The thing I felt when I read of Rick Finlan's recent death was simple sadness. He was a hero. A jerk. So smart, so funny. A great source for reporters. Friend of mine. A jerk.
For the better part of two decades Finlan marched against local government chicanery arm in arm with fellow gadfly Don Venable. Were they Batman and Robin or Abbott and Costello? The pair of them, a couple of pro se non-lawyers, were so smart and so dogged they could flip big lawyered-up bureaucracies including the city, the county and the school district around by the tail as if the whole thing were a bizarre circus act. Which it was.
In 1995 my former colleague Mark Donald wrote a great two-part series about them for the Observer called "Attack of the Killer Gadflies" revealing that Finlan and Venable had gradually earned the respect of some opposing lawyers, some of the judges and even some of the elected officials they went after. The school district, in particular, spent many millions of dollars in taxpayer money trying to destroy Finlan and Venable, even after it became apparent that the pair often had truth on their side. In fact especially after that became apparent.
In 1992 former DISD trustee Dan Peavey, speaking in a closed-door meeting, tried to caution fellow trustees against a plan to spend even more millions to hire even more lawyers to trick Finlan and Venable into making themselves vulnerable to a massive suit for damages. The board did it anyway, of course, and it didn't work.
Talking about the lawyers the board was proposing to hire to ambush the pair, Peavy said, "These are high-dollar sons of bitches. Every time they go to a hearing, they carry everybody down there. They've got a $300 man and a $200 man and a $100 secretary. By the time they sit there for a couple hours, you know what happens."
Peavy told the board they were kidding themselves if they thought the action Finlan and Venable were threatening to bring against the board was frivolous: "There's nothing frivolous about that," he said. "Let me tell you, that dog won't hunt. They're beginning to develop some credibility. We continue to sit here and say this is a frivolous matter and everything's going to be fine, but the track record of this case doesn't indicate that. They keep seeking higher ground, and they keep getting there somehow."
Yes, they did. Venable eventually got elected to the school board, where his record was ... complex. And then at a certain point both of them gave up the gadfly life and went back to earning a living. When I lost them as sources, my job got harder.
East Dallas is like Jack Nicholson's Chinatown. All paths cross and then cross again. Long before he became a source Finlan was my neighbor across the street at one point. We were briefly involved in a real estate transaction, which proved problematic. His dad was my tax guy for a while. My wife and I really liked his wife. So on and so forth.
I never liked Finlan and Venable's politics. They were both careful about what they said to me, because they knew I was a bleeding heart, but I could tell. We were poles apart.
Where I thought I saw the real Rick Finlan in operation was as a businessman. That guy could take a patch of dirt and turn it into a San Francisco row house or a really nice garden nursery, and he always did it all by himself. From the dirt up. He was that kind of guy. His dad was that way. I bet his son is like that.
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I call him a jerk, which probably strikes you as not the sort of thing one should say about the recently departed. I should explain better. He thought I was a jerk, too. I am. It's what he and I had in common, and we saw it in each other. If jerks had a secret handshake, we would have done it.
I had a piece in the paper a month ago about D Magazine publisher Wick Allison's big change of heart on the Trinity toll road, which he now opposes after years of championing it. Not in so many words but in a way, I asked him why the establishment's reaction to my own criticism of the road back in the day had been so adamant and so lockstep. Not in so many words but in a way, he said it was because I was such a jerk.
Oh, yeah. And why would I ever have asked a question like that? I knew the answer before the question left my lips. But that's how we jerks are sometimes. We blurt it out anyway. I am a jerk in the way Rick was a jerk. Faced with an adamant lockstep establishment that views all criticism as unacceptable behavior, it takes a jerk sometimes. Somebody's got to do it. I say thank goodness there are a few of us out here who enjoy the work. That's what Rick and I really had in common, and it was deeper and more important than the politics or the real estate deal or any of the other East Dallas stuff.
If I have made a major bad bet cosmologically, and if when I die to my great surprise I do wind up after all waiting in line suitcase in hand on a big cloud with St. Peter standing at a podium in the distance before the Pearly Gates, I expect to see lawyer-angels whisper in Peter's ear, after which he will clench his fists, grit his teeth and hiss, "Finlan!" Every place needs a jerk.