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POLITICS Absence of Malice?

In this month’s city elections, all the hopefuls are dressed to heal.
By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

HIS SHORT, SQUARE HANDS wrapped around a steaming mug of Denny’s coffee, Ricardo Medrano, City Council hopeful from the newly drawn District 2, speaks earnestly of unfinished business. Business like enhanced economic opportunities for minorities. (“The larger (government) contracts still go to Anglos,” he says.) More emphasis on international trade. (“People in Mexico love American products.”) And moving money from places where it is merely accumulating to places where it could do real good. (“We need to take money from the reserve funds at D/FW Airport,” he suggests, “and buy new police cars or ambulances with it.”)

Medrano still smarts when he recalls his defeat in 1983 after serving on the Dallas City Council for just two terms. He did not, he says, get to “complete a lot of my ideas.”’ Medrano believes he offers the voters of his new district a track record as a quiet, diligent, behind-the-scenes worker, a man who in two years on the council never missed a single vote.

If Medrano hopes to portray himself as a man whose “leadership and integrity are unchallenged”-his words-he may have an uphill fight. In this town, and especially in Medrano’s part of town, the Medrano name is more closely aligned with accusations of voter fraud and dirty campaign tactics. The family has a reputation as old-style political bosses, the one-time “Lords of Little Mexico.”

It is exactly that reputation that Medrano’s chief opponent, 30-year-old attorney Chris Luna, hopes to exploit. Luna sees himself as representative of a new breed of Hispanic leader-conciliatory in style, well educated and articulate, able to navigate the board room as well as the barrio. Medrano, he says, represents the old Dallas- the fractious, divided Dallas-that voters are sick of. When it comes to minority candidates, Luna says, there are two schools: “those who are preaching anger and those who are preaching hope.”

The matchup between Medrano and Luna would appear to offer voters in District 2 a classic choice between the past and the future, between experience and a fresh perspective, between the corner grocery store and the windowed office downtown. Even so, from the point of view of Hispanic leaders who have waited a long time for council districts that favor Hispanic candidates, neither Medrano nor Luna is the perfect standard-bearer. Says outspoken activist Adelfa Calle-jo: “Luna hasn’t paid his dues. He’s done nothing in the way of committees or commissions. But Medrano-there’s a question of ethics there that many of us can’t forget.”

It’s too soon to tell whether voters in District 2 will return Medrano to office or opt for a newcomer like Luna. But one thing is already clear: Luna’s statement notwithstanding, neither candidate is asking voters to choose between “anger and hope.” The mood of this campaign has been more that of a love-in than a political horse race.

District 14. “What that will typically do is work to the advantage of more moderate candidates.”

Indeed, even Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb have retooled their approach to bring in voters who may have been alienated by their angry outbursts over the years. Says Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant who was approached by Ragsdale last spring to help her “court the while vote” in her new district, “[Ragsdale] really has a very good record on neighborhood issues and she will want to play that up to the 40 percent ’other’ in her district.” At a council meeting in early fall, Ragsdale appeared to be doing just that when she made an eloquent speech to an all-white homeowners group from Lake Highlands. The group was there to oppose a zoning request from an absentee landlord who apparently had let conditions deteriorate at his apartment complex. Ragsdale’s support and her generous words seemed to surprise the Lake Highlands folks. Said one after the meeting, “I never knew she could be so reasonable when her own constituency wasn’t involved.”

So far, the issues in the campaign appear fairly generic and safe. Crime. More money for police and fire protection. More jobs. More jobs in South Dallas. More international trade. An end to the political bickering. Equity in city services for the southern sector. Voters will have a hard time choosing between candidates on the basis of issues, when a Hispanic from the barrio like Ricardo Medrano preaches about leading Dallas toward a more global economy, and an Anglo physician like incumbent Dr. Charles Tandy’s main thrust is parity for Oak Cliff.

And though style may be more important than substance, two other S-words-sweat and savvy-will provide the basis for victory this November, political strategists say. “The candidates who follow proven campaign strategies, developing and dropping direct mail pieces, telephoning, walking door-to-door, are the candidates who will prevail,” says longtime political adviser and election demographer Dan Weiser.

The problem, says Lorlee Bartos, is that minority candidates traditionally have not followed those systematic approaches to campaigning, Whether because of a lack of money or a distrust of paid consultants, blacks and Hispanics hire few of the political consultants who know the nuts and bolts of modern political warfare, Bartos says. Weiser agrees. “When [Ricardo] Medrano ran for re-election against Paul Fielding in 1983, his campaigning was inept,” Weiser says. “I remember during the runoff. I sent two volunteers over to his campaign headquarters to help him on the phones. They called back and said, ’Dan, we’re over here, and do you know what the phone bank is? It’s the pay phone at the grocery store.’” Candidates like Chris Luna, who have employed consultants (including Bartos) and are approaching their campaigning by the strategists’ book, may have an automatic edge.

If the new 14-1 election plan has led to a sweetness-and-light style of campaigning, it may also open the door for a new breed of minority politician. Says Palmer: “Political power is very much derived from your constituency. Al and Diane’s districts, in the past have been almost totally black. And that has led to the role that those individuals have felt they had to play. [The 14-1 plan] offers a whole new opportunity for blacks to demonstrate their ability to appeal to and represent whites.”

Indeed. But the realities of 14-1 are such that whites will very much need to be able to work with the new (and old) minority council members as well. Though counting votes with so many unknowns is risky, Palmer predicts that a dominant progressive coalition on the council is almost assured.

“Assuming that the seven minorities vote alike on some issues, then there’s also Dr. Tandy, whose district is about 50 percent minority, and there’s the traditionally progressive inner-city district [Palmer’s own], so that’s nine votes responsive to minority issues. North Dallas will have to elect people who can communicate well with minorities and progressives-because they’re going to need their votes.”

Whatever faces and names fill the expanded council horseshoe after election day. the name of the game will be coalition building. No one group will dominate Dallas government for at least the foreseeable future. Many in Dallas are hoping fervently for moderate candidates who. like Don Hicks, believe in working for change from within. But it is clear that Hicks believes that Anglos must meet the moderate minorities like himself at least halfway.

“Whites who don’t like working with Diane and Al had better be ready to come to the table with people like me, and Chris Luna, and everybody else-or they’ll radicalize us. I’m a product of the Great Society. I believe in working within the system. But I need results.”