School for Scoundrels

Think about every single thing you've seen the Dallas City Council do in the last year:

• Defy the mayor and give away tens of millions in tax money to two billionaires who didn't need it for a sports-cum-lingerie mall on a toxic waste dump outside of downtown.

• Run City Hall into the financial ditch.

• Make plans to fire scads of city employees and then cut the pay of the remaining ones in order to totally demoralize the city work force.

• And the very council members who pushed the giveaway to the billionaires--in part because they were promised contracts for their friends and grants for their own districts--are already floating the idea of fixing everything by socking it to North Dallas homeowners with a major tax hike.

Now think about this. What if some or all of these very bad things did not have to happen? What if you found out that the current make-up of the Dallas City Council is based on vote fraud and that the people who would have taken office in legitimate fair elections would not have voted the way this council has voted?

For more than a year we have heard nothing but vote fraud and vote brokering from the local elections scene--phony paperwork, forged signatures, bales of brokered votes traded on labor union parking lots like crumpled aluminum cans. The district attorney tried and failed to make a case out of it. But now at last we have the smoking gun in the Maxine Thornton-Reese case.

In May 2001, Thornton-Reese "won" the District 4 council seat in Southern Dallas by 16 votes against former council member Larry Duncan. Now a state district judge, backed by the 5th Court of Appeals, has ruled that Thornton-Reese's supposed victory was based on forgery and illegal vote-brokering practices.

I don't know what's wrong with local media on this story, but somehow since the June 10 appeals court ruling rendering her election void, Thornton-Reese has been allowed to get away with painting this as much ado about technicalities. If this is about technicalities, then Bonnie and Clyde were guilty of improperly documenting their bank withdrawals.

This is about forgery. It's about stealing votes. It's about arrogance--paid hacks bundling and massing brokered votes in precisely the way state law forbids. There are several recent council districts where vote fraud may or may not have been an issue. The state's laws on vote fraud are nebulous and poorly drawn, so that definitive findings like the one in the Thornton-Reese case are extremely hard to come by.

A special grand jury working with the public integrity unit of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office spent a lot of time last year looking at the election of Oak Cliff Councilman Ed ("Giveaway") Oakley but failed to come up with indictments.

The bad ballots in the Thornton-Reese case were handled by Charlotte Ragsdale, sister of former council member Diane Ragsdale, and by Virgin Couriers (see "The Case of the Virgin Couriers," May 2). Both Ragsdale and an official for Virgin testified, however, that they were more involved in the 2001 campaign of South Dallas council member Leo Chaney than in Thornton-Reese's race. But no one sued Chaney over his election, so there has been no investigation of fraud there.

Both sides in the Elba Garcia Oak Cliff election accused each other of mishandling votes and voters in her May 2001 election.

In February of this year, Garcia's husband, Domingo Garcia, who had failed to win a place in the mayoral run-off, accused the current mayor, Laura Miller, of trying to pay him money for his endorsement. He made the charge after one of his own supporters blurted on Spanish-language television that she believed he was seeking cash in exchange for his own endorsement. Those countercharges were handed off to an "investigation" by the Tarrant County district attorney, the results of which will be posted on the back of a garbage truck in Fort Worth five years from now by an assistant Tarrant County district attorney in a clown suit.

Gives you a lot of faith in local governance, doesn't it?

But since the one case in which we now have a definitive finding is the Thornton-Reese election, and since Larry Duncan is the person from whom the court says the election was stolen, I thought it was important to go to Duncan and ask him what might have gone differently on the council this year had he been there.

"Certainly Palladium," he said right off the bat, referring to the $43 million sports-cum-lingerie tax-dollar giveaway. "That was a no-brainer, and I was surprised that ultimately it passed."

Duncan served four terms on the city council from 1991 to 1999. He is a four-term former president of the Dallas Homeowners League, a Vietnam vet and an Eagle Scout. In the 1980s, along with lawyer Michael Jung and a handful of other activists, Duncan helped create the "neighborhood movement" that gave much of the current political landscape its form and meaning.

I have been a Larry Duncan fan and a Larry Duncan detractor. I have seen him do things I thought were principled and courageous, and I have seen him do things I thought were vindictive and mean. But I know this about him: Put him on the city council, and he's a force to reckon with. He's an orator, a conniver, a diplomat and a shin-kicker. When he tells me his opposition to the Palladium vote would have turned more than his own one vote against it, I believe him.

"It's my understanding there was a sequence to it," he said. "When the 8th vote committed to [the Palladium proposal], then the ninth vote kind of went along. I know that happens at the council, so that's going to change the whole thing. Certainly it would have been a different dynamic."

But Duncan, a white man who consistently confounded the experts throughout the '90s by winning elections in a majority-black district against black opponents, said there were even more fundamental votes and decisions that would have gone differently under his influence. He pointed specifically to the city council redistricting process in which African-American incumbents agreed to give up a black seat in order to make their districts safer for re-election.

"She [Thornton-Reese] wanted to chop up specific neighborhoods to make the seat safer for her personally. These are the people who are saying that stealing votes is a racial issue, and yet they are the ones that are giving away clearly identified African-American issues."

That particular charge--that Thornton-Reese is part of a bourgeois black leadership selling out its own constituency for personal gain--is old and bitter and cuts to the quick. I called Thornton-Reese several times; she did call me back once and I missed her. It's my fault we did not connect.

But I spent a long time talking to her lead lawyer, Donald Hicks, a former council member and one of the proprietors of the city's most influential African-American political action committee. Hicks is smart, wily and fiercely determined. The goal he sees as paramount for the black community in Dallas is the long-overdue development of a prosperous and influential middle class. Toward that end he believes it is entirely legitimate to use politics as the lever for prying loose some of the same financial action that wealthy white people divvy up at the country club.

"I'm shut out of the country club," he said.

It galls Hicks, as it has always galled the city's middle-class black leadership, that Larry Duncan's more grassroots street-level politics earns him a following among certain black voters, whom Hicks and company believe should not be voting for a white man.

"It's something funny that Duncan never seeks the educated people in our district who are involved," Hicks said. "He never deals with the NAACP, the SCLC, the Ministerial Alliance."

But Duncan, like Mike Jung, has history going for him. As leaders of the '80s neighborhood movement, they held out stoutly for the true single-member district council system we have today, while many middle-class black leaders were willing to cut deals with the white leadership downtown. Those deals would have produced a hybrid system designed to preserve the overall dominance of white North Dallas.

Duncan says people in his district do remember things like that, and their resulting lack of faith in middle-class leaders like Thornton-Reese is why those leaders have to cheat to win elections.

"I won four elections in succession in District 4 by ever-increasing margins. When you look at what we now know about May 5, 2001, I didn't just win, I won big.

"There were 3,800 votes cast. Of those, 330 were mail-ins, and of those 330 votes, 219 are forgeries. And even at that, she could only muster a 16-vote victory."

Duncan doesn't see a random pattern here. He sees a plan. He believes that powerful people in Dallas wink at vote fraud because it is part of a mechanism. He drew me a verbal picture of rotating seats on the city council, the airport board, the school board, the DART board and elsewhere, in which a small coterie of players are able to control the distribution of contracts and other tribute.

"I'm showing you how this all relates together, different people in different roles," he said. "You and I go back a lot of years, and you know I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I sure sound like one over the past year. But it's not a theory. It's a fact.

"It is no coincidence that the people who fought against increasing voter rights in Dallas during the '80s and early '90s, who fought against 14-1 and single-member districts, now are the ones who are ripping off the system and hiding behind it."

I think he's on to something. It's how you get to Palladium and a busted budget. And a tax hike.

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