The first time the words “mayor” and “Tom Leppert” were uttered in the same breath was in an interview in the business section of the Dallas Morning News. It was in August 2006, and the occasion was Leppert’s retirement as the CEO of the Turner Corporation. During his seven-year tenure, the nation’s largest commercial builder—whose projects have included Madison Square Garden, in New York, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cleveland, Ohio—had earned more money than in its previous 97 years combined, with revenues of $7.5 billion in 2005 alone. Leppert spoke with pride about his decision to move the company’s headquarters from Manhattan to Dallas in 1999, his desire to spend more time with his family, and his interest in one day returning to the business world. At the end of the interview, the reporter offhandedly mentioned that Mayor Laura Miller wasn’t running for another term. “I think I’ll pass on that,” Leppert replied bluntly.
Only three months later, however, he announced his intention to run, and with the backing of big-brand business leaders—including Dallas-Cowboys-quarterback-turned-real-estate-mogul Roger Staubach and former TXU chief Erle Nye—he soon outraised and outspent every other candidate in a crowded field. He ran on reliable if predictable issues: decreasing the city’s staggering crime rate, which has been the highest in the nation for eight of the past ten years; improving its struggling school district, which was recently under federal investigation for money laundering and an employee credit card scandal; and increasing economic opportunity, particularly in mostly poor, mostly black South Dallas. To telegraph his political philosophy in a nonpartisan race, he promised to achieve all of those ends without raising taxes. (One of his mailers depicted the massive, angular exterior wall of city hall as an ATM— “Automatic Taxing Machine.”)
Perhaps the biggest—if unspoken— issue was Miller herself. Before she got into politics, she had been a newspaper columnist who gleefully feuded with the business community, elected officials, and South Dallas activists. As mayor, she did the same, which gave Leppert an opening. He could run as a measured, dry candidate who never went negative, never courted controversy, and never strayed from the script: Dallas can be the safest city in America, the finest city in America, the most family-friendly city in America. In other words, the anti-Laura.
In the May general election, Leppert placed first with 27 percent of the vote; the next highest finisher, veteran councilman Ed Oakley, of Oak Cliff, received nearly 21 percent. In the June 16 runoff, Leppert cruised to victory with 58 percent to Oakley’s 42 percent. Standing behind a lectern at Gilley’s Dallas—wearing, as he often did during the campaign, a blazer with an open collar, as if to say, “I’m businesslike but not stuffy”—the 53-year-old began the healing. “This is not a victory,” he said. “This is an opportunity to show that we can bring the city together.”
It was a stunning transformation. Many of his opponents had experience in public office and were fixtures in their neighborhoods. Leppert had never been a candidate for office before; he had never even seemed interested in politics. When the city turned out for the divisive (and ultimately doomed) May 2005 referendum to create a “strong mayor” form of government, Leppert didn’t bother to vote. Outside the downtown business bubble, his name ID was near zero. When he entered the race, a longtime Dallas resident and political observer called me and asked, with absolute sincerity, “Who’s Tom Leper?” Someone, it turned out, who had lived inside the city limits only since 2003. Who’d talked extensively about his own time in public school but sent his kids to the elite Episcopal and Cambridge schools of Dallas. Who owned a $4.4 million mansion in an exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood in North Dallas but said that a typical evening involved going to Chili’s with his family.
At a debate just a few weeks before the runoff, Leppert’s strategy for winning was clear. How could he improve the Dallas schools? “I can go into any boardroom in the country as a peer,” he replied. “Nearly a decade ago, I brought a major corporation to Dallas, and I know how to work alongside the business leaders and get them involved.” Race relations? “My company had more minority contracts than any other in the business.” The massive but faltering Trinity River Corridor Project? “I’ve done more large construction projects than anyone in this room.” Though no doubt true, such answers prompted one supporter to complain, “He’s got to stop answering every question about why he wants to be mayor with ‘I moved a major company to Dallas.’”
One afternoon, at the office of his campaign manager, Carol Reed—in a grand example of what money and influence can bring, Leppert