Certainly Matt Wood, the challenger in the District 14 City Council race, would have had a better shot on May 6 without the baggage of a clumsily heavy-handed negative ad campaign against his opponent, incumbent Philip Kingston. The fact is that the presence in the race of a richly funded PAC from outside the district, run by the city’s premiere political trickster, has become the race’s overwhelmingly dominant issue.
Without the PAC, Wood, who comes across as Mr. Goodneighbor from across the street, might have given the incumbent a better run for his money. But in the highly charged, not to say paranoid political atmosphere of East Dallas, the presence of the PAC makes Wood come across as a stooge.
Called "For Our Community," the PAC is not from the community. Instead it is funded mainly by wealthy supporters of Kingston’s chief nemesis, the mayor, and by backers of the Trinity toll road, an unbuilt public works project and gleam in the eyes of the old establishment. The toll road has divided the city for 20 years.
District 14 is easily the city’s most politicized realm, with a medieval memory for all local feuds and alliances stretching back to prehistory. In that atmosphere, some of the PAC’s tactics have been wooden, instantly identifying it as the foreign-accented work of outlanders.
For example, the PAC sent out mailers claiming that Wood had “created” the historic district in which he now lives. In a normal place, a claim like that, which wasn’t true, might have been read as a forgivable boast, a goof or just meaning he cared a lot. But in East Dallas, the battle in 2005 to create the Junius Heights Historic District is remembered and still recited in minute detail like a legend from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and apparently Wood either wasn’t in it or was there only barely.
He seemed to admit as much late last week with a fairly gracious online apology for the overstatement, but the harm was done, and it had less to do with the truth about Wood than the truth about the PAC. Nobody from East Dallas would have uttered a single word of that nature, let alone put it in print and mailed it to people, without nailing down the story first, if for no reason other than to avoid stirring up the local credit-claiming fire ants.
The great Junius Heights false claim of glory incident, as it will now be remembered and recited for decades evermore in Junius Heights, was yet another reminder that the people and the PAC who are pushing Wood are non-East Dallasonian.
In fact a former mayoral candidate last week referred to them as, “The Forces of Evil,” which I thought gave them way too much credit. They may only be the Forces of Money. Whoever they are, they they are bitterly angry with Kingston and his rump caucus on the council for out-foxing them on a number of issues that are very important to them, of which the toll road is but one.
Perhaps more infuriating has been Kingston’s role in foiling a deal the mayor thought he signed, sealed and readied to deliver to give away Fair Park. The mayor wanted to hand over the city’s down-at-the-heels poverty-rimmed 277-acre exposition park to a friend of his to run as a private entity.
Kingston, a lawyer, repeatedly challenged the City Attorney’s Office to explain how a major public asset could be handed off to a private entity without a bidding process. Finally a newly appointed city attorney, as one of his first acts, conceded Kingston’s point.
Now the Fair Park turnover has been taken out of the mayor’s hands and relegated instead to a more conventional public bidding process, all of which has the mayor and his wealthy friends from the enclave suburbs of Highland Park and University Park hopping mad at Kingston forever.
In four years in office, Kingston has justly earned a reputation for having both a sharp tongue and an even sharper temper at times. Wood has not occupied elective office before, but his involvements in school and community affairs in East Dallas have earned him an equally justifiable reputation as a calm, collaborative and likeable person.
Wood is hoping to turn his relative pleasantness into a major selling point in the May 6 election. Kingston is running on his record in office.
The pro-Matt Wood PAC, meanwhile, is run by Mari Woodlief, a political consultant who earned notoriety last year for consistently and serially lying about the whereabouts of her client and apparent sometime ward, former Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk. Contrary to Woodlief’s repeated public assertions, Hawk was not sunning at some beach or sipping cocktails at a golf resort but confined to a series of mental institutions.
On that record alone, Woodlief could change the name of her business to Pinocchio Services, Unlimited (“We’ll say anything – ANYTHING – for money”). Now she’s the main messenger for Matt Wood, which, given his own mild and outwardly honest manner, seems terribly disproportionate and ill-advised, like hiring the Mafia to protect the Boy Scouts.
At a neighborhood showdown between the two candidates last Sunday evening, no issue loomed larger than the Pinocchio connection. Both in what the candidates had to say for themselves and in the strong reaction of about 200 residents, the PAC was clearly the evening’s main hot button.
The debate was held in one of East Dallas’ most cherished sweet spots, the garden behind the Garden Café on Junius. The crowd was almost entirely white, older, middle class, nicely clad in weekend casual wear from the better catalogs. Sadly or gladly, it’s what hippies have come to.
Kingston told the wine-sipping crowd – 100 seated and 100 more standing – that the PAC and the people behind it are the main reasons he gets hot-headed at times: “When people try to take your money,” he said, “when people try to cut backroom deals, when people try to give away Fair Park with no bid, when people try to take Uber and Lyft out of Dallas, I was there to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.
“It does frustrate me. I do get passionate when somebody is going to take your money, take your assets or otherwise abuse the leverage of city government to your detriment. That I cannot tolerate and I do not tolerate.”
Kingston got a huge hand for this speech, which, stylistically, was worthy of the steps of the Roman Coliseum. But Wood, who had a substantial cadre of supporters in the crowd, as well, earned warm applause for his own more modestly stated comeback:
“I am very proud of the people from District 14 who have supported my campaign,” he said, speaking directly to Kingston, “and I have been out there for the last several months talking to lots of folks who disagree with what you just said, who feel that you have not been productive with them and have created a lot of barriers, so I believe there’s a better way to do this, and that is why I am running.”
When Wood attempted to disavow the Pinocchio PAC – which in fact he is legally barred from cooperating with in any way – he only earned himself catcalls from Kingston’s supporters, who were clearly in the majority. Kingston, meanwhile, made very unconvincing efforts to quiet the crowd with his arms.
“I am not allowed to communicate with them at all,” Wood said. “That’s what they do.”
The moderator, City Hall bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News Tristan Hallman, asked Wood why he didn’t publicly denounce the PAC.
“I don’t call for anybody to publicly stop political speech any more than I am going to call for you guys to stop catcalling me.”
Roaring choruses of catcalls.
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Kingston, of course, lapsed at times into some characterically Kingstonian overstatements of his own greatness. “My record is frankly sterling, even if I do say so myself,” he said so himself, to groans from his detractors and fond chuckles from supporters.
“There are people who are upset that I have upset the status quo,” he said. “The people who were going to get Fair Park, Yellow Cab. We know the names of these people. All of those people are supporters of the PAC that is supporting Mr. Wood but are also direct supporters of Mr. Wood’s campaign.
“This is not a battle really between two candidates. It’s really a battle over whether the city of Dallas will be operated by its people or whether it will be for sale. And I am here to make sure your voices are heard.”
The applause for that particular Roman flourish was so deafening it could mean one of only two things. Either Wood is toast on May 6, or you can’t predict an East Dallas election any more from the kind of people who show up at a wine-sipping garden-party debate behind a really nice restaurant.