Peep-hole power

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.

Every community in the world has some small subset of busy bees who work behind the scenes to make things happen, but in Dallas it's always been much more than that, almost as if the delicious, exciting, vaguely sleazy appeal of secret power is the city's dark and fatal flaw--the one craving it cannot control.

At the center of the municipal mystery, there has always been the Dallas Citizens Council. If Dallas really is Oz, then, for better or for worse, the Citizens Council is its wizard.

Sometimes its role is easier to grasp if you think of Dallas as Boring Oz. Typically, instead of one wizard, it has a wizard committee. And in place of courage, it offers the Cowardly Lion counseling and a cash settlement. It's for-profit Oz.

But it's really the secrecy that counts, maybe more even than the power or the profit. The reason we even know about it is that--thank goodness--it doesn't work. The powers that be in Dallas are like un-bright kids with a chemistry set: Every decade or so, something goes boom. The walls come down. And there they are, sitting around the table with sheepish grins and charred pompadours.

Whoever is on the Wizards Council at any given moment, they always deny any and all connection with similar organizations of the recent past. And they can probably make that stick, at least organizationally, at least technically. The history of secret power in Dallas, which extends back to pre-Civil War days, is a series of small groups vying for dominance in the funky domain of the inner sanctum, doing battle with each other, trading members back and forth, forging alliances, succeeding one another at the throne.

While there are several groups and shadow-groups in Dallas today (one insider said, "The stealth Citizens Council now is the Dallas Father of the Year committee"), the real and actual Citizens Council clearly reigns at the top of the heap. It alone has the ability not just to set the city's municipal agenda, but to yank it around 180 degrees on short notice:

In his August 5 State of the City address, Mayor Ron Kirk vowed he was swearing off big-glitz projects in order to concentrate on the city's $3.2 billion backlog of deferred basic maintenance to streets, sewers, and other infrastructure. Barely a month later, when the Citizens Council decided it wanted Dallas to go for the 2012 Olympics, Kirk obediently announced he had changed his mind and it was Big Glitz Forever!

Kirk himself is almost entirely a creation of the cadre of people who swirl around the Citizens Council, sometimes overtly as members, sometimes as members of groups with overlapping membership rolls, such as the Dallas Crime Commission, the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Breakfast Group or, who knows, the Father of the Year committee.

Kirk's campaign finance chairman was Bill Solomon, CEO of Austin Industries and a former Citizens Council chairman. Kirk is their mayor. He received legal maximum campaign contributions of $1,000 apiece from a host of the group's most prominent members, including John M. Stemmons (CEO of Industrial Properties, Inc.), Roger Enrico (CEO of Pepsico), Ray Hunt (CEO of Hunt Oil and Woodbine Development), Herb Kelleher (CEO of Southwest Airlines), Erle Nye (CEO of Texas Utilities), and Tom Hicks (president of Hicks, Muse investments).

The Citizens Council does not allow non-members to attend any of its meetings, does not disclose its membership, and, even though it is in the business of recruiting and running candidates for office, never leaves tracks by endorsing them in its own name.

Its penchant for secrecy, taken alone, may not make it that much different from the Order of the Moose. The unique thing is the notion, their notion, that it is perfectly legitimate for them to be secretive and at the same time aggressively involve themselves in local public politics.

As it happens, that idea has a long history in Dallas. In this century, the first organization of powerful secretive white men to take over Dallas City Hall was the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Dallas begins at the bone.

In that period, Dallas was the scene of the Klan's greatest local political successes anywhere, ever. Nowhere else in the country, even across the expanse of Old Dixie, did the Ku Klux Klan ever take over a major city the way it did Dallas in the '20s.

It's an intriguing era to look back on now, because so much of the modern structure of behind-the-scenes power in Dallas grew out of it, and because the picture of who was in and who was out gets so much cloudier the closer you look.

In Darwin Payne's 1994 book, Big D, Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century, he points out that the Klan's "steering committee" in 1922 included the Dallas police commissioner, the general manager of the Dallas Street Railway Company, the superintendent of the local Ford plant, the Democratic Party county chairman, the county tax collector, a district judge, the district attorney, and several bankers.

One of those Ku Klux bankers, R.L. Thornton Sr., later became the founder of the Dallas Citizens Council.

Trying to figure out who was really who at City Hall in the Klan era was always a puzzle. That was part of the great fun of secret power: putting on public faces and secret costumes. The original Citizens Association, a precursor of today's Dallas Citizens Council, publicly fought the Klan in the 1920s, asking in speeches "whether the people want a Ku Klux Klan administration or a government by and for all the people." But as it turned out, the Citizens Association itself was endorsing a slate of candidates who were Klan members.

Who's on first? What's the game?
The Dallas Citizens Council and its political wing, the Citizens Charter Association, known as the CCA, were formed in 1937 by R.L. Thornton and the other two big bankers in town, with an avowed purpose of marshaling support for major civic improvement projects. Through the CCA, the Citizens Council was virtually able to control the Dallas City Council for almost a quarter-century.

The Citizens Council has always vigorously denied any connection at all to the Klan or to the "White Citizens Councils" that sprang up in segregated states in the 1950s in response to the black liberation movement. Certainly there is no organizational link.

There is some lingering question of the original sympathies of the Citizens Council--not today, but early on. A former Dallas mayor, Wallace Savage, once told me that in the 1950s the Citizens Council hired an executive director from the national staff of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta and that the new executive tried to pressure Savage to back off from positions the Citizens Council deemed too friendly to black people. But certainly the sheer force of the times since then has obligated the council to grow both politically and spiritually. History counts for something, even in Oz.

The larger point is that whenever something went boom and the Citizens Council did appear briefly from behind its curtain--in the early '60s after the Kennedy assassination, in the late 1960s when the civil rights movement finally got to town, in the 1970s when even the white people decided they wanted to try electing their own mayor--it was always there looking sheepish in the same guise and posture, with the charred hair and the grin, on the wrong side of all the big issues, muttering through gritted teeth for someone to fix the curtain.

There was always something the Citizens Council seemed not quite to understand about its basic position in these situations. After the assassination, for example, members of the Citizens Council pointed out defensively that they had been trying to put on a very nice luncheon for the president at the Trade Mart when it had happened. But what the out-of-town reporters, writers, and historians were focusing on was the fundamental role of the Citizens Council as an artifact of tight oligarchic control, choking down dissent and helping foster a climate in which extremism had flourished.

Today there are two legitimate questions to ask about the Citizens Council and its role in the affairs of the city. The first is what links may still bind the council of today to its original roots as a secretive, socially reactionary, exclusive, all-white, all-male bastion founded by a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan?

That answer is probably some. But probably not enough to talk about. It's mostly just that old-white-guy thing. They've done a lot to integrate their own numbers, both racially and by gender. If they still have some aging troglodytes in the ranks, so what? Every flu season, it will get better.

The second question is more interesting. Forget where they stand or think they stand on the big public issues. Forget about it. What about the age-old central question: Do they still think it's OK to be a semi-secret Moose-Lodge-type organization and at the same time get involved very aggressively in community politics? And, if they do see their role that way, is it a problem for the rest of us as a community?

The answer to that one is yes. Big-time. Both. The role and the problem.

For this story, Donna Halstead, the executive director of the Citizens Council, refused to talk to me. Halstead, a former Dallas city council member, was thoughtful enough to have an intermediary call and sort of politely ask me to stop trying to get her to talk to me, on the grounds that Halstead is only a hired hand, trying to do a job, and that any story I would write about the Citizens Council they will probably hate, and that "she just can't afford to be involved in controversy."

I did call David Biegler, president of Texas Utilities and a member of the board of Chase Dallas Bank, who is chairman of the Citizens Council, and Biegler did try to return my call two times. I missed him both times, which is my fault. I called him back a bunch, but I'm sure he is far busier than I, and two call-backs are probably more than I deserve.

What I was trying to get from him, of course, was his no-comment. I have seen it elsewhere, and it's a very nice one, with even a faint hint of wit about it, and I would have loved to have my own version.

The point is this: Every once in a while someone does ask them who their members are, and that question provides them with an opportunity to strike the pose of secret power and say, "No comment."

The most recent occasion for Biegler was in an interview by Rusty Cawley of the Dallas Business Journal. When Cawley asked him for a list of the DCC's 245 members, Biegler declined to provide it.

"We've found that, generally, it doesn't help to explain things," Biegler said.

Oh, man. That's so nice. It's that never-explain, never-complain thing. Very Churchillian. And it's just the pose they want to strike: We're big, we're bad, and we don't have to talk to nobody.

But who are they? What are they? Or, perhaps the more interesting question: Who and what are they not? When R.L. ("Uncle Bob") Thornton and the other boys formed the Citizens Council in 1937, the idea was to allow only business CEOs to be members, mainly owners of their own businesses. Thornton specifically did not want any second fiddles in the group who would have to go back to somebody else for approval, and he didn't want doctors or lawyers to be members--who knows why? He probably worried they read too much.

Only the big decision-makers would be allowed to belong. That way they could sit at the table, cut the deal, and make it stick right then and there. No approvals, no reviews: Just do it.

In its heyday, the Citizens Council threw itself vigorously behind the big infrastructure expansions that made growth happen in Dallas, from the freeways to the reservoirs to DFW Airport. In more recent years, through most of the '80s, it spent its energies on more negative battles, resisting strong citywide rezoning, resisting a single-member city council system, resisting minority influence on the school board and city councils.

But where does all of that stand now? What kind of people belong now, and what kind do not? And what do they want from us?

What Biegler and other members have been willing to say publicly in the past is that there are 245 members whose companies pay what has been described as "substantial dues" (amount undisclosed) in order to belong to a club that frequently hits them up for even more money. At the relative snap of a finger early this year, for example, the Citizens Council was able to raise $300,000 in pledges from its members to push for a "yes" vote on the Trinity River bond issue. (It passed, barely.)

A small cadre of as few as two dozen members make up an executive committee, which decides the organization's political agenda. The rest of the members are privileged to attend quarterly meetings where their agenda is presented to them, not for debate.

Especially in the period just before elections, the executive committee holds luncheon "forums" in which outsiders are invited to come before the committee and answer questions about their positions on issues. City council member Steve Salazar describes the process as fairly benign: "They ask you, Where do you stand on this, where do you stand on that?"

He says he is not offended.
A veteran of county politics, who still has to do business with Citizens Council types and who spoke to me on my sworn blood-oath promise not to identify him in any way, told me the following interesting story about being called before the Citizens Council recently for a presentation. The members sat at a long table in a private meeting room at the top of one of the downtown office towers, with nameplates in front of their places. The guests filed one by one to a small podium to state their cases.

"I probably knew 50 percent of the people I saw there at the table," he said. "The first thing you do, you try to figure out who are the real CEOs and who are the stand-ins.

"So, I saw a nameplate for Liz Minyard [Minyard Food Stores co-chairman], but her chair was empty. Herb Kelleher [Southwest Airlines chairman] came late. There was somebody there from American Airlines, but it was a P.R. type. Hicks [Tom, president of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst] was not there. There was a place set for him, but it was empty. Same for Perot [H. Ross, Jr., chairman and owner, Hillwood Development].

"J.C. Penney and Exxon had P.R. people there. That's pretty much the case for all these outlander companies that give you a lot of money in order to not do business in Dallas," he said, explaining that the "foreign" non-Dallas firms are often willing to chip in generously to a noncontroversial "good cause" if it means they won't actually have to get involved in any real local politics.

After giving me this breathtaking peak behind the curtain--a vision mainly of empty seats, a few late-arriving and distracted CEOs, and a lot of public relations persons--my highly confidential informant paused and scanned my face for reaction. He shrugged.

"I know," he said sadly. "It doesn't have quite the panache one would have expected in the old days."

At the end of the Yellow Brick Toll Road, public relations people. If this were the movie, Dorothy would tell Toto, "Maybe we're still in Kansas after all."

The Citizens Council, to be fair, is far from the only business-political club in town, and almost all of the other ones have suffered a similar dilution of raw power in recent years since the collapse of the local real estate market in the late 1980s. The Breakfast Group, founded in 1986 by the late lawyer and political fixer Johnny Johnson, has always had one of those deliciously two-faced personalities that power-lovers find thrilling. From the beginning, the Breakfast Group has put forward a lot of pompous eyewash about how it serves only as an informational service to the community and does not take positions, make endorsements, or give money to candidates in any way that could possibly be interpreted as making it a player.

Then, of course, they have the Breakfast Group Political Action Committee, under a separate charter, which dumps money into city council races like Boss Tweed. See, if you couldn't have that--mask-on, mask-off--then it wouldn't be any fun.

Johnny Johnson was a transitional figure in local politics whose role was to convince the old Thornton-style bid'ness types that lawyers were good for something. From a nominally Democratic background, Johnson and his hench-persons (including two baby lawyers named Sandy Kress and Ron Kirk) ran around town arm-twisting people to do what the Citizens Council types wanted.

He set up the Breakfast Group as a kind of cattle call for local candidates: The people with checkbooks sat and listened while people who wanted to run for office auditioned their stuff. Then, afterward, the individual check-writers could decide to whom they would give money, and then they could all talk about who should get contributions from the PAC.

Earlier this year the Breakfast Group put its longtime executive director, Harry Tanner, on half-time. Tanner wouldn't talk to me about why, but a source who is very familiar with the Breakfast Group's inner workings told me a story that was eerily similar to the one about the Citizens Council and the empty chairs. He said the Breakfast Group has actually been surviving on some pretty thin gruel for more than a decade.

"The membership is just way down," he said. "When the real estate market collapsed in the '80s, and when the banks all went down, there was almost no one left standing who really gave a damn about Dallas politics.

"You have these major national and international companies that have come to town, most of them out on the corporate campuses in Plano and Frisco, and they're involved, but it's strictly in a public-service sense."

Oh, no. Public service! They really do it? That was supposed to be the eyewash. But don't they just say they're interested in public service, and what they really want to do is secretly manipulate the city council and stuff like that?

"No," he said. "Why would they?"
This is starting to feel awful. Unwanted by power. Now we have public relations people and actual public service. ("Toto, I'm getting kind of bored.")

But several people warned me not to get bored. "There are still players," my Breakfast Group informant said. "It's just that there are far fewer than there used to be.

"The only ones left standing from the old days," he said, "are Ray Hunt, and, uh, well, Ray Hunt. Then you have Hicks and Perot, who are fairly new and not really local guys in the sense of being involved in Dallas politics, except to get their own deals done. And you have [lawyer] Tom Luce, who seems to be everywhere these days.

"The big difference between now and the old days is the absence of the banks. It was really about the banks, from Thornton's time to the '80s, and since then we don't have any local banks. So the banks we do have either don't care who's on the council, or they only care a little bit, not enough to get their hands dirty."

The man who made the presentation to the Citizens Council agreed with my list of local players--Hicks and Perot on their own money deals (thank you very much for the Peace Symbol Arena), and Hunt and Luce on community issues like the schools (thank you very much for Yvonne Gonzalez)--with two provisos. One was that I not make too much out of Hunt's commitment to community service. "I mean, I think he is, but that's because he has already made lots of money off the community. Hicks and Perot are still making theirs. They may develop a social conscience later too."

The second proviso was that I had left out a key player. "Decherd [Robert, chairman of the A.H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News] is very, very involved," he said, "everywhere. He has a major personal involvement in local politics."

Decherd's involvement in recent years has been an expression of an old family tradition. Since the Moroney wing of the Morning News ownership clan became heavily invested in levee land along the river in the first part of the century, the Decherd-Moroney-Dealey folks who own the Morning News have always fought hard to promote their own real estate interests.

In a debate some four years ago over the value of land Belo was selling to the city for an expansion of the Dallas Convention Center, Decherd was "all over City Hall, himself, lobbying people," according to former council member Jerry Bartos. Since then, his newspaper's support of a project to build more levees along the river and fix up the old ones has been ham-fisted, to say the least.

But what does all of that, taken together, have to say about a small group of powerful, moneyed players trying to control things? The Citizens Council has been padded with public relations persons; the Breakfast Group is down to its last few strips of bacon; the little people won a hard-fought federal court fight and got a 14-1 all-single-member city council system installed in 1991. So does all of that mean that we now have a much more independent, grassroots-style political system in Dallas than we used to have?

Since the late 1930s, the Citizens Council had virtually run the city: It put its own slate of city council candidates up for election--without ever admitting they were its candidates, of course. And those candidates were almost the only candidates who ever got elected, because no one who had money ever had the temerity to put his money up against the Citizens Council's money.

The way you ran for office was by sucking up to the Citizens Council to get on its slate. Otherwise, forget it. So isn't all of that a thing of the past now?

"No," my Breakfast Group guy said quietly. "It's the opposite. I think quite to the surprise of the people who want to control things, 14-1 has been the best thing that has ever happened to them. They have literally never had it so good."

But why, in the wake of 14-1, would it be easier, not harder, for this group to run the city council? Shouldn't 14-1 have made the council more independent?

"I could have told you this when they were doing 14-1," my guy who spoke to the Citizens Council said. "The districts are too small. Especially in the poor districts, there's no base. These guys can go in with a relatively small amount of money and be the only show in town."

My Breakfast Group guy agreed. "There's no one else out there writing checks against them. The unions, except for city employees unions, aren't players. They used to be, years ago, but they haven't been for a long time.

"People in the more southern Dallas districts tend not to have true political organizations to raise money for them. So a very few people can go in, especially to the vulnerable districts where there's very low voter turnout anyway, and really make their dollars count."

Oh, but would they really do that? Spend money to get the elected representatives of the poor to work for rich guys downtown instead of for the poor?

The picture on paper is at once more stark and a little more complex than the portrait of half a dozen horsemen riding roughshod over the masses. The campaign finance reports of our current city council members reveal that a relatively tiny number of people and companies overwhelmingly dominate the money end of city council races in Dallas, but it's more than just Decherd, Hicks, Hunt, Luce, and Perot. Add to them the businesses that have a financial stake in the Trinity River project; the law firm of Blair Goggan, which holds a much-coveted monopoly contract to collect delinquent taxes for the city; the apartment owners association; downtown developers seeking tax subsidies; and the city employees unions, and you have a picture of almost total control of the city council through campaign contributions.

Barbara Mallory Caraway, for example, represents District 6, which includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods in West Dallas. She depends on this constellation of interests for well over half the money she raises to run for office. In a campaign finance report covering three weeks' time in 1997, Caraway showed contributions totaling $10,400 from David Biegler (DCC), Erle Nye (DCC), Henry S. Miller (DCC), and Louis Beecherl Jr. (DCC), CEO of Beecherl Companies (an investor closely associated with the Stemmons interests, Beecherl has been a principal business lobbyist for the river project); from the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors; from Texas Instruments; from Blair Goggan; from George Shafer (DCC) of Industrial Properties Corp, also associated with the Stemmons levee gang, the original proponents of the river deal; from the Dallas Breakfast Group (we're sure she meant the PAC); and from Pete Schenkel, of course, of Schepps Dairy.

Schenkel, who is more from the Dallas Crime Commission element of the power structure than the Citizens Council, has achieved some notoriety in recent years as the patron saint of Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb. As a federal probe of Lipscomb's personal and public finances drags on, many people wait with extremely bated breath to see whether Schenkel's name will surface in any formal way in that unhappy matter.

Charlotte Mayes, who represents District 7 (a swath from South Dallas up to far East Dallas), is a little imprecise about filling out her reports, so some of the time periods covered are uncertain. An intriguing parallel emerges, however, between her situation and Caraway's: In what seems to be the same general period of time, when Caraway raised $10,400 from the downtown interests, Mayes raised $10,350. Almost as if someone had agreed on a number to get to.

It may also be worth mentioning that Mayes and Caraway got to the council by unseating predecessors who were distinctly unappetizing to the Citizens Council crowd--public-housing activist Mattie Nash, who could be tough, but especially grassroots activist Diane Ragsdale, who probably really just did not like very many white people. If there was a method here--if the money was spent to get minority politics under control--then it was a very effective method, indeed.

The mix in Mayes' money pot is slightly different, but not by much. She gets money from Jan Collmer of Collmer Semiconductor, a former Citizens Council chairman; Pete Schenkel, of course; former mayor Robert Folsom (DCC); Ray Hunt (DCC); the apartment owners association; George Schafer (DCC) of the levee gang; J. McDonald Williams (DCC) of the Crow Companies, along with both Harlan (DCC) and Trammell (DCC) Crow (who stand to benefit hugely from the river deal); Cliff Booth, who is one of the downtown loft developers with their hands out to the council for tax subsidies; Biegler (DCC); Hughes & Luce, the law firm of Tom Luce (DCC); the Real Estate Council; and Bill Solomon (DCC) of Austin Industries. Solomon, again, is a former Citizens Council chairman, and his company stands to build a lot of the river project if it ever gets through the environmental impact process and receives a green light from the feds.

Mayes also gets money from the Southland Financial Corporation's JPI Good Government Fund, a PAC that distributes greenbacks for the Carpenter family (DCC), whose money is from utilities and real estate. Because of the imprecision of her reports, it's a little difficult to put a precise number to the importance of these contributions, but they appear to constitute well over 90 percent of all the money she collects.

Tom Hicks (DCC), who with Ross Perot Jr. (DCC) is building himself a new sports arena at our expense, shows up sometimes as Tom Hicks, mainly in the white districts, and sometimes as other people in the more diverse parts of town. That's not to say that Randall Fojtasek, who recently sold Hicks a large manufacturing firm and then was allowed to stay on as CEO, isn't sincerely interested himself in the city council career of District 2 representative John Loza, or that his sincere interest is not what motivated him to give Loza the legal maximum $1,000 individual contribution.

It is true that at the height of the arena debate, it was Loza who made a stirring speech in council chambers in which he denounced critics who called Hicks' arena deal "corporate welfare."

"It's time for those who would use that term to get off their high horses," Loza told the microphone, "and let's face reality. This will be a project that will benefit Dallas."

Fojtasek, who went to high school with Loza, calls his business deal with Hicks and his support of Loza "independent events." Other members of the Fojtasek family who made maximum contributions to Loza were Russell, Joe, and Olamae G. Fojtasek. Even though he lives in Highland Park, a few blocks from the Dallas Country Club, Randall Fojtasek says his only aim is good government for Dallas.

Loza joins other non-North Dallas council persons in benefiting regularly from the largesse of the Breakfast Group, Blair Goggan, and the other regular cast of characters.

Like Hicks, the Perots, junior and senior, are more likely to appear under their own names in the more North Dallas campaigns of people such as Lois Finkelman, District 11, and Mary Poss, District 9. Perhaps by coincidence, close business associates of theirs, such as Alliance Airport developer Bill Bueck (also involved in the Pinnacle Park industrial development), feel called to support candidates like the very reticent Steve Salazar, who warms the chair for District 1. It's touching to see that Bill Bueck's wife, Exa, also was moved to contribute the maximum to Salazar's campaign.

Salazar is far and away the most smiled-upon beneficiary of the downtown interests. In one reporting period last year, when he raised $12,925 in contributions, $12,150 of it came from identifiable downtown sources including the Real Estate Council, Biegler, Blair Goggan, Collmer, the family Beuck, Halff Associates (the engineering firm doing most of the design work on the river deal), Cliff Booth, Hughes & Luce, and the Dallas Breakfast Group.

The Citizens Council types have not thrown away their dollars. Instead of the troublesome Ragsdale or the nettlesome Nash, instead of the independent white council members like Jim Buerger, whom Oak Cliff used to send over once in a while, the Citizens Council now can gaze upon these same city council seats and see a veritable choir of support for their pet projects.

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Salazar was a cheerleader with Mayor Kirk at rallies in support of the arena deal. The Morning News endorsed him, it said, because, even though he was suspected of being friendly with State Rep. Domingo Garcia (a News no-no), he had been a very good lad in his support of the river deal.

John Loza, passionate in his defense of the arena deal, summed up the other two biggies, the river and the 2012 Olympics, by saying, "Dallas can do both."

Barbara Mallory Caraway was a principal supporter of the mayor on the river deal and a strong proponent of the arena deal. When council member Laura Miller raised questions about the role of Ray Hunt (DCC) in some of the arena-related real estate transactions, Caraway angrily accused her of harboring personal malice against him.

Think of it. The representative from West Dallas accused Miller of being anti-Ray Hunt! Can we even imagine what kind of music to his ears this must be?

Charlotte Mayes is either more independent or less clear about how she feels. She's very pro-river. She would be a stronger supporter of the 2012 Olympics if she were certain the Olympics effort won't slow down the doming of the Cotton Bowl.

These people don't just support the Citizens Council on everything. They go to bat for them. They shed tears for them. They accuse people of being anti-Ray Hunt!

A tour of the finance reports of most of the rest of the council would reveal much the same pattern. Larry Duncan, a strong supporter of the river deal, gets all the pro-river money--Beecherl, Halff, the Crows, along with Blair Goggan and the city employees unions. Don Hicks does very well by the boys downtown, but has a few tricks of his own, as well.

Laura Miller got money from some of the Citizens Council types, but it was mainly lost in the avalanche of other money she got from friends and supporters all over the city and country. Donna Blumer (District 13, far northwest) has her own base of support. Sandy Greyson (Place 12, Oklahoma) is a cross-over.

Perhaps it is fair to mention that many white North Dallas candidates get even more money from the traditional sources than do the candidates of the southern tier. But they tend to be traditional candidates, expected to represent the interests of the downtown business establishment and the development interests. That money has to show up in those races. It's all in the family.

Where the same money is much more remarkable is in the counter-intuitive campaigns, the ones where the money can stay home if it wants or ride with somebody else, especially in a district where a little money is a lot. Everybody knows that the North Dallas members, with the exceptions of Blumer and sometimes Greyson, are going to vote with the big boys anyway. It's in the southern Dallas races that the money has much more the look and feel of influence buying.

The kind of money that shows up in southern Dallas also tends to illustrate what people have to say about the Citizens Council: The money that goes south to influence council votes seems to have very little to do with broad community issues. Instead it appears to be tied to fairly narrow development deals--the river and the arena, mainly. It looks like a quite narrow slice of the power structure working to get its way on immediate deals. And doing darned well at it, it would seem.

The bottom line is that a solid majority of the Dallas City Council sound positively devoted when they talk about the Citizens Council.

Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss talks about it as if it were church. "When an elected official calls on them for support and advice," she says, "they are there to help."

Larry Duncan (District 4, a squiggly swath from far south up to far East Dallas), describes them as the new and improved Citizens Council: "They have become much more sophisticated," he says. "And part of that is being responsive. Before, they were this shadow. You can look at it as changing with the times, or you can look at it as, if one thing doesn't work, we'll try another."

Steve Salazar says he only has to talk to them when he's raising money. "During the election cycle is pretty much the only time I hear from them," he says.

Pretty much the only time they need to be heard.
Clearly, whatever they're doing, it works on their stuff, especially the arena and the river, for which members of the Citizens Council have a major dollar stake in what happens. But what about the broader issues for which the Citizens Council supposedly works selflessly for the good of the community?

Such issues do exist. The Citizens Council, for example, has invested some years of effort and a lot of hard work in the schools issue. Even the community critics who are most often at odds with the establishment over the school question tend to give the Citizens Council an A for effort, up to a point.

Russell Fish, the education activist who recently published all of the school district's financial records on the World Wide Web, says the Citizens Council has done serious pioneering work in examining the agonies and issues of the Dallas Independent School District.

"My interaction with the Citizens Council is strictly limited to education issues and a briefing I was given in the summer of 1997 on their work. Prior to that, I was unaware they even existed," Fish says.

"They had quite clearly spent a large amount of time and money on their education project and had done some very good, honorable, non-racist work to find out which schools were working and which were not."

The problem, Fish says, was that they found out. DISD shared all kinds of data with the Citizens Council that it wouldn't release to the public. Two retired Texas Instruments executives helped carry out some detailed statistical and management analysis. They all looked at the recent national research. And they came up with the answer: Teachers.

Some are good. Some are OK. Some are terrible.
And that's what counts. It's not the kid's social background or parental involvement. Those things can help or hurt, but the research shows that you can teach kids to read, no matter where or what they come from, with the right teachers. Or you can turn them into educational toast with the wrong teachers.

What Fish, the NAACP, and LULAC are demanding from DISD is the underlying database that will show exactly who the so-called "toxic teachers" are and where they are in the system. It's data that the Citizens Council has had in its possession for years. They have refused to release it, arguing that it was shared with them on a confidential basis. The school system is using its own legalistic argument to refuse releasing it, and all of that is about to go to trial in a civil suit.

Fish and other activists don't want the Citizens Council to release DISD data that doesn't belong to them. They want them just to say that teachers are the issue, to hike up their suit-pants, belly up to the bar of public opinion, and take a stand. But it is on this very point, when the Citizens Council is asked to take a strong public position on its own findings, that it goes into a state of political fibrillation.

Because? Because the good members of the council are convinced all the bad teachers are going to be black.

"Yes," says a former Citizens Council employee. "That is what they think. That all or most of them will be black. And there is a general fear of racial politics in the business community that has not gone away."

The assumption, then, is that when DISD gets around to identifying all of its seriously ineffective teachers, they will be African-American. And that will be trouble. And the Citizens Council can't handle it.

It's an assumption that expresses a curious flip-side of white racism--the inexplicably high opinion white people sometimes have of themselves. Why, in a city that recruits many of its new young teachers from the rural villages of East Texas, would we not expect to find a lot of Opies among the district's worst teachers?

Be that as it may, the other interesting piece of this puzzle is that black leadership appears ready to clean house at DISD no matter what skin color the bad teachers may have. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says that, after the appropriate efforts have been made to retrain people who may not know how to teach, the ones that are still no good will have to go even if every single one of them is black.

"Hell no, if they're not capable, I don't care whose friend she is," he says. "Got to go. Got to go.

"That's what bothers me about racism," he adds. "They think just because somebody is black, we uphold them. We're talking about our children. If teachers are not competent, they have got to go."

He suggests the reason the members of the Citizens Council may not be aware of the mood on this issue among local elected black leaders is that they never talk to them.

"I wouldn't know David Biegler if he walked up to me right now," Price says. "You know, it would be different if they said, 'Hey, we talked to Price, and he was unreasonable.' But they never talk to me. Even if they had talked to some of my colleagues on the commissioners court, they would tell them, 'Hey, he has some pretty strong views, but he'll listen to your views.'"

Fish has a charitable view of their indecision. "I think they just don't have the moves. They're like a team that has brought the ball down to the five-yard line, and they don't know how to move it the rest of the way."

The former Citizens Council employee suggests that going the next step--talking to Price, for example, and then going public with their research--is probably more effort than the members can muster right now.

"I think they wonder legitimately if this is their role," she says. "They're not elected officials." She suggested they may well see their role as bringing the ball to the five-yard line and then hitting the showers. Fast. Get your people outta here!

The research done for the Citizens Council by the TI guys and other sources did not point to specific bad teachers, but it did come up with the fact that 3 to 5 percent of the teachers in the district are so bad, they actually leave their students at a lower grade level at the end of the year than they were at the beginning.

Other research shows that the vast majority of DISD students could be taught to read well by the end of third grade with the right teaching. Instead, the majority are well below nationally normed grade levels.

And it's teachers. That means you can fix it. Re-train the teachers. Fire them. Find new ones. Hire tutors. Whatever it takes. Maybe it will be hard. But the good news is that you can fix it. Those kids don't have to go through life as illiterate dropouts.

And the Dallas Citizens Council knows that. It's about the systematic maiming of lives. If there is an occasion in life for some balls, isn't this it?

Luce angrily denies that he or the Citizens Council is chickening out of anything. He points out that he personally has funded some of the key research in this area through a research group he launched in Austin called "Just for the Kids." He says, "I don't know of the Citizens Council backing away from a thing." He suggests that everything is under control, and that things will happen when the Citizens Council thinks things should happen.

The Citizens Council is not public on this issue. They're all still up there in the tower playing never-complain, never-explain behind the curtain. Only now they're afraid to come out.

What approaches, however, is one of those moments when the chemistry set goes boom. The NAACP and LULAC have joined in a lawsuit to force DISD to release the core data on this issue to them. When they get it, Fish is going to publish it on the Web.

On that day, the point will be made very dramatically: Someone allowed the lives of thousands of children to continue to be harmed by bad teaching for a period of years after the basic nature and scope of the problem had already been discovered.

The Citizens Council knows. But they're afraid to say anything. Because they're afraid of people like John Wiley Price. Who actually agrees with them.

Boom. There they are. Charred pompadours. The sheepish grin.
At least we have that much tradition left to cling to.

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.