If power abhors a vacuum, it must be eye-bulging apoplectic at the chaos that is this spring’s wide-open run for Dallas’ mayor and half its 14-member city council. The only municipalities on earth with more sectarian options for internecine self-rule are Beirut or Baghdad, albeit minus the daily violence and roving bands of militia. To date, 21 candidates, from a powerful ex-CEO to a transgendered ex-Marine, have declared themselves interested in the seat being vacated by Mayor Laura Miller. More could enter, and many could drop out before the filing deadline of March 12. But it’s likely at least a baker’s dozen will stay in the fray until election day on May 12, all in pursuit of an ill-defined office that has almost no real power—a famously frazzled Snow White to a fractious Fourteen Dwarfs.

Speaking of which, a combination of term limits and withdrawals has produced a record seven districts with no incumbent seeking re-election. The horseshoe-shaped bench in Council chambers hasn’t lost that many nails since a federal court ordered Dallas to go all 14-1 on itself in 1991. After May—or more likely the June runoff—the city’s official governing structure will have a brand-new working majority. But what kind of work will it be up to? One might as well prognosticate the impact of a new head coach for the Cowboys. Parcells was hell, but Wade Phillips?

It’s hard to pinpoint the genesis of this competitive excess, but historians may eventually trace it back to Miller, circa 1998, when the radical heiress gave up being a sensationalist columnist for a massage-parlor ad weekly and got elected to the City Council from northern Oak Cliff. By the time she beat Tom Dunning in a special mayoral election (to replace Ron Kirk) in 2002, and then won in a regular election against Mary Poss in 2003, Her Honor was on her way to becoming the persona that the city, not counting African-Americans, came to know and love. So much that she took a look at her chances for a third term last fall and decided her work was done. She will be pursuing other options and spending more time with her family.

But make no mistake. Miller’s exit was an earthquake on the ’07 landscape. Until she bowed out, all calculations took her measure. Now it’s a free-for-all. Did you see Jet Li wushu-ing the ascending hordes in the final scene of The One? No? Check it out. The man has some moves, although really Hero was his best. Or how about Gladiator? Fight, fight, fight, and you get stabbed in the back. It’s so easy to lose focus in this election. Maybe the better analogy is American Idol. What would Simon say?

Over the next month, between 20 and 25 percent (high turnout expected) of the city’s 590,000 registered voters—somewhere on the order of 120,000 to 140,000 actual votes cast, according to various candidate estimates—will warm up to the full madness of the wide-open contest enveloping our fair metropolis. Get a front-row seat. For a city with a serious penchant for order and businesslike government, the specter of full-tilt democracy grinds into the civic soul like immigrants in Farmers Branch.

Here’s the thing about this race. It’s not about issues at all. You could cut and paste just about any platform with any other: unify the city, reduce crime, increase development and jobs, fix the schools. Without the focus of a villainess, candidates simply haven’t been able to find any traction in the way of Big or even Original ideas. In a consensus-oriented city, that’s no surprise. But for election campaigns it leads to another kind of sameness, marketing strategies that combine to become exactly what no one wants to admit—a beauty contest. In the end, we’ll elect our next mayor, and to lesser extent City Council, based on little more than whether or not we like their looks, public personalities, or commercials. Help.

No matter the final number of candidates, the field is easily sorted into two tiers: those with a reasonable chance and those who might as well have run for Emperor of Mars. Based on contributions, buzz, and guessing, the top six would include, in no particular order: Darrell Jordan, Tom Leppert, Max Wells, Don Hill, Ed Oakley, and Gary Griffith. Maybe add Sam Coats if you think all the Republican, business-oriented guys (Leppert, Wells, Griffith, Jordan) will be beamed up into alien spaceships next month. Maybe add Zac Crain as a nod to idealism in a city that, as Molly Ivins once said, “would root for Goliath.” That’s a maximum range of eight worth the trouble of evaluating, barring a very late entry from someone with the name ID of Tony Romo, who by the way would get the Latino vote, the women’s vote, the gay vote, and also the votes of whatever NFL fans are not gay.

The leader in contributions is likely to remain Leppert. First out with TV commercials (the sweater! the sincerity!), the former Turner Construction Company CEO tends to run on his impressive résumé, but started the campaign with almost zero name ID outside the Citizens Council and business community. He has to raise a lot of money—maybe in excess of $1.5 million—to pay for the services of pricey consults like Rob Allyn and Carol Reed, as well as for airtime. Which raises the interesting question—not the deeply neurotic one of why anyone would want to be mayor—but why anyone would help pay for such ambitions. Give it some thought. Leppert has more than bucks, though; he has big-name backers such as Roger Staubach, Louis Beecherl, and Liz Minyard. A former Reagan-era White House fellow, Leppert says he understands being mayor is “very different from a business—you’re running a city.” On the other hand, he says, “I’m not a politician. I don’t have a political agenda.” Certainly that would make him the novelty candidate.

Former mayor pro tem Max Wells is also a top money raiser, as a banker ought to be, and has lined up what he says is citywide support. He, too, runs on his experience and business ability. Calling himself “the only candidate that is for all of Dallas,” Wells comes as close as anyone to putting a formula on this year’s utterly uncontrived political multiculturalism: “At one end we have Diane Ragsdale and on the other end of that spectrum we have Ray Hunt. If you want me to list Democrats I can go into a long spiel of names and if you want me to list Republicans I can give you a long spiel of names and if you want me to list African-Americans or Asians. The only problem I’m having now is the list is getting so long I’m struggling to remember them all.”

Close by him might be District 9 Councilmember Gary Griffith, the first person other than Miller to file early last year for the race. He isn’t worried he has so much company. “It starts to clarify the political landscape,” he says. “It’ll be a bigger challenge to differentiate yourself just because of the sheer numbers.” But he insists that “my decision to run was not based on who’s in the race. It’s based on what I want to do for the city. So one opponent, 22 opponents, it really doesn’t make any difference.”

Of all the top dogs with business leanings, attorney Darrell Jordan still seems to have the best chance for a white candidate to pull the southern sector districts. “I favor the big-tent approach,” he says, breakfasting recently in Inwood Village a few tables away from Tom Dunning, John Scovell, and Donna Halstead, who stop by to say hello. He says the wide-open race has “changed the dynamic a lot. I’d say more or less what everyone is trying to do is distance themselves from the pack.” He says big money is in play, but not decisively. “There’s obviously going to be a runoff and if it was just a matter of money, Dunning would’ve been the mayor, and Toby Shook our DA, and Margaret Keliher would be our county judge. So that’s not it.” He figures his most likely foe will be Ed Oakley.

The veteran District 3 councilmember, Oakley is both gay and a proven winner in a predominantly brown and black district in southwest Oak Cliff. He also has crossover appeal in the north. Insiders consistently tag him for a runoff spot. Like Jordan, Oakley is counting on networking and a good ground war. “I don’t believe this is a race that you can buy,” he says. “I think money is better spent in other ways, the old-fashioned way of doing it.” But Oakley sees a very different outcome than almost anyone else: “You can analyze it away way you want to slice or dice it, but one of the interesting scenarios is Don Hill and I could be in a runoff.”

Seriously. Hill, who like the other three African-American council members hit the term limit wall this year, entered late. One factor in the delay might have been the ongoing torture of a possible federal indictment stemming from a two-year FBI investigation into a City Hall scandal. But with Miller out of the race, Hill knew he had to take his chance. “I felt that from my perspective I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he says. “The FBI is doing their job. I have to just respect that.” But, he says, “People are beginning to see that after this length of time, they should let me with a clear name be able to run for office and seek to serve my city.” He figures to take the southern sector base and 20 to 25 percent in the north and east, helped along by the split northern vote for all the white candidates. You get the sense he sees himself as more than the long-shot or spoiler: “If we move the people to come to the polls, if this is a movement instead of a campaign, then we will have great success.”

Hill and Oakley each think they can carry enough of the southern sector base—the six districts south of the river—and reach out north of the Trinity to corral the estimated 30,000 votes needed to secure a runoff spot. Which is basically what everyone else thinks, too. Even Zac Crain. Like Miller, he’s a former denizen of the Dallas Observer, though now working for American Way magazine. But he’s no Laura, who “wasn’t really the firebrand that I think people thought she was going to be,” he says, because “once you get inside the bubble it changes your view of things.” Alas, Crain is relying on the youth vote to sweep him in. That and “another 20,000 people who have felt disenfranchised and want somebody they can believe in.” Hello, MySpace.

Ultimately each of us not actually running for mayor has to decide who gets to pretend to rule the city until the new Latino majority changes it all again in 2011. If this year’s crop of look-alikes fails to churn your butter, if it’s just too hard to figure out which special interests are funding whom and why, if you come to the conclusion that a rare chance for renewal has been squandered in 2007, then maybe the only civic-minded thing to do is lodge your protest on a maverick. Don Hill would really frost ’em.

It seems like everyone in Dallas is running for mayor this year. And you feel left out, don’t you? It’s sad that you, unlike career politicians and former Dallas Observer employees, don’t have time to devote to your own campaign.

Well, fret no longer, my friend, because you can do the next best thing: play Mayoral Pursuit! Now you can compete with friends and family* to see who wins the wackiest election in recent memory.

Download game in pdf format. (Download may take a few minutes.)

THE RULES:
1. Use official attached die.

2. If official attached die has become mangled or is missing, then use your own die.

3. Play rotates clockwise. Determine who goes first by guessing the secret number. The secret number is 61.

4. Cut out your game piece and place it at the start. Roll once and move your game piece the number of places shown on your official or bastard die, and follow the instructions in the square on which you land, to move forward or backward. Do NOT follow the instructions on a square on which you’ve landed only because the square previously mentioned (the one upon which you arrived by a roll of your aforementioned die) told you to move there. We clear?

5. You. Next person. Go.

6. Wait! We’ve figured out a clearer way to explain the convoluted second-to-last sentence of No. 4: only follow the instructions on a square when you’ve landed there by a roll of the die. That’s better.

7. To win, you must roll the exact number to land on City Hall.

8. If you win, congratulate your opponents.

9. If it looks like you’re going to lose, concede graciously. No one wants to hang around all night waiting for you to lose.

10. If you win twice, handily, consider purchasing Gubernatorial Pursuit.

*Note: Mayoral Pursuit is not a video game and therefore is not intended for use by anyone under the age of 30. People 29 and younger would be bored and possibly horrified by the slow pace and political subject matter.