So much has been said – umm, maybe by me – about the role of the trinity toll road in the still ongoing Dallas city council elections, you could have gotten the idea the road was the only thing it was about. Ummm. I think I had that idea. But now I think I was wrong.
It’s still about eight votes. We have this really bad system of local government here – weak mayor, weak council, weak city manager. I was a partial political science semi-major, so I would call it the “weak-weak-weak” system of municipal governance. It comes down to eight votes. And that’s what the upcoming June 13 city council run-off election really is about, not the toll road.
Eight votes, meaning a new majority voting bloc of eight city council members, is a whole new tomorrow for Dallas. A new eight-vote majority will enable enormous change on so many fronts and so many important issues that the toll road, once resolved, may fade in the rear-view mirror.
And you know what? If not this time, next. Because it’s coming. You can stall this train but you can’t stop it. It’s the New City Express.
The mayor in Dallas is a ribbon-cutter whose real power consists of one vote on the city council, just like any other member. Fifteen votes in all. So eight votes rule. The city manager works for the eight vote bloc.
And it shifts. The deck gets shuffled some, depending on the issue. These guys vote with those guys on this one. Those other guys vote with these other guys on this other one. But the bloc comes back together like a hammer on rubber-meets-the-road issues.
What rubber? In the past the one big rubber in Dallas was wielded by the small group we sometimes over-simplify as “The Dallas Citizens Council.” The Citizens Council, a small private group, really is only one face of the city’s traditional business leadership. I use that term a lot, the Citizens Council, as a kind of shorthand because it’s so hard to see the rest of the faces.
But take a look at the super PAC the old leadership formed to sway this election. They call their super PAC, “For Our Community,” and the most important thing to know about that name is that no irony whatsoever is intended. Typically the old leadership is not big on irony.
For Our Community is run by the mayor’s political consultant, Mari Woodlief. It was funded in part by a donation of $25,000 from oilman Ray Hunt, who owns a lot of property in the southwest corner of downtown, and by another $25,000 from John Scovell, who works for Hunt and is himself a former president of the Citizens Council.
Scovell has been campaigning hard for various huge infusions of public money into the southwest corner of downtown – bullet train, bigger convention center, major league baseball park, second light rail line, pretty much everything you’d want to see under your Christmas tree if you were Ray Hunt or the owners of The Dallas Morning News, which also sits on a big chunk of land ripe for development in the southwest corner of downtown.
Hey, their corner of downtown, their Christmas tree. It’s a free country.
For Our Community also received $25,000 from Crow Holdings, which is Harlan Crow, scion of a Dallas family that has long owned land in and been interested in the development of the Trinity River corridor. The Super PAC also got $20,000 from Dallas wealth manager John Tolleson. The only thing I know about him is that five years ago he bought a Picasso called “Man With A Sword” for six million bucks and sold it to a London-dwelling Lebanese financier for 12 million. I guess that’s why they call it art appreciation.
For the most part, For Our Community has put its money in mailers and other political subsidies to support candidates who can be counted on to support the toll road. Woodlief, who runs it, told Gromer Jeffers of The Dallas Morning News last week that it was formed to counter another super Pac, Coalition for a New Dallas, formed by D Magazine publisher Wick Allison. I guess the contention there is that the coalition is an anti-toll road group, which it isn’t, really.
But, wait. Here is where we don’t want to dive straight into the nuts and bolts, because we don’t want to lose the bigger picture. Forget the toll road for a minute. Nobody but wonks and reporters watches all this stuff, so I’m going to remind you of a couple things that happened at City Hall recently, in case you missed it.
The council caved to a bunch of grocery store lobbyists and rescinded its plastic bag fee, meaning the stores are now free again to devastate our lakes and streams with relentless blizzards of their damned bird-and-fish-killing obnoxious plastic planet-poisoning bags. City Council member Dwaine Caraway, who has taken more grief and paid a higher political cost for the bag fee than anybody else on the council, delivered a heroic speech urging his colleagues to ban the bags outright, but he was knocked down by the eight votes.
The wrong eight votes. That’s what we have now. The eight votes we have now will always go to the old leadership or the old leadership’s friends on a rubber-meets-road issue.
An issue like the bag ban is a rubber-meets-road issue because some guys at the Dallas Country Club say it is. Whether it’s the Dallas Citizens Council speaking formally as a body or For Our Community sending out mailers or The Breakfast Club or whatever they call themselves at the moment, the old leadership sticks together, and they pass those eight votes around the circle to each other like a bottle of single malt.
Something else happened last week that really runs deeper than the bag fee, this one at the Plan Commission, which rules on zoning requests, usually for big developers. Plan Commissioner Paul Ridley proposed a mechanism by which Dallas could resolve several pressing problems at once, notably including the four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that found Dallas guilty of deliberate racial segregation downtown. The mayor and the Citizens Council crowd used a lot of political jockeying to escape penalties from HUD, but nobody has even said anything about the … you know … deliberate racial segregation. Huh? Maybe change that?
And think about this, if you’re sort of a typical Observer reader. Not even talking about segregation, what about the fact that it’s becoming truly difficult, no matter what ethnicity you are, to afford rent anywhere near the center of the city? Is that issue just totally beyond the reach of anything City Hall could do to help? Does downtown automatically belong only to rich white people, and everybody else can go to hell or Mesquite, whichever is closer?
No, not according to Ridley. Ridley came back from a national planning conference with an idea that is working well in cities all over America. It goes like this. A developer buys a lot for $10. It’s only worth $10, because the zoning on it says you can only build 10 apartments there. If you could build 20 apartments, it would have cost him $20.
He goes to the Plan Commission and says, “I know I got this lot for 10 bucks because you can only build 10 apartments on it, but that will only allow me to make a profit of $10. I want to make twice that much. So please change the law so that I can build twice the number of apartments the law said before I bought the lot.”
Ridley’s idea is this. The Plan Commission says, “Sounds like you want to enter into a negotiation. OK, here’s our offer. We’ll let you build your 20 apartments and make twice as much as you would have without our changing the law for you. You agree to make four of the apartments in your project available at rates that would be affordable to working non-rich people, not welfare clients.”
Rubber. Meets. The Road. It was a debacle. A plan commissioner told me he had never seen so many lawyers in the room at one time. The old leadership came down like Picasso’s man with a sword only with another sword coming out of his ear. They were having none of this income diversity and certainly none of this desegregation. At all.
The plan commissioners are all appointed by City Council members, so the eight-vote bloc translates straight through to the Plan Commission like tits in a T-shirt. And I think we’ll drop the rubber metaphor about now except to say that they all looked as if something really important was happening in the background.
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All of those issues – an entire array of issues in this city – would see different outcomes with a different eight vote bloc on the council. And it will happen, if not in this election then in the next. The toll road is merely emblematic of the larger change ahead.
We’re not going to keep despoiling the natural areas of the city. We’re not going to keep racially segregating the city. We’re not going to fence young people and working people out of downtown. We’re going to get a new eight votes and a new city.
There are four runoff elections June 13 where the new vision can be elected to the City Council. They are in District 3, where the new vision candidate is Joe Tave; District 7, Kevin Felder; District 8, Diane Gibson; and District 10, Adam McGough.
If three of these four win Saturday, every single thing about this city changes at that moment. If not, we wait for the next one.