Wherein We Declare Don Hill the Current Frontrunner and Sam Coats...Wait, This Can't Be Right...Hip?

We're not saying Matt Pulle has a man-crush on Sam Coats. We would never say it. Not outloud. Nope.
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Welcome to the second installment of Unfair Park's weekly round-up of the top eight mayoral candidates. We shuffled part of the list around a little bit, not so much because anything interesting happened on the campaign trail -- it didn't -- but because the various insiders and partisans have succeeded in making me flip-flop on a few candidates. That I can be so easily manipulated should be reason enough to doubt our rankings.

With that caveat out of the way, I think I may have a tip for Unfair Park's devoted Friends. If you're trying to figure out who to vote for, there may be a very simple litmus test:

If you're more or less happy with the direction of the city, then your two candidates are current city council members Don Hill and Ed Oakley. They are both running as stay-the-course candidates and have said as much on the campaign trail.

If you think that the city needs an outsider to come in and fundamentally transform how this city works, from tackling crime to how City Hall acts and behaves, then your three candidates are: Sam Coats, Darrell Jordan and Tom Leppert. Max Wells may fall into this group too.

If you take more of a middle-ground approach, where you have some serious problems with how the city is being run but you'd like someone with some political experience at the helm, then your two candidates are Max Wells and council member Gary Griffith.

Finally, if you enthusiastically voted for Laura Miller in 2001 and 2003 and if you believe that Mitchell Rasansky is on the side of the angels more often than not, and if you believe that that City Hall does everything but exuberant back flips when developers come and ask for tax incentives, well, you're totally screwed. Sorry about that. For the handful of people in Dallas who would prefer that city government focuses on neighborhoods, not high-rises, you're going to have to sit this one out. Thanks for playing.

We'll be exploring some of these broader themes in an upcoming paper issue of Unfair Park. Now let's get to business. Here's your top eight:

1) Don Hill: I attended two mayoral forums this week: The first was hosted by a Republican women's club at an East Dallas church, the second was a joint event hosted by the Hotel Association of Greater Dallas and the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. Don Hill rocked them both. And everybody's talking about Hill's performance too, with people volunteering that impression to me as soon as they learn my occupation. Of all the candidates, only Hill and Sam Coats are able to consistently and clearly tell you why you should vote for one of them, which is no small feat among a crowd who seem to think a political race is a contest over who can express the most affection for the representative area. Seriously, it's starting to get creepy hearing these candidates talk about how much they love Dallas. It's as though this were some sort of geographic version of The Bachelor.

"I've had a love affair and a romance with this city since 1961," Max Wells said yesterday at the hotel-restaurant forum. A love affair and a romance? Wells is such a gentleman. That's so much better than having sex with Dallas and never calling her again.

Back to Hill: I think his success on the campaign trail is not the only thing he has going for him. In a low-turnout election, where 20,000 votes can get you to the runoff, I don't see how Hill can't get this with his base of support in the Southern sector. Of course, I'm not quite sure how he wins the general election six weeks, later but let's take one race at a time.

One other thing: No other candidate will so much as whisper about the FBI investigation that hangs over Don Hill's head. And it's not because they fundamentally believe in a presumption of innocence, particularly since most of them are Republicans, who aren't exactly known for giving the accussed the benefit of the doubt. The deference to Hill stems from the fact nobody wants to upset Southern-sector voters, who, even if they're not going to vote for Hill en masse, aren't going to take too kindly to a white guy from North or East Dallas -- or Oak Cliff, in the case of Ed Oakley -- bashing one of their most prominent leaders. Of course, whomever of these calculating candidates winds up in a runoff with Hill will suddenly be very eager to detail a few of the allegations against Hill, particularly if the race becomes a north versus south affair.

2) Tom Leppert: Yesterday, I spoke to Willis Johnson of KKDA-AM (730), who is working as a consultant for the Leppert campaign. I asked him what exactly he's doing for Leppert's money. Here's what he told me: "My role is to get Tom in front of as many key people as possible," he says. "We've been to city-wide revivals, to South Dallas nursing homes, we've met with ministers and the IMA (the Interministerial Alliance), we've been to track meets, we've been to the black firefighter's association."

The point here is that Leppert is doing whatever he possibly can to win a decent slice of the Southern-sector vote. We all know that the former Turner Construction Co. CEO has money and key support from the business community, but my guess is that Leppert may wind up outworking his competitors as well. The issue for Leppert will be if voters will elect a relative newcomer to Dallas to run the city -- or at least pretend to run the city, since in Dallas the mayor has about as much power as Alan Colmes does at the Fox News Channel.

3) Ed Oakley: Oakley is still struggling a bit on the campaign trail, too often opting to explain the intricacies of local government rather than espouse a more interesting portrayal and vision of Dallas. The other day he was actually talking about water main replacement. But Oakley may be the savviest politician in the field, and in a lowturn out race I think he has the organization to get out his vote.

4) Max Wells: First, the good news for the Wells camp: Your candidate is greatly improved on the campaign trail. He's ditched his irritating third-person references and doesn't sound as grumpy as he has in the past. So why did I drop him from the second spot to the fourth? Well, keep in mind I'm guessing here. That's all this is. If you dropped the names of the top eight candidates in a hat and picked them out randomly, your selection process would probably be about as accurate as mine -- so long as you picked John Cappello last.

As far as Wells, I'm dropping him to fourth because I still have reservations about him on the campaign trail. At various mayoral forums I've attended, the younger people in the audience don't appear engagaged when he talks; indeed, they look as though they're listening to their sweet but out-of-touch grandfather talk about the music of Bing Crosby. Of course, I'm not sure younger people vote, so this may not be an issue.

5) Darrell Jordan: Of all the candidates in the race, I have the worst read on Darrell Jordan. Which is saying something. The former president of the State Bar of Texas has a booming courtroom voice, which he uses very effectively at each of these forums. Of all the non-council members running for office, Jordan knows the city the best. Everybody seems to like him. I just can't get a read on his base of support. I think he's had a few minor stumbles over the last few months, including the plagiarism thing along with his membership at the whites-only Dallas Country Club. I think those stumbles are more media creations than anything else, something my friend, colleague and overlord Robert Wilonsky doesn't really agree with. But even in a best-case scenario, Jordan can't afford any more missteps in a crowed, tight race.

6) Gary Griffith: I think this is Gary Griffith's message: "I've been a very dedicated, successful, well-liked council member in a diverse and dynamic part of town. [Lakewood, parts of East Dallas, etc.] I work well with others. I'm a part of an effective city council, but I don't have the baggage of Don Hill. Unlike Ed Oakley, I can change the tone at City Hall, and, unlike the rest of the field, I have the local government experience to keep us going in the right direction."

I think that's Gary Griffith's message, but I'm not sure, because he can't seem to state it that clearly. Let's be clear: If you're one of the three city council members running for mayor, you have to make a good case that the city is more or less growing and bustling and that you, more than the other two council candidates, are the man to stay the course. So far Griffith hasn't done either thing. I also think his Republican ties will be more of a hindrance than a help.

7) Sam Coats: First, let me address your comments before you even post them. No, I am not auditioning to become Sam Coats' press secretary. We're not related, and he hasn't promised me frequent-flier points on Continental if I continue to write nice things about him. And, yes, at some point I'll ask him at least one tough question. But we're not there yet.

I like Coats because he seems to be the most fundamentally honest guy in the race. He doesn't pander to the crowd. He talks about embracing the city's Hispanic population at forums where there are no Hispanics present. And he has believes that the Trinity River Project should look as much like Austin's pristine Town Lake as humanly possible. The other candidates, meanwhile, give the impression that they'd build a 50-lane toll road on top of the park if that's what the business crowd wanted.

The appeal of Coats is that he's the youngest candidate in the field -- not in terms of age or appearance, but because he looks at everything without the biases and misconceptions of the ruling caste of Dallas. If I had to guess, I'd say he's the only candidate in the field who would laugh at The Daily Show.

So then what's up with my ranking? Coats tells me that he's higher than the seventh spot I gave him last week. He's going to play up the fact that he's a loyal and longtime Democrat and that he'll have enough money on hand to get his message out. But in a field with two other old white guys, Wells and Jordan, each of whom have lined up more support among Southern-sector leaders, I think it's going to be hard for Coats to break out from the pack.

8) John Cappello: With Edward Okpa off the ballot for a few days, Cappello wins the 8th spot simply by showing up at two forums last week. I'm not sure what else he did besides that. --Matt Pulle

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