Last night, at a forum at a black church in a front of a black crowd, the very white Max Wells had a black politician stand in for him and attack a black frontrunner. Wells himself was nowhere to be seen. How convenient.
On Thursday, at a mayoral forum at Friendship West Baptist Church in southern Dallas, former city council member Don Hicks stood in for a missing Wells. But Hicks, who is one of several black politicos supporting Wells, didn’t exactly emulate his candidate’s folksy demeanor. Instead, Hicks performed Wells’ dirty work in front of an in-the-know churchgoing crowd, implying a council member was on the take, ridiculing a candidate for once belonging to an all-white country club and mocking another for the recent dissolution of his marriage. Other than that, Hicks was rather polite.
Hicks talked first about Don Hill’s recent divorce and subsequent marriage to political consultant Sheila Farrington. “Max is a person you can trust,” he said. “He’s been with his wife for over 50 years.”
Oh, wait. You think I’m reading too much into that? OK, try this one: “My major problem with Mr. Hill is that I don’t think he has conduct of becoming a mayor,” Hicks said during his concluding remarks. “That’s all I’m going to say about that. You know what I’m talking about.”
The crowd gasped. Some seemed startled, while others chuckled.
A gentleman in the crowd yelled “innocent until proven guilty,” a reference to the ongoing FBI investigation of Dallas City Hall. Hicks promptly clarified his insult.
“I’m not talking about the FBI.”
When the forum concluded and the members of the crowd gathered to talk about the debate, Hicks quietly and quickly left the forum, like an assassin leaving a rooftop after the shot was fired. My guess is he called his candidate as he boarded the elevator.
Hicks: “Mr. Wells, the job is done.”
Wells: “Excellent. Now wait for your next assignment.”
I don’t know the whole story about Hill’s personal life, and Hicks didn’t explain why I should care. He only wanted to remind the crowd about Hill’s divorce, without having the heart or mind to explain how it’s an issue. Interestingly, I wonder if Wells, an avowed Republican, has the same qualms with his party’s frontrunner for president. Maybe he can send Hicks to ask ol' Rudy.
In any case, I think Hick’s shots bounced off their target. After he was accused of not having the conduct to be mayor, Hill ignored the remark. He said nothing in response to Hicks’ taunts and continued to talk about his core issues -- economic development and job growth. Even after the forum, Hill didn’t show any anger at Hicks, who was his law partner and one-time political ally. Hill called Hicks a friend and said that he wanted to wait until he talked to him before he commented. Hill wouldn’t criticize him at all, as much as I tried to goad him.
When he wasn’t making subtle and not-so subtle comments about Hill’s personal life, Hicks also criticized Tom Leppert for belonging to the all-white Dallas Country Club. Leppert canceled his membership a few months before he joined the mayor’s race.
“Anybody who in 2007 who wants to be associated with a known racist organization and then resign a few months before running for election, I don’t have respect for him to be mayor,” Hicks said.
Leppert has worked harder than any of his North Dallas peers at trying to understand the issues of southern Dallas. Even if his country club membership is still fair game, the Wells campaign seems to be using it rather selectively. I didn’t hear Wells bring it up at Republican-sponsored forums in North and East Dallas.
Finally, apropos of nothing, Hicks attacked Angela Hunt for her campaign to put the Trinity River toll road up for a vote.
“I’m an old IRS lawyer, and you can see corruption a mile away,” Hicks said. “Somebody is with Miss Hunt who is causing her to do this.”
Which is funny, since all the money is on the other side.
For weeks I’ve complained that the Dallas mayor’s race is too polite, featuring a largely bland cast of candidates unwilling or unable to criticize each other. Other than Hill and, at times, Sam Coats, nobody really stood out. Last night, Wells stood out without even entering the room. Oddly, had he been there, he would have made much less of an impression.
1. Don Hill: This week Don Hill picked up endorsements from Hispanic leaders and organizations, including the Tejano Democrats, Domingo Garcia and Hector Flores. I hear reports every now and then that Hill is not as strong in the Southern sector as he needs to be, and I don’t see as many signs for him as I would have thought. But last night at Friendship West Baptist Church forum, Hill garnered the loudest and warmest applause. Part of that was because he panders to his base -- like when he told them that there was “no corruption at Wilmer-Hutchins,” which is kind of like saying “there was no iceberg that sunk the Titanic.” But most of Hill’s popularity has to do with how informed and charismatic he is on the campaign trail. If Hispanics vote for him to any noticeable degree, I don’t see how he doesn’t make the runoff. From there, well, good luck.
2. Tom Leppert: The Dallas Morning News’ endorsement of Leppert -- a centrist, corporate Republican -- didn’t exactly come out of left field. Who else was the paper going to endorse? But in a crowded race with a group of unknown candidates, the News’ endorsement has to matter just a little bit this time around right?
I have complained in the past that things are coming a little too easy for Leppert. But none of his competitors have spent as much time trying to understand southern Dallas and the problems and opportunities it has. If Leppert makes it to the runoff, he will have earned it. And if everyone in North Dallas spent as much time trying to learn about life on the other side of the Trinity, the word would be...oh, my God, I’m turning into Steve Blow. Let’s move on to No. 3.
3. Sam Coats: What was surprising about the News’ endorsement of Leppert was how much praise they lavished on their No. 2 choice, Coats. I would have thought they’d marginalize him because of his support for Hunt’s toll road referendum, but Coats charm and intelligence must have worn them down.
You see, Unfair Park readers? I’m not the only one.
4. Ed Oakley: Oakley skipped two forums in southern Dallas this week. Meanwhile Coats and Hill are picking up on Oakley’s possible conflict of interest between his fundamentalist support of the Trinity River project and his nearby land holdings. I don’t see these as good developments. Oakley needs to run a smooth, controversy-free campaign and come in a strong second to Hill in the southern sector. We’ll see if his Trinity River position, which he sells as a strength, will water down his appeal. Get it? The Trinity...water... Oh, forget it.
5. Gary Griffith: If the turnout is low, as in 85,000 votes or fewer, Griffith has as good a chance as anyone to make the runoff. He hasn’t been great on the campaign trail, nor has he tried to really extend his base of support far outside his council district. But considering how popular Griffith is in his Lakewood base, if he can pick up votes in Hunt’s East Dallas district and Bill Blaydes' Lake Highlands District, he could surprise everyone and come in second on election day. If the turnout is more than 100,000 votes, I don’t see it, but keep in mind that your source on Griffith’s fortunes once thought that the Gin Blossoms would have a long and productive career. I tend to be bad with predictions, FYI.
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6. Darrell Jordan: Towards the end of these lists sometimes I get tired and bored and run out of interesting things to write about the candidates. This is one of those times.
7. Edward Okpa: Welcome back to Unfair Park’s top eight. I soured on Okpa’s candidacy over the last few weeks because I didn’t feel like he did enough to separate himself from the pack. In a crowded race of political veterans and wealthy newcomers, I thought the Nigerian-born Okpa should have used his outsider status to challenge the frontrunners’ annoying consensus on the main issues. He hasn’t done that. Okpa, himself a developer, is just as pro-Trinity and pro-development as the frontrunners and seems to view the city just as they do.
But Okpa is extremely smart and well-versed on the issues -- as much, if not more so, than his opponents. More important, Okpa is just a really good guy. Last night, after Hicks ambushed Hill with a nasty put down of his personal life, Okpa came to Hill’s defense, even though the two had sparred a bit on the issues previously. But in his closing remarks, Okpa scolded Hicks indirectly, looking at him and saying, “Let’s do this exercise with dignity.” Then he talked about how he had Hill over his house for dinner and that he would never say anything to “demean anyone for a vote.” At the end of the forum, Hill walked over to Okpa and embraced him like a lost brother, while Hicks slithered off the stage and into the night.
8. Max Wells probably deserves to be far higher on this list, but if I’m supposed to judge him by Hicks, he’s lucky to be ahead of Jennifer Gale. --Matt Pulle