the first black student president at UTA, he joined a group of young black activists who took part in one of the most surprising campaigns in Dallas political history. John Wiley Price, a clerk for a local justice of the peace, was running for the southern Dallas county commissioner's seat against the revered Elsie Faye Heggins, a former mentor to Price and member of the Dallas City Council. Working on behalf of Price was a group of young, educated, middle-class blacks, most of whom were from Oak Cliff. That talented group included West, Hill, journalist Rufus Shaw, civic leader Betty Culbreath Lister and Dwaine Caraway, future head of the local chapter of the NAACP.
"Anybody who is anybody right now in their 50s was a part of that John Wiley Price group," Shaw says. "It was kind of like the Obama phenomenon."
Like Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton, Price was taking on a more experienced contender in Heggins, who had the weight of the Democratic establishment on her side. Along with Lipscomb, Heggins was a part of the Fair Park crowd of civil rights leaders who won some real victories for blacks in South Dallas in the 1970s. But Price was a young, brash, captivating candidate and eked out a tiny victory, tilting the balance of power from the old Fair Park crowd to the young Oak Cliff gunslingers, who as they aged began to fight among themselves, particularly Price and Caraway.
Two years after Price's victory, West ran for district attorney and lost. Still, West came out of that race a rising star. In 1992 when state Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson ran for Congress, West ran for her seat and won. No one's run against him since.
It's unlikely anyone ever will. As a Democratic state senator in the Republican-owned and -operated state Legislature, West has been remarkably effective. (If that phrase ends up in a campaign blurb, so be it. He deserves it.) Away from Austin, West can be slippery, if not scheming for his self-interests. But at the Legislature, he's like a good point guard who gets everyone involved in the flow of the action, just as able to score on his own as he is to pass the ball to someone else who can make the winning shot.
In 1997, West crafted the state's top 10 percent law, which is credited for boosting minority enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin, along with other public colleges. The law says that any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class is automatically admitted into a state university in Texas. West backed it after a federal court struck down admission decisions based on race; his law, however, slides around the affirmative action ban by giving minority students at poorly run inner-city schools an easier path to college than their well-heeled suburban counterparts. Republican legislators have tried to toss it out or water down the bill ever since, but West has successfully defended it each time.
Of course, the merits of West's bill are up for debate. Officials at the University of Texas say it has forced them to accept too many students from within the state, while kids at suburban schools say the law forces them to cut down on their extracurricular activities to focus exclusively on grades.
Two years after West authored the top 10 bill, Texas Monthly named him one of the "10 Best Legislators in Texas." In 2001, West drafted a bill that in essence outlawed racial profiling, and later he promoted legislation that provided stipends to grandparents raising grandchildren. Last year, West was a member of the joint House and Senate negotiating team that passed the widely heralded school finance bill that helped the state comply with a court order to change how it funds public education. The bill involved balancing the interests of the state's rich and poor districts and their competing legislators.
"If not for Royce West, we would not have been able to pass a bill," says state Senator Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat. "We would have been in special session after special session."
State Senator Florence Shapiro, the Republican chair of the Education Committee that crafted the school finance bill, also credits West for his role in ending—at least for now—the long-running drama over how to fund poor districts without unduly penalizing the wealthier ones. The two make an unlikely pair, she a Plano Republican and he a Democrat from southern Dallas. But if the two aren't exactly ideological soul mates, they get along surprisingly well.
"He was involved in every step of the process with me," she says. "He was my confidante and someone I have a very high regard for."
Although West has fought for distinctly Democratic values, he has developed the ability to work well with Republicans like Shapiro. That's helped him win approval and millions of dollars in funding for a University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas, on the DeSoto line, a rare serving of pork that might actually be worth its weight.
"That is one of his main accomplishments," says Shaw, a political analyst for dallasblog.com. "Royce worked on that deal for years. He had that vision when none of us could see what the hell he was talking about. That was his baby; he fought for it. He went from Washington to Denton to Dallas to Austin.
"Fifteen years from now if there are 30,000 students there, that will be one of the biggest parts of his legacy."
Although West can play the role of the partisan firebrand, he embodies the Tip O'Neill style of politics, in which you fight like hell for your side during the day and make peace at night.
Shapiro says that at her father's recent funeral, West was one of the first people she saw. "When I said 'Thank you so much for coming,' he said, 'We're family, and we're family in times of joy and family in times of sorrow.'
"To me, that's Royce West."
For that family to which West and Shapiro belong, it's not the times of sorrow that are the problem, it's the times of joy. Texas has notoriously weak ethics requirements for its lawmakers, allowing them to use their campaign funds to subsidize a lavish political lifestyle. In the past, Texas legislators have used campaign donations to pay for upscale apartments, steakhouse dinners and expensive gifts for their staff and constituents.
"The whole system is rancid," says Fred Lewis, an Austin activist who favors a cap on campaign donations. "We have semi-privatized our Legislature, and it's an incredibly dumb way of doing business."
For West, it's a comfortable way of doing business. Last year, he used more than $18,000 in campaign donations to pay rent on an election office in Oak Cliff. Those payments went to a company called Skyview Development, according to his campaign disclosure forms on file with the Texas Ethics Commission. What West does not disclose is that he is the registered agent and director of Skyview Development. It's his company. Skyview Development owns the $1.4 million office building that is home to both West's law office on the third floor and his election office on the second floor, a sparsely furnished space with a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson lying by itself on the bookcase.
When asked about Skyview Development, the otherwise cordial West shuts down. "I'm not going to get into all my personal stuff," he says, not angrily but firmly. He does confirm that Skyview owns the office building and that he and some of his family members are part owners of Skyview. (According to the secretary of state's records, only Royce West is listed as an officer with the company.)
How does West the landlord determine how much rent West the politician should pay? "Based on what everyone else is paying," he says, now becoming irritated.
The problem is that it's up to West the landlord to determine market rate for West the politician. If the rent's too high, the landlord benefits; if he charges too little, the politician wins out. (Who's feeling dizzy?) Even if rent payments are fair and square, West the landlord can still count on having a steady, reliable tenant in a local commercial market that is not blessed with high occupancy rates.
West's arrangement raises all sorts of tricky questions, including whether he is using campaign funds to build equity in commercial real estate. A more simple issue is this: Do the average donors know the money they contribute to West's campaign may be going directly to West's business?
The Texas Ethics Commission has a very broad interpretation of what constitutes a campaign expense, but it gets a little fussy when a candidate uses donations to pay for property. Good government watchdogs think, though, that West's self-governed arrangement smells bad.
"The overriding rule is that you can't use campaign funds on personal real estate," says Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, a political watchdog group. "When candidates use their campaign funds to pay for their own real estate holdings—or the holdings of their family—it raises serious questions of propriety."
Lewis is just as circumspect. "I'm not trying to pick on Senator West, but the question is: Should campaign contributions be used to make payments to an entity that is controlled by the candidate?"
It's worth pointing out that while West paid himself $18,000 in rent last year, he was not up for re-election. In his last election, in 2004, West did not have an opponent. Like many legislators in comfortable seats, West uses his campaign war chest to fund other candidates and donate to their local party, allowing them to play kingmaker in their districts. Last year, West was a leading donor to the Dallas County Democratic Party.
"This is just the way we allow it to be done in Austin, and it is so crazy," Lewis says. "Senator West acts no differently than anyone else. We have met the enemy and it is us."
West has also drawn the ire of environmentalists for the amount of campaign cash he's taken from TXU, the utility giant that recently scrapped its plans to build 11 coal-burning plants. As Mayor Laura Miller and Houston Mayor Bill White led the fight against the utility's ambitions, citing the noxious level of air pollution that would result, West largely stood on the sidelines.
In the 2006 election cycle, West received $16,000 from TXU executives and political action committees, according to Texans for Public Justice. That ranked West the fifth-largest recipient of TXU's bounty and the top Democratic beneficiary. TXU also contributed $200,000 to the University of North Texas campus in southern Dallas.
It's always tenuous to correlate campaign donations with legislative behavior, and TXU is in West's district. West says that he would have opposed the utility's plans to build 11 coal-fired power plants if it came before the Legislature, and he has criticized the utility for its high electric rates. He says that the utility donates money to his campaign merely to ensure access.
But environmentalists who have long counted on West as an ally say they're beginning to lose faith in him. Four years ago, he backed legislation that allowed for the development of a nuclear waste dump in West Texas after having received $2,000 in campaign contributions from the Dallas owner.
"For me, when that nuclear waste dump happened, it waved a red flag with me," says Rita Beving, the conservation co-chair of Dallas Sierra Club, who has known West for more than 15 years. "I don't want to think that of Royce West, but I'm very concerned. I see the environmental community as having a lot less access to him."
Interestingly, West's son, Royce West Jr., informally lobbied on behalf of TXU earlier this year. Jim Presley, a Texarkana physician and environmentalist, told Beving that he received a phone call from West Jr. recently, saying that he was "working for cleaner air in Northeast Texas." He then asked the physician if he'd be interested in writing up to 12 letters supporting these "improved power plants." The physician asked West Jr. if he was working for TXU, and he said yes.
Like many environmentalists, Beving is not short on indignation. When she heard from the Texarkana physician, she called West's office immediately. A staffer told her that West had a conversation with his son, and "he will no longer be working for the company."
If West runs for statewide office in four years—a possibility he acknowledges—what will be a lot thornier for West is the role he played in the demise of the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District. At the time the state closed it down in 2005, the district had the worst test scores in Texas and was rated by the state as academically unacceptable, the lowest possible designation. Wilmer-Hutchins also had trouble meeting payroll and was plagued by allegations of corruption. One of its superintendents, Charles Matthews, was indicted twice.
In 2002, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander (now Strayhorn) released an audit of Wilmer-Hutchins that detailed $7.3 million in savings for the financially struggling district. It also criticized the work of the district's delinquent tax attorney, West, in part for failing to collect more than $3 million in property taxes. Shortly after the release of the audit, the Wilmer-Hutchins board voted against giving West a contract. (Apparently, West was operating without one at the time.)
After the vote, the trustees went into private session. Trustee Ann Walker, who voted against giving West the contract, went to take a smoke break. On her way out she saw the state senator. He didn't look happy.
When Walker returned, she saw West talking to her fellow trustees. West, she says, had long been close to her colleagues, treating them to dinner when they went on conferences. When the board emerged from the executive session, it voted again on West's contract. This time, they chose to retain him as the district's delinquent tax attorney, after trustee Virginia Hill switched her vote.
"I remember fussing," says Walker, growing angrier the more she talks about it. "I remember saying, 'That's not right. You can't let him go up there and change your mind.'"
Walker says that West pressured Hill to reconsider. Hill says that she doesn't remember why she changed her vote. "If I did, it was my business," she says, adding that just talking about the long-running saga at Wilmer-Hutchins causes her stress.
Walker says that West didn't do a good job for the district. "Royce was a Wilmer-Hutchins grad, and I felt like he really let us down."
Despite the very public implosion of the Wilmer-Hutchins school district in 2005, West escaped relatively unscathed. That same year, West was named in an FBI subpoena in connection with the ongoing, if not never-ending, investigation of bribery allegations at Dallas City Hall. The FBI wanted to review West's correspondence with city officials concerning apartment developer Brian Potashnik, who is at the center of the investigation for his cozy relationships with Dallas City Council members, including West's longtime friend Don Hill.
Throughout the years, West has consistently supported Potashnik's affordable-housing proposals, clearing the way for the developer to receive millions of dollars in tax credits from the state. West has been the recipient of Potashnik's largesse—he contributed $5,000 to West's campaign in 2001 as he began to grow his business—but there doesn't seem to be any other ties to the developer. In contrast, at the time the FBI investigation became public in June 2005, Hill was driving a BMW owned by a paid consultant of Potashnik's company. Interestingly, West has endorsed Hill for mayor.
West declined to discuss whether he's talked with the FBI about his relationship with Potashnik, but he doesn't seem remotely concerned about the investigation. In fact, a few months after he was named in the FBI subpoena, West considered running for district attorney.
"On a scale of a one to 10, I would say it was a 10," he says of the campaign. "It was something I wanted to do. I gave it a great deal of consideration." His desire to be on the team that develops the southern Dallas campus of UNT swayed him to forgo the district attorney race.
After West chose not to run, he threw his support behind Craig Watkins, who had almost defeated incumbent Bill Hill four years earlier. After Watkins won the Democratic primary, his campaign seemed to lag. His Republican opponent, Toby Shook, was rapidly outspending him. A well-known prosecutor in his own right, Shook was running a well-financed, professional campaign, while Watkins was having his mother answer questions from reporters about his tax and money problems. Making matters worse for the Democratic challenger, County Commissioner Price was critical of Watkins' campaign, openly questioning its seriousness in an eye-opening column by The Dallas Morning News' Gromer Jeffers.
At the time, the gossip in South Dallas political circles was that Price pulled his ally and favored consultant Kathy Neely off Watkins' campaign. (Price did not return a call for comment.) West, on the other hand, remained supportive of Watkins and signed off on the deal that brought a professional political consultant from New Orleans to revive the candidate's slumping campaign. When Watkins upset Shook, it tilted the balance of power from Price, the local powerbroker unafraid to cast his lot with Republicans when necessary, to West, the loyal Democratic partisan.
"John left Royce's guy hanging," Shaw says. "So Royce comes in and, thanks to Iraq and Bush, puts together this astounding victory, but this was also an astounding victory of Royce over John."
West's aides insist there is no rivalry between the two while West calls Price his "political brother." But Shaw, who has known both men for decades, says his friend is just being polite.
"I could tell you that Royce is much too cautious a politician to speak ill of John to the Dallas Observer," Shaw says. "But he knows what he did to him."
Southern Dallas politics are hopelessly complex and capricious, marked by long-standing alliances and rivalries that can shift on substantive issues or frivolous rumors. No one really knows if there is any competition between West and Price, and certainly southern Dallas is big enough for the both of them. If anything, the two are more alike than different. Both are extraordinarily savvy, and each can act like Winston Churchill in public and like Karl Rove behind the scenes. But last November's Democratic sweep seems to have turned West into the premier politician in southern Dallas and beyond. While Price initially endorsed independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn for governor and endorsed several Republicans, West cut television and radio ads for Chris Bell and promoted the party's straight-ticket strategy.
Now with his protégé in the district attorney's office and his law practice stronger than ever, West is at the pinnacle of his public and professional life—so far.
"I thought Royce was pretty well-positioned prior to November, but November showed how powerful and influential he is," Coggins says. "He has a very safe seat in the Senate, has a tremendous law practice, and his voice is probably as loud and powerful in North Texas, probably in all of Texas as far as Democrats are concerned."
If there is a nagging question that surrounds West, it's whether he has used his stature as a state senator to benefit himself in other ways, particularly as a lawyer. Over the last five years, West's small law firm has collected nearly $2.5 million in legal fees from the Dallas Independent School District. It billed more than $400,000 to Wilmer-Hutchins during the last four years of its existence. He also works as a co-bond counsel for the city of Dallas. No one is saying that West used his position on the Senate's Education Committee to receive these contracts, but doesn't his standing give him at least a tiny advantage when he's competing against an anonymous law firm with an office on Central Expressway?
On a Monday morning in February, West sits in his law office in Oak Cliff, in the building he owns just off Interstate 35. Dressed in a dark, well-tailored suit, West is ready to leave for the funeral of Shapiro's father. Like a good Southern attorney, West is measured and thoughtful, his voice is steady and calm, regardless of whether he's talking about the remarkable turnaround of his surging party or his law firm's lucrative work with the public sector.
On the latter, he makes no apologies, and it's not exactly clear that he should. Paid only $7,200 a year as a state senator, West has to make a living somehow. The question remains: Is there a conflict of interest for West, a powerful legislator who sits on the Senate Education Committee, to do business with two school districts in his purview? Or to put it another way, is West the state senator a rainmaker for West the attorney?
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In fact, West claims, "It's just the opposite." Being a state senator can hinder his law practice, forcing him to weed out clients who may be trying to exploit his position in the Legislature.
"I have to be very cognizant of the fact that people are hiring me as their lawyer and not for anything else," he says. "I have corporate clients who want to continue sending you money after you do their work."
West says he goes to great lengths to remind clients that when they come to visit him, they're not sitting down with a state senator but with a lawyer eager to work on their case and only their case. "I tell people all the time, 'When you come into this office, you're seeing me as an attorney.'"
It's easy to see why they might be confused. In West's law office is a nameplate, positioned at the front of the desk, facing potential clients. It reads, "State Senator Royce West."