The easiest thing to say about Dallas City Council elections would be that no one gives a shit. Voter participation in the council run-off election last weekend, counting everybody who mailed in a ballot or voted early, was 4.21 percent of the people who were registered to vote.
That would be the wrong thing to say, and not only because people should not use the word "shit" in print. People care when they have to. Otherwise, they have lives. Right now City Hall talks about things and does things that seem irrelevant or stupid to most people, so most people don't even vote.
But elections don't rule the world, because government does not rule the world. Look at the inner circle of neighborhoods in Dallas. You think nobody gives a shit what goes on here? Then how come there's all this incredible jazz going on, all these apartments going up and cool new restaurants opening, houses getting fixed up or torn down and replaced, all of the sheer action you see if you drift the streets in Uptown or North Oak Cliff or East Dallas or ... whoa, have you taken a serious look at downtown Dallas at night lately?
No, stuff is definitely happening here. Meanwhile, City Hall seems to have less and less to do with any of it. They plod along and do stupid things nobody wants them to do, like drilling for oil in parks or refusing to build bike trails, while the city itself, the actual city, the real-life place just flows around City Hall as if it were a stalled car in traffic.
We can still get useful information out of elections. Take what happened in District 14 in East Dallas, for example. Bobby Abtahi, a young lawyer with no history or background in the district, got trounced by Philip Kingston, another lawyer who does have a long history as an activist in that part of town. Abtahi lost by almost 9 points in the run-off.
Pretend they started off in a dead heat. They did not, because of what I already told you. But pretend they did. Even though Abtahi tried to hide it, he clearly won the support of the Dallas Citizens Council, which is the old troglodyte 1950s behind-closed-doors group that represents the money in this town.
OK, the minute Abtahi became the Citizens Council candidate, he already lost the election by at least five points. Everybody in East Dallas knows who the Citizens Council people are. They are the funky, Park Cities, cul-de-sac ancients who represent everything the new city is trying to get away from.
Then when it was obvious things weren't going well in the run-off, somebody had the bright idea of bringing in Allyn & Co., the political ad agency that does mailings for the Citizens Council. That word flew like a bullet all over East Dallas among the kind of people who were going to vote: Abtahi's got Allyn & Co. working for him. I figure at that point the poor son of a bitch was down a good 7 points.
And then the final blow, the knockout punch, the coup de grace: Someone gets former Mayor Tom Leppert, who left City Hall to run a failed wannabe-Tea Party campaign for senator, to do robo-calls for Abtahi. Abtahi, at that point, should have saved himself the trouble and withdrawn. The Leppert robo-calls are why his margin of defeat got to damned near 10 percent.
I'm not sure there was a way to make things worse for Abtahi. I guess they could have brought in Mitt Romney and had him give a speech about the danger of East Dallas being overrun by hep-cat jazz musicians. Yeah, that might have given Kingston another couple points. In practical terms, though, the Abtahi machine did a pretty through job of totally shredding its own candidate.
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I'm not taking away from Kingston here. He ran a smart, positive campaign, held himself above the mud and painted the right picture -- not just the picture people want to see, after all, but the picture they do see when they look across their city now. Dallas is a place with big problems, sure, absolutely, but, more important than that, it's a city that just keeps getting more cosmopolitan, more open, more exciting with every passing day.
And there is the key. The outcome in District 14 was a victory of that positive picture, the walkable bike-able sidewalk city with good jobs and things happening, over the old, funky, fortified, cul-de-sac city where it's all about exclusivity, bling bridges and hoarding your toys behind high walls.
The old leadership of the city has aligned itself solidly against the whole creative-class back-to-the-city movement that demographic experts across America have been touting for at least a decade as the great promise of the future. That's not conspiratorial. It's way deeper than that. It's cultural. The old leaders can't see that future, because it's outside their culture, which puts it out beyond their universe.
But in the end that doesn't matter. The city is flowing around them as if they weren't even here. As that trend increases, the day will come when City Hall will actually start addressing issues the new city will care about. Then the new city will vote. It's all good, eventually. I just wish eventually didn't take so damned long.