Swing Low

Oh, please. Give me a break, willya? If I hear one more word about how all these old white guys running for mayor of Dallas are going to "heal the racial divide," I'm gonna blow lunch.

Or, on the other hand, one more word about how all the old preachers from South Dallas are going to flex their muscles in the next election. If those guys flex their muscles, somebody better have a defibrillator standing by.

Last week when Dallas Mayor Laura Miller announced she will not run for re-election next year, she and I talked about her and the race thing. She started out with the same line she was giving everybody else that day--how her greatest disappointment was that black people in southern Dallas don't get her.

She told me she thought one of her natural constituencies, maybe the main one, should have been southern Dallas. "There's never enough money to take care of their neighborhoods, to send them a cop. I thought they would be the ones who would be most satisfied that their mayor wasn't giving away the store so that they could get what they want.

"And it never happened. There was never a connection there. It never got through."

Nobody I talked to over the weekend, even her supporters, gave her a clean pass on that one. If you're the mayor and you don't get through, you're supposed to figure it out.

But this is also deeper than mere salesmanship. Miller and I go back a ways in Dallas. We first crossed paths in the 1970s at the late, great Dallas Times Herald, the paper The Los Angeles Times owned here. So I think now we both have the same sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs when we see all the starched white Colonel Sanders suits gathering on the veranda in front of The Dallas Morning News, lining up for mayor.

In the background, columnist Steve Blow pings on the strings of the old banjo while columnist Sherry Jacobsen bats her eyes and serves those frosty mint juleps. And, ah, how sweet: Here they come strolling up the walk in their seminary suits with their Bible under one arm and their hat under the other--the old South Dallas leaders. They stand on the lawn, of course, not the veranda.

Now the editorial-page staff comes out in their gorgeous white vestments. With the harps. Steve pings a note for pitch. Everyone hums. Sherry sneaks a julep for herself. And now they all sing, "Way Down Upon the Old Tax Increment Finance District."

I need a bucket.

Miller said it was frustrating and disappointing for her that black Dallas chose the old system, "because if they rallied around and put pressure on their council people to stop giving away so much money, they would benefit. And they never do it.

"It's plantation politics. It's Pete Schenkel sending the milk truck to the barbecue."

Translation for newcomers: Pete Schenkel, for many years head of Schepps Dairy when it was a locally owned company, was a longtime "benefactor" of former city council member Al Lipscomb, a revered figure in the black community who was eventually convicted on multiple federal bribery counts based on stories Miller wrote about him when she was doing my job here at the Dallas Observer. Lipscomb later was acquitted on appeal because of judicial bias in his trial.

"And I love Pete Schenkel," Miller told me. "He still looks back fondly on the days when he could send Al the milk truck for his barbecue. It touches his heart. But it's old school. It's old, old school."

It's also the same pattern she sees--and I see--in the kind of politics these guys running for mayor want to bring back. Everybody's so respectful. So kindly. The white men get to dish half the treasury out the back door to their buddies. And nobody says word one, because the black gentlemen all get to go home with apple pies.

Those are the things Miller stepped on that earned her the unforgiving wrath of the old black leadership. Her personal style, which could be cold and aloof, didn't play well on the street in southern Dallas, and that was her fault.

But style was not what the old preacher-ocracy cared about. They were mad about the money--the cheesy payoffs in the form of community block grant graft and phony bond projects, affordable housing grants and so on. It's all peanuts, pennies on the dollar, nickel-and-dime tip money next to the hundreds of millions going out the other end in the form of incentives to people like oilman Ray Hunt and his downtown posse.

"And why does the southern sector never change?" Miller asked. "Well, the FBI's in the building. They will have indictments, as they should. No one wants to be a developer in the southern sector and go through the six people who want their money. And meanwhile, everyone down there elects the same old unexciting people who want to go cozy up to Ross Junior and Ray Hunt. And I don't know when that ever changes."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze