Where Do You Want to Go, Dallas, and How Will You Get There?

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Last night, I attended my last event of Your 2007 Mayor’s Race, the Vickery Place Neighborhood Association Candidate Forum in East Dallas. To celebrate, I planned to grab a beer or two at my favorite drinking establishment, the bar at the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff. A little confused on the most direct route to take, I asked Tom Leppert for help.

“Head toward the sky where the sun has begun to set,” he told me as he put his hand on my shoulder and stared out into the distance. “Drive toward the Trinity River, which for generation -- generations -- has divided our community and has been a symbol of our divide. When you cross the river -- and you will, Matt, you will -- I want you to think about this. Think about the possibilities that exist for you and for the city of Dallas, which I believe can be the best city in the world. That’s what I did at Turner. I laid out a vision, and I defined our objectives. You need to define the issues that face you, Matt. Cross that river with confidence, with hope and with courage. After you do that, only after you do that, continue west toward Fort Worth. At some point, you will exit a highway and come upon an exit ramp. There you will find the Belmont Hotel.”

“But Tom ... Tom. I don’t understand. What direction do I take? 75 to I-30 right? What exit do I get off? Is it Sylvan? I think it’s Sylvan. Or Colorado? I confuse those streets. They’re like the Skillman and Abrams of Oak Cliff.”

“Matt,” he replied, his voice drawing to a whisper. “Sometimes good leadership … good leadership is knowing which road to take.”

Not finding Leppert’s guidance helpful in anyway, I asked his opponent, Ed Oakley, for directions to the Belmont Hotel.

"Matt, first you need to put your car in reverse and back out of the parking lot very slowly. Look both ways and be careful not to hit a passerby. After that, you make a right off Belmont and onto Greenville Avenue. Come to a complete stop before you turn. Look both ways. Proceed slowly. On your left you’ll see a Blockbuster Video and a Whole Foods, that in a matter of months, will relocate 1.6 miles down the street to Gaston and Abrams. As you pass the Whole Foods, on your right you’ll see a Greek restaurant, a seafood restaurant, a ...“

“Ed, I gotcha. I basically know where to go. I just need to know the most direct route.”

“Continue to head south," Oakley continued. "There’s a pothole on the right lane at the intersection of Greenville and Richmond. I first noticed it in 1988. People say I don’t notice things, but I do. So I called John Sevington, an engineer at the Public Works Department and a good friend of mine, and he said that according to the 2006 $1.3-billion bond package that I helped craft and I helped divvy up, because I know how to build consensus, that pothole is scheduled to be filled on November 24, 2009. When you get past the pothole, you’ll see a flickering street light that I first noticed in ...”

I think you get the point.

In Your 2007 Dallas Mayor’s Race, one candidate is selling you a vision without details, while another is giving you details and a few head-scratching non-sequitors without the vision. I know that sounds kind of Newsweek-y, like I’m channeling my inner Jonathan Alter, but this is actually a real and ever-present distinction between the candidates. Leppert, a very successful and now retired corporate executive, talks so vaguely and generically that sometimes it’s not entirely clear what city he wants to lead, while Oakley, the influential three-term council member, seems to think that he doesn’t have to say anything coherent because we already know what he’s done for Dallas.

Your 2007 Dallas Mayor’s Race is one of the rare occasions where a candidate’s words are actually a good reflection of who they are, if not always for the reasons each of them intends. Here are excerpts from their closing statements during last night’s mayoral forum:

Let’s here from Tom Leppert first:

“What kind of a leader do you want as mayor? Do you want someone that knows all the intricacies; that knows all the little pieces of City Hall; who views it as managing City Hall? Or do you want someone who will define the mayor position as being the leader of Dallas and is willing to engage on issues that have never been on the table at City Hall? Like education. It’s never been there before. If we don’t get education right, everything we do over the next 10 years is going to be for naught. We’ve got to get education right.

Do we want a mayor who will define the agenda as the issues that will impact the success or failure of this city over the next 10 years, or do we want to manage this city? Do we want a mayor who will focus on the box at City Hall or do we want a mayor that will reach out, literally reach out, to all of the communities and engage it, but go way beyond it to bring opportunities for ourselves and for our kids, job opportunities and business opportunities, to literally walk in to any boardroom anywhere in the world and define it that way because that’s the world that we live in and bring those opportunities.

Maybe that’s why if you look at the existing council and the new council members, of the ones who have endorsed a candidate, twice as many have endorsed me. And I’m the guy who’s got no political experience. But I’ve got leadership experience because I’ve led organizations. I’ve led the people, and I’ve had to paint that picture. That picture of where we go and how we get there.”

And now, Mr. Ed Oakley:

“I’ve talked about being an insider; you know I came out of a neighborhood. I can’t tell you how many neighborhood meetings I was in as a plan commissioner even in this part of the city. I understand how it works, so call it what you will -- I call it experience. I understand your planning issues; I understand garbage collection issues; I understand how to balance a budget to zero ever year, and if we don’t continue to grow our base to pay for inflation -- we have to raise taxes. That’s how we provide you the quality of life, that’s what this is about, folks. This isn’t about building or promoting or manufacturing anything. It is providing you the quality of life that you as taxpayers pay for. Are we perfect? No. Are we going in the right direction? Absolutely.”

At last night’s forum, two candidates were actually as sharp as I’ve seen them. Leppert was very articulate -- and surprisingly specific -- in talking about how the Dallas Police Department will run if he’s elected mayor, eliciting applause from the East Dallas audience on several occasions.

Oakley, on the other hand, won over the crowd by talking passionately about neighborhood zoning battles, particularly how the process can and should work. Leppert seems a lot more relaxed than he was earlier in the campaign; while Oakley looked a little less eager to please. I actually think they’re better candidates than they were a few weeks ago. But I'm still not comfortable asking either one of them for directions. --Matt Pulle

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