You know how people always rearrange themselves a little bit on an elevator every time someone gets on or off? Think of political Dallas as one big elevator ever since former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle announced last week he's going to run for mayor in the May election.
Shuffle shuffle. Nudge-nudge. People looking all slit-eye sideways at him over their shoulders, trying to see what floor he's headed to.
Is this the beginning of something cool in Dallas? Or not?
You didn't notice, but in the last year I have been experiencing moments of fleeting optimism, good will and even some incidents of reduced paranoia. I just assume, whenever those nice moods hit me, that it's early onset dementia. I can get back to a normal mood by concentrating on something like the hit-and-run death of a beloved childhood pet.
But then every once in a while I am still nagged by this sense that Dallas might actually be moving in a good direction. Consider a few factors, and then we'll come back to Kunkle.
You may be a tax-hater, in which case I shouldn't bring this up, but there was a fascinating little seed of change in last year's city council vote to hold the city's property revenues level by raising the rate slightly. When city council member Angela Hunt joined the majority in favor of that rate increase, she created a union, however temporary, of the mostly white relatively affluent inner-city neighborhood movement with the black and Hispanic minority caucus on the council.
That never happens in Dallas. At least, it never used to happen. On all of the big city-wide issues, sometimes known in City Hall parlance as "white-people deals," the minority council members have always voted with the old white downtown oligarchy and against the middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
Why would the minority council members vote with an elite downtown business body and against neighborhoods, including their own? Because the Dallas Citizens Council and its members are still the overwhelmingly dominant source of campaign money for minority council members.
It goes like this: In all important local campaigns, the Citizens Council hires Carol Reed, its favored political consultant. Reed hires Kathy Nealey and Willis Johnson, her favored minority political consultants. The three of them distribute money to candidates and a network of minority clergy—all perfectly legal, mind you.
From that point forward, the deal is done. The minority council members can do whatever they want and raise any kind of ruckus they want on issues in their own districts, so long as those issues are not white-people deals. But when it comes to things the Citizens Council cares about—that tax hike, for example—the minority members are expected to tow the company line.
In this case they did not. In September of last year, Hunt joined three Hispanic and four black council members to form an eight-vote majority in favor of keeping city property tax revenues at the previous year's level. Because property values had fallen, the council had to raise the tax rate slightly to keep revenues flat.
For me, none of that was the interesting part. Arguing with people about taxes is like arguing with them about their moms' virtue. What do you expect, the Yale Debate Association?
The intriguing things were the willingness of the minority council members to buck the Citizens Council and the perception of Hunt that her own constituents would rather pay a nickel more in the property tax rate than endure further decay of the city's basic infrastructure.
But that's not enough to make me feel dementedly happy yet. No, the really scary sensation of well-being—the one that gives me the true willies—comes when I turn away from City Hall and contemplate the city itself. I think the chemicals are causing a kind of rose-colored distortion.
In spite of these terrible economic times, Dallas continues to bloom at its heart, from North Oak Cliff to east of downtown around Baylor Hospital, further east in the Henderson Avenue area, north along the Uptown corridor, south into the Cedars.
Well, the city blooms in a circle around the heart, anyway. The heart itself still has problems. Downtown seems to suffer from some kind of chronic a-fib.
The places in the city that boom and bloom have one thing in common. They are centers drawing the kind of people who just like being in the city, who don't want to be separated, rated and gated. It's all about people who like the mix.
None of this is unique to Dallas. It's all stuff that Christopher Leinberger, author of The Option of Urbanism, and others have been writing about and predicting for cities all over America. Leinberger calls it "Seinfeld America"—a place where people like the idea of living stacked up on top of strangers more than living on a cul-de-sac with their cousins.