POLITICS The Great Right Hope

Is Councilman Glenn Box the con-servatives’ answer to Diane Ragsdale?

THE GHOST OF JIM COLLINS

lurks in the room. Dallas City Councilman Glenn Box does the talking, but former U.S. Congressman Collins is there, all right. He sits at Box’s right hand-Jim Collins was never to the left of anybody-and whispers philosophy into the young man’s ear.

“The best government is the one that governs least,” Box declares with great gravity. Thomas Jefferson said something like that once. Jim Collins said it a lot. “The judicial branch ought to live by the Constitutional restraints set forth by the founding fathers,” Box says. The old ghost rattles his chains happily at that one.

We’re in a tiny cubicle on the 57th floor of NCNB Plaza, in the offices of Jackson & Walker, where Box is an attorney in the real estate department. Though the space is the size of a janitor’s closet-even the offices that City Hall allots to council members are bigger-it does offer a commanding view.

When he chooses, Box can peer through the glass and imagine himself as mayor of the metropolis below. Though he is completing | only his first council term and has never held any other office, conservative mayor-makers already mention him as a contender, the great white hope.

But the ghost in Box’s ear whispers, “Congress. You should run for Congress.” At 32, Box is not yet bold enough to assert such as his intention. But he does say. “1 would certainly like to consider it if the right opportunity comes along.” If redistricting under the new census creates another local Republican seat-a distinct possibility-Box almost surely will find his opportunity. Running for Congress would make Jim Collins proud.

You remember Jim Collins, of course. He was the multimillionaire darling of North Dallas, the conscience of the conservatives, the Congressional clown prince of the Seventies. He never met a military program or defense appropriation he didn’t like and never encountered a social or environmental bill he could stand. Collins introduced the legislation to pay Vietnam war protesters to leave the country, to halt desegregation busing as a way of saving energy, to divide Texas into five separate states. He became famous as the man who never passed one single bill during 15 years in Congress.

After his Washington career ended, Col lins sought to haunt Dallas by running for mayor in 1987. The results were embarrassing, and the former congressman withdrew from public life until his death in 1989. But now he sits there like Cosmo Topper and speaks his mind through the mouth of the young protege, Glenn Box.

Box and Collins go back together to the councilman’s childhood in a suburban fortress north of Royal Lane near Midway Road. Before he was 10 years old, Glenn tagged behind his mother Alma Box, the Preston West Republican Women’s Club leader, as she knocked on doors to win votes for the congressman. When Glenn was 12, the two Boxes hammered ticky tacky into yard signs at Jim Collins’s farm.

During his studies toward a business degree from Southern Methodist University, Box worked one summer as an aide in Collins’s congressional office in Washington. When the SMU baseball team collapsed and Box discovered he was no great shakes at football, he resolved to go to law school so he could enter politics so he could run for Congress so he could be like Jim Collins.

The city council seat Box won in 1989 is the first step, but only a step. “My priority right now is to do a good job on the council. I have to accomplish that before I can go on to anything bigger.”

So far, reviews are widely varied on Box’s accomplishments as the council member representing District 5, which includes most of East Dallas and parts of Oak Lawn. Many in East Dallas praise his firm stand against the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority’s proposed use of the Santa Fe Railroad tracks as an avenue to Garland. Oak Lawn constituents almost unanimously decry his support of increased air traffic at Love Field in the teeth of their objections about noise.

On lesser issues, the consensus is that Box is silent and aloof. “He just sits there like a bump on a log,” says East Dallas businessman Tom Dooley Rung, who often attends city council sessions. “When you ask him for his help on something, he says, ’I can’t get any support for that,’ and brushes you off,” exclaims Democratic Party Executive Director Judy Solganick-Donohue, who lives in District 5.

“Glenn just doesn’t understand the inner city,” explains realtor Doug Newby, an East Dallas neighborhood leader. “He grew up in North Dallas, and he is used to the much simpler political climate there. I think the cultural and social diversity of his district confuses him.”

Indeed, District 5 is, arguably, the most socially and culturally diverse section of the city. Its population divides about equally into black, white, and brown, with a fair pocket of Asian immigrants as well. Some of Dallas’s most consistently Republican precincts are within its bounds, but some of the most Democratic areas are there, too. In truth, the mores and lifestyles of the residents include many with which Box clearly is uncomfortable.

“Glenn met with us before the runoff

(after he finished second behind Mary Poss and ahead of Scott Chase in his race for council) and asked for our endorsement,” says Peter Brooks, an East Dallas resident who is co-chairman of the Lesbian/Gay Political Coalition of Dallas. “We told him we would endorse him if he returned a favorable questionnaire.”

But the ghost of Jim Collins spoke up.

“Box called me the next day to say he was withdrawing his request for our endorsement,” Brooks says. “He didn’t want our support. I think he was naively trying to get endorsements wherever he could until he realized that the backing of the Lesbian/Gay Coalition could be a liability among his North Dallas political friends.”

Despite a general feeling that Box might be happier representing his home turf in North Dallas, the main worry among the politically active of District 5 has to do with what might be called the Jim Collins factor. The young councilman is viewed as an ideologue, a zealot, an unyielding partisan impatient with disagreement and incapable of compromise. Constituents fear that unbending extremism-a Collins trademark-may render Box equally ineffective.

“As a council member, Glenn is sort of the right wing’s answer to Diane Ragsdale,” says a Box supporter who prefers not to be identified. “He digs his heels in on a position the same way Ragsdale does, and I think people quit listening to him after awhile. A lot of us are concerned that our district could lose clout on the council because he is so hard to deal with.”

Agrees mother Alma, “Once Glenn makes up his mind about something, he can be a hard-liner. There’s nothing wishy-washy about him.”

Nowhere has Box’s intractability been more evident than in the debate over the 14 single-member district/mayor-at-large plan of city government that went to voters in December. While Mayor Annette Strauss and other council members sought to move beyond the racial division that led to the vote. Box joined his mother to lead the “Just Say No to 14-1” campaign. The Boxes preferred the so-called 10-4-1 proposal-10 at-large districts, four council members elected from quadrants of the city, and a mayor running at large. The plan was informally rejected by a federal court early this year.

Part of Box’s opposition to 14-1 was based on the voters having approved 10-4-1 in 1989. “If the voters had approved 14-1, and a judge had said, ’You’ve got to do 10-4-1,’ I would have been just as upset,” he insists.

Box concedes, though, that another reason for his fight against 14-1 was his belief, shared by many in the North Dallas establishment, that single-member districts alone do not provide adequate representation. “If I had been mayor. I would have insisted that we come up with a plan that was acceptable to all the people of Dallas. including North Dallas,” Box says. “Obviously. that would have included some at-large representation. Well. 1 shouldn’t say at-large. What I mean is that the plan should include some super-districts or districts larger than single-member districts.”

While he has been rigid in his opposition to 14-1, however, the young councilman has worked quietly over the past year to turn the proposed plan to his own advantage. Since each district in a 14-district plan is, necessarily, smaller than the district Box represents in the current eight-sector configuration, he has sought ways to trim heavily Democratic and minority precincts out of his area. To do so. he has worked behind the scenes with other council members-notably Lori Palmer, who would like to add liberal precincts to her district-in an attempt to stake out a territory for himself.

“My immediate plans are to hope that I have a district so 1 can serve a few more years on the Dallas City Council,” Box says.

If time stopped, somehow, and Box were forced to seek reelection from the same district that put him into office in 1989, he could face an extraordinarily tough battle. Democrats and progressives who supported Chase in the initial election switched to Box in the runoff against Mary Poss. It was their votes that put him into office.

Now, though, many of those voters are dissatisfied with their councilman’s performance. “I worked for him in the runoff and encouraged other people to support him,” says County Democratic Chairman Ken Molberg. who lives in the 5th District. “But now that I’ve seen him on the job. I wouldn’t vote for the sonuvabitch for dogcatcher.”

It is ironic that the 14-1 plan Box so staunchly opposed offers his best chance to continue on the city council. Running from the kind of socially and culturally diverse area in which he was elected as an unknown, he might well lose. But with smaller districts, he may well end up with a constituency that even Jim Collins could win. If that happens, Box and the shade of Jim Collins could become a potent political force in Dallas for years to come.

Without a white, conservative district ashis base, however, Glenn Box could beforced to give up the ghost.

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