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KING RUCK

Why Jerry Rucker is the only interesting North Dallas politician and could be mayor or even congressman one day (inhale)... if he ever stops talking long enough to do it.
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Lunch with Jerry Rucker has been under way now for nearly an hour, and we’re still on Vietnam. It’s really getting ridiculous. I’ve got a list of questions as long as my arm-good questions, fun questions, such as why he likened a fellow city councilman to an “autistic child” and why he pulled that incredible stunt with the lady police officer and why he went around the city whooping it up with a bunch of Afghanistan freedom fighters and why he sometimes ends up on the front page of the newspaper looking like a silly ass despite the fact that he is one of the most intelligent members of the Dallas City Council.

But Rucker is in the midst of a story, one that has so far taken thirty-nine minutes to tell, about his days as a Navy court martial lawyer. There is no way to get him off of it. Nothing is as important to Rucker as a well-told story. In his standard oratorical style, a cross between Johnny Cash country and Winston Churchill pomposity, Rucker heads for the big finish. I look at my watch four times.

“Anyway,” says Rucker, “all thirty of these Marines had pleaded guilty to the charge of mutiny, except for my guy, and he pleaded innocent. Good Lord! And I had to get him off.”

I gaze vacantly about the expensive restaurant, but Rucker pushes on, undaunted. And that’s when I notice that all the people there-all of them, including the waiters-are listening to his story. They have quietly put down their forks and knives and are staring our way with deep interest. It’s not as if they have to strain to hear. Rucker must have developed his speaking style before the invention of modern amplification devices. His voice of his sour looks at the placard-waving interest group and announced he was against the fetus disposal plan because the city could not enforce it and that the government had no business running some kind of fetal remains service.

After one of those computerized phone machines called him and a computerized voice asked him to answer yes or no at the end of the sentence, Rucker showed up at the council meeting that week and angrily proposed the city ban all such calls. “You never know.” he said, “when your phone rings, whether it’s your grandmother from Okinoki or someone from Kansas City trying to sell you a Bible.”

Rucker went on an obscure, confusing campaign to persuade the council to push for the elimination of federal penalties for ozone violations, claiming that ozone occurred naturally and did not come from auto emissions. He agreed to be the city’s official spokesman for a meeting of right-wing “freedom fighters” who had gathered in Dallas from around the world to figure out ways to fight communist military forces. Rucker was even seen at a dance the freedom fighters held, surrounded by Afghanistan rebel leaders who may have thought he was a U.S. senator or the vice-president of the country or something other than a local councilman having a great time at a dance.

He also became notorious for “car” issues. Last year, when he was caught speeding by a Dallas policewoman as he was traveling to a memorial service for a veteran, Rucker was outraged. According to the officer, Rucker demanded an escort to the memorial service. She said, uh, no, I think I’ll give you a ticket. Rucker then held up for a week a $467,700 state grant that was going to pay for extra police patrols to enforce the speed limit on highways,

then. this past spring, when the Texas Turnpike Authority installed three lift-up gates at the Dallas North Tollway in order to force drivers to accelerate more slowly as they leave the tollbooths (and prevent a lot of drivers from zipping past the tollbooths without paying

the fifty-cent fee), Rucker went through the ceiling. The councilman, who uses the Tollway daily, claimed that the gates caused congestion and were a major irritation. Although the council has no control over what happens to state roads, Rucker demanded in a resolution that the gates be removed.

“When Jerry gets pissed off about anything,” says vociferous South Dallas councilman Al Lipscomb, the only one on the council who genuinely seems to enjoy Rucker’s performances, “he doesn’t ever try to hide it. Even I sometimes try to hide it.”

Lipscomb should know. He was the object of the one episode that nearly ruined Rucker, the thing that a lot of people will long remember when they think about Rucker. During the 1984 Republican National Convention, the city council took a tour of the convention facilities with one of the party’s national officials. Lipscomb, never at a loss for bombast himself, saw an opportunity, with television cameras around, to get some attention. He began blasting the Republicans for failing to award any convention-related contracts to minority-owned businesses.

Rucker go( this look on his face that suggested either 1) he had been kicked in a very private place or 2) his patience with Lipscomb had suddenly reached its limit. An alert WFAA-TV reporter noticed the Rucker look, came up with a microphone, and off Rucker went.

“You’ve been sitting in budget meetings all day without that one person,” Rucker said. “You read about what they’ve been doing instead of looking to the city’s business, and then the first time a camera turns on them, they act like an autistic child who hasn’t hit a lick in twenty-five years and suddenly stands up and does a moon for everybody as soon as the camera comes on.”

Soon, mothers of autistic children were demanding an apology, black coun-cilmember Diane Ragsdale was branding Rucker insensitive to the black community, the story was splashed across the front pages of both Dallas newspapers, and Rucker apologized. Sort of. He said his words were taken out of context by the news media.

“The line about Lipscomb wasn’t out of context,” ] tell him at lunch. “It was taken verbatim from a television news report.’”

“But they said in a newspaper headline I called him autistic. I didn’t call him that,”

“Well, it’s a rather fine difference.”

“I didn’t call him that.” Rucker responds. “I did describe his behavior as that to which one would feel if you had an autistic child who gave a moon.”

“Oh,” I say, and change the subject.

Over the last decade, Dallas has gotten used to its share of flamboyance on the city council. These freewheeling, shoot-from-the-lip guys have sometimes been a lot of fun. But the outrageous ones have been. well, you know, different. They always lived- how can we put this?-on the other side of the river. Or they came from Pleasant Grove.

Then along comes the latest iconoclast, and guess what? He wears good suits and drives a four-door Mercedes. He’s a lawyer and owner of a construction company. A conservative Republican. An SMU graduate who was a campus celebrity in the late Fifties because of his exploits as the lead singer in a student rock and roll band. Once, doing a Jerry Lee Lewis song, Rucker began jumping up and down on top of an upright piano. He fell off and landed on the keyboard, breaking the piano player’s fingers and destroying the piano. Before he got married a few years ago to a beautiful British lady who throws great dinner parties, Rucker was a legendary bachelor, charming women with his Richard Burton imitations. The upper crust of Dallas said, “My God, he’s one of us! He’s establishment! He lives in North Dallas! He’s made money! Big real estate developers even contribute to his campaign!”

It’s hard to remember something memorable any councilman from North Dallas has ever said in the last twenty years, yet suddenly Jerry Rucker pops up and talks his unique brand of common sense, claiming the city council should only meet once every two weeks because the weekly meetings are a waste of time.

One year after taking office, he infuriated almost every other North Dallas councilmember by suggesting that they were trading votes with one another on zoning cases so their own pet projects would pass. In his last campaign, he compared the city’s powerful neighborhood groups to “a radical movement.” ensuring himself vehement opposition the next time he runs for a city office.

From the start, Rucker has acted with a sort of arrogant independence. Even now, he refuses to develop coalitions, make compromises with other council members, try to create a basis of support, or do any of the things that usually get a law passed in Dallas government. “I will not surrender judgment,” he says. “I’m absolutely sovereign as to what I do or say. I will be responsible for what I do and say. I will not make an excuse that somebody else told me to do it. Anybody who says that shouldn’t be in public office.”

“Well, that’s fine,” says a fellow councilman who asks to remain anonymous, “but in order to get things done, you have to work with other people. But Jerry lays no groundwork. He never comes to us and tells us what he wants to do. He’s not interested in negotiating, in finding common ground. As a result, almost everybody on the council ignores him.”

“Hey,” snaps Rucker, “If you do things from the ground up and have the dirt under the nails for a long time, you don’t have to call a committee together to figure out what you’re going to say or think…. That’s probably the thing that irritates some of my critics more than anything else, that I seem to know, or act like I know, what’s going on without having to ask fifteen committees.”

One local political consultant who’s close to the “Bent Tree Mafia,” a group of influential North Dallas businessmen who have a strong hand in picking and funding mayoral candidates, says the group won’t support Rucker for mayor “because they never know how he’s going to end up on an issue.” Ron Natinsky, president of Citizens for Responsible Growth, the powerful neighborhood lobbying group, says Rucker cares so little for homeowners’ interests ’’that if a developer wants to put up a twenty-story building in a residential area, and the neighborhood next to the site complains that it doesn’t want a high-rise ruining its back yard, then Rucker thinks he’s doing the homeowners a favor by asking the developer to make the building only fifteen stories.”

Moreover, Rucker is often accused of ignoring the details that make for good government. The city staff privately treats him with disdain because he doesn’t have much to do with them. They even trade snippy pieces of gossip, like the story about the time he alone ate two complete chickens at a briefing session luncheon for the council members. “He comes off as so glib and intelligent when he speaks,” says another councilman who also wants to stay unnamed, “that he thinks it’s enough just to be a good public speaker. But since the last election [1985), I think we’ve all noticed up front that he doesn’t seem to be as involved in many things. He’s gone a lot from the meetings and briefing sessions. When he’s there, he’s on the phone or preoccupied with something else.”

To be fair, Rucker, when he shows it, is razor sharp on city planning and transportation issues. (He takes the credit for solving many of the city’s zoning ordinance problems, a claim furiously denied by other councilmembers.) He is also good at squashing screwball ordinances that other councilmembers don’t see, like the one he fought that would have required fire sprinklers in most large buildings. Rucker wanted to know why we need sprinklers in a steel warehouse that stored bricks. Sure enough, adjustments in the ordinance were later made.

Rucker will admit that he doesn’t address as many issues as he did when he first came on the council. He seems to be calling his shots a little more carefully now, perhaps still wincing a bit from the outcry his off-the-cuff comments have caused in the past. Longtime political activist and Rucker supporter Kay Copeland says, “The other coun-cilmembers are just jealous. You barely hear a whisper out of the council except when Jerry gets going. He’s exciting. Everyone else is playing ward politics and Jerry can spin out a vision for a great city. What’s wrong with that?”

In fact, Rucker’s best role will always be that of the wise-cracking politician who will charm the citizens with his freshness while he hunts down the truth, no matter how many toes he has to step on. None of the establishment councilmembers plays the role of the statesman like Rucker. The other councilmembers from north of the river are competent-they’ll destroy you on the city budget and on zoning issues if you don’t have your facts right. But they aren’t exactly the types who can make the masses rise up, They can’t work a crowd like Rucker, they can’t make a moving impromptu speech over the rights of the small businessman the way Rucker does at council sessions, and they aren’t great at lunch the way Rucker is.

Rucker has been going non-stop for nearly four hours, and every comment has been a journalist’s dream-highly quotable, always provocative. So far he’s criticized:

1.) The brains of the other city councilmembers (“a bunch of folks whose eyes glaze over on just about anything scientific”).

2.) The Far North Dallas developer interests that he’s often been so closely aligned with (“a lot of people who live geographically and mentally closer to Southern California than to Dallas”).

3.) The way most power is distributed in Dallas (“How are you going to get your name known in Dallas unless you got a million bucks or you married someone’s daughter who’s got a million bucks? You can’t. You’ve got to sneak up on them like I did.”).

Although it’s trendy among politicians these days to vote for health, he tears into the city’s new anti-smoking ordinance. “I hate to legislate rudeness, or legislate against it,” he says. “Manners are something people get to take their own retribution against.” I bring up the fetal remains debate and he gets mad all over again at the way politicians will pass anything for the anti-abortionists “just to get them off our backs.”

We turn to the subject of why members of the Dallas City Council so rarely talk about what’s really bothering them, when suddenly Rucker begins to peer anxiously out the window at a police officer who’s standing beside his Mercedes.

“That fellow is stalking my car,” Rucker exclaims. The officer is noticing that Rucker has about ten minutes left before his time expires on the parking meter. “Damn it,” Rucker says.

“What is this love you have for your car?” I ask. “I mean, you have an extraordinary love for the rights of automobiles.”

“No,” says Rucker, “but if you go anywhere in Dallas, you’ve got to have a car to do it. I spend a lot of time in my car because I go a few places and I don’t have a driver.”

“But in that debate over the police officer who gave you a ticket, you went into a tirade.”

Rucker replies that the whole issue was blown way out of proportion. “It was a case of the press going to town on its own thing.”

“The press didn’t invent the part where you asked the police officer for an escort.”

Rucker scowls. “Look, I said to her that I had to get somewhere. Then I told her, ’I know you’ve got to write the ticket. But I’ve got about six blocks to go, and just write the ticket once I get down there.’ Now, an ordinary person wouldn’t ask that, but an ordinary person wasn’t representing the city of Dallas when they’re going to present his burial marker to a veteran dead for thirty years.”

But Rucker also turned the whole issue into a debate at a city council meeting on the absurdity of speed traps set up by police officers. “You were even quoted,” I say, “about a ’God-given right’ for people to drive about seventy miles an hour.”

“I do think that the fifty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit is probably a ridiculous imposition on a part of the country where it’s totally inappropriate.”

“Well,” I say, “the argument, of course, is that we save a couple of thousand lives a year from the speed limit.”

“That is the argument currently being disproved,” Rucker says. “There is no correlation between speed on a superhighway and death. There is a correlation on differences of speeds.”

1 gather that he means a fast car running into a slow car causes accidents, which does not seem the most defensible argument in the world, but Rucker is staring at me so intently that, once again, I change the subject.

“Do you occasionally feel remorse that you aren’t perceived by other council-members in a way that befits your intellect? That you have lost some of your credibility because of your ’autistic child’ quote and the speedtrap debate?”

“Oh, I guess so,” Rucker says. “But I do think there’s a tendency on the part of the press to pick up on the trivial and put that on page one.”

“But I always get this impression of you wanting to leap up from your seat and lambaste whoever is speaking at the time.”

Rucker pauses. “Probably the only thing I’ve learned in this whole thing,” he says, “is to hold your fire, because if you lambaste something every week, you just become a screwball.”

Still, as hard as Rucker tries, he can’t keep quiet, even on the out-of-the-way issues that have no great effect on city government. His duty, as he sees it, is to prick the conscience of the people. “Honestly,” he says, “political skill means watering everything down into bland aphorisms, some sort of vacant bromide, and get your picture in the paper. The people see your picture, they don’t see anything offensive, and thus they’re not required to think very much. But it’s a waste of my time. I don’t have time to fiddle with that stuff.”

It is an odd sort of calling-an establishment man, with a promising political career that he obviously loves very much, willing to risk it all on a sharp tongue and a weakness for the snide remark. Jerry Rucker is an elusive shape on the local political horizon, but he is like something seen in a lightning flash, his image very intense.

It is, indeed, impossible to ignore him. A long time into the lunch, a waiter comes up and asks, “How are we doing?”

“Very well,” says Rucker, “but not very well for you, I expect. We’ve been taking up this table all day talking.”

“No, that’s fine,” the waiter replies. “I’ve been standing over there listening to every word. I’ve loved it.”

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