Saturday, December 3, 2022 Dec 3, 2022
52° F Dallas, TX

THE CITY End of the Yes-and-No Men

Why the Dallas Citizens Council Can’t Lead.
By |

ROBERT L. THORNTON SR.-BANKER, oligarch, and mayor-was accosted by a citizen one day in the ’50s on a street corner downtown. The man pointed to the honking cars in a traffic jam and complained about the noise.

“You don’t want any noise?” countered Uncle Bob. “Well, then, move to Forney, Texas. In Forney they ain’t got no noise, and they ain’t got no traffic, because they ain’t got no people.”

In Forney today they have noise, traffic, and people, while downtown Dallas can be as quiet as a church graveyard. And therein lies a tale, not only of a city and its far-flung suburbs, but also of the power brokers and city builders who once called themselves the Dallas Citizens Council.

Of all the changes in Dallas nothing is more noticeable than how the idea of leadership in this city has deteriorated into mere politics. In conversations the City Council is referred to regularly with a certain amount of disdain. This change is interesting because for decades the City Council never was referred to at all. Everyone knew where the big decisions in town were made, and it wasn’t City Hall, which properly centered its attention on pressing matters such as zoning variances and the placement of stop lights.

Real power in town was concentrated in the hands of the Dallas Citizens Council, whose executive committee was comprised of the CEOs of the three largest banks, the three utilities, the two newspapers, one or two huge landowners, and the chiefs of three or four of the major department stores. Membership was limited to “yes or no” men who could commit their organization’s or their personal fortunes to any enterprise without having to bother with approvals from any boards, committees, or family members. (Lawyers weren’t invited, because they were talkers, not doers, and because they always had to get approval from partners. Small businessmen weren’t invited, because they didn’t have the cash to ante up for multi-million dollar projects.)

Thornton came up with the idea of the Citizens Council, and like all successful ideas, it was founded on a simple premise. Why should he and his bigger rivals at Republic and First National keep feuding and fussing over slices of the same pie, when the obvious solution was to join together to make the pie bigger for everyone? As might be expected from a man who named his bank Mercantile and headquartered it on Commerce Street, Thornton believed the business of Dallas should be business. The more business the better.

The Council’s mission, in Uncle Bob’s words, was “to keep the dirt flyin’. ” The job was to build a city, and to build it quick. The reward would be growth, and growth would line everyone’s pockets.

The Citizens Council set about its task with a vengeance. Corruption at City Hall? Root it out, and establish a council-manager government along corporate lines. Competition from other Texas cities? Snap up the Texas Centennial celebration of 1936 and make Dallas the toast of Texas. (And get around the irritating detail that Dallas hadn’t even existed for the hundred years the Centennial was celebrating by offering the Legislature a check larger than the state budget. ) Problems with the water supply? Buy thousands of acres and build huge reservoirs at Tawakoni, Ray Hubbard, and Aubrey. Another problem? Another solution. Need a new airport? Build DFW. Traffic congestion? Build a toll-way (and by damn, build it through the precious Park Cities, too). Thornton, Fred Florence, Nate Adams, C.A. Tatum, Karl Ho-blitzelle, Ted Dealey, Felix McKnight, Erik Jonsson, John Stemmons, Bob Cullum- these men clashed and fought in private, but united in public to make a city grow until, in Chris Tucker’s words, it grew beyond their ability to control.

Oligarchies are not political, they are economic. Usually they arise in cities or in nations from families with old money who are determined to keep their money (think of Latin America). That makes them essentially conservative and anti-political. The Dallas Citizens Council in its heyday was an exception to this rule. Its oligarchic principle was innovation. The old oligarchies of a 14th-century Florence or a 19th-century Boston were intent on preserving wealth, preferably in the hands of a few. The Dallas oligarchy was intent on attracting wealth, on encouraging it to invest here, and on building prosperity for the many. Being an oligarchy (and wanting everything done quick), its methods were oligarchic. The niceties of democratic debate did not fit into its calculations of how to get the job done-but the job would get done, on time and under budget.

Nobody elected these men (that is, not until Uncle Bob Thornton grew fed up with City Hall’s inability to follow through on their decisions, and ran for mayor himself-one measure of the oligarchy’s standing is that he was elected to fourterms). They ran their tick-ets for City Council and school board city-wide and usually elected them. But their power didn’t derive from the ballot box; that was only one place among many where it was exercised. Instead, their power derived from mission and money. They knew what they wanted for Dallas, and they had the money to get what they wanted.

Contrast that with power in Dallas today. Power in Dallas is primarily political. The 14-I decision settled that; no longer are there at-large councilmen who think of the city as a whole and depend on a small group for large campaign contributions. And because power is political, it is diffused. Instead of worrying about the city’s future, as the oligarchs did, politicians worry about their constituents, who are neighborhoods and special interests. The competing demands of these constituencies require shifting coalitions among the politicians that are fragile and temporary and often collapse under the tiniest of strains, leaving issues unresolved and the citizenry wondering why nothing gets done. In a sense, it is the hallmark of democratic decisionmaking that no decisions are made at all.

And it is the hallmark of the new Dallas that nobody can force decisions to get made. To understand why, we need to understand how our business community has changed, for better or for worse.

As the Old Guard died off, and as the city itself changed-restless minorities to the south, restless Republicans to the north-a new generation at the Citizens Council found itself in a quandary. The mantle of power handed down to them had been tattered by defeats at the polls, by court decisions, by economic distress, and by a thousand cruel cuts in the local media. Newer members were decidedly unenthusiastic about beinglabeled ’’downtown fat cats” (a phrase Thornton would brush off like a piece of lint). And they were somewhat stunned to find themselves blamed for the perceived transgressions of their elders. So it came as no surprise when the Council decided to reorganize itself and redefine its mission.

Alarmed by racial tensions in the city and confronted by neighborhood groups clamoring for power, not to mention an ever-watchful federal judge, Citizens Council members decided their new role was to soothe the disaffected, bring outsiders into the fold, and with a broadened sense of participation, create a harmonious sense of purpose for the city as a whole. In the place of the exercise of: power by the few would be good intentions for the many. After all, this was the 1980s, and the idea of a bunch of oligarchs running Dallas seemed so antique. And the fact that these oligarchs were rich, white males was so old-fashioned.

Diversity and inclusiveness became the new buzzwords. Consultation was in, controversy was out. Women and minorities were recruited into the inner circle. Outreach programs were devised. A Dallas Women’s Covenant was announced, as were business alliances for South Dallas, workplace diversity programs, and scores of other initiatives. Nobody would ever have grounds for accusing this Citizens Council of being anti-woman, anti-black, and-Hispanic, antidemocratic, or anti-anything eke.

That the Council would find itself reshaped by the trends that were sweeping corporate America should be no surprise. Changing demographics, the threat of discrimination lawsuits, and affirmative action in government contracts had made “diversity” as much a catch phrase among Fortune 100 companies as “total quality management.”

But the real change was in the nature of Dallas business itself.

Say what you will about the old oligarchs, but they had an incentive to make Dallas work. Their businesses, their personal fortunes, their lives depended upon it. The heads of Republic, Mercantile, First National, Sanger-Harris, Tiche-Goettinger, Neiman-Marcus, Lone Star Gas, Dallas Power & Light, The Dallas Morning News, and the Dallas Times Herald woke up every morning knowing that if Dallas went, they would go too. And they were right. Dallas went, and so did they. Only the News remains independent, having deftly maneuvered itself into public ownership and out of the clutches of a Gannet or Knight-Ridder. (A blessing too little considered by its many critics. How responsive would a huge media conglomerate be to their concerns?)

Try a test. See if you can name more than four major companies in Dallas today that make their money primarily off Dallas/Fort Worth. I’ve asked this question all over town and come up with my list, and I’ll be happy to make additions. You can’t include giants like Texas Instruments, or Exxon, or American Airlines, or JCPenney, because while they are headquartered here, they sell all over the world. None of the big banks count, because they’re owned somewhere else. Enserch, which owns Lone Star Gas, takes in only 23 percent of its revenues from Dallas; it’s now laying gas pipelines in India and Argentina. Texas Utilities does only about a third of its business here. And remember, we’re talking about major companies, with sales over half a billion.

So, who is there? I count only A.H. Belo and Minyard’s. Even with its television stations in other markets, Belo still takes in 70 percent of its revenues from Dallas. Minyard’s is almost totally local.

Lower our bar a little, and we can include Mrs. Baird’s, the Dallas Cowboys (okay, their revenues may come mainly from television and licensing, but they depend on Dallas), Wyatt’s Cafeterias, and the Sewell dealerships. Lower the bar some more and you take in more automobile dealerships, perhaps one or two real estate companies such as Henry S. Miller, and perhaps an old-line retailersuch as Culwell & Son. That’s it. Every other major company either is owned outside of Dallas, gets the great bulk of its revenues from out of Dallas, or a combination of both.

The multi-national CEOs who now sit on the Citizens Council board have other things than Dallas on their minds: competition, the dollar, unions, shareholders, the Japanese, Congress. The smaller business people and the attorneys who have recently been invited to the big table are fine people, but they hardly have the resources to make up for the lack of attention their colleagues give to the city.

“I’m surprised about how ineffectual the Citizens Council has become, ” one City Hall insider told me, “especially when you consider that these are powerful guys. ” This sentiment, which was repeated to me in different words by at least two other political types, harbors three apparently widely held misconceptions.

One is that money equals power. It does not, and in Dallas it never has. Ross Perot, Trammell Crow, and-from the old days-a John Murchison, to take three examples, were never powerful in civic affairs. Their businesses-computers, development, and oil-weren’t necessarily Dallas-dependent, and as a result they never gave the time and attention to civic enterprises that the Old Guard demanded of its members.

Money was a prerequisite for power to the Old Guard, not a guarantee of it. Cash does count, but the second misconception is that the new Citizens Council has much of it. Skip over the small business types and the lawyers. Liz Minyard and Robert Decherd are the only major business family owners who sit on the Board. The rest are corporate CEOs. These fellows may have prestigious titles, thousands of employees, and perks galore, but every two weeks they receive a paycheck just like regular people. No doubt it’s a hefty paycheck, but even with stock options and bonuses it doesn’t bring them the kind of wealth that would enable any one of them to write a $1 million check.

The old oligarchs wrote those checks. They may have gulped, but they wrote them. In 1935 they collectively wrote a check for $10 million to get the Texas Centennial. Remember, this was in the middle of the Depression. Thar check in todays dollars would amount to more than $115 million. The next time someone starts to buttonhole you about a huge public works project, ask the obvious question: Everybody got their pens ready?

By contrast, the Citizens Council, in a recent newsletter to members, waxes ecstatic about raising a couple hundred thousand to help pass last spring’s bond issue. $200,000 in today’s dollars amounts to exactly $17,045 in 1935 dollars. I wouldn’t call it pocket change, but we couldn’t print what R.L. Thornton would have called it.

The third misconception is that the new Citizens Council could in any way summon up the kind of grit it takes to exercise real power. Power means making decisions and enforcing them. The job of a corporate CEO, on the other hand, is to sell product. Selling product requires keeping people happy. Enforcing public policy decisions means making people mad, In obedience to Harry Truman’s advice that if you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen, these fellows have fled to the living room.

So what does a businessman with good intentions do when he wants to be a civic leader? He can’t play politics because it’s too dangerous. So he ends up playing nice. Instead of using his company’s financial clout to promote the city, he uses his civic role to promote his company. He decides to be a good corporate citizen. After all, good image and good community relations are part of his job. Nothing wrong with that, and in fact the more who do it, the better. But nobody in the business community should mistake it for what it isn’t. Trying to help the less fortunate or alleviate a problem is not building a city. It is charity, not leadership.

Charity has become the only acceptable alternative tor those who want to fill the shoes of the Old Guard but lack the Old Guard’s incentives, not to mention its toughness and absolute sense of mission. Good people want to support good causes, and they want to be known for supporting good causes. That’s fine as far as it goes. But charity is only a sublimation of leadership, it is not a substitute for leadership.

The modern day corporate Citizens Council has become a philanthropic organization, a kind of civic arm of the United Way. In 1989, still reeling from all the resentments and bad feeling it had inherited from the oligarchy, it did what all well-managed corporations do and produced a “Strategic Agenda.” The agenda is packed full of good causes. Name one problem the region has- overcrowded prisons, bad reading scores, lack of affordable housing, traffic congestion, violent crime, unemployment-and you can bet the Citizens Council is against it. The document is replete with corporate jargon and complete with task force assignments, analyses, and flow charts. It boldly sets forth goals that for the most part are as commendable as they are vague and as admirable as they are unreachable.

My favorite of the lot, and the one that is most indicative of the whole document, states in big type, “Publicize a Vision for Dallas.” Underneath this goal one reads that “Dallas leaders should focus on a long-term vision for the area behind which all citizens can unite.” All citizens? Every single one of us?

Such naiveté is surprising coming from the Citizens Council, but keep in mind this is the new, improved corporate Citizens Council. In another section it carefully explains (or wishes) that a “well-conceived, coordinated and thorough public planning policy” would not only supply a vision for Dallas but “has the potential of becoming a non-controversial rallying point for citizens of diverse ethnic, racial, political, and economic backgrounds.” One easily imagines a late-night meeting with handshakes gravely exchanged and the sacred oath sworn: non-controversial.

Five years later the Council issued a progress report on the Strategic Agenda. It notes that the Council “must engage in a more vigorous public role in shaping Dallas’s future. ” A paragraph later it warns that the Council must “view itself as partners with a diverse array of community-based organizations that share a sense of our common destiny.”

In other words, lead but don’t offend anyone,

The progress report notes some successes. The Council had financed and promoted some projects in education, in housing, and in other areas and could report some payoff. It had vigorously supported DART and, ironically, had backed the 14-1 plan that had cost it much of its own power (whether this was done out of calculation, white guilt, or stupidity is hard to fathom). But in general the document carries a tone of disillusionment, as if the Council had come up against the real world and found it wanting. One sentence plaintively sums it up; ” Some believe that the City lacks leadership.”

The progress report was issued in 1992, and now 1996 looms around the corner. Can the philanthropic organization the Dallas Citizens Council has become supply the leadership Dallas lacks?

Considering who its members are and who they answer to (pesky shareholders who focus only on the bottom line): considering the lack of incentive to roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work (why should they when on average less than one percent of their revenues come from here?); considering the media spotlights, government agencies, and federal courts that terrify them; considering that these are good-hearted people trying to do the right thing, but only if it’s done the right way (i.e. non-controversially)-I doubt it. We should applaud them for their time and effort, but not expect that they can provide the leadership this city needs. We would be expecting too much of a charity, even a charity with a venerable and once-powerful name. We might as well ask the same of the Salesmanship Club or the Downtown Rotary.

But I would like to address a thought to the business community in general-large and small, corporate and entrepreneurial.

After what this region has been through economically, one might wonder if the business of Dallas shouldn’t again be business.

Not glass ceiling commissions, not: diversity panels, not housing task forces, not touchy-feely assemblies of people who get together to make each other feel important- but business. Cold. tough, hard-nosed, bring-in-the-bucks, grow-my-company, hire-more-people, get-more-sales, pay-better-wages business.

One wonders how many problems in our city would be solved not with focus groups and progress reports but with paychecks.

One wonders if old Uncle Bob Thornton wasn’t right after all.