All the Trinity Toll Road bigwigs were in the room—the mayor, the money guys, the crazy white-haired dude who yells at anyone who dares question the need for the unnecessary project. They were trying to solve a problem: how could they make sure that candidates in favor of the toll road would be elected to the Dallas City Council?
At one time, the answer was easier. Just throw money at the problem. Now, though, a new federal elections law meant that curious fundraising entities called super PACs were for the first time entering municipal elections. Super PACs can’t coordinate with campaigns, but they can spend as much money as they can raise on behalf of any candidate who aligns with their mission (there are no limits on the amount donors can give to a super PAC). And another Dallas super PAC, Coalition for a New Dallas, was, for various reasons, backing candidates who wanted to close the door on ever building a six-lane toll road in the Trinity floodplain.
This had the bigwigs worried. So they turned to the woman running the meeting to figure out what to do. Mari Woodlief, head of Allyn Media, is the chief strategist for Mayor Mike Rawlings and District Attorney Susan Hawk. In other words, she’s the most powerful person in Dallas politics you’ve probably never heard of.
Woodlief’s solution? Start her own super PAC. That way, they could throw even more money at their problem. (Campaign contributions otherwise are limited to $1,000 per individual donor for a council member or $5,000 for the mayor.) Thus was born For Our Community.
At that moment, in late February, until the May election and June runoff, Woodlief became not only the most powerful behind-the-scenes strategist in Dallas, she arguably became the most powerful non-elected official in its history. Because she was able, in a matter of weeks, to raise far more money than the other super PAC, nearly $200,000 for municipal races, where historically having $5,000 in the bank is a big boost. About half of that went to five races to back pro-toll road candidates, four of whom won.
Which raises three questions: who is Mari Woodlief? Why is she so powerful? Why do so many people think this is a bad thing?
To answer these, first I must offer the longest disclosure you’re likely ever to read. I don’t see how I could be more conflicted in writing about this. I’ve known Woodlief for years and admire her professionalism. Several years ago, we had broad discussions about the possibility of my working full-time at Allyn Media. (We let the idea die.) Until the general election in May, I worked for and was paid by Coalition for a New Dallas as communications director. Wick Allison, the owner and publisher of D Magazine, co-founded Coalition for a New Dallas.
There’s more. I sat in many meetings running up to the May elections where I was privy to behind-the-scenes strategy involving candidates whom Woodlief supported or fought against, either as head of Allyn Media or For Our Community. It was assumed that these meetings were off the record. Also, I talked to many people one-on-one who assumed our conversations were off the record. But if I’m going to answer those three questions, I will have to use some of what I was told in those gatherings. I probably shouldn’t do that. But I do a lot of things I shouldn’t. Let’s add this to the list.
Who is Mari Woodlief? She is Fort Worth born and raised, a Baylor grad who went to work for Allyn Media right out of school, in the early 1990s. Allyn was then run by founder Rob Allyn, who shrewdly took the company into international politics. Woodlief, then and now, is painfully quiet but is described even by those with axes to grind as “brilliant.” She did much of the legwork running the successful campaign for Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2000, a campaign that led to Allyn Media’s acquisition by a large communications firm. Woodlief eventually bought Allyn out and then took the company back from the large firm. (It’s more complicated than that, of course, but those are the basics.)
The company and Woodlief have enjoyed great success—she lives on Beverly Drive, in Highland Park—but the answer to how the company became so powerful is in part “because of past success” but also “by default.” Allyn Media is now just about the only one-stop shop in town if you’re an elected official and you want someone to run your campaign, advise you on policy, raise money, lobby on your behalf, and so forth. It used to be that Carol Reed did this, but her company no longer handles “personality politics.” (She will raise money to support things like the upcoming DISD bond election that we may see in November.)
Allyn Media’s place as the primary political shop in town is ironic because, according to those who know her best, Woodlief does not enjoy working on political campaigns. Hates it, actually. Hates the media attention, the money-raising, the personality clashes. She dislikes it so much that she (politely) declined comment for this story, citing understandable personal reasons. Woodlief, according to several close to her, would much rather just deal with corporate clients (of which Allyn Media has several). But she knows those corporations are easier to snag when you’re high profile, and the way to stay high profile is to, say, have the ear of the mayor and district attorney.
That brings us neatly to our final question: why is it a bad idea for one strategist to be the ear-whisperer to so many in Dallas?
For one, it puts you in unwinnable circumstances, places where your clients’ best interests overlap in creepy ways. Councilman Scott Griggs did not respond to a request for comment, but let’s look at his current predicament as an obvious example. Griggs is a vocal leader of the anti-toll road movement. In demanding information from city staff related to his cause against the toll road, he berated someone in a way that led to criminal charges being filed. Griggs later apologized, but the charges—a felony, which could be calamitous to his career—have not been dropped despite repeated requests to do so from Griggs’ supporters.
Who would make the decision to drop those charges? District Attorney Susan Hawk. You don’t have to be a Trinity truther to wonder, “Could it be a conflict that the strategist advising the DA now sees Griggs as a nasty thorn in the foot of the mayor, the strategist’s other big political client?”
Woodlief’s market dominance also creates transparency problems. To illustrate, let’s look at the hoops she and Allyn Media had to jump through in this campaign because of the For Our Community super PAC.
As I said, a super PAC can raise as much money from individual donors as possible and spend as much it wants. It just can’t coordinate with campaigns. This is tricky for Allyn Media, because it ran two campaigns: the mayor’s and that of Paul Reyes, a District 10 pro-toll road guy who also happens to be the husband of an Allyn Media employee. By definition, Allyn was coordinating those campaigns. So Woodlief could not take money out of the super PAC (her left pocket) and put it into Allyn Media for Rawlings’ or Reyes’ campaigns (her right pocket).
Instead, she spent the money supporting (but not coordinating with) the five other candidates who supported the mayor’s toll road vision. How did she do that? One way she did that was to take $88,000 from her super PAC pocket and put it in her Allyn Media pocket to spend on those five candidates. Which is perfectly legal!
Legal, but it sure doesn’t look good. It looks like a person running a super PAC is raising money to pay her company to elect people who will support the mayor—whose campaign is also paying Allyn Media. It looks that way because that’s what it is.
Now, is this bad? I certainly think all this money-shuffling would be more palatable to the general public if Woodlief and company were more transparent. Announce their mission. Put up a website and a Facebook page. Hold public meetings. Talk to the press. All the things Coalition for a New Dallas did.
Until the laws change, this is where we’re headed in Dallas elections. So might I suggest that Mari Woodlief offer a few paragraphs of full disclosure next time? It might feel a little awkward at first, but the public deserves to know.
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