I have a bit of a confession: I really like the candidates running for Dallas mayor. If I were 60 years older, I might even like to play shuffleboard with some of them. Just about all of them are intelligent and affable. They crack good-natured jokes and sprinkle self-deprecating anecdotes about themselves in the midst of their folksy campaign speeches. Well, all except Tom Leppert, who talks frequently about his "successes," explains why he's had so many "successes" and promises to continue those "successes" at City Hall.
Even still, Leppert, like the rest of them, is a pretty likable guy. He has a knack for talking incessantly about the triumphs in life without coming off as too arrogant. I don't know how he does it. Kudos.
But the problem with Leppert and all of his competitors is that they're too nice to each other. I interviewed one of the candidates recently and asked him about one of his competitors. The candidate had nothing but kind things to say about the other guy, but he wanted to deliver a few criticisms...off the record. Reluctantly, I let him -- but, as it turns out, his criticisms were prefaced by a series of lavish, sincere compliments. Finally, when he was done praising Caesar, he didn't exactly bury him. Instead, he merely offered an observation on his opponent that had been noted before and wouldn't exactly have offended the rival had he been listening in.
What kind of campaign do we have when even candidates' off-the-record comments are about as gentle and innocuous as a Steve Blow column?
And they're all saying just about the same thing. Last night, at a mayoral forum at Dallas Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff, the candidates were asked a rather simple question: If you couldn't raise the tax rate or grow the tax base, what programs would you cut to reduce the budget? Of the top eight candidates running for mayor -- four of whom, by the way, just happen to be loyal Republicans -- no one could come up with a single program they'd eliminate or at least reduce in size. Not one single municipal program was worthy of examination. Here's a sampling of their answers.
Max Wells: "I'm not going to make any recommendations tonight."
John Cappello: "I'm not going to commit to what programs I'd cut."
Gary Griffith: "I think the question presupposes an unlikely scenario."
Darrell Jordan: "I don't think we need to be thinking negatively right now."
I have also asked the candidates if they disagree with any number of tax abatement deals the city has made with local developers to build in downtown Dallas. Nobody could name one. None of the candidates, other than Sam Coats, seem to have a problem with how the Trinity River project is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. All of the candidates want to hire hundreds of new police officers, but nobody, other than Max Wells, has a plan on how to pay for it -- and Wells' sales tax proposal involves a referendum and at least a 2- to 3-year wait before the additional funds would trickle in.
I understand that it's easier to win an election by promising to provide services rather than promising to cut them, but in a very crowded field of mostly old white men, you'd think some of the candidates would say something, anything to set themselves apart. Of course, if they really think just like everybody else, then why did they decide to run in the first place?
As you can tell, it was another lackluster, uneventful week on the campaign trail. Here's your weekly ranking of the top eight candidates, according to my very shaky understanding of their electability and performance at various mayoral forums.
1) Don Hill: If turnout in this year's mayoral race is about the same as 2003, when 94,000 voters went to the polls, then I don't see how Hill doesn't make the runoff. The Southern sector districts alone could give him enough votes to move on. If Hill can could pick up some votes in East Dallas too, he'll be impossible to keep out of the runoff. Meanwhile, Hill is helping his own case by mounting an energetic, focused campaign. At every forum I've been to, he's either won or been right up there. Also, last night he introduced to those gathered the famous Sheila Farrington, his bride and one-time political consultant -- c'mon, you remember? The woman provided him with his infamous BMW? Yes, that's her.
2) Tom Leppert: He's talking less about his business experience and more about his civic involvement on local boards, which is a good move. There's nothing inspiring about his campaign, but my guess is that it's a rather efficient one. With his cash alone, he's a good bet to get the 15,000 to 20,000 votes needed to make the runoff. Every now and then, another candidate will lightly criticize Leppert for either overtouting his business experience or being a relative newcomer to Dallas (he moved here on Tuesday, give or take a couple of years), and he'll become visibly shaken. But nobody ever follows up, because that wouldn't be polite.
3) Max Wells: I regret to inform you, dear Friends of Unfair Park, that I am temporarily suspending all jokes about Max Wells age. (He's 103. OK, starting now.) I had a chance to talk to him in person, and he was very sharp and engaged. Tall and trim, Wells looks fit as well, more so than many of his competitors. (Don Hill, I'm looking at you.) Wells is doing better at these forums too, and while he's not winning any of them, his public performances don't make for the awkward, uncomfortable theater they once did. The question for Wells is if his backscratching coalition of rich Dallas businessmen and black politicos from Southern Dallas will hold together like it has in the past.
4) Ed Oakley:Nobody, not even Don Hill, knows more about how city government works and operates than Ed Oakley. At yesterday's forum, after a question about how to improve Executive Airport, he noted that the runways can't be lengthened because they would encroach on a nearby neighborhood. Last week, he talked elaborately about water main replacement. But if you attend any of these forums and you don't take notes, I don't think you'll remember anything he says. This is a problem.
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5) Darrell Jordan: On Monday, at a forum in East Dallas, Jordan criticized Leppert and Griffith for making promises on education that they can't keep. It wasn't a low blow, just a valid and relevant point at the conclusion of a civil debate. Yesterday, Jordan returned to being the nice, affable attorney he is, failing to say a single negative thing about anyone. Along with Coats and Wells, Jordan is one of three old, white guys in this race. I don't know how he distinguishes himself from this pack, much less the gaggle of seven serious candidates for mayor. So far Darrell Jordan is trying to separate himself from everyone else merely by being the friendliest, most likable candidate in the race. That he has a chance to succeed at this shows how nice a guy he is.
6) Gary Griffith: Griffith may be the most dedicated and thoughtful council member in Dallas (I'm giving all the candidates cheap and easy blurbs today). He organizes regular meetings with neighborhood groups, small business owners, police leaders. At every forum, he'll remind people of just how devoted a council member he is. The problem is that Griffith, last I checked, isn't running for re-election to the city council. He's running for mayor. Someone needs to tell him that.
7) Sam Coats: I think I've penned enough complimentary things about Coats last week, so let me just say that nothing has happened in the last seven days to sour me on Coats the person. I'm still not sold on Coats the candidate, but if he can continue to distinguish himself as the one serious candidate who will be independent from the usual factions that dominate City Hall, he can and will move up on this list.
8) Gloria Campos: The WFAA-Channel 8 anchor knows how to moderate a forum. Yesterday, she ruled the Oak Cliff mayoral debate with an iron fist, firmly interrupting candidates when they spoke longer than their allotted one-minute response time. Honestly, if any of the actual candidates had to monitor one of those things, they'd be too nice to ever do that, choosing instead to meekly raise their hands when the speaker became too verbose. Then, if they were noticed, they'd apologize profusely for cutting the candidate short before offering a series of generous compliments about the speech they had just heard. But Campos never allowed any candidate more than his due time, which paved the way for a fair and fast-moving debate. Vote for Gloria. She has balls that the other guys don't. --Matt Pulle