The Continuing Leppertness of Mayor Mike Rawlings

For the last couple weeks I have been getting beaten about the ears by people working at City Hall with our new mayor, Mike Rawlings, who are mad at me over a couple columns I wrote saying the new mayor seems just like the old one, Tom Leppert.

They say they're not the same. They say I am unfair. Hasty. Judgmental. Same stuff I hear at home. They say Rawlings is a much better guy and a more interesting mayor than I give him credit for, and these are people whose opinions I respect.

One thing bothers me. They all want to talk to me about it off the record. I guess I get that. These are people who have to work with each other in a ticklish situation.

I can tell you that I am not talking about usual suspects — people you would think of immediately as Mayor Rawlings' obvious allies. We're more over on the other side of the aisle with this — people you might think of as his opponents on issues, which some of them have been.

What do they have to say that's worth repeating? I can break it down for you pretty quickly. The previous mayor, Leppert, they say, was secretive, not known for honesty, well known for vindictiveness. Rawlings, they tell me, is none of those.

He's a straightforward guy, they say. If he's going to vote against you, he tells you he's going to vote against you. He tells you why, and everybody can still be friends at a personal level.

The message I get from some at City Hall is this: They may be on the other side and lose some votes to Rawlings, but they still consider him to be a well-intentioned man who has personal integrity. He's politically naive, they say, which has caused him to get his saddle twisted a few times right out of the chute, but he offers a shot at meaningful coalitions and getting things done, so they want to wait and give him leeway before pouncing.

I still don't buy it. Rawlings does a college football hero thing on people — the big guy who's clever and makes sure he gets his own way, then comes up to you afterward at a party. All of a sudden now he's a big goofy kid: "Hey, I dunno, do I owe you an apology? Or what? 'Cause I dunno."

He knows.

Some of the people who have chatted with me about Rawlings pointed back to the so-called "flow-control" issue, a controversy over sending vast new volumes of commercial trash to the city landfill in far southeastern Dallas. Even the people who were on the other side of this from Rawlings — the ones who didn't want the trash to go there but who lost to Rawlings on the issue — give him credit for being honest about the real deal.

One who was willing to talk about that particular chapter on the record was Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, who supported his students in a protest at City Hall and who will lead an upcoming protest march demanding the city council rescind its decision to send more trash to the landfill, which is near the college.

"I give the mayor credit," Sorrell told me. "He had the integrity to be honest about the real issue."

The real issue is dump-truck fees. The city wants more of them. By passing a law ordering all commercial trash-haulers to take their trash to the city landfill instead of to commercial landfills in the suburbs, the city expects to harvest many more millions of dollars in new fees.

The city manager had tried to market the whole thing with a typically Orwellian public relations campaign about recycling — turning "trash into treasure" or some crap nobody believed. You know: "Garbage! You're gonna love it!" If it had gone on longer, they would have had TV ads with a bunch of guys in coveralls and hardhats out in the middle of the dump grinning maniacally and doing the monster mash.

But when it came to a vote, Rawlings said exactly what it was all about. It was, he said, "a business revenue issue." I was there. They just wanted the money. Screw the rest of it. I admit I was grateful not to have to hear the garbage-is-fun spiel again.

So how much credit does he get for being a good guy about a bad deal? Here is where the line must be drawn. Present at that September 28 city council meeting was a contingent of students from Paul Quinn, accompanied by Sorrell, who only asked that the council delay long enough to carry out a study. Sorrell and his students weren't saying don't do the deal. They were saying don't do something that will have a major and lasting effect on our part of the city until we know that you know what you're doing.

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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