Well-Heeled Donors Flood Mayor Rawlings with Money. Hey, You Know What Else Floods?

Why is Mayor Mike Rawlings so strong for the Trinity toll road? Several months ago he made sort of a show of thinking about it. Then he announced his support. But was there ever any doubt?

As we move closer to the May elections, the focus of those elections is drawing down tighter on the proposal to build a tolled expressway through downtown Dallas along the banks of the Trinity River. Rawlings' only opponent, lawyer Marcos Ronquillo, has come out against it. The road promises to be a defining issue not just in the mayoral race but also in a number of key council contests.

Rawlings is a Democrat and a nice guy who consistently comes down on the side of the city's old moneyed elite on a variety of issues. The toll road issue may a good example why no one should be surprised.

Even a cursory look at the $3.3 million Rawlings has garnered in donations in four years creates one overwhelming impression: If Rawlings had failed to give the toll road anything but his fullest support it would have been a betrayal of his most generous and enthusiastic supporters at the very heart of the city's wealthy establishment.

He may be a Democrat, but Rawlings comes from and runs with the rich and the old.

Among his big contributors are some who were the most ardent and generous supporters of the 2007 campaign to defeat Angela Hunt's anti-toll road referendum. Others are captains of the public works construction industry, directors of the Trinity Trust and an awful lot of names from D Magazine's favorite feature, the 100 most expensive homes in Dallas.

Of course, giving financial support to a candidate for office is a sacred American right that these people have every reason to exercise. But one aspect of Rawlings' support did leap to my own eye when I first started looking. I was under the impression -- mistaken I now know -- that the most recent formulation of an ethics code for city candidates in Dallas limited the amount an individual could contribute to $5,000.

On Rawlings' list, only the pikers kick in a mere five grand. John Adams, retired head of Trinity Industries, a supplier of highway construction materials, kicked in $20,000 with his wife, which would put them at 10 grand apiece. Philanthropist Ruth Altshuler Sharp is in for $13,500. Beer distributor Barry Andrews is down for 20 thousand. Several partners in the same capital investment firm with Rawlings have kicked in amounts three and four times the $5,000 limit.

When you forget about the $5,000 limitation per individual and look at households, the amounts get pretty mind boggling. Unsuccessful City Council candidate Brint Ryan, whose company helps firms acquire tax breaks, was joined by his wife and children in giving $66,656 to the Rawlings cause. Rawlings scooped up $35,000 from the household of his CIC partner, Marshall Payne, a man seldom in the news except occasionally for being a friend of Laura Bush or for trying unsuccessfully to launch a fracking operation in the beautiful and remote Cevennes region of Southern France.

As it turns out, the $5,000 limit does not exactly apply to Rawlings or to any other incumbent on the City Council. Exactly. It's confusing.

I spoke with Brylon Franklin, the city's elections manager, who informed me that the $5,000 limit only applies to the amount an individual may give to a candidate running for office. Once a candidate has been elected and is occupying the office, then an individual may give the officeholder any amount up to a zillion dollars. And wouldn't you know, in looking back, that our astute City Council, when it was putting tougher its vaunted "ethics reform" in 2009 under then Mayor Tom Leppert, would have carved out a nice little niche like this for incumbents.

Let's call it the Sky Rule. According to Franklin, once you're in, the sky's the limit.

"It's kind of a little crazy and confusing to say the least," he agreed. "What you have is a candidate, quote unquote, and then an officeholder. If this candidate is duly elected, then they are an officeholder."

I wasn't confused yet.

"In that regard," Franklin said, "an officeholder doesn't have any limits."

The $5,000 limit on contributions to candidates, he said, covers the entire period of that person's campaign and subsequent term in office. Then if he runs again, the same contributor may give a total of $5,000 again to the new campaign. But in the meantime, Franklin said, the same contributor may give as much as he likes to the officeholder account.

I asked what the officeholder may spend his officeholder account on. Franklin said he can spend it on almost anything, including his next campaign.

I was pretty confused by then but not totally. I said I had been looking at the mayor's reports, and I didn't see any distinction between contributions made to his campaigns and contributions made to his officeholder account.

"No," he said. "The issue is whether it's reported. The [city] form itself is a 'C slash O' form (candidate/officeholder). It's not a separate form. That's why I said when the candidate or the officeholder, whoever it is that's doing the reporting, they need to be certain if they are receiving it as a candidate to make that note, because the form itself is a one-form deal."

Very, very confused. The paper form itself that campaign treasurers file does not make any distinction. It doesn't ask. It doesn't provide a check-box. It's just a list. The digital compilation available on-line doesn't distinguish. It's all just one big pile of money, and Rawlings' pile is very big, indeed.

In fact the $5,000 checks -- and the number of $5,000 checks rolling in again and again from individuals and their families -- are what distinguish Rawlings' reports from those of everyone else on the City Council. Of course, he is the mayor, and they are only members.

But when I looked at the three council members who represent the three richest districts in the city, Sandy Greyson, Lee Kleinman and Jennifer Gates, I didn't see any $5,000 checks at all. Rawlings has 300 checks for $5,000 apiece on his list and two for $10,000, for a grand total of $1.54 million from fat check writers alone.

Somebody obviously thinks the number 5,000 still has a significance here. Oilman and toll road booster Ray Hunt and his wife have chipped in $30,000 to Rawlings, all in denominations of $5,000. Hunt's consigliere on the toll road, John Scovell, and his wife have put in another $15,000 at five grand a whack. Billionaire nuclear-waste burier and toll road backer Harold Simmons and his wife were good for $15,000 in three checks. Cowboys owner and oilman Jerry Jones and his extended clan came up with $40,000, all at $5,000 a hit.

The only guy who doesn't need no stinking $5,000 limit is Ryan, the tax man whose family chipped in almost $70,000 to Rawlings' Whatever Account. One of his checks was for over $16,000. I'm not even counting contributions from something called the Brint Ryan PAC which I think may be fodder for another column here later.

So let me be careful about what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am not saying there is anything shady or illegal about the mayor's contributions list. The city's elections manager explained that to me. I tried to explain it to you. The rules are confusing as hell, and I think it all winds up meaning there are no rules for incumbents. It is what it is, and Rawlings is within what it is.

Nor am I saying that Rawlings has misrepresented himself or masqueraded as something he is not. I never heard Rawlings tell anybody he was poor. The Kennedys are rich. Al Gore is rich. Democrats are allowed to be rich. But I am saying this. When I look at his contributor list, I see not only the impressive amounts but the profile of the people whose names are on the checks. More than 60 percent of his contributions since announcing for office in 2011 have rolled in in amounts of $5,000 or more, and most of that money came from the same people who have backed the Trinity toll road idea from the very beginning.

It would have been outrageous, outlandish, outside the realm of reasonable expectation for Rawlings to do anything but back the toll road project to the hilt. I say that not because I think Rawlings is a prisoner of his contributions list. I'm sure he could send all those checks back where they came from and self-fund his career in office without breaking a sweat.

What the list shows instead is the great enthusiasm for Rawlings to be found among the people who have been the toll roads faithful champions from the beginning. I don't think you write one check for $5,000 and another one for $5,000 and then have your wife write one and then you write another one in your kid's name unless you really believe in the person.

I do think the toll road issue illuminates a growing and important divide between the old power elite and a whole new cadre of people coming to power in the city, most but not all of whom are younger than the folks I see on Rawlings' list. It's important not to get confused. Rawlings is exactly what he appears to be. But you must look closely.

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