The $500,000 Question: who will be our next mayor?

When an old City Hall hand like Kit Bauman (page 96) says that the April city elections will propel Dallas in a “new direction,” it’s time to listen up. But fools rush in where experts fear to tread, and with all due respect I would like to point out that in at least two important ways, these watershed elections are right out of the traditional Dallas mode. The main candidates are as usual very rich, and as usual they stress ad infinitum that the be-all and end-all reason for electing them-indeed, for doing anything at all, whether fighting crime or improving the schools-is the preservation and eternal health of what is variously called “a positive business climate,” “the can-do entrepreneurial spirit,” or “an attractive business environment.” Sounds like old Dom Perignon in new bottles to me.

That a mayoral candidate must be wealthy to seek the post should surprise nobody. The job is actually a very time-consuming volunteer duty, attractive only to well-heeled volunteers or poorly financed crusaders with little chance to win. Salary? Try $50 per meeting, which sends Mr. Mayor home with something under $3,200 per year, even less than your average journalist pulls down. Occasionally a maverick councilman or a former sportscaster will garner enough name recognition to give it a whirl, but those giant billboards on Central and those slick television spots take major money-the kind possessed by Annette Strauss, Fred Meyer, Jim Buerger, and Jim Collins, who says he will not hesitate to spend $500,000 (yes. five zeroes) to have his one vote on the city council.

So we have four wealthy candidates fighting to show that there is more than a dime’s worth of difference between them. Jim Buerger is the independent candidate, he says, and he seems to grasp what may work for a relative unknown in a low-interest race: media events. Buerger’s public relations people, at least, seem to have a sense of humor: an early press release from the Buerger camp-one of dozens-denied that his campaign slogan would be “Dallas is hungry for Buerger” and made much of the correct pronunciation of his name (’”as in bacon-douhle-cheese Buerger”). Perhaps this was an attempt to ward off the Curse of the Unusual Name that plagued judicial candidate Nathan Hecht last spring.

Buerger, who made his fortune in publishing {TRAVELHOST, the Oak Cliff Tribune), pledges to be a “citizen mayor who is one of us,” though he too is ready to shoot $500,000, if need be, to snatch the prize. Buerger stresses humble, hard-working roots: full-time printer at age fourteen, parlayed a loan at twenty-six to buy first newspapers, etc. A key question is whether voters will believe anyone in journalism actually works. but Buerger has a job-for-a-day program designed to demonstrate his devotion to workers and the work ethic. He’ll ride with the police, help teachers, work construction with hardhats. Much of the rest of his strategy is pretty predictable. If you’ve never held office or you’ve been out a while, you present yourself as a fresh-faced stranger to smoke-filled rooms, and paint your experienced rivals as tired party hacks. Your opponents, meanwhile, brand you as a bungling neophyte with the chutzpah to demand “on-the-job training” at public expense. (See Carter v. Ford, 1976. and Reagan v. Carter, 1980.)

As for Buerger’s “independent” strategy, he could make hay if voters in sufficient numbers think (or can be made to think) that Collins, Meyer, and to a lesser extent Strauss are loo closely tied to the political parties to provide “nonpartisan” leadership. Meyer and Collins are tied to the GOP about like Ahab was tied to the whale, but 49 percent of Dallasites in Buerger’s own poll said they didn’t mind a partisan mayor, as long as he was their partisan. Another 44 percent would prefer a mayor who is a “’political independent.” Of course it’s doubtful that any mayor, however rabidly partisan, could do much to politicize local government- though Meyer did say. following the all-but-total victory of GOP judges in November, that he believed Republican judges even on the local level had an ideology preferable to their vanishing Democratic brethren.

Like most campaigns today, whether national, state, or local, this will be mainly a battle of buzzwords (experience, leadership, commitment, growth) with the candidates all supporting better education, better law enforcement, better human services, etc. while avoiding, like a cold sore in a singles bar, any mention of how to pay for these undeniably good things.

But small wonder. Consider the case of poor Jim Collins, who in one thirty-minute outing before the Harvard Club of Dallas strayed close to specifics and managed to a) praise his ol’ buddy Sen. Strom Thurmond, a symbol of Southern intransigence on racial issues; b) strongly imply that the police should be beyond criticism even when they shoot innocent civilians; and c) demonstrate his confusion as to the effects of Proposition 13, the lax-ceiling law, on California.

Collins, who opened by saying he’d rather run against “Bella Abzug and George McGovern” than his Harvard brother Fred Meyer, used the example of Prop. 13 to hammer home his own anti-tax message, praising the tax ceiling as if it has been an unmixed blessing for California. It has not. Grant for a moment that, as Collins says, “two million new jobs” have been created since Prop. 13 passed in 1978. Still. California may now be a better place to make money but not so good a place to live, Last summer, an editor of the Sacramento Bee lamented the damage Prop. 13 had done to the state’s highways, parks, water projects, and most of all its education system, once the envy of the nation. The vast state is now close to last in the nation in spending for highways, and the high school dropout rate soared after Prop. 13 forced school districts to cancel almost all summer school programs. (Remember, education is to be Texas’s post-oil lifeline back to prosperity.) The author pointed out that the tax revolt was led by Howard Jarvis and PaulGann. “a pair of elderly curmudgeons” practicing “gerontocratic politics.” Collins, seventy, achieved little beyond a record for curmudgeonry in his eight terms in the U.S. Congress, during which he sought to attach school prayer amendments to everything that moved. His sort of California dreaming is just what Dallas does not need in a mayor.


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