With Friends Like These...

For the moment, they're all pals, comrades-in-arms who have each other's backs--you know, the same ones in which they used to stick knives and other sharp things. Their pasts have not been forgotten, mind you; there's always someone with a shovel ready to dig up ancient history and use it to beat a new friend over the head. But everyone interviewed for this story, be it the well-heeled, well-connected political consultants or past and current council members or longtime community activists, insists the same thing: We're all getting along quite well. It's all peaches and cream. No, really. Seriously.

The Coalition for Open Government, the 2-month-old conglomeration of friends and foes representing the 14 members of the city council and other would-be and wannabe powerbrokers, is a motley mixture of local politicos bound by a single cause: to defeat Beth Ann Blackwood's amendment to the city charter, which essentially gives all of the city manager's powers to a suddenly invulnerable mayor. They don't all agree on just what it is they hate about Blackwood's proposal, and they certainly don't agree on what should come next if Blackwood is defeated--a stronger-mayor proposal offered up by the city council or nothing at all. Even their name is a little confusing: What, exactly, does a Coalition for Open Government have to do with a strong mayor?

But, for now they insist that isn't important. All that matters is killing the Blackwood proposal--whether that means pimping a council alternative or no alternative at all. Say whatever it takes, do whatever it takes, befriend whomever it takes.

"Whether individual people take a stand on different ways to defeat Blackwood or different ways to amend the charter, the one thing we hope we will be able to say to people is there will be an alternative on the ballot in November and there will be open discussion," says Carol Reed, the political strategist best known for running Ron Kirk's mayoral and Senate campaigns. "The best way to ensure that you can amend the charter in November with a better change than Blackwood is to defeat this thing in May."

Since its inception at Councilman Mitchell Rasansky's house on January 19, the Coalition for Open Government has done the requisite bad-mouthing of Blackwood's proposal in print and at the various debates and discussions held around town. Last week, they sent out attorney Darrell Jordan, one of the coalition's financial committee chairs, to debate Laura Miller in front of the Dallas Bar Association at the Belo Mansion--where Miller had home-court advantage, given the rows of "Vote Yes!" signs lining the front lawn. They've sent out former council members Alan Walne and Max Wells and Bob Stimson, among others, to debate Blackwood, Miller and their representatives.

And the coalition finds itself with powerful friends, including the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas chapter of the League of Women Voters and, most notably, the high-profile businessmen who make up the Dallas Citizens Council, which, on March 17, announced it would donate $200,000 to the coalition's efforts to defeat Blackwood. Reed and fellow consultant Pat Cotton say the money will be used primarily to pay for yard signs, mailers and radio spots, which will begin running a few weeks before the May 7 election.

And then there is Ron Kirk, the former mayor and former nemesis of Mayor Laura Miller. Kirk got involved in the anti-Blackwood effort only when members of the Citizens Council and Greater Dallas Chamber, among his biggest allies during his tenure as mayor, begged him to fight it. At first he tried to limit his involvement to getting the council members to draft their own alternative, which they presented last week. Then he accepted a few invitations to debate Miller, the first of which takes place April 7 at the Westin Galleria.

"People started calling me immediately, saying, 'Will you come debate Laura?'" Kirk recalls. "And I said no, no, no. And I'll be honest. I am just flying without protocol. I'm in a wonderful position. I'm doing what the hell I wanna do.

"The most important thing for me was in the middle of all this, I was going through a decision to make a change in my career. I changed law firms February 1, and my biggest deal was I was focused on getting my professional life in order and getting over the death of my brother. But I also happen to think Blackwood is horrible. It's badly drafted; it's too much power. You wouldn't want me to have that much power. Blackwood would be a disaster for the city."

But the anti-Blackwood faction is faced with a daunting task: Not only must they educate voters about Proposition 1, a 1,000-word charter amendment that reads like stereo instructions translated from a foreign language, but they must tell voters why it's bad for the city of Dallas. On this subject, there is not a single chorus, but a handful of verses sung by a choir of dozens.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky