When the Levees Break: Behind the Scenes of the Trinity Toll Road Campaigns

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Recently, when I was handed the assignment of writing a weekly political column for our Web site and blog, I hoped to go as long as possible without writing about the Trinity River vote, since people far smarter than I -- and Steve Blow -- have explored every corner of this debate for months. So, on Wednesday, I trudged down to City Hall to catch the council’s briefing session, hoping to find something, anything different to write about. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim.

The meeting began with Mayor Tom Leppert making various presentations to various do-gooders, recognizing them for random acts of kindness. I didn’t really pay attention to this part, except to notice that Mayor Tom will hug just about anyone who comes to the podium. I think this is the part of the job he enjoys the most. Just about everyone else on the council also seemed to love and cherish the innocuous act of saluting everyday folk for doing something nice. To them, this is what local government is all about, saluting the friendly while grinning widely on local access TV.

Later, during the public-speaker session of the meeting, a man talked about the trouble he had resolving a $19 ambulance bill with the city. When he was finished, several council members echoed the speaker’s frustrations, talking light-heartedly about how the city notified them about unpaid bills they thought they resolved 10, 15 years ago. Oak Cliff area Council member Dave Neumann added that he recently received a call on a tiny debt he didn’t even know he had.

“I got a ticket for a place I couldn’t have been,” Neumann chuckled, half indignantly.

Well, the rest of the council laughed uproariously at Neumann’s comment, as though he had inadvertently let on that he was caught doing something Larry Craig-ish. A grinning Mayor Leppert joked that the council should move on, while others continued to offer G-rated wisecracks. It was like an afternoon lodge meeting, with members playfully ribbing each other about their spouses as they enjoy a couple of beers under a row of moose-head trophies. Everyone seemed like they were having a gay old time.

Except for one council member on the edge of the horseshoe, who sat quietly and seriously, studying a stack of papers. I suppose I might have missed Angela Hunt's smile, since I didn’t have my eye trained on her the whole time, but it appeared as though the East Dallas council member was completely oblivious to the banter of her colleagues. She didn’t look annoyed or above it all, just disinterested and visibly apart from the rest of the politicians on stage. It’s that all-encompassing Trinity River campaign, hovering over City Council and casting a shadow over everything. What else is there to write about?

As you know doubt know by now, every single one of Angela Hunt’s council colleagues oppose her campaign to remove the high-speed toll road planned inside the Trinity corridor’s levee walls. This summer Hunt led a successful petition drive to place the fate of the toll road on the ballot on November 6, garnering the steadfast opposition of just about everyone in Dallas who’s ever run for elected office.

In addition to 13 out of 14 council members and Mayor Leppert, the unlikely pairing of former mayors Laura Miller and Ron Kirk have lined up in favor of the toll road, or the “Vote No!” campaign, arguing that the four- to six-lane highway is a critical part of the $1.2-billion public works project. Loyal Republicans, among them Kay Bailey Hutchison and Pete Sessions, and such steadfast Democrats as Royce West and John Wiley Price have also joined the “Vote No!” campaign -- as in, vote against referendum to sink the toll road -- as has every single business group in town, from the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce to the North Texas Gay and Lesbian and Transgendered Chamber of Commerce.

Ed Oakley, who ran a brutal campaign for mayor against Leppert just this past spring, is with Leppert on the side of “Vote No!,” along with Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces, Tank Johnson, Jim Brady, Michael Vick and the dog from Frasier.

And, perhaps worst of all for Hunt, the woman directing the “Vote No!” Campaign is Carol Reed, who wins just about every election she directs and is now serving as the Regional Finance Director for the Rudy Giuliani presidential bid. She’s basically the New York Yankees of political consultants: Reed may land the candidates and causes with the most money, but she also rings the most out of them. Now she’s conducting a stunning cross section of political personalities, some of whom have spent years of their lives sparring over tax deals and stadium projects and zoning conflicts, at long last joining hands on the side of one $1.2-billion project.

“How can all these people be wrong,” Reed says.

Well, it’s not that simple (see “invasion of Iraq, early support of”). But, in the midst of a complicated campaign about a highway as much as $600 million over budget that won’t be built for years alongside a river project that was voted on nearly 10 years ago, Reed can employ a nifty slogan. “How can all these people be wrong?” My colleague Jim Schutze has done a pitch-perfect job answering that question week after week, but who in Dallas can answer this one: “How can all these people lose?”

I called Angela Hunt to see if she had a response, but she either didn’t want to disclose key details for strategic reasons or had absolutely no idea. But just like Reed, Hunt knows how to frame the issue as simply and memorably as possible.

“On the face of it, they just think it’s a dumb idea to put a tollway in our park," she says of how quickly the average person grasps the issue. "It’s a dumb idea to put a tollway in our floodway.”

Of course, Hunt will have to reach a lot of average people, because the “Vote No” side is, as expected, disciplined, insistent and smooth -- kind of like our mayor. Reed’s team has lined up 70 people, including public officials and business leaders, to volunteer to speak in favor of the toll road before various non-profit and neighborhood organizations. I can’t begin to imagine a more boring speech.

Still, the “Vote No!” team is not just sending their emissaries in blind. Last week, they attended a 90-minute-long training session at the Greater Dallas Area Chamber of Commerce, to help them understand and explain the toll road issues, at least as their side sees it. That may be a minor point, but if the “Vote No!” folks are fine-tuning their lineup of public speakers, they’re not likely to let other details go without attention.

Reed says that her team will also use direct mail and TV ads down the homestretch. They’re also going to try to tidy up a sprawling policy argument -- the toll road is one of many necessary parts of a big, intricate project -- by appealing to our senses and going visual. Exhibit A was the short film the North Texas Tollway Authority unveiled this week at the “Vote No!” official campaign launch at the Hilton Anatole. With the lush orchestral music of an inspirational biopic, the NTTA’s self-described “visual aid” depicts a tiny, beautiful toll road amidst an expansive floodplain and park. The toll road is highlighted by a median of finely trimmed shrubs and a parade of pretty trees forming a natural barrier between the highway and the park.

“It’s gorgeous,” Hunt quips. “You expect to see little geese walking across the toll road.”

In fact, the NTTA’s ad was, if not a flop, a bit of a letdown. The next day, The Dallas Morning News's story about the "Vote No!" launch party focused on the honesty of the images, specifically on whether the authority will even be allowed to plant trees along the levee, since that might weaken them. That wasn’t a good start for the “Vote No!” campaign, as they likely expected a less discerning news story from a paper that has otherwise championed their cause.

The pro-toll road people are trying to say the debate over trees is an arcane one, but it hits at a larger point: if you can’t believe the trees, then can you believe anything else in that visual aid? After all, the original Trinity River project was passed in large part because of all those picturesque drawings of sailboats and clear blue lakes, with nary a toll road in sight.

“They will package this any way they have to get people to vote for a toll road in the park, because common sense is not on their side,” Hunt says.

Reed says that, with the exception of a few trees here or there, the NTTA’s film is accurate, depicting a slim, tasteful road amid a beautiful, lush park.

“Take nine football fields at its widest,” she says of the project. “And the road is 40 yards. Those are the types of visuals you get out there.”

You can bet those visuals will be stylish, colorful and effective, transforming an almost impossible argument -- Vote to put a billion dollars of concrete in a floodplain -- into an appealing travel brochure.

And so it will be Hunt’s job to illustrate if and how those images are misleading. Hunt will also need to show whether the toll road really is a necessary part of the Trinity River project -- a point her opponents inadvertently undermine, by the way, when they talk about how the various amenities are already popping up. Finally, Hunt will have to convince voters that Laura Miller and Ron Kirk and every political leader in between is wrong in the face of tough and well-funded political opposition effort. Then again, no one thought that Hunt would even get this far.

“Everyone underestimated us," Hunt says, "until we flopped 90,000 signatures on the table and said, ‘Here you go, verify these.'" --Matt Pulle

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