Dallas City Hall Confessional
Before leaves the city, Dave Levinthal, Dallas’ best beat reporter, shares secrets from the Dallas Morning News’ City Hall Bureau office.
Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm’s eyes glowed with the kind of flame my mother reserved for me after I, as a child, broke some beloved porcelain mantel piece.
Then Suhm punched me. Hard. In the arm. With a ring on.
“What the hell?” I blurted.
“You wrote a stupid story. And I’m mad at you.”
With that, Suhm huffed and flopped into the red pleather seat in the Dallas Morning News’ City Hall Bureau office—a tiny, windowless room with fluorescent lights, concrete walls, and the charm of a Guantanamo Bay interrogation cell. Then she began talking.
Nearly two hours later, I knew just about every detail of the city’s plan to fix a woefully mismanaged fine collection system. A few days before, we had splashed across the Sunday paper’s front page an article about the process that provided a less-than-flattering portrayal of her and her staff. Less relevant, I also learned about Suhm’s dinner plans, recent vacation, and biting opinions about my newspaper’s editorial page.
The only thing unusual about this encounter is that it wasn’t unusual.
For a parade of city officials six years long, the red recliner served as a sort of psychiatrist sofa, confessional pew, and electric chair. Suhm, like City Council members Mitchell Rasansky, Don Hill, Veletta Lill, and Dwaine Caraway, proved to be red chair regulars, as were several dozen city staffers—some prominent, some not. But they were all sources who couldn’t resist gabbing.
Once seated, they were assured this much: off-the-record really meant off-the-record. They could scream, moan, gossip, and joke as they pleased. Rasansky loved to talk about movies. Council member Jerry Allen? Fishing in Alaska. Angela Hunt? Everything from street car lines to her pet rabbit.
But if I asked a question for publication, they’d better be prepared to answer, or refuse at their own risk. They usually were game, like when former council member James Fantroy in 2006 declared to me that he’d whip election challenger Al Lipscomb “like a country mule.” The next year, he defiantly vowed to “go to jail on my principles” after refusing to admit he stole money from Paul Quinn College. Fantroy whupped Lipscomb, and then Fantroy went to jail. He died several months after.
Such a handshake agreement generally served all parties well, particularly me, and ostensibly Dallas Morning News readers. I received precious insight into whom these folks really were and where their motives truly lay. That insight endlessly informed my reporting. And it helped me become a better reporter.
After all, in the fall of 2003, The News assigned me to its City Hall bureau as a 24-year-old know-nothing, wholeheartedly eager and utterly unprepared to cover one of the nation’s largest municipal governments. Tax increment financing districts? Never heard of them. Annual budget reports? Had yet to read one. The difference between Oak Cliff and Oak Lawn, Lake Highlands and Lakewood? Help.
Which is what people like Suhm did, surely to defend against my writing “stupid stories,” but also because they appeared to have a genuine interest in my genuine interest. They learned I wasn’t determined to skewer them without cause. I discovered them as human beings—some benevolent, some crooks, some both, and all complex in their own rights.
Take former Mayor Laura Miller, perhaps the most complex Dallas politico of all this decade. Miller, a former reporter, had no qualms about calling me after dark, or before dawn, to chew me out about a story on her stock investments or campaign finance reports (when she wasn’t refusing to talk to me). I credit, and thank her, for ending at least one romantic relationship when I bailed on a date, middate, to field her irate, late-night phone call. (I’d meet my fiancée two months later.)
Sure, Miller routinely treated me with contempt. She often endeavored to undercut me with sources, go over my head—often to the paper’s publisher or top editors—or otherwise attempt to drive me to drink.
But Miller, who even herself occasionally sat in the red chair to chat, treated everyone with contempt from time to time. She also doted on her kids. She worked out relentlessly. She at once loved hobnobbing with the city’s moneyed business barons and pouring over reams of documents like some think tank wonk. Some of her constituents found her a tyrant. Others offered her a loyalty reserved for royalty. The dichotomy confounded reporters as much as it seemed to privately weigh on Miller. Some days, she was ready to conquer the world. Others, the crusading, pothole-paving Miller seemed through with it all.
“This isn’t always an easy job,” Miller once told me in the red chair as she prepared to leave office in 2007, choosing not to run for reelection. She smiled coyly at me. I smiled back.
Some reporters consider politicians their natural-born enemies, unscrupulous, power-starved rats to their principled, man-of-the-people cat.
Whatever. It’s just not that convenient.
Mayor Tom Leppert, for example, is a man who still refuses to say a useful public word about his covert attempt earlier this year to gain power over Dallas public schools, and for years held a membership at a country club cavorting with a membership that had never accepted a black person into its ranks.
On the other hand, he’s a man who during an interview sat sobbing, apologizing, as he described how his late mother inspired him to a life of volunteerism and public service. A man who has earned the trust and admiration of people throughout the city, in large part because he’s spent more time cultivating relationships in the homes, schools, and churches south of the Trinity River than any other mayor.
Which is why, when it comes to Dallas’ issues of the day—a convention center hotel, the Trinity River project, budget cuts, just about anything Leppert supports or opposes—I shake my head at the legions of people who call us or comment on the paper’s Dallas City Hall blog, contending the motives behind these initiatives are snowfall pure or flat evil.
Leppert and council members constantly weigh the concerns of their diverse constituencies and fight for city staff’s time and interest. Suhm, in turn, must grapple with the whims of 15 mini-bosses, separating real priorities from those perceived.
Such intrigue, color, and contradiction is why reporting on Dallas City Hall is the finest journalism job this town has to offer. And it’s all the more reason reporters and bloggers must remain aggressive and vigilant in demanding information, answers, and responsiveness from their leaders, lest the public is left ill-informed, and politicians are left to their own devices. The News has one of the best reporters around in my former bureau partner, Rudy Bush, and I pray the paper, despite its financial troubles, continues to commit ample resources to coverage of government.
On one of my final days in the bureau office, Suhm stopped in. She landed a soft jab on my arm, prompting me to strike back with questions about downtown redevelopment and the Trinity River Corridor project.
She sighed and sat down in the red chair.
“You’re going to miss this kind and loving abuse,” she said.
“So will you,” I replied.
Write to Dave Levinthal at firstname.lastname@example.org.