Rose Renfroe and the Political Awakening of White Oak Cliff

She is not exactly what I expected. I was prepared for the Oak Cliff variety of an Adlene Harrison: tough-talking, uncompromising, volatile, relentlessly energetic. Bitchy. But beneath the coarseness four months of hard campaigning and a day of exhausting ward-heeling at City Hall have brought to her small-featured baby face, I find a softness, a warmth, and more than a hint of vulnerability.

The voice and manner are shy, tentative, almost little-girlish; there is an utter lack of pretension in every move and word. The famous Oak Cliff “beehive” hairdo has wilted for the day, and she says something about being glad she missed lunch because she would like to lose some weight anyway.

She apologizes with sincerity-but no syrup-for running a little late, and scurries behind a closed door with City Manager George Schrader. Five minutes later she emerges and, turning down yet another phone call, sits down on a couch in the City Council offices at City Hall with her legs curled beneath her.

I like her immediately. But this does not seem to be the same outspoken George Wallace/anti-busing activist who just a few months earlier knocked the wind out of both the Oak Cliff and downtown establishments with a picture-book grass roots campaign. This does not seem to be the same scrappy anti-establishmentarian who stomped all over Southwest Oak Cliff, mincing no words about incumbent Councilman Charles Storey’s “North Dallas CCA” connections, raising the battle cry for a new Oak Cliff chauvinism. I have to remind myself that this is the anti-establishment winner in a year of anti-establishment winners ; that this is perhaps the first legitimate special interest politician ever elected to the Dallas City Council; that this person is the first tangible manifestation of a politically-aroused white, middle-class Oak Cliff.

All of that will surface before the afternoon is over, but now I’m entranced by her lack of interest in impressing visitors, her easy amicability, her measured and soft-spoken answers, the hint of compassion in the eyes and mouth. Though her political persona is barely a few months old, she has already become a symbol.



Five minutes into our conversation, one myth is dispelled: she is not a nut. Her Wallace connections, her vociferous anti-busing work, her bluntness and inability’ to hide anger may have led some to that conclusion. But when a young girl with dark hair and granny glasses breaks into the room to notify Mrs. Renfroe that she has the rundown on a woman complaining about having her water turned off, I understand what a City Hall reporter was saying when he told me, “You know, Rose actually is going to turn out to be one of the most reasonable council members.”

“The lady that called you,” the staffer explained, “says her water was turned off because she owes $22.66. She’s been late before.”

“I’m late, too. But that woman has two kids, is barely scraping by and needs her water. Can we get it turned on again?” Mrs. Renfroe shot back.

A bit flustered, the girl suggested four or five welfare programs for which the woman might be eligible. Mrs. Renfroe interrupted: “What’s it going to take to get her water turned on? I tell you what, I’ll call her and get it straightened out. She’ll get her water back on.”

I’m fully confident she will. Furthermore, it’s clear that, to Rose Renfroe, such populism and ward heeling are not fancy hats to be pulled out of the closet, dusted off and donned for two months prior to election day. They are political realities to her, perhaps the only political realities.

When asked to articulate her political philosophy she stumbles a bit, and then says simply, “Realistic . . . providing representation for my people, a feeling they have someone to talk to here.” I considered pointing out that grass roots representation of that sort -populism-is not a political philosophy, but a political modus operandi employed to implement a philosophy. But I thought better of it, realizing that to her, like George Wallace, populism is a philosophy, indeed, it may be all there is to politics. I asked how she got to be a populist, whether she likes the title, and she replied, “I don’t even know what a populist is ….”

No, she is not a great political mind. But then, she has no reason to pretend to be. Hers is a politics of instinct, straight from the guts, an emotional synthesis of an unpampered, try-to-make-ends-meet, Baptist upbringing, several years of fighting in the trenches with the local AFL-CIO and anti-busing groups, and 15 years of acculturation in white, middle-class, blue collar, conservative Oak Cliff. Whatever she lacks intellectually she compensates for with perfectly-attuned political instincts and incredible tenacity-the kind of tenacity that finally earned her a college degree from Dallas Baptist College just last year. She may not know what a populist is, but she most definitely knows where home is.

She says her work as a secretary for the local AFL-CIO first piqued her interest in politics. “I used to watch those politicians come in asking for favors, and I learned they are normal people like me,” she says. While with the labor group, she fought-successfully-against sex discrimination in the organization, and as she puts it in diction that will become her trademark, “That told me I had the stigma to make it in politics …. “



Her first stab was in 1972, when single member districts were first implemented for the Dallas delegation to the Texas Legislature. She led the Democratic primary over five black opponents, including the eventual winner, Rep. Paul Ragsdale. Her campaign that year was based on the same tactics as her successful council race -tireless doorknocking, phone calling, letter mailing, all harping on the day-to-day concerns of Oak Cliffians.

The loss to Ragsdale in ’72 served only to stimulate her desire for public office, supporting the observation of her defeated opponent, Charles Storey: “That’s no housewife I just lost to. That’s a political animal.”

In 1974, Mrs. Renfroe kept her name before the Oak Cliff electorate- particularly blacks-by helping the unsuccessful challenger to Ragsdale, Utah Kirk. She handled a lot of Kirk’s mailings, and as she puts it, “didn’t forget to include my name on the letters every time we mailed them out.”

But even though she kept her political fences mended there was no strategic game plan, least of all for the 1975 city elections. She was aware of dissatisfaction with Storey and the CCA in white Oak Cliff, but a month or two before the filing deadline, her only involvement in the upcoming elections was a chat with CCA mayoral candidate John Schoellkopf about the concerns of Oak Cliffians.

Schoellkopf had been tipped to Mrs. Renfroe and her anti-busing activist and friend, Kathy Carter, by Pete Howell, a longtime Oak Cliff establishment leader. Howell had reportedly suggested to Schoellkopf that he open an Oak Cliff office and use the women to work white Oak Cliff full-time (an excellent idea).

Schoellkopf met and talked with the women, but apparently decided against the full-time office. In the meantime, discussing the concerns of Oak Cliff with Schoellkopf had whetted Mrs. Renfroe’s appetite for electoral politics.

She quickly checked over the newly-ordered District 1: it was her territory, all right. Two days before the filing deadline, she asked her husband if he’d be willing to go through another long campaign. He agreed, and she immediately got together what she calls “her kids” in the neighborhood. “I asked them if they’d like some pizza,” she says. ’”I said go get me some signatures on these petitions and we’ll go eat some pizza.”

She knew she had to do two things to win: pump her name identification up to the level of well-known incumbent Storey, and develop a sharp rhetorical cutting edge for a campaign based on Oak Cliff chauvinism. Even then, most of the oddsmakers weren’t giving her a prayer. The Oak Cliff establishment-the bank, the chamber, the Tribune-were solidly against her, and Storey had considerably greater financial resources to draw upon.

Still, deep inside she sensed frustration among Oak Cliff middle class whites, a feeling that they had been betrayed and snubbed by the downtown establishment. She only needed to convince them to send City Hall a message.

“Her kids” were used extensively to post signs all over the district and make precinct by precinct phone calls. She called four full precincts herself, between personal visits and coffees. But what really got the campaign cooking were her “dear neighbor” letters: simple, hard-hitting, folksy direct mail pieces which probed for the nerves in the electorate.

Those letter-and-brochure mailings were not anything that would send shock waves through the Madison Avenue direct mail establishment, but they most definitely struck the right nerves. One gaudily designed pamphlet mentions the words “Oak Cliff” 13 times, ramming home the notion that the community had been treated too long as a “stepchild” by the downtown establishment.

It’s no wonder that a longtime Oak Cliff establishmentarian, who backed Storey, was surprised when his barber mentioned out of the blue one day: “What do you know about this lady Rose? I don’t know much, but I got a letter from her two days ago, and I’m all for her.”



Now that the shock has worn off, there is little disagreement over the reasons why Mrs. Renfroe beat a well-financed, well-connected incumbent like Charles Storey not once, but twice, with less than $5,000 and a bunch of kids. Even Storey now says in retrospect: “There is a good deal of frustration out here from encroachment by blacks, busing in schools, that sort of thing. Where there’s frustration, people will be looking for a change.”

M. E. Bradford, a student of George Wallace politics, populism, and the political character of Oak Cliff, says, “It was a feeling of betrayal, like the sense of betrayal those people in South Boston have expressed. Some of it had to be the busing issue, and some of it was economic-those people feel like they’ve been cut out of the pie, that they are supplying a labor force to Dallas and that’s it.

“But a lot of it,” he continued, “has to do with lifestyle. Those people in Oak Cliff sense they are not the same as those in North Dallas. They were seeking one of their kind.”

But busing, little-man-versus-the-world economics, and Oak Cliff chauvinism are only the most superficial nerves the Renfroe candidacy touched. There is something deeper: the assertion of a peculiar lower-middle to middle-class, “proletarian,” fundamentalist-Protestant ethos, which seeks to establish its social and political individuality apart from white and ethnic liberalism and North Dallas Republican conservatism. As Louise Day Hicks foreshadowed eruptions in Boston, Rose Renfroe may well be the first visible manifestation in Dallas of the socio-political arousal of the white, blue collar, middle class begun by George Wallace 10 years ago.

William Rusher in National Review recently labeled this phenomenon “social conservatism”-a sensibility quite different from the “economic conservatism” of middle to upper middle class, mostly Republican, mostly Episcopalian conservatives. It is struggling to achieve the maturity of a legitimate special interest in much the same way black ghettoes continue to grope for political and social identity apart from white liberals.

It is a movement so closely linked to populism that it is commonly called “the new populism.” Its ideology beyond populism centers on two issues: public education (busing) and law enforcement.

Not unpredictably, it is on these matters that Mrs. Renfroe’s “philosophy” extends beyond the boundaries of her district. The two campaign issues listed on her literature that don’t employ the words “Oak Cliff” are “better law enforcement” and “cooperation between the City Council and School Board to make Dallas a better place to live and learn.” Mrs. Renfroe is well aware of her constituents’ concern for these city wide issues. She has thus far played down the anti-busing business, sensing that it can trap her in a corner. But many feel with more court-ordered busing on the way, she cannot stay away from the matter for long. Also it’s assumed that, given the inevitable community-police rows that turn up each year, she will step forward as a vocal champion of the police department.



But for the time being, Rose Renfroe’s political philosophy remains an enigma yet to be resolved by the pressures of issue politics on the city council. And while her predominant political handle-“Doing what my people want . . .”-is criticized by many (including one Oak Cliff politician, who dubs her “opportunistic”), she has already earned respect among council colleagues. Said one, “Now that I’ve met her and talked to her, I would rather work with her than some others here.” The only friction she has generated is with fellow Oak Cliff councilman, establishmentarian Bill Nicol, over such issues as Oak Cliff appointments to city boards and commissions.

On issues not directly tied to law enforcement and education she will likely stick with the “populist liberal” bloc-Weber, Harrison, Patterson, sometimes Smith, sometimes Cothrum -and steer clear of the more “establishment” bloc-Leedom, Murr, Nicol, sometimes Allen-despite its decidedly more conservative flavor.

More importantly, her political style will affect this council the way Adlene Harrison’s has for the past two years. Simplicity of character, clarity of thought, common sense, ignorance of backroom political complexities, and outspokenness are qualities that smoke out the politicians, forcing other members of the council to swerve off the middle of the road. It’s my contention that Garry Weber, Lucy Patterson and George Allen became more forthright politicians when faced with the mental toughness, rhetorical sharpness, and non-centrist political style of Adlene Harrison. Politicians easily castigate “polarization” simply because it involves taking a stand, although history teaches that it lies at the heart of healthy politics.



Ironically, it has taken two middle class women to force a demonstrable change in the political life of this city. If these are the fruits of the often silly and somniferous rhetoric of women’s liberation, I take back everything nasty I ever said about Gloria Steinem.

These women, though, are not libbers (Mrs. Renfroe eschews the label vehemently). They are women who have lost enough of their inhibitions and gained enough confidence to take action in that most gruelling of male-dominated arenas, politics. They are relatively young (Mrs. Renfroe is a tender 32, though she looks older), steeped in common sense, genuinely compassionate towards the less fortunate, unwilling to play games, relentlessly studious about their homework. They know they have to play the game twice as hard to survive. Their greatest political virtue-and I’m thinking now of other female political gems such as State Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Con-gresswoman Barbara Jordan, too- is that they don’t know any better. Or as a friend described Mrs. Renfroe, “She don’t wear no shoe shine.”

The election of Rose Renfroe, then, cannot be discarded as an isolated uprising, despite what the Oak Cliff establishment would have us believe. She, or at least the political and social sensibility she represents, is here to stay. Rose Renfroe would be the first to tell you that, although she’d say it somewhat sheepishly. She does not like to be fussed over.

Late that afternoon at City Hall,I asked her if it bothered her that somepeople call her “tacky,” referring presumably to her less-than-sophisticateddress and manner. “I just laugh . . .”she began, and then pondering further,”Well, first of all, I’m not tacky . . .why would people say something likethat?” Good point. At least one womanout in Oak Cliff who’d had her waterturned off doesn’t think so. And, aftera couple of hours with one of the leastpretentious and most genuine politicians I’ve met in years, I’m inclined toagree.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments