The city elections on April 4 will mark a turning point for local government. Your vote will decide which of the council factions will have the critical Sixth Vote.

DALLAS HAS COME TO A CROSSROADS IN ITS HISTORY. According to virtually every credible and reputable observer of the local scene, 1986 was a watershed year in this city’s life, and wherever we find ourselves headed this year, we cannot help but be moving in a new direction.

The words of wisdom and insight and reflection that accompanied the printed and broadcast obituaries for 1986 were peppered with speculation about the future. The new year would bring “fundamental changes” in how the city operates. There were calls for “fresh thinking” in a new year that should be rich with “opportunity.”

The local elections on April 4 do seem to come at a pivotal moment in Dallas history. Dallas suffered far less than some other Texas communities during ’86 from the effects of The Economy That Cooled Off, but the experience was sobering enough to get the attention of people across the spectrum. To some, the economic downturn seemed more like a crash; stories of bankruptcies, foreclosures, layoffs, and staggering net losses fought for space on the front pages. Almost overnight, the homeless and the poor seemed to be everywhere. For the first time in the city’s history, Dallas was cutting municipal services and employees’ salaries.

Suddenly, in the words of Mayor Starke Taylor, “A lot of us realized that we-meaning all of us-really are in the same boat. Suddenly, life wasn’t so easy. Maybe things aren’t going to come as easily as before.” He and others talked of new directions.

We shouldn’t have to hold our breath too long before finding out just what that new direction is. Dallas citizens will choose that course when voters go to the polls to elect a new mayor and city council, and it shouldn’t take long after that body is seated for the course to become clear. Some of the incumbents who seem certain of reelection are already talking about a shift in focus, away from the traditional preoccupation of the council with land-use planning and zoning to social issues and economic development, two topics that have not exactly been staples of the traditional dialogue at Dallas City Hall.

It’s not only a response to the sobering effects of 1986, however, that has council members and political leaders and influential members of the news media anticipating significant changes in the city’s agenda. Other forces, natural ones, are at play here, too, and they have their roots in the Sixties.

Dallas, like all American cities, did not escape that era unaffected; a movement toward more citizen involvement in decision-making and agenda-setting began during that period, and it came to fruition in 1975, when the first single-member-district council was seated. That change, scrapping a system whereby all members of the council were elected at large in a city wide vote, was propelled by another force-the soaring economy and the newcomers who brought to the city new ideas and new attitudes about citizen participation. Today, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, roughly a third of the voting age residents of Dallas come from outside the state and have lived here an average of less than Five years. The city has changed, and if a mirror were held before it, the face within it would be that of the Dallas City Council.

At the extremes of the local political spectrum are citizens and political observers who are not pleased with what they see. Either the system has not changed enough, or quickly enough, or else they still yearn for the old way of doing things, when the city was run by the famous benevolent oligarchy of the city’s conservative business leadership. Nevertheless, they all concede the change. It’s only been ten years, for instance, since the council voted down a request to fund a program aimed at helping battered wives, with one council member-a woman, who said she didn’t have much sympathy for women who find themselves in such circumstances-calling the proposed program “an invasion of privacy.” Today, it’s impossible to believe that a majority of Dallas citizens would accept that sort of insensitivity from elected leaders.

Another factor, too, has council members and political observers saying a new day could be dawning: zoning will preoccupy the council much less in 1987. The Dallas City Council since 1975 has been an arena for a struggle between pro-development forces and neighborhood groups. Today, though, with the council having wrapped up all but the final touches on a rewrite of the city’s zoning ordinance (and with development having come to a near standstill because of a flat real estate market), most observers believe that issue is “off the table,” to use incumbent council member Lori Palmer’s expression, at least for a while.

And that brings us to a critical point. Aside from settling zoning cases and deciding where to put city streets, the council’s role is seeing to it that citizens get the services they expect. With the zoning battles dying down, the question of city services-and who can deliver them best-will come to the forefront.

“If you look at the agendas of work that the council considers, it’s [items like] buying gas and tires and stationery, and it’s letting contracts to build streets-and paying for services that the council’s constituents have said they’re willing to pay for,” former city manager George Schrader said some time ago in an interview about the realities of city government. “[The council] is operating a municipal corporation for the delivery of services. Some who have looked at it have said that the city is more like a public utility. It is certainly monopolistic. There is no other police force in town, for instance. Without systematically computing the classes of work that the city does, it is so obvious that it does very little setting of rules of society and is much more involved in the delivery of services.”

Schrader’s description of city government as a “municipal corporation” has wide currency. According to this definition, the citizens are the stockholders, the city council is the board of directors, and the city manager is the chief operating officer. (The mayor, under Dallas’s weak-mayor system, is just one more director.) The city manager is responsible to the council, whose members are accountable in turn to their constituents. Every two years in Dallas, the city holds an election wherein the stockholders let the board of directors know how well they think their interests are being served.

Only it’s not that simple, of course, Like every corporation, the city of Dallas has some shareholders who are unhappy or disgruntled or who simply want more of a direct say in how the corporation is run. Sometimes the numbers are large enough to effect change, which brings us to the real heart of the matter: the Sixth Vote. It’s no oversimplification to say that fundamental change in Dallas city government is only a matter of getting six votes. In order for the eleven-member city council to take-or decline to take-action on any item that comes before it, at least six of the council members have to be in accord. Yes, there are some circumstances where a two-thirds vote of the council is required-to fire the city manager, for instance, or to overrule a zoning recommendation from the city plan commission, And there are occasions when, with some council members absent or abstaining, one side can prevail with a smaller majority. Six votes, though, is the magic number virtually all of the time.

It’s been that way for years, and especially so since the introduction of single-member districts. Dallas today is a city of multiple constituencies, of layers of influence, and the years since 1975 have featured struggles between forces that cannot simply be characterized as pro-development or pro-neighbor- hood; there have been contests between haves and have-nots, between liberals and conservatives, between progressives and reactionaries, between whatevers. Sometimes the lines and labels are blurred; sometimes there is out-and-out vote trading between council members. If there is a single key to winning, though, it is probably the ability to create coalitions. Because of single-member districts, it is sometimes the only way to win.

The “most significant and lasting tension in a democracy,” says political writer Robert Sherrill, is the struggle between forces who would spread political power over the widest possible base and those who would gather it into the hands of a few. “At its worst-and it often does seem to vacillate between two worsts-this is a choice between broad incompetence and narrow corruption.” Dallasites opted for the city manager form of government in 1930 because the city had experienced one of those extremes-narrow corruption. The struggle since the mid-Sixties has been characterized by a fear on the part of some that the city could be moving toward the other extreme-a city government with many hands fumbling at the tiller while the ship runs aground.

Throughout the years of change, the Citizens Charter Association, which was the political arm of the Dallas Citizens Council-the business establishment-called the shots by providing a slate of candidates; from 1931 through the mid-Sixties, virtually no one successfully opposed the status quo. The walls began to crumble, though, in the Sixties as minorities and women and other disenfranchised groups clamored for a role in the political system. In 1973, the all-at-large system was declared unconstitutional; two years later, the current 8-3 system-eight “pure” single-member districts and three at-large seats-was instituted. The 8-3 plan was challenged, too, by those who wanted a 10-1 system, with only the mayor elected citywide, or even an 11-0, with the council electing the mayor. In 1976, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the 8-3 was indeed unconstitutional, and proponents of the at-large seats were at last ready to call it quits. But the council, on a 6-5 vote, decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In what has become a landmark decision affecting municipal government, the high court overruled the 5th Circuit and allowed the 8-3 system to remain.

The simplistic depiction of council members as belonging to either the anti- or pro-neighborhood forces makes some sense, because zoning has been the primary issue on the table for all these years. Dallas’s booming economy brought a steady stream of newcomers to the city, and some of those who arrived in the late Sixties and early Seventies-especially those who came from Eastern and Northeastern cities-came with predilections for inner-city living and strong concepts of what neighborhoods should be. Historic preservation and “revitalization” became buzzwords of the early Seventies in East Dallas. At the same time, in South Dallas and South Oak Cliff, vocal blacks were getting elected to office, and they allied themselves with the heretofore lonely non-establishment figures on the council to create a potent voting bloc; other non-establishment types turned up on the city’s boards and commissions, put there by sympathetic council members.

Probably the most important occurrence that fueled the change in the local political scene came when the boom of the Seventies spread to wealthy North Dallas, where neighborhood organizations had existed much longer than they had elsewhere in the city. Intrusions from development and traffic congestion became the primary concerns of many constituents there, and they began to capture more of the council’s attention than the less wealthy East Dallasites had been able to.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted that “no generality is worth a damn. .. including this one.” That noted, it’s nevertheless possible to simplify the local political scene by dividing the players into two philosophic camps, the Traditionalists and the Radicals-the Trads and the Rads, for short.

The Trads are those who believe that sound municipal government rests on two pillars: the preservation of the city manager form of government, and a cautious, conservative approach to spending the public’s money. The Rads aren’t necessarily anti-city manager or any less cautious and conservative about spending; they do tend, though, to want more response from the manager and staff than they feel they’ve had in the past, and they see more of a role for local government in social issues than has been the case historically.

Only three of the current members of the Dallas City Council are not running for reelection-Mayor Starke Taylor, Bill Milkie, and Jim Richards. A fourth member, mayor pro tern Annette Strauss, is running for mayor.

So we’re left with seven incumbents-and all but one, at-large council member Jerry Rucker, seem to have reelection cinched at this writing. (Rucker has his critics, but unless a well-financed, well-known challenger surfaces, he’s a shoo-in.) Three of the incumbents are Rads: Lori Palmer in District Two (Oak Lawn-West Dallas), Craig Holcomb in District Five (East Dallas), and Diane Ragsdale in District Six (South Dallas). As for Al Lipscomb in District Eight (South Oak Cliff), he’s voted the Rad side on a lot of issues. But he’s also voted with the Trads on some issues that haven’t affected his district-such as some zoning cases-so he’s not exactly regarded as a dependable member of the group led by Palmer. Still, with zoning cases probably consuming less of the council’s time, he’s got to be considered part of the coalition. Four votes.

John Evans in District Seven (Southeast Dallas) has been a pleasant surprise as a council member-solid, steady, does his homework. He’s a Trad, and not likely to opt for much change.

Dean Vanderbilt in District Four (Northeast Dallas) is as good an example as we’re likely to find of how the council has changed since 1975-and also of the wisdom of Holmes’s caveat about generalizations. The former budget director of the city of Dallas, he’s definitely a Trad. But he’s also a single-member-district representative in an area that has been active and supportive of some Rad issues. He’s also one of those people who’s talking about an unmistakable shift in direction on the part of the council, to social issues and economic development. He’ll remain a Trad, but the Rads can look to him ; from time to time for help. Five votes.

Jerry Rucker, one of the two at-large members, is not a Rad, but not a Trad either. This is the guy who says that “Dallas has been lost to the twits,” a man who yearns for the good ol’ days of strong leadership. And ! who thinks for himself. Council members ! say they don’t trust him because they can’t count on his vote. But that’s what an at-large seat is all about, in Rucker’s view; to serve as an at-large member of the council is to represent a constituency larger and more diverse than most congressional districts. The Rads would love to have this seat (some of them would love to beat Rucker merely for personal satisfaction), but at this point no serious challenger has come forward. Rucker seems likely to return in District Nine.

District Ten is the at-large seat being vacated by Annette Strauss. Businessman Al Gonzalez, a Hispanic who won his spurs in the ’85 bond election, looks good in this contest for the simple reason that neither the Trads nor the Rads have any real gripes about him. Therein lies the dilemma, though, for purists who want a solid Sixth Vote: Gonzalez is a conservative businessman, but he’s also got a foot in the progressive camp. If elected, he’ll probably be the swing vote on a lot of issues.

District One (Southwestern Dallas) used to be easy to call-a Trad vote-but today it rivals Pleasant Grove for unpredictability. In the years since 1975 it’s been represented by a housewife, a businessman, and a college professor. The early favorite this year is Dr. Charles Tandy, who has solid credentials in both camps-he’s been an appointee to the solidly establishment Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Board, and he’s been involved in the historic preservation movement in Oak Cliff. Neither side can claim him.

District Three (Northwest Dallas) is easy-it’ll be a Trad vote, whoever the winner there is. It’s an affluent, conservative, Republican district, it’s been that way since ’75 and there’s absolutely no reason to think the personality of the district has changed this time around. Businessman and former school board member Jerry Bartos appears to be the likely winner.

That brings us to the mayor’s race. No favored candidate is clearly aligned with Trads or Rads at this time. Dallas has never had a mayor’s race like this. Annette Strauss has been hard to figure during her tenure on the council, and some of the leaders of the Rad side-who would seem to be natural supporters, in light of the other mayoral candidates-haven’t exactly been thrilled with her performance. She supported them last year in blocking efforts to redistrict the council to create a “safe” council seat for a Hispanic representative-which would have been costly to their leader, Lori Palmer-but sources say it took a visit to Strauss by some leaders of the homeowner movement who flatly threatened to oppose her mayoral campaign if she didn’t vote their way. Marvin Crenshaw, who became a fixture at City Hall with his frequent demands for a city policy on South Africa, is a Rad candidate who may take some votes away from Strauss, but he has virtually no chance to win the race.

Fred Meyer, the former chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, would seem to be a natural choice of the Trads, but his partisan successes-in a city that voted Democratic in the ’86 governor’s election-could hurt as much as help. Former congressman Jim Collins is a cult hero with both conservatives and anti-establishment types who’ll vote for him almost by reflex, but he’ll have even more trouble than Meyer in wooing the broad-based support that an at-large candidate has to have today. Businessman Jim Buerger is a political unknown, but he has the money and the determination to compete with the other three, and his supporters are counting on his Norman Vincent Peale-like positive attitude to attract the support of many voters. With four well-financed candidates, there’s no way to call this race so early-except to say that it’ll set a record for campaign expenditures, and that it’ll likely end up in a runoff election.

So, it’s pretty much of a tossup election.The Trads seem to be able to count on onlythree solid votes going in, and the Rads havefour, maybe five; neither side has the criticalsixth at this point. It could go either way.Perhaps this is splitting hairs, however Ifzoning and growth policies are indeed offthe table, then there’s really not that muchof a dispute among the constituencies aboutthe issues that do belong on the table-crime, health care, racial justice, redistrict-ing, the economic health of the “municipalcorporation.” The only chronic disagreements likely to divide the new council willbe over priorities-just when to tackle theseissues, how to tackle them, and how muchcity money, if any, to spend on them. But thefact that these issues are subjects for consideration at all is proof of how much Dallashas changed since 1975.


County Commissioner John Wiley Price sees a runoff between Strauss and

Meyer.. ’’They’ve got the machinery and the funds.” He won’t predict a final winner, however. “That’s too risky.”

Lisa LeMaster, I>political consultant, looks for a runoff between Meyer and Strauss. “Traditionally, Dallas goes for business-backed candidates and they are both backed by the business community.”

Steve Duncan, astrotogist, divines that the winner w\li be Fred Meyer. “I got that due to his reputation and the feeling I got when you said his name.”

Molly Ivins, Dallas Times Herald columnist, says, “Of course, I’m rooting for ]im Collins. I always think of the Dallas mayor’s race in terms of entertainment value. But I think he’ll be edged out by Annette Strauss, who’s not nearly as much fun.”

Carolyn Barta, editor of the Dallas Morning News “Viewpoints” page, says, “No question about it, there’ll be a runoff.” Best guess: Cofiins or Meyer vs. Buerger or Strauss.

Mayor Starke Taylor predicts, “There will be a runoff, but I won’t say who will win it. 1 hope the next mayor will be a strong, effective leader with business experience and people skills.”

-Eric Miller


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