The caller did not bother with introductions, explanations or amenities. The first words Fort Worth City Councilman Jim Bradshaw heard when he answered the telephone made him painfully aware of the message.
“Bradshaw,” the voice snapped, “if you’re looking for trouble you’ve come to the right place. If it is a fight you want, I’ll spill your guts all over the streets . . . Do we understand each other?”
Moments later a somewhat shaken Bradshaw called me at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where I was the City Hall reporter. “I’ve got a favor to ask on that story we talked about this morning,” he said. “If there is any way you could do it, I would sure appreciate it if you could leave out that quote I gave you about Parmer . . . You know, the one where I said ’If Hugh Parmer spent more time doing his own job and less time trying to run for mayor the city would be a lot better off? Well, I just got a call from Parmer and he was in a rage. He said if you use that quote he will waste me. I don’t really know what he means by that. . . It’s not that I am scared of him, but I just think it would be a whole lot better in terms of city council harmony if you could just drop that quote.”
That telephone conversation took place more than two years ago, in the days when things were relatively placid at the Fort Worth City Hall. Hugh Parmer and Jim Bradshaw were just freshman city councilmen. It was at a time when Parmer, who was to become mayor, and Bradshaw, who was to become mayor pro tern, were on the edge of a relatively good working relationship. But the incident turned out to be a pivotal point in relations between the two. It was the beginning of a conflict which has split City Hall at the seams.
Council members freely admit that since the last election, the city legislative body has changed from a harmonious, often dull gathering of public servants to something more like a Saturday night wrestling match. (At a recent meeting. Councilman Richard Newkirk got the floor by pounding his shoe on the table until Parmer recognized him.) But there is a major difference. In a wrestling match, nobody gets hurt.
Council meetings now are characterized by frequent fusillades between two factions, led by Parmer on the one side and Bradshaw on the other.
“It has gone to the point where there is open hostility between council members,” Bradshaw told me. “We don’t even make attempts to hide it anymore. There have been disagreements between council members for years, but this is personal and it is bitter. We are playing hardball down there and it seems like the city staff members’ noses bloody pretty often, even though they are really just standing on the sidelines watching the game. “
Upper-level city staff members spend large portions of their time typing up resumes and looking for new jobs. “I’m getting a little sick,” said one administrator, “of having to consider politics when I put together a proposal for what should be simple administrative action. I am tired of wondering whose ’side’ my actions are going to be interpreted as benefiting.”
In the past year, the city manager, city attorney, public works director, city budget director and three assistant city attorneys have resigned or announced plans to depart. Of the four remaining assistant city managers, two said when interviewed in March that they questioned whether they would be around by the time this issue of D Magazine hits the newsstands.
When budget director Bill Gordon quit, no one thought it was an omen of an impending exodus. Gordon went to a higher-paying job at the Continental National Bank. And the departure of public works director Jack Graham raised few ripples.
But after December 27, 1977, when City Manager Rodger Line walked out of a closed-door session with the city council, summoned the press and announced he was putting an end to a 17-year career with the city, it was obvious that something was wrong. Line had told me only a few months before that he planned to stick it out, to ignore the petty politics and keep on doing his job.
In the seven years Line spent as city manager, he made it apparent that he did that job quite well. When he took over, the city had a $27,000 reserve fund – a joke by most fiscal standards. He turned that paltry sum into a $10-million savings account for the city. Under Rodger Line, the garbage got collected when it was supposed to, the potholes got fixed and taxes stayed so low that Dallasites who moved to Fort Worth might have thought they were getting by with fraud when they saw their first property tax statements.
Line was a professional, and his professionalism was so apparent to all that he was an untouchable in previous city political wars.
A few months after Line announced his plans to depart, a more intense tremor snook city Hall. City Attorney S. G. Johndroe Jr., who probably had more establishment backing than any city official had enjoyed in decades, announced his own plans to get out.
This was not characteristic of the tenacious Johndroe, the man who fought to keep Southwest Airlines out of Love Field until no judicial body cared to hear about it anymore. It was Johndroe who had insisted on taking a dispute over Fort Worth library bonds all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – only to lose. It was Johndroe who had been instrumental in forging the governmental structure under which the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport could be built and operated.
Johndroe is both stubborn and smart – a rare combination. His legal ability, coupled with his total unwillingness to compromise, made him a power at City Hall for years. He was a force to be reckoned with by anyone who tried to claim authority in city government. It was not easy to imagine a man like this going quietly out to pasture. But then, one year ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that Rodger Line was going to resign.
What could happen that would cause the two men to loosen their rock-solid grasps on the two most prestigious administrative jobs in the city? It is partly because of the hostility that pervades the council that Line, to whom City Hall was once Camelot, now describes the situation as being ’”so pitiful that tears come to my eyes every time I try to talk about it.”
Fort Worth has always been a place where no quarter is shown in political battles, and the casualties are frequently maimed for life. While political foes in Dallas may be able to speak and even smile at each other after a conflict is over, they use real bullets in Fort Worth and they aim for the abdomen. Parmer learned that lesson young; he was a legislator at 22 and a victim of political gunplay before he was 25.
It seemed as if everything was going right for the young Yale graduate when he was elected to the state legislature 15 years ago. Some say Parmer had plans that would take him to the White House by the time he was 35. (He vigorously denies it.) Who wouldn’t have believed that this young man, who seemed the perfect product of the Kennedy ideology that was sweeping the nation, might just make it to Washington?
But that bubble burst abruptly when Parmer’s first attempt at re-election ended in defeat at the hands of a political hack named Bud Sherman. Sherman had the support of a conservative Fort Worth establishment that had determined Par-mer was too liberal to be allowed to continue in office. Parmer will never forget the feeling of being whipped, not by his opponent, but by the massive powers that reign in downtown Fort Worth.
After that defeat, Parmer packed off to Washington where he worked as a bureaucrat in the Johnson Administration. He came back to Fort Worth a few years later, still vividly remembering the defeat he had suffered. But now he was more mature and was skilled in the ways of Washington.
Most Fort Worth politicians have two modes for talking to reporters: on the record and off the record. But Parmer has backgrounders, deep backgrounders, sole source but not for attribution, off the record, for use if someone else will confirm it. Five minutes with Parmer and any reporter is aware that this man is playing the game of local politics by the rules of Capitol Hill. He is the only politician in Fort Worth who ever called me in for a deep backgrounder and kept a straight face when he used the words “deep backgrounder.” He approaches his work quite seriously.
His code is simple: Never forget an ally or an enemy.
Long before he ran for mayor of Fort Worth, I asked him what made this $10-per-week position so important to him. What better position was there, he said, to take the battle right back home to the people who had been responsible for his political demise more than a dozen years before? What better vehicle, in other words, for vengeance?
Parmer is polish and polysyllables. Except for the legendary instances in which he has lost his notorious temper, he is the epitome of poise. He has an ability that gives him an almost unfair advantage in dealing with reporters: He calmly denies the obvious.
Parmer dismisses the hostile atmosphere at City Hall as being the fault of the minority faction on the council. (Parmer has five votes; Bradshaw has four.) “I’m afraid that is the result of a couple of council members who are frequently on the minority side of a split vote reacting with personal animosity toward the members of the majority . . . One major difference is that on the last council Mr. [Woodie] Woods and I were able to be in the minority on many issues, yet not develop any personal hostility towards those in the majority.”
No personal hostility? I distinctly remember former Mayor Pro Tern Margret Rimmer telling me she had been approached by Parmer about a possible recall for Shirley Johnson, who had defeated Mrs. Rimmer in the last election. Reason for the recall: Mrs. Johnson cast the deciding council vote that elected Bradshaw to the mayor pro tern spot. With memories like that still fresh in my mind, it is difficult not to be skeptical about the mayor’s explanation of Line’s departure.
“I’m tired of taking the rap for Mr. Line and Mr. Johndroe leaving,” Parmer told me a few weeks ago. The mayor emphasized that Line had been looking around for a job for years and had finally found one. Johndroe had been with the city long enough to qualify for retirement, Parmer said, and was ready to move to a more lucrative private practice.
“Those are the explanations they have given me and I believe them. I have no reason not to take them at face value. Those are the only two resignations of significance that I am aware of,” he said. The assistant city attorneys? The legal department is notorious for turnover, Parmer said; it is impossible to keep an attorney for an $18,000-a-year salary after he’s got some experience under his belt. It is easy for a young attorney to make better money elsewhere. What of the former budget director and public works director? Their departures had nothing to do with the political atmosphere at City Hall, the mayor said; both found better jobs. (Numerous credible sources at City Hall have told me that the former public works director. Jack Graham, was in trouble with Line and Assistant City Manager Gary Gwyn and was indeed not a victim of any purge by Parmer or Bradshaw.)
What about the rumor that Parmer had an investigator searching Johndroe’s past for information which could be used to make the city attorney resign? ’”Nope,” Parmer said. That rumor, he said, was simply not true.
More than one high-level city official has told me that Parmer once asked his wife, in front of a gathering of Fort Worth officials in San Antonio, when the person hired to investigate Johndroe was going to turn something up. Never happened, Parmer maintains.
There is little question that the mayor’s personality has done a lot to create the atmosphere that prevails at City Hall today.
At least one high level administrative official is affronted by Parmer’s style. “He’s just like Nixon,” the official told me. “We never had all those closed-door sessions in the mayor’s office when Overcash was around … On any given day, you can see a line of people huddled outside his office waiting for him to show up. Then he makes a grand entrance like he is a king or something… And another thing, he seems to think the city staff exists for his personal convenience. He doesn’t think anything at all about sending some $20,000-a-year city administrator downstairs to fetch him some cigarettes every time there is a council meeting.”
Overcash, a millionaire, always got his own coffee. Parmer has a secretary attend to that chore. That sticks in the craw of some of the people who work around him. He has found a way to be the “man of the people” in the headlines and Louis XIV in his office, they contend.
Others at City Hall find Bradshaw equally distasteful. “One thing you must remember.” a top-level Fort Worth bureaucrat told me, “is that Bradshaw is no better than Parmer. They both want to be King.”
The conflict between Parmer and Bradshaw, and the acrimony that conflict has caused at City Hall, arise from the fact that they are ambitious men in a political arena too small to share.
When Bradshaw first won a seat on the council in 1975, the big-league political movers, those gray-haired kingmakers who take their noonday meals at the Fort Worth Club and smoke dollar cigars, had him pegged as a closet liberal. No matter that his closet was a cedar-lined walk-in version in a $ 100,000 house in Overton Park. No matter that his Cadillac was as long as any man’s and that his father had once been mayor, if not owner, of Waco.
Wasn’t it Bradshaw who on election night made fun of H. B. “Babe” Fuqua, the man who had taken up the golden sword of Fort Worth leadership when Amon Carter Sr. died? Wasn’t it Bradshaw who had ridiculed the political pontiff whose decisions were handed down from the holy of holies, the 20th floor of the Fort Worth National Bank? Wasn’t it Bradshaw who in the pages of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the newspaper of record, had called Fuqua a “propeller airplane in the jet age?” Of course it was. It was this political gatecrasher Brad-shaw who had suggested that the leadership of Fort Worth was senile.
Bradshaw was new money. While the captains of industry and defenders of the faith in Fort Worth had made their money in oil and land like good Texas city fathers were expected to do, this Bradshaw had made his fortune in jumper cables and spark plugs, batteries and floor mats. He was a wholesale auto-supply dealer. And as far as many of the old-time establishment political moguls were concerned, he was about as welcome in the sublime, sedate Fort Worth leadership process as some costumed buffoon from “Let’s Make a Deal.”
That television landmark, incidentally, reminds one of how Bradshaw gained his first small niche in Fort Worth politics. Bradshaw gave R. M. “Shark-ey” Stovall a $1,000 contribution for his 1973 re-election campaign. Stovall won. So did Bradshaw. He was appointed by Stovall to the city zoning board shortly after the mayor’s new term began.
It was obvious to old school conservatives that Bradshaw deserved the brand of “liberal,” a catch-all term applied in Fort Worth as “out of grace” might have been to the medieval Catholic who offended the church. Babe Fuqua divides the world into two categories: “those rotten liberals” and “people who care about this city.”
The liberal designation, in the eyes of the high and mighty, placed Bradshaw in the same squalid ideological pit into which they had cast Parmer many years before. When Bradshaw and Parmer were elected to the council, Fuqua warned of a coalition which would include those two and Mayor Clif Overcash.
The last man to make a political judgment that inaccurate was Neville Chamberlain. But in those halcyon days at City Hall, it looked like Parmer and Bradshaw might become friends.
The mood of those days was perhaps best captured by the council’s performance at a leadership conference held at a posh retreat on the shores of Lake Tex-oma. At one late-night session, which I attended, Bradshaw was showing peerless leadership qualities.
He was leading with only eight or nine points showing, and turning up a face card every time. The exercise looked strangely like a blackjack game to us reporters.
At the table were Bradshaw, Parmer and Councilmen John O’Neill and Richard Newkirk. There was so much cash on the table it looked like King Faisal had been dealt into the game and had just stepped out to the bathroom for a moment. Had it been a movie, Bradshaw would have been Bogart. The councilman’s eye squinted as the smoke rolled up his cheek from the cigarette dangling from his mouth. Each time Bradshaw would turn up his final card, which had been face down when the betting took place, the reaction from Bradshaw’s fellow leaders of government was the same: Shouts. Moans. Groans. Profanity.
They were playing with $100 bills. I counted the cash on the table carefully. At one point there was $2,000. It frequently cost Bradshaw’s companions $100 each to see what card had been lurking face down on the table. Other players were winning an occasional hand, but Bradshaw was cleaning them out.
After Bradshaw had raked in one enormous pile of currency, Newkirk asked the obvious question: “How in the name of hell do you keep getting all those damn face cards?” It was the combination of skill and luck that Bradshaw had used in his political campaign. There was no question that his C.B. handle. “Easy Money,” was accurate.
“Why do they bother to have bond issues?” one mid-level city staff member asked. “Why don’t they just send Bradshaw to Las Vegas with about five thou and let him hit the blackjack tables? He could probably come back with enough money to build a freeway.” He probably could.
Standing in the background during part of this marathon gambling session was a very nervous Rodger Line. One look at his eyes made it clear that he did not think it prudent for elected officials to gamble in front of reporters. This whole scene was apparently an affront to a man of Line’s professionalism. It was certainly no good for a man to whom Maalox and Turns were a couple of old friends. Assistant City Manager Bill Gordon, obviously attuned to Line’s thoughts, later told the reporters who had been present during the game that everyone had been given his money back at the end of the session, after the reporters had turned in for the night. Sure.
Even though it was apparent that night that Bradshaw was beating his council contemporaries out of their cash and thereby possibly treading on the egos of his fellow politicians, none of them seemed excessively disturbed. Even Partner seemed to take it all in stride. These two men, 1 told myself, could work together at City Hall and probably have fun doing it. I was wrong.
Bradshaw is one of the last of the good ol’ boy-style politicians. Wisecracks have been integral to his public image. Flippant statements, like his much-publicized remarks to the effect that Fuqua belongs in a rest home or a museum, did not endear him to the establishment. When a radio reporter approached Bradshaw with microphone in hand to ask him why he had been late to a council meeting, Bradshaw remarked: “Why if you had had as much Scotch to drink last night as I had, you wouldn’t be here at all.” Bradshaw swears it was a joke he thought would never be broadcast.
He found out differently, every hour on the hour, for the rest of the day. Bradshaw vowed to clean up his act. (Partner has been much more careful with his image. On election night, a Star-Telegram photographer was admitted to Parmer campaign headquarters only after agreeing that there would be no photos of Parmer with a cigarette or drink in his hand.)
Although Bradshaw was suspected of latent liberalism when he took office, his first tangle with Parmer landed him in the conservative camp. Two years ago Parmer was the prime rival to then-Mayor Clif Overcash. Overcash took the “fiscal responsibility” route that pleased most conservatives. Parmer took the stand that institutions must be changed to reflect the “will of the people,” a position which is often offensive to those who are prospering under the status quo. Bradshaw tried to ride the fence and please both Parmer and Overcash. It did not work. Support of Overcash got Brad-shaw a place on Partner’s blacklist. Par-mer’s hard-nosed position toward his adversaries caused Bradshaw to embrace Overcash. Somewhere along the way the conservative fat cats began to accept Bradshaw as one of their own.
Bradshaw put all his political chips on an Overcash re-election. When Parmer beat Overcash, Bradshaw found himself unexpectedly at the helm of the conservative side of the council. It appeared that Parmer would be successful in getting his long-time ally Councilman Woodie Woods elected mayor pro tern. And in a council which had two black members and its first Mexican-American, it looked like Parmer was going to hold all the political cards.
Bradshaw, however, did not let himself get dumped. He picked up the support of both blacks, Mrs. Walter Barbour and Jim Bagsby, and managed to convince a Parmer supporter, Council-woman Shirley Johnson, that the election of Woods as mayor pro tern would give Parmer too much power. Using his own Vote and the vote of his strongest ally on the council, Richard Newkirk, Bradshaw had five votes to become mayor pro tern. Once elected mayor pro tern, Bradshaw had enough power to keep himself from getting sacked, and the long political battle at City Hall was ready to begin. Now Bradshaw’s role is that of the spoiler, the obstacle in the way of the Parmer political machine. Repeated attempts by Parmer to drive that machine right over Bradshaw’s face make life at City Hall quite interesting.
Even in the good old days when Rodger Line was at the zenith of his 17-year career with the city and riding a mandate from a city council that was more like a fan club, there were days when he would get so nervous over a council decision that he would seek sanctuary in his private office’s rest room, shut the door and vomit, his stomach twisted by anxiety. Line was happy when they switched council meetings from Mondays to Tuesdays, because he customarily lay awake in his bed until almost dawn the night before a council meeting. This way, he said, at least his weekends would not be ruined any more.
Line’s strength is that he has the master’s touch for management, of both money and people. He has earned a reputation for taking public dollars and making them multiply. That ability pleased almost every ideological faction in Fort Worth.
Line’s professionalism gave city government in Fort Worth such smoothness that his name never became a household word. Under Line’s leadership, city government provided the services necessary for the city to prosper and grow. Although the rank and file taxpayers knew little of Line, the financial movers and shakers of the city knew his work and appreciated it.
He was well liked by his employees, even though he was tough enough to make sure that everyone on the payroll had no doubts that he was in charge.
Line’s greatest weakness, however, is his sensitivity. He remembers every insult, every rebuke. Each Thursday, Line would submit his weekly recommendations for council action, neatly typed on bright yellow paper. Each recommendation was carefully planned and painstakingly written. And although the vast majority of the recommendations were passed with little or no debate, each time the council ripped apart one of those sheets of yellow paper, | they ripped out a little piece of Line’s soul.
Line planned his departure, as Parmer will quickly point out, before Parmer was ever elected mayor. As a matter of fact, he probably planned the departure, if not the exact date, before Parmer was even born.
Since Line was a boy, he has had a plan. He was going to be the youngest city manager in Texas. “I kinda figured that I could get to be the city manager of some city, no matter how small, by the time I was 21,” Line said. “It was obvious to me at that point that I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat for 40 years. But I thought I could work my way up to be city manager of a city the size of, say. Austin. And then by the time I had been there a while I figured I would be doing such a good job that somebody from private industry would note my performance and think that I could do them some real good as an executive.”
It is not unusual for the occupants of City Hall in Fort Worth to have such fantasies. Bradshaw once told me that he had himself pegged as congressional material. After a few terms on Capitol Hill he would return to Texas and become governor. “The only thing I can’t make up my mind about,” he said, “is whether to be a Democrat or a Republican.”
Line, unlike others, has basically realized his dream. He quit to become an executive with a Fort Worth furniture company. And he is quick to admit that he feels he got out of City Hall just in time.
“I would have quit to take this job opportunity anyway,” Line said, sitting behind a massive desk at Novikoff Furniture Co., “but when I look at the way things are being done down there at City Hall, the divisiveness, the power struggles, the back stabbing, I am certainly glad I’m not there anymore.
“Decisions by the council are being made on the basis of political alignments and for the sake of winning rather than for the good of the city. When I go back there to visit my friends on the city staff and look at their faces, and see the horrible morale down there – it is so pitiful that tears come to my eyes every time I try to talk about it.”
Line was not exaggerating. I sat there in his office, watching a man who is a picture of authority and sophistication, a man who in years past could treat bulldog-faced police officials in a manner so stern that I felt sorry for them. And now he was sitting in front of me, his eyes literally filled with tears. Those were not Shirley Temple tears. Line is too much a subscriber to old-school machismo to put on a display for a reporter. There was no question that this man was troubled about the goings-on in the domain over which he was once lord.
“Those people on the staff of the City of Fort Worth,” said Line, his voice cracking, “are just too good to deserve the kind of treatment they are having to put up with now.”
If all this sounds like a different Rodger Line from the one depicted in the pages of the Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers when he resigned in December, there is a reason.
Line was hooked by a good public relations effort.
When he made his decision to quit, he went behind closed doors and told the council of his feelings. He told them that the newly passed city financial disclosure ordinance, which requires a complete striptease by city staff members and city council members, constituted a harassing insult to the staff. He told them he was tired of the bickering between council members, and that although he had been shopping around for a better position before the council was elected, the current political situation had made life miserable for many of the staff members, including himself.
Line’s problem with the financial disclosure ordinance is basically this: He feels that it implies dishonesty by city officials when in fact there may be none. “I just don’t see any reason why we should have to feel like someone is looking over our shoulder all the time.”
The code requires council members and high administrative officials to list all sources of income, as well as all debts and financial liabilities and assets, such as property ownership and savings accounts. Many city employees feel a lot of that information is no one’s business but their own.
Rodger Line is one of them. He feels the ordinance is too great an invasion of privacy. In Dallas, Line points out, city administrative officials can make their financial disclosure to the city manager and it is left up to his judgment whether any conflict of interest exists. But the Fort Worth code does not leave the matter to the discretion of the city manager. His subordinates must make their finances public.
“That code would certainly not keep anyone from being dishonest if he wanted to, yet it creates an invasion of privacy for honest city employees,” Line said.
It may be noted that while the code. keeps city officials from taking any gifts from utility company officials, it did not stop Parmer’s office supply company from doing $14,000 worth of business with the local electric company last year. Parmer’s critics say a bottle of whiskey at Christmas will not buy as much influence as a so-called “sweetheart” contract.
Parmer. the father of the ethics code, says there was never any legislative intent in the ordinance to stop council members from making retail sales to utility companies. Parmer points out that the business he did with the utility was only a fraction of his retail sales.
Parmer’s foes point to the fact that Chevrolet dealer Bill McKay, who was Parmer’s campaign treasurer, recently sold the city a fleet of police cars even though his was not the lowest bid. City administrative officials say McKay’s bid included better equipment on the cars than the lower bid. Critics of the disclosure ordinance also raise eyebrows at the fact that it didn’t keep Jane Schlansker, who handled public relations for the Parmer campaign, from getting a $30,000-plus contract to promote the city’s Stockyard-area restoration project. There is nothing illegal about that, but people who dislike Parmer are quick to point a finger at the contract.
Parmer’s ethics code and financial disclosure ordinance were born after polls showed him that Fort Worth residents, like residents everywhere, were prone to believe government officials needed more controls. But whether the ordinances have brought about any more ethical behavior at City Hall is still a matter open for debate. Parmer is committed to the code and will defend it vigorously.
Before Line announced his resignation to the news media, Parmer cornered Line and made a pitch for keeping quiet about the ethics code. He told Line that if he told the media that he was going to quit anyway, but that the ethics code had been an added irritant, the headlines would read “Line Resigns Because of Ethics Code.”
Line for years had wanted to see the city voters adopt a massive bond issue – a dream he had never realized. When Line resigned, a multi-million dollar bond issue was pending. (It later passed.) An excellent case could be built that if Line let all of his feelings about his resignation be known, the negative publicity could cause the voters to reject the bond issue.
So he went along with the fantasy that was disseminated by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Times Herald and every licensed radio and television station within a 50-mile radius, that all was rosy at City Hall.
He didn’t tell the press about the time he and Councilwoman Shirley Johnson got in a hostile debate in front of dozens of curious restaurant patrons while the council and staff were at a San Francisco convention.
He didn’t tell them about the pressure Mrs. Johnson had placed on him to fire Assistant City Manager Morris Matson, with whom she had argued numerous times about utility regulation.
He didn’t tell them that he had sent Assistant City Manager Vernell Sturns home for a few days earlier that year because Sturns was cracking under the pressure of dealing with a council whose favorite game is gut ball.
Instead, he smiled a lot and kept his cool, talking about the business opportunity he couldn’t turn down, emphasizing the positive and adhering to the cardinal rule of old-time politics in Fort Worth: Don’t air your dirty laundry in public. In public. Line has always had the stiffest of stiff upper lips, and he was not about to let his 17 years at City Hall end in a spectacle which might be interpreted as a forced departure.
But things have happened since he announced his resignation which friends of Line say violated Line’s own personal code of ethics.
Assistant City Manager Gary Gwyn, a prime candidate to replace Line, was approached by a young woman who said she wanted to discuss city business. The conversation did not go far until the woman made an offer which Gwyn could only have accepted in bed. Gwyn declined.
Shortly after that incident. Gwyn received two anonymous telephone calls offering homosexual relationships. “Maybe they thought that if Gwyn didn’t care for the woman, he might go for something in the way of a man,” one city official said. The incidents were regarded by persons around Gwyn as being cheap shots by someone trying to take him out of the race for the manager’s job.
Another incident was apparently even more rankling to Line. At a gathering in New Orleans of city officials from around the nation. Councilman Louis Zapata boasted that he had “run off’ the city manager of Fort Worth. Those words, which got back to Line quickly, made his stomach sour with anger and insult. While the rotund Zapata casts quite a wide shadow at City Hall, he does not cast a long one. Line has faced much more formidable foes than Zapata and yawned after the battle.
While incidents like this were continuing to grate on the former city manager’s nerves, pieces of the whole story were beginning to leak out. Fort Worth is notorious for being the home of the worst-kept secrets in the world.
At a council session in which the financial disclosure ordinance was being discussed, Councilwoman Mrs. Walter Barbour, a black school teacher and a tough adversary of Parmer’s, made the comment that the ordinance was one of the reasons Line quit. The mayor jumped to the defense. Line had never publicly said such a thing, Parmer said.
“But don’t you remember that closed meeting the day he resigned?” Mrs. Bar-bour asked. “Rodger told us specifically that the ethics code was one of the reasons he quit.”
Line held a similar closed-door session with the editorial board of the Star-Telegram. He laid out the situation in detail. A gentlemen’s agreement was made before the meeting took place: Line’s feelings about the atmosphere at City Hall would not be repeated in print.
Mrs. Barbour, whose candor some-times pains those around her, told me she could not understand the silence. “I understand he went up and told the Star-Telegram editors everything,” she said, “but I have never seen any account in the newspaper as to what happened. I just don’t understand it.”
No one who ever dealt with Standage Gordon Johndroe, Jr. in his 18 years as Fort Worth City Attorney would be surprised to learn that he was once a Marine. Person-alities like Johndroe are not born, they are made in places like Parris Island, ; where the toughest, meanest and most cunning prevail while others perish. The hulking Johndroe for years ran the city legal department the way he wanted to because he knew the law better than anyone and because two-thirds of the people at City Hall were scared to death of him.
I shall never forget my first interview with Johndroe.
“You the new creep from the Star-Telegram’!” he asked.
“I’m the new reporter.”
“Well, I don’t have any time for your silly games so stay out of my way.”
He had a way of building an image. Once when a KERA-TV reporter called Johndroe for one of those traditional Dallas-Fort Worth comparison stories, Johndroe dispensed his philosophy in short form.
“How does this compare with the way they do it in Dallas?” the reporter asked.
“Dall-ass?” said Johndroe, using an inflection that made the name of the city sound obscene. “Dall-ass eats shit,” he said.
Johndroe made it apparent to all around him that he had a definite list of likes and dislikes. The first column included the art of bullying reporters, city administrators and sometimes even council members. The dislikes column was topped by Dallas and all points North and East, and included liberals, welfare recipients, people who did not own property in the city of Fort Worth, and the Star-Telegram.
After getting over the initial shock of meeting Johndroe, 1 grew to admire his moxie. I always envy people who have a black and white code, and never seem to waver from it.
When I called him in connection with this article, he was still sticking to his code of toughness.
“I’ve served my sentence,” he said. “I am retiring, not resigning.”
“You mean the council did not run you off?”
“Si, si, senor, as Mr. Zapata would say,” Johndroe said. “The difference between me and all these other characters that have departed from this place is that I have a license to practice law. All they have is a license to be a gypsy.”
“What about the rumor that you are playing the role of Moses for your assistant city attorneys, leading them out of the wasteland at City Hall, finding them jobs in private law firms?”
“Well I just wouldn’t know anything about that,” said Johndroe, oozing coyness. Later in the interview Johndroe said he never really cared to keep up with City Hall gossip, a pursuit at which he felt reporters made their living.
“It’s like a line from School for Scandal, ’With every word a reputation falls,’ ” he said.
Shirley Johnson’s original mission at City Hall was to keep things from getting too serious at council meetings. She was a self-labeled “professional citizen,” the wife of a Fort Worth physician and a long-time member of the League of Women Voters. Several years ago she started frequenting the council chambers in a quasi-official capacity- she was the League’s council observer. Some city staff members were quick to ridicule her, although not in her presence, as being a middle-aged woman who didn’t have anything better to do than hang around City Hall. “What’s the matter,” a city official once asked me, “doesn’t she have a television set?”
Mrs. Johnson was well liked by the media. She proudly called herself “the den mother of the City Hall press corps.” She frequently provided relief from the City Hall humdrum. “If you come up with any good one-liners on your own and you need to attribute them to somebody,” she once told reporters, “I’ll be glad to let you quote me.” While she was a joy to reporters she was frequently a pain to the city council, because she often got on the council agenda and gave lengthy citizen presentations, some of which I could never find the point of. Shirley Johnson is the type of person who tells lengthy jokes and gets to the end of the joke only to have forgotten the punch line. But we always laughed anyway, because she exudes the type of motherly warmth that makes her easy to like. She is the original little old lady in tennis shoes.
Her critics on the 1975-76 Fort Worth council sometimes found it quite possible to dislike her, however. “That old broad has to be the living definition of ’spaced out,’ ” one member of the council told me.
When Shirley Johnson decided to run for the 1977 city council, I worried for her. She was just too nice, I told myself, to be thrown into the buzz saw that is the Fort Worth elective process. I thought she would not only lose, but be emotionally maimed by the defeat. But there was a flaw in that analysis. She won. Mrs. Johnson unseated then-Mayor Pro Tern Margret Rimmer and went on to become the swing vote and the buffer zone between the Parmer and Bradshaw factions. Sometimes, however, she has been caught asleep at the wheel.
When the new park board was to be selected after the new council took over, she agreed to re-appoint the former board chairman, Jan Fersing, who had been one of her staunchest campaign supporters. But Fersing wasn’t even nominated. Mrs. Johnson forgot to put his name on the list. “I feel like a fool,” she said later. Rightly so. On another occasion she voted against her intentions because she did not understand a motion being made and voted for it by mistake.
Although she voted for Bradshaw as mayor pro tern, she is frequently in Par-mer’s camp, partly because most of the women who assemble in her kitchen for a weekly political lunch and gossip session are Parmer supporters.
Parmer and Bradshaw agree on one thing – it will be almost impossible to get a unanimous vote for the appointment of a new city manager. Bradshaw is likely to vote against anyone Parmer favors.
A lack of council unanimity on the choice of the next city manager worries most of the remaining Fort Worth bureaucrats. “What kind of professional,” one administrator asked me, “would want to come to work on a shaky mandate like a 5-4 vote?”
Such a vote would hold an obvious key to increased power for the majority faction.
“A city manager who came to work on a 5-4 vote would know damn well who he worked for,” one assistant city manager said. “He would know that his job was to carry out the will of the five who hired him. And he could tell the four who voted not to hire him to shove it.”
Parmer, apparently confident that he can get at least five votes on the appointment, says he does not think it matters if the choice is unanimous. Because of the heterogeneous nature of most single member district councils nowadays, professional administrators have learned to thrive on adversity, Parmer contends.
Whoever fills Line’s shoes will definitely need that quality. “If the side with five votes hires a new manager, there is nothing in the world to keep the side with four votes from making a motion at every council meeting to fire the city manager,” Bradshaw said. “It could be done every week. Sooner or later, it might pass.”
There is an added potential to that possibility. Sooner or later, Shirley Johnson could vote for such a motion by mistake.
The caller did not bother with introductions, explanations or amenities. The first words Fort Worth City Councilman Jim Bradshaw heard when he answered the telephone made him painfully aware of the message.