Is Bill Blackburn Just Another Pretty Face?

Does he want to be mayor? Is the Pope a Catholic?

As Dallas city council members go, Mayor Pro Tern Bill Blackburn is as intelligent as most, more articulate than some, and handsomer than any. Since his election to the city council in 1976, the 39-year-old attorney and former White House aide has seldom distinguished himself, but he’s embarrassed himself even less. As Mayor Bob Folsom’s unabashed right hand man, he has maintained a low profile on issues of controversy and voted with the predictability of the August weather forecasts. John Leedom is known for his ideological tenacity, Steve Bartlett for his feisty iconoclasm, Juanita Craft for her plain old stubbornness. But after two and a half years of public life, Bill Blackburn is still known mainly for his photogenic smile.

None of this would be worth bringing up if it weren’t for Blackburn’s avowed intention to succeed his mentor as mayor, if the moody Folsom decides to retire next year. While the mayor pro tern’s ambitions have been city hall’s worst kept secret for at least a year, they have begun to raise some eyebrows with the most recent word that Folsom’s plans to retire are not so much a matter of if as of when. The mayor has definitely had it with public life, the rumors say, and, public denials to the contrary, he has decided to call it quits next spring.

Though Folsom has denied making Blackburn his political heir, he apparently endorsed Blackburn’s candidacy as early as last March, when Folsom made a rare visit to the powerful Dallas Citizens Council to discuss the upcoming city bond program. In the past, he had made such visits alone, but on this occasion he brought a guest – Bill Blackburn.

Blackburn was ostensibly there in his capacity as mayor pro tern, but his presence carried another implication: Folsom obviously wanted the businessmen to get to know his young protégé, just in case he wanted to call on some of them for support next spring.

In his term and a half on the council, Blackburn has revealed little ideology, but abundant ambition. He commonly votes with Folsom, but does not share the mayor’s close ties to the business community. He is hardly a populist of Garry Weber’s ilk. He certainly does not represent a special interest or partisan machine. “Bill’s constituency is himself,” says one fellow councilman dryly. “It’s as simple as that.”

Blackburn doesn’t seem inclined to make his politics any more explicit, even in his new role as early front runner in the 1979 mayoral race. “It seems that I’ve always been lucky in getting elected to positions in my life – class president and so forth when I was young,” he says, flashing a mouthful of stunning white teeth. “I guess it’s partially an ego satisfaction thing, but I like to contribute and participate. I look at this as citizen participation more than as politics.”

Tnere are three kinds of successful politician: those who win by going with the grain, those who win by going against it, and those who win by simply showing up. Bill Blackburn belongs in the third category. As a youngster he was an inexhaustible overachiever: star athlete, class president, valedictorian of his Stamford, Texas (pop. 5,000) high school; graduated with highest honors from the University of Oklahoma and the Texas Law School; decorated Army lieutenant; first round draft choice of the prestigious Dallas law firm Thompson-Knight-Simmons & Bullion.

Men like that rarely stay in one place long; Bill Blackburn was no exception. After 10 months of slaving over legal briefs, he pulled up stakes and went to Washington as a low-level aide in Lyndon Johnson’s White House. The entree into politics came courtesy of Blackburn’s first important friend, Thompson-Knight senior partner Wad-dy Bullion. Bullion, the President’s personal counsel and a trustee of the Johnson estate, knew the President was concerned about the absence of young people from his staff. On a weekend trip to Johnson’s Hill Country ranch, Bullion casually mentioned that a fine young lawyer in his firm, Bill Blackburn, might take to politics well. A couple of months later, Johnson called Bullion and asked him to send the boy up East.

Blackburn did take to Washington politics: His good looks and glib tongue fit well into a Washington revolving around Johnson’s Great Society. Like the other young men who worked for Johnson, and for John F. Kennedy before him – Bill Moyers and Los Angeles Times president Tom Johnson, for example – Blackburn adapted easily to being one of the chosen few, the group author David Halberstam labeled “the best and the brightest.” As an “assistant special counsel” to the President, Blackburn had varied and relatively minor duties, but it was still heady stuff for a 27-year-old.

“I was able to get a lot of exposure to politics at a young age. I think it helped me develop good judgment. You can’t go into things with preconceived notions. I learned that if you’re independent enough you’re not hidebound by a philosophy or a label,” Blackburn says. The young lawyer from West Texas probably learned some other important things about politics from his years with LBJ – like political survival. One did not hang around the Johnson White House for long without learning when to say the right things and, more important, when to keep one’s mouth shut. “They [the young White House aides] can say the right things,” says Republican congressional candidate Tom Pauken, a former associate director of the White House Fellows Program – the clearinghouse Johnson set up for Washington’s up-and-comers. “They don’t really have an ideology or a point of view, but they can survive. They are generally corporate liberals – they take a liberal line, but very carefully. They are going with the grain and against it at the same time. Put it this way: Most of them could have been aides under Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon.” It is also likely the Johnson White House taught Bill Blackburn the value of loyalty to the boss. As David Halberstam says of Johnson in The Best and the Brightest: “He was a relentless man . . . who demanded, above all other qualities, total loyalty . . . loyalty first and foremost to Lyndon Johnson. Those who passed the loyalty test could have what they wanted.”

Whatever Bill Blackburn learned in Washington, it has served him well. Upon returning to Dallas in 1969, he decided to stay in politics. He began touching bases and making friends. Seven years later Blackburn saw his opening. That winter, Mayor Wes Wise surprised no one by announcing for the 5th Congressional District. Popular Gouncilman Garry Weber also surprised no one by announcing for that spring’s special mayoral race to replace Wise. The business community, incensed at the prospect of a Weber walkaway, came up with a little-known but impressive challenger, Bob Folsom. Lost in the shuffle was the Place 9 council race to replace Weber: Seven candidates filed, among them former City Plan Commission director Art Martin, former councilman and busing opponent Jesse Price, and former White House aide Bill Blackburn.

The Weber-Folsom race turned out to be the most heated and expensive in the city’s history. As the candidates exchanged insults daily and poured ridiculous amounts of money into the contest, Blackburn and the rest of the Place 9 candidates campaigned in relative obscurity.

This would turn out to be much to Blackburn’s benefit: Though he was a new face in Dallas politics, a low-profile race was precisely what he needed. First, it would allow him to capitalize on one of his major political assets – his face. He wisely spent much of his modest campaign budget on strategically-placed billboards that presented his stunning smile and the ambiguous but effective slogan “Bill Blackburn – He’s One of Us.” He kept his campaign statements vague and inoffensive, allowing the outspoken Price to make headlines and enemies with his anti-busing spiels. As the other five candidates began to fade because of lack of money and a bland sameness, Bill Blackburn slowly emerged as the safe and sensible alternative to Jesse Price.

It took a city-wide runoff with the feisty Price to prove Blackburn’s strategy right, but he was more than up to the task: The Folsom-Weber race drew a record voter turnout, and Blackburn polled about 15,000 more votes than Folsom. Based on that showing, Bill Blackburn entered City Hall with a better-than-average political reputation. Though his stands on the issues were still a mystery, he was obviously a commodity the voters liked, the apparent successor to Garry Weber as the city’s rising political star.

Perhaps because of his Great Society background, or because he had been cast against backwoods populist Jesse Price in his first political race, Bill Blackburn was viewed as a liberal during his early days on the city council. Election of the conservative, business-backed Folsom had forced a liberal-conservative split on the council: As Folsom attempted to piece together a conservative majority, Mayor Pro Tern Adlene Harrison resisted, clinging tenaciously to her liberal votes. Blackburn did not exactly align himself with Ms. Harrison, but the few leanings he showed were definitely in her direction. Blackburn joined Ms. Harrison’s anti-developer contingent on zoning votes, and even sided with her in a losing battle to have tolls lifted from the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike. (The tolls have subsequently been removed.)

Blackburn made his ambitions clear soon enough. Following his re-election in 1977, he joined most of his fellow council members in announcing his interest in becoming Folsom’s new mayor pro tern. Folsom had clearly decided to eliminate Ms. Harrison from the post; since his election, the two had gotten along about as well as William Buckley and Gore Vidal. Moreover, Folsom badly needed an ally on the council. As things stood, he could count on only one or two votes each time he pushed a measure.

It is not clear how Bill Blackburn once again became the only safe and logical choice, but after much behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the young councilman emerged as the only candidate capable of mustering the required votes. It is clear that Bill Blackburn took his new title seriously: His initial liberal image faded quickly, as he began to vote consistently with the mayor. While rarely serving overtly as the mayor’s whip, Blackburn’s disagreements with Folsom were few. One 1councilman says he cannot remember a Folsom-Blackburn split in the past year; that may be an exaggeration, but a review of council votes for this past !March and April reveals only two oc-casions when the mayor and the mayor ,pro tern differed on a public vote.

Blackburn’s more skeptical col- leagues began to smell a deal in this: Such unflinching political allegiance is rarely pledged without ] something promised in return – like, i perhaps, the pole position in the next mayoral race. To the public, it may ! have seemed that this bright young Great Society Democrat merely hap- : pened to agree with a conservative closet-Republican real estate developer more often than not. To some city council members who worked with him day to day, however, it seemed that Bill Blackburn had found yet another important friend.

Mention of a tacit agreement with Folsom is the one thing that can shake Blackburn’s customary aura of confidence. “There was never any deal,” he says, flashing only half a smile. “He has never told me how to vote. We agree more than we disagree, sure. But why not say he’s voting with me?” A believable defense until he adds, “Sometimes I’ll go tell him how I’m going to vote just so he won’t leave himself hanging out on a wire.”

In fact, it is unlikely Folsom and Blackburn ever drew up a covenant. But the business of politics is often conducted with unspoken agreements. While Blackburn publicly denies any “understanding” with Folsom, his actions often contradict his words. He has been known to abandon a seemingly strong position on an issue once he gets the mayor’s drift: During a private council session on the Fox & Jacobs development in East Dallas, Blackburn told his colleagues he thought it would be absurd to make the city’s new $3.25-per-square-foot buy-back guarantee apply to lots Fox had already bought. But when Folsom argued that it was the only fair way to proceed, Blackburn quickly fell in line. On another occasion, during discussion of proposed air routes from Love Field to New Orleans, the mayor pro tern amused his colleagues by announcing that he’d been contacted by a member of the press about the matter, and though he hadn’t been thoroughly briefed, he’d tried to give him “the party line.” “We all were wondering just what the party line was,” recalls one councilman. “But I think all of us knew.”

The “party line” according to Bob Folsom and Bill Blackburn is as much a matter of procedure as anything else. No matter what his critics may say, the mayor has been a progressive force in city government. Bob Folsom has produced more in his two and a half years as mayor than Wes Wise ever thought about during his six-year tenure. What rankles some city council members and some segments of the public are his means, not his ends. Folsom, as a successful real estate entrepreneur, is accustomed to wheeling and dealing; involving the public can often be bothersome and inefficient. The city needed a new sports arena, no question about it. But Folsom’s insistence on railroading the matter through without a citywide bond vote is more than a little questionable.

Blackburn, perhaps realizing that he is now a candidate as well as the mayor’s right hand man, claims his “openness” is the major difference between him and Folsom. “I don’t like labels. If I’m anything, I’m moderate, which means that sometimes you make everybody mad at you. I’m by nature a more open person [than Folsom], which affects your judgment. There are some areas where I would have been more public. He’s just not as talkative as I am. Had I to do it over again, I would have called an election on the sports arena. It did appear that the public wasn’t given a say-so. The problem is that sometimes by being open it might kill a project like that. You can’t have a referendum on every issue.”

Once again, however, some of Blackburn’s actions have belied his words. “He seems to believe in secret government,” says one colleague on the council. “He presumes that nothing ought to be told to the press, and he believes in the dignity of government so much that he feels all controversy ought to be resolved in private.”

Certainly Blackburn showed these colors in council deliberations on the recent arts district bond proposal. Although the council has a standing arts committee, Folsom appointed an “ad hoc” committee to consider the various proposals for the package. The members of the committee – Folsom, Blackburn, and another Folsom ally, Bill Nicol – made it clear that the mayor already knew what he wanted. Councilmen John Leedom and Dick Smith asked to sit in on the committee’s deliberations. Folsom agreed to their request, but neither was notified of the committee’s meetings. Later, when councilman Steve Bartlett suggested in open session that the city’s stake in the construction of the arts district facilities ought to be reduced from 60 percent to 50 percent, Blackburn joined Folsom in indignantly informing the rest of the council that the 60 percent figure had been agreed upon all along. “When Bob’s out of town, and Blackburn runs a meeting,” says one councilman, “you need a crowbar to get a word in. I’d say if he wins, he’ll make Bob look more open and democratic.”

Blackburn will admit that he does not like the city council airing its dirty laundry in public. “I think it’s a matter of efficiency, not secrecy. Some council members like to blow something wide open with the press. I think you ought to run your traps beforehand and find out where your support is before you talk about it publicly.” Blackburn believes in “efficient” government so much, in fact, that he recently proposed to his colleagues that any resolution or proposal have at least two sponsors before it could be brought up in a public session. On zoning matters – some of the city council’s most important business – Blackburn takes a similarly ceremonious approach. Many council members welcome phone calls from homeowners and others affected by zoning changes, and often visit the area in question to get a better sense of the potential impact of a change; but Blackburn steadfastly refuses such input, claiming he should act with the dignity of a judge in considering such matters.

Blackburn’s concern with dignity and secrecy may simply be a matter of following Folsom’s lead, but it is more likely that this concern is a result of his early exposure to politics in the John-son White House. The politics of the White House are vastly different from those of the Congress or the state legislature, the county courthouse or the Dallas City Council. Those who practice executive politics, other than the President himself, are generally appointed, not elected: They don’t think in terms of constituent response or public hearings; political success in their milieu is based on a set of values not much different from those which govern a small company. “Efficiency” and “dignity,” two of Bill Blackburn’s avowed precepts of good government, are the virtues of a good manager.

Whether they have anything to do with progressive government in a city with half a million registered voters is another question. Bob Folsom has got-ten away with his government-by-proxy approach because there has rarely been any question about where he is coming from: The mayor is an obsessed “doer,” and he’s usually right about what needs to be done and whether the city can afford it. The same cannot be said of Bill Blackburn – not yet anyway. It’s not that he’s made any obvious mistakes, it’s just that no one is sure what he stands for. “When Bill says something is for the ’good of the city,’ you wonder whether he’s talking about his best interests or the city’s,” says one councilman. “He’d raise more tensions as mayor,” says another. “He doesn’t like to get out in front. I think he’d get us into more fights.”

And the questions are not just being asked by Blackburn’s colleagues. After he made his mayoral intentions public last month in the Morning News, at least one ranking member of the business community’s political establishment expressed doubts about his candidacy. “I’ll put it this way,” he said. “They [the business community] have their questions about him. They are worried about the fact that he’s a lawyer, and they’re just not sure he identifies with their interests.” But Folsom’s introduction of Blackburn to the Citizens Council was more than an implicit endorsement, and it may be all Bill Blackburn needs.

Even if the business community’s questions about him become more serious, it would be hard pressed to offer a reasonable alternative. Retailer Joe Haggar and Cullum Companies President Jack Evans have been mentioned as possibilities in passing, but it is doubtful either would take on the mantle. And this year there’s no Wes Wise in sight.

The only possible challenge of any importance to Blackburn could be, of all people, councilman John Leedom. Leedom has made some noise about taking on Blackburn, should the occasion arise. At first glance, he wouldn’t appear to be a plausible citywide candidate because of his unwavering free-enterprise Republican conservatism and sometimes incomprehensible manner of speaking.

But Leedom has plenty of strength in North Dallas – still the key that unlocks the door to political success in the city. Moreover, his staunch conservatism could make him palatable to some segments of the business community – though most businessmen would probably have to close their eyes and pray when pulling the lever.

That John Leedom is the most convincing challenger in sight is testamentto the shrewdness of Bill Blackburn.This is his chance, and he knows it, andhe’s not going to settle for anythingless: Blackburn has announced that ifFolsom should decide to stay on asmayor, he will not seek re-election tohis council post. Whatever else can besaid of him, it is clear Bill Blackburnunderstands the admonition of thelegendary New York City powerbrokerGeorge Washington Plunkett, whosummed up his own career, “1 seen myopportunities and I took ’em.” Whatkind of mayor that would makeBlackburn is anyone’s guess. At thispoint, the most that can be said of BillBlackburn is that, if elected, he undoubtedly will be the most handsomemayor in Dallas history.


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