Big D-Vide

The John Wiley Price corruption investigation has only begun, but it has already reopened the age-old rift in Dallas between north and south and white and black. Will things be different this time?

September 2011By Comments

When I heard that the Ewings were going to return to television, the first person I thought of was my wife. She grew up on a three-acre spread across the road from Southfork Ranch, so in high school I drove past the mansion more times than my future mother-in-law might have liked. As much as anyone, they understood the Dallas dilemma perfectly: The show was the best and the worst thing that could have happened to the image of the city.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not the least bit worried about how the new version of Dallas, set for next summer on TNT, will affect our reputation now. Given the rash of reality shows featuring the rich and clueless, like Dallas Divas & Daughters and Big Rich Texas, it’s hard to imagine things getting worse. No, my concern is for the network’s executives. Of course they want a show that is brimming with greed, corruption, intrigue, and lots and lots of money. I just think they went looking in the wrong place. Why resurrect a program that has been dead for twenty years when the most fascinatingly corrupt and power-hungry characters in Dallas may be the real-life politicians running around downtown today? So here is an alternative treatment for those producers to consider. Think of it as our city’s version of The Wire—but feel free to throw in some boots and boobs if that helps.

The date is June 27, 2011, and the setting is the Meyerson Symphony Center, in the heart of the downtown Arts District. As Mike Rawlings, a white former CEO from North Dallas, delivers his inaugural address as the new mayor, FBI agents are fanning out across the city, raiding the office and South Dallas home of county commissioner John Wiley Price, which has a Rawlings sign in the yard. Price, who was first elected in 1984, was the first black member of the commissioners’ court and has served longer in the same position than any public official in Dallas County. He is famous for his dapper suits and bow ties, his cornrows, and his collection of cars, which has included a Bentley and a full-size SUV emblazoned with his name and face over the skyline of Dallas. His constituents refer to him as “our man downtown,” though residents north of the Trinity River use less charitable terms. Price’s outbursts are legendary. In an exchange at a commissioners’ court meeting in February, he told members of the audience who had attacked him for the ouster of a local elections official, “All of you are white. Go to hell!” If that’s not great television, I don’t know what is.

The cast would also include Price’s top political consultant, Kathy Nealy, and his chief aide, Dapheny Fain, whose offices and homes are visited by federal agents that same day. Then comes the first plot twist. After Rawlings has been sworn in, agents drop by his campaign headquarters, located in the offices of the consulting firm Allyn Media. The Rawlings campaign had paid nearly $270,000 to Nealy to turn out the vote in mostly poor, mostly black southern Dallas, a critical voting bloc that is controlled by a powerful network of politicians and church leaders. Soon members of the city’s business elite who had also worked with Nealy—American Airlines, AT&T, Energy Future Holdings, and Hillwood, the development firm owned by Ross Perot Jr.—find themselves on the business end of a search warrant that is loaded with words that could lead to a ratings bonanza: theft, bribery, tax evasion, and money laundering. The next cliff-hanger comes a few weeks later, when FBI agents showed up at the office of district attorney Craig Watkins, who is also black.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusions about who is or isn’t guilty—or whether a crime has even been committed—let me save the magazine some billable hours: I don’t have the slightest idea whether smoke will lead to fire. Price, whose business dealings appear to have become the focus of the investigation, has vigorously denied any wrongdoing. What I do know is that this is the material that great, tragic urban dramas are made of—and it has played out before. The case comes on the heels of the biggest public corruption scandal in the city’s history, a racially charged affair that landed a host of black southern Dallas politicos in prison, including Don Hill, a former mayor pro tem and mayoral hopeful; his wife, political consultant Sheila Farrington; and his appointee to the City Plan Commission, D’Angelo Lee. In 2009 all three were convicted on multiple counts of bribery and extortion. The following year, Texas House member Terri Hodge pleaded guilty to fraud. All of them were involved in a scheme to shake down white developers from North Dallas who wanted to build low-income apartment buildings in the south.

The contours of the latest investigation also touch on a land deal. The so-called Inland Port was a six-thousand-acre project in southern Dallas County that was intended to turn an underdeveloped swath of land into a world-class transportation hub, complete with 60,000 new jobs. However, the principal developer, a California businessman named Richard Allen, claims that the project was torpedoed when he wouldn’t acquiesce to demands made by a group of southern Dallas power brokers with ties to Price who wanted a piece of the action.

If the script is familiar, it’s part of a legacy Dallas would just as soon forget: the historic inequalities and chronic lack of trust between north and south, white and black. The gleaming high-rises and modern office parks of Dallas are all on the north side, where a powerful group of white leaders belonging to the Citizens Charter Association long ago dictated the politics of the city. Blacks were relegated to the area south of the Trinity River and treated like second-class citizens—or worse. The late Al Lipscomb, one of the city’s most recognizable civil rights activists, recalled that while working as a maître d’ at the executive dining room of the First National Bank in the late sixties, he had watched Carr P. Collins Sr., the insurance magnate and homebuilder, draw on the tablecloth, demonstrating to a companion how he planned to buy one section of land and simply move the blacks—Collins used a different term—to another.

That old racist order presented few pathways to power for church and political leaders in the south looking for influence. And over time, it fostered bad blood and uneasy alliances between some of those leaders and businessmen and developers. Lipscomb is a case in point. He served fifteen years on the city council, but in 2000 he was convicted on 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy. Though the verdict was later thrown out on a technicality, the scandal effectively ended his political career, leaving many in southern Dallas to wonder if the white power structure instinctively targets black politicians once they become too powerful. In 2005, when I was writing a story for D Magazine about a contentious strong-mayor proposal that southern Dallasites saw as a power grab by the north, city councilman James Fantroy invited me to his private office off Illinois Avenue to sit in on a strategy meeting focused on defeating the proposal. I sat quietly in the back of the room taking notes until about ten minutes into the discussion, when a woman wearing a hat fit for the Kentucky Derby stood up and said, “I’d like to know what he’s doing here!” She spun around and pointed at me, the only white person in the room. Fantroy booted me from the meeting. He and his supporters prevailed in the strong-mayor fight, but in the end, even Fantroy was convicted for embezzling money from Paul Quinn College, where he had served on the board.

Why does this story continue to repeat itself? I put the question to Shawn Williams, a 1997 Texas A&M graduate who is the editor and publisher of DallasSouthNews.org. In April he had moderated a mayoral forum at the Belo Mansion. I caught up with him over lunch in Deep Ellum in mid-July, where he was dressed more casually in a black T-shirt with the word “Empower” above green, yellow, red, and white fists. “You need money to go into politics, and when I think of how many African American politicians are affected by the income gap, you can see how that makes it harder,” Williams told me. “A wealthy candidate from North Dallas wouldn’t need to take a bribe to run for office. That doesn’t excuse it, but it’s part of the reality.”

Williams says that he now sees a dividing line between the older and younger generations. The former seem to support Price without question; the latter aren’t sure about the outcome of the investigation, but they worry about a climate of corruption that involves politicians, businessmen, and church officials. Williams himself first met Price when the commissioner spoke at an NAACP event in Paris, where Williams grew up. When he moved to Dallas after college, he listened to Price on programs like KKDA’s Talk Back: Liberation Radio. “Commissioner Price talked about economic justice, things like service roads and why you couldn’t get off the highway in South Dallas,” Williams says. “That was inspiring. I had never wondered why there wasn’t an exit off I-20 at Polk.”

As for the Inland Port, Williams believes that there’s more to the story than the gossip suggests. “Has anyone stopped to think that it was a victim of the economic meltdown?” he asks. “You cannot make me believe that one man had the power to stop the whole project.”

Like any good drama, it may take a while for the truth to come out. The Don Hill investigation began with high-profile FBI raids at city hall in 2005 but dragged on for four years. Price has already announced that he will run for reelection in 2012. So as the lawyers huddle and the investigators pore over their documents, once again the city has to wait and watch. But something tells me that the most recent cliff-hanger in Dallas politics won’t be solved by waking up and realizing it was nothing more than a dream.

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