|KING CAROL: With her Trinity River victory, political consultant Reed proves why she’s the No. 1 Dallas insider.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Carol reed should be frazzled. It’s early September, and her office lies in shambles. She’s still waiting for her new furniture to arrive, marking the company’s re-branding (from Carol Reed Associates to The Reeds, emphasizing the involvement of her daughters, both of whom work with her). And she’s in the middle of a campaign for the pro-toll road folks in a contentious debate that looks, today at least, like it’s up the Trinity without a paddle. Some astute insiders are predicting that a month from now, her camp will fail at the polls.
But the 60-year-old Reed is not only calm, she’s bubbly—smiling, laughing, playing gracious hostess. Because she thinks she knows what the future will bring.
“Here’s how it’s going to go,” Reed says. She taps each finger as she counts off her bullet points. “We’re going to get our message out. Once they see what this election is about, all of Dallas will vote for it. Except East Dallas, because they’re weird. But South Dallas and North Dallas will vote for it. And we’ll win a tough, close election.” She slaps her hands together, turns her palms skyward, and waves them out, like a blackjack dealer showing she’s got nothing up her sleeve. “That’s all there is to it.”
And on November 6, 2007, in case you missed it, that’s exactly what happened.
The proclamation was vintage Carol Reed. Positive: a former cheerleader who grew up in sunny Southern California, she’s managed to forge an identity as a perpetually hopeful political consultant in a profession infested by cynics. Assured: a clear-eyed veteran of three decades of Dallas politics, she’s been through enough campaigns to scout paths in the forest when even her clients feel hopelessly lost. Arrogant: a woman in a city run by good ol’ boys, she knows she has to sound tougher than the suits. Dead right: men and women with money and ambition don’t hire campaign overlords who are wrong more often than they’re right. Not even Republicans.
She has suffered defeats, like Toby Shook and Tom Dunning. But the victories have outnumbered them: John Tower, Annette Strauss, Ron Kirk, the AAC vote, Rudy Giuliani. Now, with her Trinity victory and her stewardship of Tom Leppert’s mayoral campaign, Carol Reed has emerged as the preeminent political wirepuller in Dallas.
It’s shocking when you realize that, just four years ago, she nearly went broke.
Reed was alone and contemplative, two states she usually avoids. She was in Vail, Colorado, for the 2004 Christmas holiday. She’d been invited by Lucy Crow Billingsley to stay at the family’s gorgeous retreat. Not a surprise. Her contacts list is legendary. “People know,” she says, “that I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Ross, it’s Carol. We need money.’ ” That would be Perot. He and others take her call not only because she most often supports like-minded Republicans, but because the moneyed class in Dallas genuinely like the brassy blonde. “Carol can say things to the most powerful people in Dallas that no one else can,” says Alan Walne, a former councilman who has worked with her. “She can make you laugh and tell you you’re wrong in the same sentence, and that’s hard to do with the egos she deals with. And they love that.”
That Christmas, though, Billingsley’s plans had changed, and Reed was left to wander the house alone. She found herself exploring the library, admiring its splendor, when the realization struck: her company was broke.
No, worse. Carol Reed Associates Inc. was hundreds of thousands in debt. Two years earlier, she had helped put together a Fourth of July celebration called Trinity Fest, the largest fireworks show in Texas history. (Event planning is the third division, along with campaign orchestration and fundraising, of her company’s operations.) In its success—300,000 people—she foresaw an annual extravaganza and cash cow. Her company took over more responsibilities for the 2003 follow-up, but myriad missteps (like deciding to charge for tickets, which caused attendance to drop more than two-thirds) created an operating shortfall. No matter. Reed was so certain that she could make it up in 2004—cheerleader, remember—that she financed the quarter of a million deficit herself, on credit cards.
Sound money management it was not. When the 2004 Trinity Fest imploded because of, among other things, debt to the city for the previous year’s use of Reunion Arena parking, Reed was left holding the bill. She called her daughter Angela. “We’ve got to fire everyone,” Reed said. “We’ve got to start over.”
Hard to admit for someone so predisposed to optimism, who’d built her business from nothing. The college dropout moved to East Texas in 1967 with a 32-year-old divorcee she’d met in Santa Monica. (When they first laid wanting eyes on each other, Reed was out with friends celebrating her 20th birthday. She was wearing a tight blue dress. He was wearing a pinstripe suit. Four months later, they were married.)
Her daughters, Angela and Laura, were both born in 1968. They settled in Tyler, and Carol Reed played the part of suburban kept woman. She came from a large family, three brothers and a sister (another brother died in infancy), and raising her own children was important to her. She found time to play tennis at the country club.
As her children grew up, though, she searched for an identity outside the home. She became involved in Republican causes, volunteering on campaigns. One day in the mid-’70s, a young politician named John Tower called Reed and told her he needed a political director, and that she was his choice. “What’s a political director?” Reed asked. Tower told her he didn’t know, but everyone said he needed one. She proudly purchased her first briefcase.
The job marked the beginning of her company and ascension into the Dallas political scene. She opened her office here in 1981 (and got divorced in 1999). She developed a reputation for being tough, street-savvy. For example, she unapologetically played the ethically squishy but perfectly legal South Dallas “walk around money” game, in which operatives were given money and came back with completed absentee ballots. She could poll the electorate or go with her gut instinct depending on the situation. She networked and drank martinis (vodka, very cold, straight up, two olives) and raised cash and twisted arms, never going negative. Carol Reed became a power player.
As such, her profile rose to the point where clients had to audition for her services. “I’ve turned down money,” she says, “from people or causes I don’t believe in.” It’s why she chose to help Annette Strauss take on, and beat, the local Republican party chairman. It’s how she became intertwined with former mayor (and Democrat) Ron Kirk, who impressed Reed when, while working on a local board, he struck up a parking lot conversation with her after she’d told the men that day they had no idea how to appeal to women.
And then came that Christmas break in 2004. Once she fired her staff—and found every one of them jobs somewhere else—she started over with both her daughters, convincing Laura, an Austin lobbyist, to return. Together, with Angela working events and Laura helping behind the scenes, Reed has rebuilt her company.
So much so that when it came time to decide which recent mayoral campaign she would oversee, she could afford to choose—none of them. The field didn’t appeal to her. Until someone suggested she meet with the latecomer Tom Leppert. Reed gave him a one-page list of things she wanted the mayor to do. He agreed with all of them. Reed told him it would take at least $1 million. He said fine. She said she couldn’t be second-guessed, not even from a former CEO like him. He said yes ma’am.
“People want to make this business harder than it is,” she says. It’s now November. She’s fully staffed (10 or so), new office furniture, once again in the black. “You stay on message—people in my campaign do not go off message. You pay money and do it right. You talk about the things they care about. They’re the same things I care about: schools, business. Dream big. Ignore the naysayers. You win. It’s not magic.”
Clap hands, palms up, wave them out, careful not to disturb the crystal ball.
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