BEFORE 1948, many people in Dallas thought the County’s family name should be “Snopes,” the low-rent, rapacious New-South white trash featured in three William Faulkner novels. County government had long been controlled by the “courthouse ring,” a collection of mediocre politicians periodically accused of favoritism-for-a-fee, questionable budget practices and maintaining a healthy spoils system in patronage and contracts. Then, 37 years ago, a young justice of the peace named Lew Sterrett and a former chief sheriff’s deputy named Bill Decker decided to run for county judge and sheriff, respectively, without the city fathers’ blessings. Both were elected. Two years later, Henry Wade won the district attorney’s race. With the important additions of a new tax collector-assessor, auditor and treasurer, the courthouse ring was ousted from power.
The Holy Trinity of Wade, Sterrett and Decker dominated county government for 20 years. Each cleaned up his own bailiwick and kept county government remarkably free of scandal. Perhaps their greatest contribution was restoring good relations with the “uptown crowd,” Mayor Bob Thornton and other civic leaders who previously had regarded the “downtown crowd” as contemptible hicks. For the first time in many years, Dallas civic government worked well. Sterrett lost to Republican John Whittington in 1972. Decker resigned because of bad health in 1970 and died the same year.
IN RECENT TIMES, the acknowledged political champion in county government was a Southwest Dallas County Democrat named Roy Orr. He was appointed to the Court by Sterrett in 1971 and served as District 4 commissioner for 11 years.
Sterrett was Orr’s mentor-it was practically a father/son relationship-and when Whittington beat Sterrett, the chances of Orr’s befriending the new judge were slim.
Knowing that he always would be re-elected (unless they found a dead woman or a live boy in his bed, as former Arkansas Gov. Or-val Faubus used to say), Orr kept the Whittington court in turmoil and remained a thorn in the judge’s side throughout his tenure. After Weber’s election to judge in 1978, Orr’s role changed. It wasn’t personal between Orr and Whittington. It was between Orr and Weber.
WEBER, AN EX-CITY councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate (he lost to Bob Folsom in 1976 by 1,000 votes), brought a corporate, city governmental approach to the county level. Dallas became the first county in the state to hire a budget officer.
Personnel policies were non-existent, yet salaries and benefits made up 60 percent of the budget. Were 4,400 employees too many? Too few? No one knew. The Court hired a personnel director who found there were no job classifications, no merit-pay plans.
In listing his accomplishments, Weber said that the “constant bickering and arguments among the court members had given way to a controlled, yet very open discussion of the issues.” The Weber court wasn’t as acrimonious as the previous regime headed by Whittington, but neither judge had any talent for serenity.
THE BEST SHOW in town several years ago was the Commissioner’s Court, where Orr, a classic, old-style politician, clashed with Weber, an urban smoothie. The warfare neatly symbolized the differences between Orr’s mom-and-pop, Old-Guard approach to government and Weber’s managerial, corporate manner. It was also a collision between styles of living and philosophy of life.
Weber was the city slicker, a campus hero and star football player who arrived at SMU with empty pockets and left fairly flush, thanks to a good business mind and great poker skills. He’s an almost handsome man, with a moderate amount of cosmetic dash, who’s used to being the big toad in the puddle without having the masochistic, self-abasing need to stay there forever. He’s comfortable with the powerful. The powerful are not comfortable with Orr.
Country boy Orr’s idea of fancy-despite his new Mercedes-is Cheez Whiz on broccoli, while Weber thinks eating French cuisine in the daylight is a perfectly natural act. Orr is most proud of his family, his marriage of 33 years and his four children. Weber affects a semi-flashy lifestyle; no one has ever spotted him with an unattractive woman.
Orr and Weber had problems. “Just because he was a big SMU rich football player doesn’t make him better than me,” says Orr. “He told me my vote didn’t count, that he always had three votes. He shouldn’t have said that to a man like me.” Weber says: “Roy and I just didn’t agree on much. He was inconsistent in his voting and resented that I relied on fact and not politics to make a decision. He called me ’County Manager’ and I called him ’Either-Orr’.” – R.W.