What’s the Matter With Dallas?

Why the city’s timid political culture doesn’t live up to its brash image.

MAY 7 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE when Dallas decided what it wants to be when it grows up. That was the day Dallas voters considered replacing their city’s current organizational chart, where real power is vested in the city manager—a sort of learner’s-permit government for adolescent urbs—with the kind of strong-mayor system favored by mature metropolises like New York, Chicago, and, yes, Houston. As it turned out, Dallas decided overwhelmingly not to take off the training wheels, proving that the city that recently adopted “Live large. Think big” as its official slogan can only think small when it comes to its political culture.

But it gets worse: Dallas can’t even decide whether this “no” really means no. The city council has promised, maybe, to bring a similar but much weaker measure to a vote again in November, though there’s little evidence that its kinda-stronger mayor would make much difference in how an increasingly dysfunctional city government actually governs. If this sounds like an incipient municipal meltdown, it is: A once bright-eyed ingenue is now in danger of becoming the nation’s most myopic and risk-averse big city, desperately seeking leadership in the shadow of a patriarchy whose patriarchs vanished a generation ago.

The strong-mayor referendum hit dithering Dallas like a thunderbolt out of the blue, the product of a stealthy petition drive led by formerly obscure Dallas attorney Beth Ann Blackwood, who surprised the city council, the mayor, and everyone else when she dumped nine boxes full of signed petitions at city hall just before Thanksgiving. But the ease with which Blackwood picked up 30,000 signatures reflected a crisis of confidence within a city whose greatest municipal asset has always been its implacable belief in itself. Perennially beset by the highest crime rate of any major American city, with businesses fleeing to the suburbs and potential new corporate citizens turning up their noses, Big D has begun to think of itself in the lowercase. Last year the Dallas Morning News published a twenty-page special section, “Dallas at the Tipping Point,” which offered a particularly painful analysis: Far from being a glitzy Sunbelt growth capital, statistically Dallas was starting to resemble a Rust Belt loser like Detroit.

As a remedy, wonks who care about these things—and Dallas doesn’t have many—had in recent years floated the idea of a strong-mayor system of government. The rule for most of the nation’s big cities, a strong mayor functions as chief executive officer and chief visionary, with almost absolute sovereignty over the budget and municipal employees, the tools necessary to implement sweeping, forward-looking policies. Dallas, to the chagrin of many of its boosters, was still stuck with the council-manager system. Considered more suitable for tidy, mid-sized cities, it features a figurehead mayor while granting an unelected city manager, hired and fired by the city council, almost autonomous authority over the city’s day-to-day operations, which is where the manager’s focus must necessarily remain.

The council-manager system was considered an innovative antidote to the graft and corruption of big-city political machines back in 1930, when Dallas voters approved it at the urging of moderate businessmen eager to curb the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in city government. Dallas’s council-manager system remained a well-oiled operation for almost half a century, in essence running as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dallas Citizens Council, a shadow government made up of the city’s business elite. The DCC elders pulled the levers without a significant challenge until the seventies, grooming and sponsoring the city’s nearly exclusively white male mayors and councilmen, who faithfully applied the “Is it good for business?” litmus test to every civic policy. The DCC-authorized council in turn hired a succession of managers to run Dallas like a department store where citizens could obtain city services of acceptable quality at a reasonable tax rate—as long as they were satisfied with what the only store in town decided to offer them. Though its influence waned as many of the city’s biggest businesses moved to the suburbs and their CEOs became more transient, the DCC was still powerful enough in the late nineties to engineer the passage of developer-friendly, nine-figure bond initiatives to build a downtown sports arena and begin transforming the Trinity River basin into a land-value-enhancing urban greenbelt.

By last summer, however, even some DCC types were noodling around the idea of a strong-mayor referendum. And Mayor Laura Miller, the former muckraking journalist who had swept into office in 2002 as an anti-establishment pothole populist promising to restore basic city services, hoped to persuade a skeptical city council to at least let her hire and fire the city manager. Miller had originally predicted that the aggressive Blackwood plan (modeled closely on Houston’s, where the drafters had simply crossed out “city manager” anywhere it appeared in the city charter and substituted “mayor”) wouldn’t work in Dallas. But after her plan was literally shouted down by the city council, Miller threw her considerable political capital—at least in the mostly affluent and white northern half of the city—behind it. Joining her was a politically eclectic group of rugged individuals, ranging from rocker-environmentalist Don Henley to oilman Boone Pickens.

But who was for Blackwood wasn’t nearly as interesting as who was against it. And that was just about everyone: the entire city council and all but 4 out of 36 council candidates; 6 of the past 7 mayors; 10 area chambers of commerce, along with the heavy-hitting Real Estate Council; the Crow and Hunt family interests (the most emblematic names among the Dallas plutocracy); and last but not least, the DCC, which began calling the shots for the “no” campaign after making a $200,000 pledge. The little people were equally opposed: Many of Miller’s North Dallas pothole populists, who had rallied with

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