Max always knew it would be like this. On inauguration day, he emerged from a fancy car, his heels echoing like rifle shots as he approached the stage. His wife, Rosa, was beside him, cute as a fishing fly, and all the big men of the city—those nattily dressed real estate types who had made fun of him all these years—were standing behind him, looking like corpses, while Max gave them his Tom Sawyer smile and rubbed his hands.
It was beautiful. He accepted Chuck Anderson’s resignation later that week and made the City Council members sit through a two-hour presentation on the wonders of the monorail. Then he made all the members of DART, the Dallas area’s mass transit board, sign a pledge promising to support the monorail or resign. And while he was at it, he got a few assistant city managers, and a department head or two, to resign as well—all to cut out waste.
Now everyone was paying attention. Max got rid of the city’s potholes through private donations. He sold the city’s sludge to farm operators. He took the excess methane gas the city burns off and used it to generate electricity. The solid wastes collected by the sanitation department had become fuel for huge furnaces.
Dallas was blooming: The vacant office buildings were filled with tenants, the hungry were fed, the neighborhoods were safe. Beautiful, beautiful. “By God,” Max said in one of his speeches, “how does it feel to be happy again?”
In the spring of 1985, Max had set off on his oddball quest to make people happy. He was going to become mayor. A valiant, often hilarious endeavor by a 73-year-old hardware store owner who looked like a lost cousin of the Marx Brothers, yet who tried to forge his own identity in the unlikeliest place: the gray, blurry backdrop of Dallas city government. Only in the race for mayor could he work out this inner, strangely quixotic vision. And he almost pulled it off. This is the story of his last hurrah.
In the late February afternoon, as the sunlight lingered like the memories of younger days, Max Goldblatt sat beside one of the plastic plants that decorated his campaign offices and watched his staff swing into action.
His campaign manager, Terry Elkins, a brassy woman who wears rings on five fingers and speaks in conspiratorial tones, was on the phone, chatting to a friend about the number of City Hall bureaucrats who could not be trusted. The two women who made up the entire phone bank that day were taking a coffee break, and Goldblatt’s bright, young researcher, Ken Orr, was staring idly out the window.
Three-term City Councilman Goldblatt looked about, sighed happily, and then explained in his peculiar voice—one that sounds like the escape of gas from a pipe and a sheep calling to its young—why he had a chance to be mayor. “Do you know what I’ve noticed?” he said. “Not a single person comes up to me on the streets and calls me a little bastard.”
Max Goldblatt, the most talked about local politician for the last decade, a man who, if he did not change the Dallas political landscape at least added a couple of thorn bushes, retains an unyielding belief that every man can be a hero. His determined, wayward path has made him a romantic figure, a fanciful man in a rumpled suit and slightly tilted glasses who, like a medieval bard switching roles between jester and wise sage, dances a little jig to to his own tune without any sense of shame.
But now he wanted to be king. In spite of the deliberate, lordly way that Dallas elects its mayors, Max was making a run. It was almost inconceivable that he could do it. Long ago, Max seemingly occurred like a slip of the tongue. Suddenly, without anyone’s really knowing why, he was in the midst of us, as if he had emerged from our subconscious. He made himself a part of our political vocabulary. From his little perch behind the City Council desk, he damned us and joked with us and delighted us with his proposals that seemed to come from the back pages of Popular Mechanics. He flourished in the restricted environment of Dallas politics like those types of plants that do best in a narrow pot of unchanged soil.
The key point, of course, is that for most people Dallas city government is amorphous—there is only the foggiest sense of who controls what, or why the City Council is less important than the city manager’s office. After watching city officials emotionally declare Dallas to be an “international city,” then get in protracted arguments over the renaming of freeways, the perception is that our leaders are not only powerless—they’re often silly.
One doesn’t sense any overriding philosophy, only the image of a man who saw himself as a figure of hope against a tide of lunacy.
Which sets the stage for a Max Goldblatt, a man who operates more out of instinct than anything else. Max didn’t have a clue how to campaign for mayor. When he filed in February, one of four candidates but obviously the strongest challenger, he paid his filing fee with dollar bills that had George Washington’s face covered with a picture of his own: “Maxi Bucks.” Another strategy was to pass out cards with glue on the back that could stick to a shirt like a nametag. The cards read: “Viva Max.”
His campaign headquarters looked like a Sunday School relief drive for the hungry. There were loaves of bread and canned food on the back shelf. As the race began, campaign manager Elkins, when asked if she had any kind of plan, any written strategy, blew a thin trail of smoke from her cigarette and said in her Mae West voice, “Honey, we haven’t even bought a notebook yet.” Elkins never even saw the checks people were sending in to fund the race. Max never showed her a financial report. He kept all the checks in his front pocket and pulled them out whenever someone suggested he didn’t have much support.
Meanwhile, at Mayor Starke Taylor’s headquarters on North Central Expressway, the forces were already in motion. In December, he had raised $760,000 at a $l,000-a-plate dinner to pay off old campaign debts and leave him more than $350,000 for this year’s race. In early January, Taylor’s campaign consultant, Margaret Koons, had a wine and quiche luncheon with a small group of Taylor’s most influential supporters to lay the groundwork for the re-election campaign. A couple of weeks later, a young, vivacious woman named Teddie Garrigan was brought in as campaign director. Teams of volunteers were lined up, huge phone banks were organized—and this was before anyone knew Goldblatt was going to run.
Max announced his candidacy in typical style, talking about the monorail that he wanted to put around Dallas and then giving his wife of 50 years a corsage. “I asked my wife,” Max said at the time, “whether she would ever divorce me if I ran for mayor. She said, ’Divorce, never; murder, maybe.’”
Max had accumulated a campaign chest of about $20,000. He said that was all he needed. The rest would come from free newspaper and television coverage. But three weeks into the campaign, he had barely gotten a line in the papers. Koons, Taylor’s consultant, said that her staff had seen through Max’s strategy early, and thus kept the mayor from appearing at most forums with his challenger.