Tom Leppert got a bad rap. regardless of your opinion about the city building and owning a convention center hotel, and the outcome of the recent election surrounding its future, Dallas politics has seen a new low. And despite the fact that Leppert and the hotel (fortunately) prevailed, the slash and burn landscape of our local political scene seems to have changed for the worse.
The fight over the convention center hotel became personal very early on. The backers of Proposition 1 left behind the substantive arguments over the issues and instead made Leppert himself the centerpoint of their campaign. They went so far as to call the mayor a liar in television ads. The “politics of personal destruction” hit home.
“Everybody seems to have been surprised by the roundhouse blows thrown at Leppert,” says SMU political scientist Cal Jillson. “It kind of took peoples’ breath away that this turned into such a bare-knuckle fight.”
Adds Ken Benson, executive director of the Dallas Breakfast Group: “Campaigns tend to get very personal. And it’s logical that the campaign get more personal as the issue gets more heated. What’s surprising to me is that they made Leppert the centerpoint.”
We all know that politics is a contact sport for the thick-skinned. And, I’m not selling some “let’s rally around our mayor” line, or saying we should necessarily feel sorry for Leppert. If you can’t stand the heat in the proverbial kitchen, don’t stick your name on the ballot to get elected the cook, right? But this wasn’t a race for a political seat. The mayor wasn’t up for re-election. And not in recent history has one individual—and certainly not a Dallas mayor—become such an embattled centerpoint of a referendum.
In 1997 and 1998, then-Mayor Ron Kirk championed the Victory arena proposal and then the Trinity River Bond initiative. In 2005, Mayor Laura Miller led the “Strong Mayor” referendum. While both Kirk and Miller had detractors, neither suffered the same caliber of personal and high-profile attacks. Make no mistake, the campaigns were heated; but neither were called liars in TV ads.
It’s a tradition that the mayor of Dallas serve as the spokesperson for the big bond proposals. “But it’s a different dynamic now,” Benson says. “It used to be about their position, not the person. This time it became about the person and not the position.”
Leppert has been very high profile on two initiatives now in a relatively short time frame—first the Trinity River re-vote, and now the convention center hotel fight. The momentum that carried him into office also carried him through both elections.
“I think people like Tom Leppert and respect his competence and like the fact that he fights for the big projects,” Jillson says. “If Dallas isn’t going to be Corsicana, it’s going to have to swing for the fences and have memorable and generational projects that define the city. … But people also want to be comfortable with the projects.”
There will be more fights on more projects to come. That’s the beauty—and the fate—of local politics. Call me naïve, but the next time around, I’d like to see us keep the civility in civic duty.
Webb is director of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility for Mary Kay Inc. Previously, he was chief of staff for Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and an investigative reporter for CBS 11.
STICKS AND STONES
Recent critics on Dallas’ mayor …
1998: Voters narrowly OK $125 million city subsidy for American Airlines Center.
“Tom Hicks was on top of the world. He owned the mayor of Dallas.” —Arena critic Sharon Boyd, referring to then-Mayor Ron Kirk (pictured)
1998: A $246 million bond referendum on the Trinity River Corridor passes by a small margin.
Kirk is criticized for a “misleading” ad campaign showing watercolor drawings of picnicking families and lakes with sailboats.
2005: “Strong Mayor” proposal loses at the polls.
“It’s no different than what Hitler did.” —Dallas City Councilman James Fantroy, referring to the proposal that was vigorously backed by then-Mayor Laura Miller
2009: Referendum to block a convention-center hotel is defeated.
Mayor Tom Leppert is “arrogant,” didn’t want a vote, and has mischaracterized the risk to the taxpayers of owning a hotel. —Citizens Against The Taxpayer-Owned Hotel