Mayor Tom Leppert May Run for Senate? What, and Miss All The Fun?

Don't tell me I may be losing my Tom Leppert. What would I do? I'm just not ready for the mayor of Dallas to leave me. I have so much more in mind for him.

The speculation is that Leppert might consider running for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's seat early next year should she decide at the end of this year to enter the Republican gubernatorial primary and should she also decide to resign from the Senate. (Hutchison wouldn't be required by law to quit the Senate in order to run for governor, but everybody assumes she would.)

I spoke with Leppert's City Hall chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, and his political consultant, Mary Woodlief, to tell them I was working on a story about a possible Senate run and to ask for comment from the mayor. The response was radio silence from Leppert—not even a no-comment, just silence, reminding us of his response when we asked for details about his plan for taking over the school system.

The speculation that he will run persists, however, based on the widely held belief that a special election to replace Hutchison would give Leppert a window that won't be open again for another 15 years or more. In other words, it's a chance he can't afford to miss.

Leppert was a private businessman before getting elected mayor of Dallas the first time in a run-off in June 2007. Since then he has established himself as a formidable campaigner and political money-raiser but not so much as a Republican.

It's tough for anybody to put down partisan roots at Dallas City Hall, where elective office by law is non-partisan. But quite beyond that, Leppert has taken political positions, both at the gavel and on the stump, that have actively alienated some elements of the local Republican Party.

He ran the campaign and was first in the bully pulpit for a city-owned hotel next to the convention center—a sharp stick in the eye for fiscal conservatives.

At the city council dais Leppert marched arm-in-arm with Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway in support of a tough daylight curfew for teenagers, a measure that stuck deep in the craw of social conservatives and homeschoolers.

He has been given sort of a pass by local media (except us) on his involvement in minority contracting imbroglios (the late Lynn Flint Shaw at DART, the inland port, etc.). But none of that has gone unnoticed within the party, and all of it surely would be mined deeply in a straight-up Republican primary.

But that, for Leppert, is the beauty of a special election to replace Hutchison. There is no primary. It's an open race—in partisan terms almost a mirror of a typical City Hall election in Dallas. Every man and woman for himself and herself. Sort of non-partisan, what?

But what does it boil down to then? Who wins? Well, the folks I talk to say that will depend a whole lot on four questions: 1) Is this a Democratic or Republican state right now? (Just for grins, let's assume it's still Republican), 2) Who's the best campaigner?, 3) Who can raise the most money the fastest?, 4) Is Dewhurst in?

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst is a handsome man who runs a great campaign. The amount of time he will need to raise the money is however long it takes him to do an online account transfer. He is what is called "self-funding"—raises money with mouse clicks. So if Dewhurst is in, no other Republicans may bother.

But if he's not? Then the window opens, and maybe Leppert jumps through. Why don't I want him to jump? Oh, let me count the ways.

If Tom Leppert leaves City Hall next year and runs for higher office, he will do so on the back of a certain very brief but outwardly impressive record of can-do-ism in Dallas.

He was the man who saved the Trinity River toll road by defeating a referendum.

He is the man who saved the Dallas convention headquarters hotel from a referendum that sought to kill it.

He is the man who resolved the city's north-south racial split by forming a productive partnership with minority political and business leadership.

Every single one of those, I firmly believe, is a ticking time-bomb. And I want to see him still here and firmly ensconced in the mayor's chair when they all go off. I'm rooting for one big bang.

Let me ask you something. Did I ever claim to be a pleasant person? OK, I think I've made my point. Now let's talk.

Remember, please, that the 2007 Trinity River toll road referendum was not a vote on the overall Trinity River project—a multibillion-dollar public works campaign to include parks, decorative bridges, flood control and a new super highway in the center of the city. In fact, it wasn't even a vote on whether or not to build the toll road.

The sole question asked and answered by the voters was whether the route of the toll road should be between the flood control levees—out in the area that floods, in other words—as opposed to being outside the levees in the area that is protected by the levees from flooding.

Leppert's great accomplishment, then, was in persuading the voters of Dallas to support keeping it inside the levees, where it floods. I'm not sure in retrospect how many voters realized that's really what they were doing by voting down the referendum. The genius of the Leppert campaign was to paint the whole thing as a battle to save the project and Dallas itself from hippie demon East Dallas family-haters.

It worked. Voters narrowly defeated the referendum and preserved a plan to build a multi-lane, high-speed toll road inside a major urban floodway, something that has never been done anywhere else and for a reason.

Now that decision is coming back to haunt us.

Last February, the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers ruled that the levee system itself is unsafe.

The North Texas Tollway Authority announced in early June it was stopping design work on the road pending resolution of the levee issues. The NTTA had conceded earlier it is at least $1 billion short of the money needed to build the road.

At the end of June, the Federal Highway Administration said that it won't try to assess or approve any route for the road, inside or outside the levees, until after the city completes a 10-month $29 million levee safety study.

My personal favorite: There's a big honking half-built bridge over the toll road, designed at enormous expense by famous Spanish bridge-man Santiago Calatrava, sitting out there in the river bottom in a state of suspended animation because the Corps won't allow the city to build the approaches. As it stands, the bridge is of use only to a reincarnated Evel Knievel.

If Leppert sticks around—maybe only through the end of next year—he will be here long enough for the whole Trinity toll road mess to come crashing down around his shoulders. And when it does crash, it will make a sound heard 'round the world. If nothing else, Calatrava alone will guarantee that. Imagine the great man being asked at news conferences in Europe why his Texas bridge doesn't have any ends on it. He's famously testy. Maybe he'll shrug and say something like, "Ask them, not me. They didn't want ends." Which of course, would bring the question back around to the mayor. Which I would love.

The convention center hotel? I have absolutely no idea. The next few years look like an awfully tough time for bringing a new downtown hotel online, but maybe I'm wrong about that. The more likely source of peril is city ownership and the amount of meddling sure to ensue from bureaucrats and politicians alike.

But let's give him a pass on the hotel. Maybe he sticks around, and the hotel is a feather in his cap.

The real source of danger for Leppert in the next year or so, I firmly believe, is going to be in his extremely active hands-on role in minority contracting. I am persuaded by what I have been seeing in the Don Hill City Hall corruption trial; what I saw at DART when Leppert's finance chairperson, Lynn Flint Shaw, was chairman of the board; and what I have seen in the inland port story.

Leppert is not from Dallas, but he was brought into office by the very heart of the old Dallas political establishment, especially the private Dallas Citizens Council. The old oligarchy has always operated on a system of tight central control, mainly by a few families, lubricated by racial patronage.

That culture is falling apart. One of the places where it is falling apart right now is in the federal courthouse. But it's also coming apart at the seams out on the street. Dallas is full of bright, competitive, heads-up people, minority and not, who don't want and don't need half a dozen heads of old cotton clans handing out Christmas hams.

There will be more revelations of graft at City Hall. Count on it. That culture wasn't built in a day. I am not saying or implying here that anybody will ever accuse Leppert of corruption, because I don't believe that. But I do think he has helped create a narrow, back-room, very political pipeline for public contracts. And I think that role is going to put his name in the same bad picture with people who will be accused.

Frankly, I think it's only fair that he stick around long enough for some of these shoes to fall. Leaving now, with the entire Trinity River project dangling over us by its laces, feels like the height of irresponsibility. If he thought the hotel was such a hot idea, he ought to be here when it opens.

But more than any of that, the contracts are what I care about. Such a clever mechanism—a way to get black people to vote for white folks' deals. Let's see how that one works out over time.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze