It's a little after 8 a.m. on February 14, and already Dallas Deputy Mayor Pro Tem/District 4 City Council Representative Dwaine Caraway is knee-deep in saggy pants and homophobia. Another day in the life.
Outside, a chilly drizzle slides down the glass walls of the WFAA television studios. The downtown office park called "Victory" is a depopulated bone yard.
Caraway, wearing his trademark dark pinstripe suit, is in the green room, watching a monitor while Dooney da Priest, a rap artist whose real name is Duwayne Brown, wraps up his song, "Pull yo pants up."
"Yo pants" has become the unofficial anthem of Councilman Caraway's campaign against sagging, the youth fashion in which men expose their buttocks in public. The progressive liberal take on exposing one's buttocks, I believe, would be that it is a reaction against centuries of cultural oppression, though some say the fashion trend came to the streets from prison where belts are banned and pants droop as a result. Caraway's take is that it looks like hell.
"It's disrespectful of women," he tells me. "How can you even respect yourself with your butt hanging out?"
I try to imagine it. For me, he would have a point. But I am not a youth.
Caraway has gained national attention—he was the subject of an entire segment of the Dr. Phil show January 28—for his anti-sagging crusade in Dallas. But he also has been pilloried. Some guests on Dr. Phil suggested he was a traitor to black culture.
On January 1, National Public Radio aired an interview with a professor of black culture at Duke University to discuss whether or not the anti-sagging campaign was homophobic—not because gay men sag but because of Dooney's lyrics:
"You walk the street with your pants way down low," he sang in the original version. "I dunno, looks to me you on the down low." The chorus originally included the line, "I think it's gay."
All of that was supposed to have been cleaned up after the NPR story. On Dr. Phil, the line in the lyrics, "I think it's gay" was changed to, "I think it's rude."
But this February morning, Dooney is lip-synching the anti-sagging lament for a morning show host on Channel 8, dancing and throwing gang signs around the studio like an animated stick man. And it's the wrong version—the original. All of the old anti-gay lines come rolling out.
"Oh, man," Caraway mutters to no one in particular. "Dooney's doing all the gay stuff again. Man!"
Half an hour later, Caraway is at his City Hall desk, fielding an unbroken barrage of phone calls, some about dead cats and city-sponsored home repairs, more of them about Dooney.
His assistant puts a note in front of him: a constituent named Bonnie wants him to call her back about Dooney. He heaves a sigh and dials the speaker phone. "This is Dwaine Caraway," he says. "How are you doing?"
"I was better until I was watching Channel 8," she says.
He gives her a complicated but useful explanation of lip-synching, the editing of CDs, confusion about which version was to be played by the engineer at WFAA. In the end, she is mollified.
It's interesting that Caraway winds up in complicated situations—it happens a lot—because he comes from a straightforward place. He is a product of the old, church-based, quite conservative culture of black South Dallas.
Of course, the old culture placed a high value on taciturn accommodation. Caraway, on the other hand, is a showboat and a stirrer of pots, a kind of modern crusader for old-fashioned values, starting with your pants. He is also often pointing at black people, not white people, as the source of his district's problems. That is part of what puts him in a pickle from time to time.
Depending on who talks about Caraway, he is either an important new force or a sideshow. Even though he works for a distinctly conservative agenda—economic development, neighborhood clean-up, crackdown on drugs—he has been opposed in campaigns by heavyweights in black politics, especially Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price.
Price, speaking from seniority and power in black Dallas, is especially disparaging. Asked what he thinks of Caraway as a political leader, Price says, "I don't.
"It's the difference between dealing with props versus taking a position," Price says. "Give me one project of his that has significant impact in terms of the community, and I don't mean pulling your pants up or cracking down on garage sales."
There is something about Caraway that makes some of the city's longtime politics-watchers nervous. The Reverend Peter Johnson, Texas state coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says, "Dwaine occupies a position that is respected in our culture: hustler."
But Caraway argues he's not hustling. He's hurrying. He is pushing impatiently for the kind of big change that starts with small things. In the end, what must change, he says, is the community itself, and that's a matter of motivation.
"People are now beginning to see results, results that should have come years ago," he says. "Now that they see that hope and hard work will bring about a positive and more productive community, they will expect no less."
The Caraway question, then, is about serious business versus show business. How much of what he does is truly aimed at change or has a chance in hell of achieving it? And how much is just the Dwaine Caraway Show?
Michael Davis, his 34-year-old city plan commission appointee and political Man Friday, ticks off a list of achievements to show that Caraway's focus, even if small, is all business, not Hollywood.
Davis says 15 crack houses have been shut down and boarded up by the city in or near District 4 since Caraway took office last June.
Using the city's cumbersome zoning process, Caraway and Davis forced the permanent closing of three "hot-sheet" drug and whorehouse motels, two of them outside District 4 but close enough to impinge. Motel owners had hired lawyers and mounted vigorous defenses, but Caraway and Davis, acting on their own, persevered and ultimately prevailed.
Tri-City Hospital on Scyene Road, which closed down suddenly five years ago, leaving behind unpaid employees and jilted patients, is slated for a $20 million renovation and ultimate re-opening next year. Caraway's predecessor, Maxine Thornton-Reese, was assailed by opponent Larry Duncan in her 1999 city council election race for the high fees she collected as a director of the old Tri-City before it failed. Davis says Caraway has been instrumental in putting together a deal to revive the hospital.
After a college student was killed by cross-fire on November 21, 2007 at the Big T Bazaar shopping mall in Oak Cliff, Caraway helped broker a deal in which the mall owners donated $50,000 to the police department for an aerial surveillance tower, part of a new overall safety plan for the mall.
Caraway initiated monthly meetings to address the needs of the residents of Turner Courts, a Dallas Housing Authority complex adjacent to Rochester Park. Davis says Caraway pressured Dallas Area Rapid Transit to restore after-dark bus service to Turner Courts, persuaded the city to replace broken street lights and also sought code compliance crackdowns against liquor stores in the area.
With funding and volunteer staff from Allyn & Company, a political advertising agency, Caraway hosted eight "teen summits" to provide teenagers with information about drugs, pregnancy and careers. He has championed the use of so-called "gunshot detection systems," now under study by the police department, to monitor random outdoor gunfire. And Caraway has pressed relentlessly for clean-up campaigns in which cross-departmental teams of city employees comb areas and write tickets for a variety of property maintenance and safety violations.
In addition to several office visits and countless phone calls, I spent an entire day with Councilman Caraway last February—the one that started off with Dooney and the buttocks issue. I think it was a fairly typical day, which in itself is amazing.
We're in his car, a large black Mercedes. Driving with two fingers, Caraway plucks through coat and pants pockets for two cell phones and a BlackBerry, all of which are ringing. His sidekick Davis, formerly in the real estate and Web design business, is in the backseat, taking calls for Caraway on his own cell phone.
District 4 is shaped in a crescent, midway between the city's southern border and downtown. Splayed across the poverty-stricken southern sector, the district contains a few middle-class areas such as Singing Hills and the neighborhoods surrounding the Cedar Crest Municipal Golf Course.
Caraway pulls the Benz to the curb on Ewing Street in Oak Cliff at a sad, slump-shouldered little bungalow with ragged patches of plywood boarded over its eyes and mouth. Three television crews have set up their equipment out front amid a small army of police and city employees, one of whom is handing out handsome green binders containing a media kit. A press release inside explains that this event is an official city action to shut down a crack house that has afflicted its neighbors.
Davis says this kind of action—not unheard of but rare in District 4 before Caraway's election—is what Caraway is all about. "Dallas has never seen a deputy mayor pro tem like this," he says.
It's true. I know that Dr. Maxine Thornton-Reese, who preceded Caraway in the District 4 chair, was famously uninterested in humdrum constituency work but very attentive to the back-corridor power politics of City Hall. Davis says Caraway's approach is a process of jump-starting hope and activism in the neighborhoods by showing people results on the ground.
"When you don't have the leadership, then things get stagnant, and people turn off and figure this is the way it is," Davis adds. The kinds of results he and Caraway pursue, though small when taken one by one, are elements in a sort of chemistry. "Then you have excitement, because people think, 'Now we have leadership that we voted for that has our best interests at heart.'"
Caraway has lived in District 4 most of his life. It's hard to assign mainstream class distinctions to 20th-century black Dallas, because of the skewing effect of racism, but the family in which Caraway grew up was at least middle-class. His father was the longtime manager of the locker room at an all-white country club.
Caraway graduated from Lincoln High School, then attended but did not graduate from Texas Southern University, where he met his wife, Barbara, also a politician. She is a former Dallas City Council member, elected to the Texas House of Representatives from District 110 in 2006.
His mother's 12 brothers and sisters and their offspring have produced more Caraway relatives and presumable voters in District 4 than the city councilman can count or even knows by name.
He has earned his living as a radio personality and as owner of his own small advertising agency. Caraway and I have discussed a list of legal actions filed against him, all having to do with business debts and a 1999 bankruptcy. In the bankruptcy, Caraway defaulted on a $25,000 loan from the Southern Dallas Development Corporation, a nonprofit that receives grant money from the city for helping stimulate the southern sector's economy.
In the 1990s he owned a number of billboards in Southern Dallas and was doing a lucrative trade with tobacco companies. In 1998, after he expanded his billboard business, Caraway's tobacco clients dried up and blew away.
That same year, his father suffered a crippling stroke at a 50th wedding anniversary in New Orleans. Caraway stayed with his father in the hospital in New Orleans and away from his company in Dallas for 33 consecutive days, which wasn't good for business either.
"Circumstances pile on and pile on," he says. "When you're not here, and there's not enough coming in from the beginning, your kneecap gets busted."
The lesson of his life, he says, is that perseverance is everything. "People always quit," he says. "I just don't quit."
That he doesn't. Before his council win last summer, Caraway was in danger of becoming a perennial also-ran. He was elected at age 55, his fourth attempt in a decade. But even a seat on the council has not convinced everyone to take him seriously.
Not so with Mayor Tom Leppert, who is here at the former crack house, as are Dallas police chief David Kunkle and city attorney Tom Perkins. They all make speeches for the cameras, but it's Caraway who sums up, and as always, he offers special plaudits for the mayor.
"Let me just say that, even though it's raining and cold, this is a great day in Dallas, not just in District 4. As the mayor has stated, we had laws on the books, but we didn't follow through with the laws to the fullest.
"It has been the mayor's commitment to make sure that we address all of these things, because these things have been plaguing our community and holding us back."
He winds up with the Dwaine Caraway mantra: "Zero tolerance when it comes to drugs and illicit activity. The motels and drug houses must go."
If there is a single aspect of Caraway's public persona that causes skepticism—from people such as Peter Johnson, fellow council members speaking off the record, bloggers and even black business people—it is the very chummy relationship Caraway maintains with Leppert.
Leppert, after all, is the traditional white champion of the Dallas Citizens Council, the private business group directly descended from the old mid-century oligarchy. After Leppert's election last year, Citizens Council President John Scovell told the group's annual meeting, "We're changing back to the good old days," according to the December 3 issue of the Dallas Business Journal.
So why is the new grassroots champion of District 4 going all over town arm-in-arm with Mr. Good Old Oligarchy Days? Caraway suggests the relationship is somehow conditional.
"Well, he's OK," he says of the mayor. "Right now. He really is. Right now."
Since the March 10 murder-suicide of Rufus and Lynn Flint Shaw, I have written about the mayor's "inner circle." It's a group of southern Dallas power brokers that included Lynn Flint Shaw—a coterie of minority activists who helped Leppert get elected mayor, then worked to help him defeat the Trinity River referendum.
A series of private e-mails provided to the Dallas Observer by an anonymous source revealed that Shaw put strong pressure on Leppert to funnel public works contracting for minorities through her group. She stated a clear tit-for-tat exchange: Her group helped him get elected.
Caraway was even more central to Leppert's southern strategy than Shaw, in both his mayoral race and in the toll road election. But Caraway, significantly, does not show up in any of Shaw's tit-for-tat e-mails about contracts.
I asked him why and he said, "I'm not in this for any of that." But he's in it for something. And Leppert clearly is in it with him.
Caraway is not Leppert's only friend on the council from southern Dallas. If anything, the bond between southern Dallas, Leppert and the Citizens Council is stronger now than ever before. People in the southern half of the city are beginning to believe economic development is possible and may see Leppert as their best chance for help in making it happen.
But not everybody on the council from southern Dallas wants from Leppert what Caraway wants. Under the terms of the current peace prevailing on the city council, southern Dallas council members do not make invidious comparisons of themselves with other council members for the record. A number of council members, asked to comment on Caraway's style, demurred, saying only that their own approaches tend to be more systematic and broad-brush.
Pauline Medrano, who represents District 2 in downtown and West Dallas, explained that she has been developing an overlay map of economic generators and large investments, public and private, in her district—everything from mega-churches to libraries. She wants to see if the city is investing its capital improvement budget in areas where there is a potential for critical mass.
Tennell Atkins, who represents District 8 in far southeast Dallas, also has a large map on his wall. He spent part of one afternoon showing me the links he hopes to help forge between big-box retail, the new University of North Texas campus, warehousing operations and other employment centers, all of which may feed new residential and mixed-use commercial development in the area.
The dean of the southern sector caucus on the council is Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia, who has represented District 1 in North Oak Cliff since 2001. Garcia's take on southern sector politics and the job of council members falls somewhere between big picture and small animal. She has a broad, long-range view of what southern Dallas needs, but she also knows that Caraway is on to something when he screws down the focus to something like animal control.
"Dogs, dead or alive, are the No. 1 complaint from constituents," she told me when I called about Caraway.
Today while I ride around with Caraway and Davis in the possible pursuit of crack houses, they have especially sharp eyes out for dogs.
"Pit bulls, D," Davis calls out at one point. "We got pit bulls!"
The dogs are chained in a back yard, but there are hints of other things going on. Caraway spots an empty metal chair at the end of a grass alley. He says these are signs of outdoor drug sales.
"You see the chair? They sit there. They'll be out here. It's just cold for them now."
We have left the boring media event at the boarded-up crack house and are now on to another challenge, which has yet to be divulged to me.
What I can't believe is that Mayor Leppert is still following us. A Dallas police officer is driving him in an SUV, and somewhere behind Leppert are a couple of squad cars and a car carrying the city attorney. I don't know if Leppert knows where we are going either.
Caraway is talking to some lady on one of his cells:
"I'm en route over here on Exeter," he tells her. "I got an entourage with me now. Tell me, what am I looking for when I get over there?
"Got a candy shop selling beer," Caraway says. "Now, how certain are we on the beer? Now what about the drug side of it?"
Caraway tells me: "We are going to a little candy house where they hang out. A lot of them are little felons... When these people tell me there's a drug house I got to listen to them."
It sounds as if this is going to be a kind of impromptu drug raid by Caraway and the mayor. The mayor is going to play a supporting role in the Dwaine Caraway Show, and that obviously is a lot of what Caraway gets from him. Depending on what's really going on, the mayor's devotion to him may be quite remarkable. If this really is a raid on a typical crack house, then I guess the mayor is willing to give his life to Councilman Caraway.
Riding shotgun in Caraway's car, I, on the other hand, am not. Also, it occurs to me that I do not like the phrase, "riding shotgun."
Nuzzling his cell, Caraway whispers to the lady on the phone: "You stand on your porch and watch, because in 30 seconds, you're going to see an entourage passing you by. The mayor is with me too."
After a beat, he repeats. "I say the mayor is with me too."
And there she is on the porch, waving. This is being done pretty much the opposite of the way the cops do it. Cops sneak up.
He pulls up in front of a house that is typical of the area—not caved-in, fairly upright and weatherproof, but with obvious indications of inattention including a broken toilet in the mud out front and random wrought iron scattered willy-nilly, as if someone was trying to invent something and gave up.
Caraway doesn't climb out of his car but seems to float into the air with the smooth physical grace of a heavyweight boxer. A big man clad in dark suit and fashionable shades, he could be almost anyone pulling up in front of this little house. If I were inside peering out, I might guess anything from Publisher's Clearing House to Grim Reaper.
But what would a person inside make of the next car to arrive? Mayor Leppert, a spry 53-year-old silver-haired white man in a tight-fitting suit, climbs out, like a daddy long-legs jumping off a log.
Caraway waves him over, and the two walk toward the front door, Caraway in the lead. "I'm going to go up and talk to these people."
Davis is upset. "Hold on, D," he calls out urgently. But Caraway is already moving toward the house, with Leppert in tow.
"I ain't scared," Caraway says over his shoulder. They're at the door. I turn to find city attorney Perkins standing behind me with a line of cops.
"What...what is," Perkins stammers, "what's going on here?"
"It's a drug house," I tell him.
He and the cops exchange looks. They may not think it's a drug house.
I circle back behind them anyway. "I'm press," I tell them. "I stand behind the police."
The door of the house opens. Leppert and Caraway go in. Some cops go in. I wait. The cops come back out smiling. I guess it's safe for me now.
In a barren but tidy living room lighted only by the blue flare of a huge flat-screen television, J.C. Washington, the sole resident, stares up from an electric wheelchair. He complains a little grumpily about why it took him a while to answer the door. "I was in the bathroom."
Leppert says, "What can we do to help you?"
Washington focuses hard on him with an expression of bewilderment.
"Now we know you sell candy and chips," Caraway tells Washington.
I'm thinking, candy and chips?
"I'm not having a problem with any of that," Caraway says. "But the other neighbors say it's boot-legging."
"No," Washington comes back quickly, "I ain't sold no beer."
Apparently the accusation here is that Washington has been creating a nuisance in the neighborhood by selling snacks and possibly beer to teenagers from his front porch. Leppert admonishes Washington, "You get the activity and then come the drugs, all sorts of things."
I think Washington feels he knows at least as much about the drug trade as this gangly, long-chinned white man in a tight-fitting suit. I stare at Leppert too. In this setting, he looks uncannily like The Riddler, but that may be unfair.
"You got to clean this stuff up outside," Caraway says. "You got a toilet out there. You got an iron gate."
Imagine that. Junk in the front yard of a poor man.
As this surreal scene unfolds, Caraway makes a few references to prior conversations. "Now you and I have talked about this before," he says.
Aha. Now things are becoming less surreal. Caraway already knew he and Leppert were going to find Washington inside, sitting in his electric wheelchair watching TV. Not some crack dealers armed with Uzis.
Leppert gives Washington an idea for getting the neighborhood kids under control and the yard cleaned up at the same time. "Tell the kids, 'We have a job for you, and your job is to clean this stuff out.' You gotta send a signal."
Send a signal. Yeah. Run it up the flagpole.
As the scene breaks up, I take a stab at getting Leppert to talk to me. I want to know if he was in on the joke here. I grab his hand to shake. "I've covered a lot of mayors," I say with my best hey-let's-have-a-doggone-chat smile. "And I don't think I've ever seen one do anything like this."
He snatches his hand free with nary a shake and a quick icy smile. We're just never going to be close. And I'm not sure how much difference it makes. Whether he knew this was a drug house or not, the mayor has shown Councilman Caraway a remarkable amount of devotion here today.
The people who are skeptical about Caraway, including some of his peers on the council, believe that all this leading the mayor around by the nose comes at a price.
Of course, whether the price is too high is for the person paying it to know. The best I can tell, by watching the city council closely, is that there is some kind of price, and it's not cheap.
Three weeks after our mad ride, I witness one of those bone-crunching little moments on the city council that ordinarily never generate a word in print or a split-second on the TV news. But it tells me volumes.
I will try to condense the back story. Black concessionaires at DFW Airport are very unhappy with the way the airport hands out locations for their shops. They claim they have been squeezed together into a semi-abandoned "South Dallas" terminal where there is no foot traffic, while white concessionaires have been granted plum relocations in busier terminals. Their leader is Marvin Robinson, a concessionaire, community leader and business executive, revered in the city generally and in the black community in particular.
At its March 5 briefing session, the council is scheduled to vote on an appointment to the airport board. Most of the minority council members have united behind one candidate who has promised to help with the location issue for the concessionaires.
Leppert and the Citizens Council types want another man appointed. Caraway is the swing vote.
Peter Johnson, the state SCLC coordinator, and the Reverend Ronald Wright, president of the Dallas Chapter of the SCLC, tell me Caraway promised them the day before the vote that he will support the candidate favored by the minority community. Other council members, speaking not for attribution, also tell me Caraway signed up with them for this vote.
So he's the swing. He has promised to swing with his own community. But he owes Leppert. The price.
The night before the meeting, when most council members have left their offices, Caraway sends out a memo saying he wants to delay the appointment. Votes have been polled in advance by the interested parties. A delay will play to the advantage of Leppert and the Citizens Council. If the city council does not delay the vote, the candidate favored by the black community will get in.
So Caraway's delay is a move for Leppert. Normally no one would have seen his memo until morning, when it would have been too late to outflank him. But Caraway gets caught. Someone does see it in time. Overnight and early in the morning, calls go out all over town to the major players in the black community, to Hispanic leaders and to concessionaires who wouldn't show up otherwise for the briefing session.
In the morning when Caraway expects an empty peanut gallery and a cakewalk, he faces instead a roomful of accusing eyes. Caraway's request for a delay is voted down. Leppert tries to delay the vote another way but is aced on parliamentary procedure. So now the council must vote on the nomination of the candidate favored by the minority community, and Caraway must swing.
He reads the room. He sees who is here and lurking in the wings. He must make his move. He is unhinged. He makes a long, angry speech in which he seems to be saying that he won't be pushed around, which would mean that he is going to vote for Leppert's guy and defy this roomful of heavy-hitters from his own community.
"I want to say this about today," Caraway says, shaking his head. "I really am somewhat taken aback that I, as a council member, issued a memo asking for a delay, but yet here is the backdrop from that this morning, putting me on the public spot with the press and everything else."
He free-rants. "This should not be carried out in this form, in this fashion, at this time. It shouldn't be. I would have never and I have never bent to pressure."
He slams the butt of a palm against the table. "I don't want to see this type of process ever again, where folk get on telephones at night and gather people just to be on their side, when it should be all about the people and putting the best person there.
"I want you all to know, whoever wins on whichever side it is, I still want nothing from nobody. I am going to remember this process and how it went down."
It's a voice vote. They all have to say out loud how they are voting. Caraway votes in favor of the minority community's nominee for the airport board, which in effect is a vote against Leppert.
After his long rant vowing that he will not bow to the pressure, he folds and votes exactly the way the pressure pushed him. But it's a fold he can survive. Voting with Leppert would have been fatal.
It seems like a simple thing—telling young men to pull up their pants. Obviously it is not. In this world, you can tell people to pull up their pants and find yourself accused of racial perfidy, homophobia and probably a lot more. And some of those accusations might even be legitimate. Life is complicated.
But the underlying accusation leveled against Dwaine Caraway by his critics is simple. It's that he doesn't mean what he says. Forget about his methods, forget about his issues. He doesn't really care. The only thing that's really important to Dwaine Caraway is the Dwaine Caraway Show.
After our day together, after the many phone talks and office visits, I tested that underlying accusation one day without really meaning to. He was talking to me about the importance of the small things—persuading the code enforcement officers to crack down on derelict properties, pressuring the cops to crack down on street prostitution and, yes, trying to create peer pressure to persuade young men to pull up their damn pants.
I played devil's advocate: Are you not betraying the community you grew up in by snitching people out to City Hall? What about the idea that what happens in the 'hood stays in the 'hood?
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It was the first time in 10 years of talking to him that I have heard anger in his voice. The idea that you can't call the cops or code enforcement when someone in the neighborhood is doing wrong, he said, amounts to condoning the wrong.
"That's saying the hell with breaking up a family, the hell with having crack babies born, the hell with the future of a crack dealer and those that are getting hooked on it, the hell with ever getting a job and having a productive life.
"I say the hell with whoever condones it. The condoning is what got us in trouble now."
There definitely is a Dwaine Caraway Show. It's interesting. It's complicated. Some of it is total bullshit. But that part was not.