Think a strong mayor is a good idea? See who agrees with you.
BY ROBERT WILONSKY
Al Lipscomb lost it last week. The former councilman with the fright-wig hair actually got up in front of the city council and compared his old nemesis Laura Miller to, wow, Adolf Hitler. "Even the Holocaust started somewhere," Lipscomb barked, comparing Miller's support of attorney and city council candidate Beth Ann Blackwood's strong-mayor initiative to the Nazi leader's seizure of power in 1930s Germany. "Hitler, he was one man obsessed with the need of more power," Lipscomb shouted, wagging his finger at Miller. "A power-crazed brute." That was Miller he was talking about. No, wait. He was referring to Hitler. Hitler. Got it. Then again...
Lipscomb's January 5 meltdown, and the hear-hears offered by council members James Fantroy and Maxine Thornton-Reese, did no favors to those wishing for a "good, sound, intellectual debate" about the strong-mayor issue, as Miller put it immediately after Lipscomb's blitzkrieg. A story about race and wealth, and the lack of it, immediately turned into one about religion: Miller's a converted Jew, after all, and council member Mitchell Rasansky's father saw much of his family murdered during the Holocaust. Things are ugly, and the referendum's still four long months away.
What everyone seems to be ignoring during all the shouting is just who it is who wants Dallas to have a strong mayor--aside, that is, from the mayor herself, who said last week she supports Blackwood's proposal that Dallas do away with the city manager and make the mayor the city's chief executive.
Supporting Blackwood are five wealthy and powerful men who've given her and her husband, Tom Thomas, almost $150,000 to put this issue before the voters. Together, they've also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to, among others, President George W. Bush, Governor Rick Perry, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Tom Craddick, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Senators Arlen Specter and Dick Armey and various local, state and national Republican Party committees--not to mention Miller and her husband, former state Representative Steve Wolens. In fact, former Dallas Times Herald managing editor Will Jarrett and Vance Miller (no relation to Laura) were part of the mayor's original campaign finance committee.
At least two of their ranks were part of a campaign out to sink John Kerry by suggesting maybe he wasn't really in Vietnam after all. And two of them have given thousands to an ultra-conservative Dallas-based political action committee whose Web site tells you which GOP officials to pray for each day and, in 2002, sent out direct-mail campaign brochures charging so-called liberal Republican incumbents with "promoting the radical homosexual agenda," according to stories that appeared in the Austin Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.
Wait. Maybe Lipscomb's on to something after all. Now, nobody's saying the moneymen behind the initiative are bad guys up to no good. They would all insist theirs are the best of intentions: to fix an ineffective City Hall by giving the mayor, be it Miller or someone else, more responsibility with more accountability. Maybe this isn't the best plan, they would say, but it's the only one. Not even the most paranoid opponent of the strong-mayor initiative would go so far as to claim Blackwood and her supporters are hooded gay-bashing partisan extremists. "I don't even look at it as a Republican issue," says neighborhood activist Avi Adelman, who's running the Web site www.strongarmmayor.com. "It's five guys conspiring to turn around city government."
Still, it's fascinating to connect the dots that link all these folks together. After all, Blackwood and Laura Miller keep insisting they've never spoken about the strong-mayor plan--yet they share, among other things, political advisers (Rob Allyn) and now financial backers. And now they share a desire to make Dallas a strong-mayor town, 15 years after U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer and the U.S. Justice Department made 14-1--14 single-member council districts plus one weak mayor--the law of the land. On December 28, the News revealed only the names of the major donors to Blackwood's campaign. Three of the five contributors donated $36,000 each: real estate bigwig Vance Miller, lead-smelter magnate and top George W. Bush fund-raiser Harold Simmons and Will Jarrett. Ray Wallace, the retired CEO of freight-train manufacturing Trinity Industries, gave $26,000, while $10,000 came from Albert Huddleston, the CEO of Hyperion Resources Inc. who also contributed $100,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Simmons also gave to the Swift Boaters, but his was a meager donation of $3,000.
The News' story made passing reference to the fact that "some of the donors live in the Park Cities," meaning they can't even vote for Dallas mayor, but brushed off its significance. "They all own land and pay taxes in Dallas," the story noted, quoting Thomas, Blackwood's husband, who helped gather the 20,000 signatures to get the strong-mayor issue in front of voters this May. The Park Cities thing has gotten the gadflies buzzing, but it's one more distraction. For the record, the Park Cities residents are Huddleston, who lives in a $1.2 million University Park home on Colgate Avenue, and Vance Miller, owner of a $1.3 million Highland Park manse on Beverly Drive. And though both men live inside the Bubble, they have also contributed significantly to Laura Miller's mayoral campaigns: $20,000 from Huddleston, $10,000 from Vance Miller. In fact, according to campaign finance records, four of the five contributors to the strong-mayor movement were donors to Miller's campaigns: Harold Simmons has pitched in some $11,000, while Jarrett has kicked in another $8,600.
Adelman and fellow activist Sharon Boyd, a former Laura Miller supporter who believes her old pal has succumbed to the dark side of Big Money, have made a big deal out of the Park Cities connection. Boyd's Web site, www.dallasarena.com, refers to the five donors as staging a "Park Cities coup." Vance Miller, who says Blackwood and Thomas approached him about contributing to their campaign last summer, dismisses their concerns as paranoid nonsense.
"Avi's gone off the deep end on this," Vance Miller says. "He's a friend of mine, but he ought to be for this thing. I don't know, maybe Sharon Boyd talked him into being against it...Some people who are against [the strong-mayor initiative] would try and make all this an issue, but I don't think you can fool people like that. We're activists in many areas, and it's a non-partisan issue. It is what it is. If I was opposed to the thing, I could say, 'Look at these rich Park Cities Republicans trying to run the City Hall.' Well, you know, that's just political B.S. You throw the mud on the wall, it's not going to stick, because it's not a partisan deal. Dallas city governance is non-partisan, and I'm very thankful for that...My entire net worth is tied up in this city, so I need to see it successful. It's important to myself and my family, friends and business associates. We thrive when Dallas thrives."
But here's where the issue might get murky, especially for conspiracy theorists--and Al Lipscomb--who like to follow the money. Huddleston and Simmons have been generous contributors to a Dallas-based political action committee called Free Enterprise, which recently changed its name to Heritage Alliance PAC. Founded by Dallas couple Richard and Julie Ford in the late 1970s, the PAC is closely allied with the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, whose founder and leader James Dobson has given speeches demanding Bill Clinton keep gays out of the military and referring to Democrats as "anti-family."
According to the Federal Election Commission's Web site, in January 2002, Simmons gave $10,000 to Free PAC, as it was known before the name change, and another $5,000 a month later. In April 2002, Huddleston donated $25,000 to Free PAC. Around that time, according to Austin-based watchdog organization Texas for Public Justice, Free PAC counted among its biggest contributors Dallasite James Lightner, a major contributor to the 1990, 1996 and 2000 U.S. Senate campaigns run by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. (Lightner gave so much money to Duke in 2000 that the FEC forced the Louisiana Klansman to refund the money.)
In March 2002, Simmons' and Huddleston's donations to Free PAC helped pay for political fliers denouncing, among others, Republican state Senator Bill Ratliff, one of the few in the GOP to denounce redistricting, and Jeff Wentworth, another Republican senator who voted for a hate-crimes bill that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Ratliff and Wentworth, and Plano's Brian McCall, a Republican state representative also targeted, weren't Republican enough for Free PAC and Richard Ford, whose fliers showed two men kissing, two other men cutting their wedding cake and a third picture of assisted-suicide doc Jack Kevorkian. Ratliff denounced the campaign literature as "political obscenity"; Ford told The Dallas Morning News he was simply playing political "hardball."
Sounds familiar. And this particular game hasn't even started yet.
dallasobserver.com | originally published: January 13, 2005