On the Road Again, Leppert Stumbles

Tom Leppert does better when he's surrounded by pro-toll road pals, like at last week's "Vote No!" press conference. The questions don't bug him, just the answers.
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So far, the Trinity toll road referendum has foiled Mayor Tom Leppert, slashing his honeymoon by about six months and miring him in a polarizing civic battle that has turned his more skeptical supporters into irrevocable enemies. At the onset of the hostilities in July, the mayor wrongly suggested that the councilwoman Angela Hunt’s petition drive for the referendum was fraudulent, drawing a public rebuke from the far more popular Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. Then Leppert, whose campaign for mayor was defined by its honest, apolitical approach, took a cheap shot at Hunt when he neglected to name her to a single leadership position.

What happened to Candidate Tom Leppert, the retired executive who was above the petty power plays that define politics in the Big D?

Last night at the Rosemont Primary School in Oak Cliff, Leppert struggled in a debate over the referendum as his opponents, Angela Hunt and former council member Sandy Greyson, sandwiched deep, compelling arguments against the road in between applause-catching one-liners -- even as their own lack of a Plan B became readily apparent as the night wore on. Still Hunt and Greyson, working together as effortlessly as George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean's 11, continually rattled the mayor and his hapless pro-toll road ally Veletta Lill, who might be the worst debater since James Stockdale.

“I know you may question, why does she support… [long pause] ... a toll road… [another long pause] ... at the end of the park,” Lill said in a dry monotone at the beginning of the debate. “Once you see the facts ... [again, another long pause] ... you’ll vote no.”

Lill who spoke to the packed house at Rosemont Primary like a third-grade teacher explaining nuclear physics to an ESL class. The well-respected and engaged former council member of East Dallas, Lill epitomized the condescension and smug certainty of the political hierarchy backing the road, often appearing as if the very need for a debate was a waste of her time.

A far more urgent Leppert often did an effective job of defending his position before a largely skeptical crowd. Still, there were times when Leppert set himself up for a killer Hunt comeback. Toward the end of the debate, Leppert talked about how roads crisscross Central Park, once the role model for the Trinity River Project, implying that the planned toll road won’t be the eyesore its opponents claim.

“How many of you have been to Central Park?” Hunt immediately asked the crowd. “How many people saw a toll road?

The audience roared.

“If the plan is to build roads like Central Park … I’m all for that,” Hunt said. This is why she’s such a good debater; she can think on her feet and deliver a choice line.

Of course, Hunt is more than just a smart-ass. In an affable, measured tone, she explained how the pro-toll road forces can’t pin down the exact scope and cost of a highway that continues to eat up a greater share of the park. She also hit on the pure folly of the city asking the Army Corp of Engineers to lower its standards on what exactly you can do to a levee, while reminding the audience of the now-famous e-mail from one of the plan’s architects.

“The engineering of the road was proceeding as if it were a great big interstate highway,” Alex Krieger admonished then-Mayor Laura Miller.

Though not one to turn a clever phrase, Leppert hit home a few salient points as well.

“There is no plan, there is no option, there is no alternative,” Leppert said about how the anti-road folks struggle to explain where exactly they’d put a reliever route, if not inside the park.

Unfortunately for Leppert, he repeated variations of that message several times, allowing his opposition time to deliver an attention-grabbing comeback.

“There are lots of places we can put this road,” Hunt said, while never really getting to them. ‘Where is your alternative for the park?”

Again, the crowd applauded.

Sandy Greyson, who paired up with Hunt, was pure gold. Unlike Leppert, who was saddled with the ineffective Lill, Greyson was every bit Hunt’s equal. Greyson has a knack for calling bullshit on the pro-toll road party line. After Leppert complained that a vote against the toll road could somehow slash $25 million in funding for the lakes, Greyson had the audience cheering yet again when she asked: “How come in order to get the things we voted for in 1998 we have to raise private money, but we have enough money for the road?”

Unlike in the mayor’s race, Leppert made his case using this thing called details, largely eschewing the bromides and personal anecdotes that made his campaign the runaway hit of the spring. With varying degrees of accuracy, Leppert talked of how a reliever road can alleviate congestion, fight air pollution and help spur the revitalization of downtown. Leppert also tried to put the scope of the road in perspective.

“At the narrowest point it will be 5.5 football fields wide,” he says of the park. ”The road itself will be 40 yards.”

The mayor was at his best explaining why Industrial Boulevard is a poor place to put a toll road. The city would have to uproot up to 300 businesses, likely drawing more litigation than a Michael Jackson-operated daycare. But Leppert flopped when he tried to assure the crowd that even in the post-Katrina age, the planned road really isn’t a disaster waiting to happen.

“Can you name five other major roads in this country that have been built in a floodway?,” Hunt asked the mayor. When Leppert struggled to answer the question, Hunt asked him to name just one. A visibly flustered Leppert in effect conceded that the planned toll road is not a conventional construction job, offering up the worst line of the night not uttered by Veletta Lill: “They actually said the same thing about the Panama Canal and the Suez canal.”

Oh, that’s comforting; the construction of the Toll Road would require a once-in-a-lifetime engineering marvel. Naturally, the crowd snickered at Leppert’s proclamation.

Of course, Hunt and Greyson have the more audience-friendly position: Let’s protect our park from a $1.3-billion toll way. You don’t have to be FDR to drive that point home. But what Hunt and Greyson failed to do is give a compelling alternative to the planned toll road site. They both half-heartedly suggested Industrial as a possible alternative, but that same strain of common sense that says you don’t build a highway in a river park also says you don’t double deck or widen a road chock full of businesses.

“What we don’t know is what the plan of the other side is,” Leppert said, and he’s 100 percent right. We don’t know what their plan is. But mayor, we know what your plan is. And in your first real public chance at arguing for it, you failed.

Here are a few other takes from yesterday’s debate:

Leppert’s recurring contention that a toll road is needed to bring Dallas-Fort Worth in compliance with federal ozone standards was perhaps the most disingenuous argument of the night. The Sierra Club backs Angela Hunt for the simple reason that building a highway is not how you combat air pollution. Of course, you knew that already. Still, for whatever reason, Hunt and Greyson largely let Leppert seize the environmental high ground, a tactical mistake that could cost them the referendum if they don’t wise up.

So long as we’re on the environment, it’s a little unsettling to hear Leppert and the pro-toll road campaign talk about relieving air pollution when its finance chairman, Erle Nye, is the former CEO of TXU, one of the biggest industrial polluters in the country.

Hunt fortunately didn’t repeat the anti-toll road plank that uprooting the businesses along Industrial wouldn’t be that big of a deal, since most of them are bail bonding companies. A business is a business and making value judgments about which ones can be told to move is not the way to endear yourself to the the anti-government types who might be inclined to vote against the road.

If Hunt and Greyson were being truly intellectually honest about their position, they would say the following: “We have no idea where to put the planned toll road. No clue. Seriously, your guess is as good as ours. We just know that putting a highway in a floodplain is a really dumb idea. Let’s kill that first and then we’ll figure something out, K”

If Leppert and Lill were being truly intellectually honest about their position, well, I’m not exactly sure they could get away with that.

Toward the end of the debate, Greyson was dishing out rejoinders like a Dennis Leary hands out insults. Just about every comment she made was met with applause. She’d be great on The View.

As for Miss Lill? Not so much. Here’s just one of her many interminable sentences: “Earlier I talked about the mass transit issue and the modeling taking 2 percent off the one hundred thousand.”

Sounds pretty boring right? Well, imagine someone saying it in a dry monotone at the speed of a glacier. Note to Carol Reed: Send Lill back to Speaker’s Bureau Training, ASAP. --Matt Pulle

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