Leppert Colony

Can the new mayor of America’s ninth-largest city put the pieces back together?

August 2007By Comments

THE ANTI-LAURA: He never went negative, never courted controversy, and never strayed from the script.
Photograph by Melanie Morning News

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 hired both Reed, who ran Ron Kirk’s mayoral bids, and message gurus Allyn and Co., which ran Miller’s campaigns—we sat in a conference room with a stunning view of the downtown skyline. Leppert has thick steel-gray hair that is parted on the left and a slight facial tic that’s apparent only after it has been pointed out. Except for a wedding band on his left hand and a Harvard class ring on his right, he has no use for ornamentation. His friends insist he’s “high-larious,” but I heard him tell just one joke in my time following him around. He began his remarks at a recent Dallas Bar Association function by mentioning a man who said to him on the campaign trail, “I’ve only got one question: Are you a lawyer?” Leppert said no, and the man eagerly replied, “Good, I’m voting for you.” Zzzzzz.

If Leppert is more likable than charismatic, he has intelligence and earnestness to spare. “We were visiting a fire station,” he told me. “There were about nine involved in a bond package in 2003, and until a month ago, none had opened. Each one has essentially a commercial kitchen in it, so how do they get built? If it’s in District Eight, you get an architect in District Eight. If it’s in District Ten, you get another architect. Well, I guess that’s right from a political standpoint, but these guys just want to run a fire station.”

His face brightened, and he rolled his chair back from the table. He extended his arms for emphasis, and instead of noticing the skyline, it was clear he was seeing only the imaginary kitchen.

“I used the analogy that I once went to a homebuilding company,” Leppert said, “and it had fifteen hundred window sizes because the architects like this one, and this model, and this one as well.”

My mind started to wander. Hey, didn’t I take a shop class in the eighth grade?

“That’s ridiculous. I told them, ‘I want five window sizes,’ and they all went white in the face.”

Yeah! I made an Aggie football goal as a gift for my mom.

“I said, ‘Give me one window size, and if you make it vertical or horizontal, that’s worth two. But from my perspective, it’s one. There’s only one order, and there’s only one production run.’”

I got a C.

“It’s the same thing with the firefighters. If you modulated the kitchen, and you went to an architect and said, ‘Okay, I want to buy five kitchens,’ how much do you think you could save?”

He looked me right in the eye, and I became so worried that he actually wanted me to answer, I did some pretend math in my head. Then he blurted out, “Well, I know how much. Between six and nine percent!”

As if disappointed by the puzzled look on my face, he added quickly, “It might not solve the federal deficit, but it might put another police officer on the street.”

That kind of thinking—nuts-and-bolts practicality with no need for flourish—speaks to the notion that so many residents hold dear: that Dallas was built by businessmen who put the needs of the city first. Lesser cities can be run by cookie-cutter pols; a place with Dallas’s energy and ambitions needs a can-do CEO. It’s no surprise that many of Leppert’s supporters happily (and hopefully) compare him to Erik Jonsson, the most sacred of Dallas’s canonized public officials. Jonsson became mayor in the days after the Kennedy assassination and ran the city for seven years. A co-founder of Texas Instruments, he embodied the idea that local government should rise above politics. His vision took shape in the creation of DFW Airport, the model of regional cooperation that fueled the area’s economic engine, turning cotton fields into corporate headquarters.

Leppert may be a throwback, but nothing guarantees him Jonsson’s success. Nearly 25 years ago, Peter Applebome wrote in Texas Monthly, “Kathy Whitmire showed that a woman could beat Houston’s power brokers, and Henry Cisneros showed that a Hispanic could win in San Antonio, but it just wouldn’t be Dallas without a North Dallas millionaire businessman as mayor.” He was referring to Starke Taylor, another rich executive who had zero name identification and had never been a candidate for office when he was elected mayor in 1983. (In one of his early speeches, Taylor declared, “I’m going to do what’s right, and I’m not going to be political.” The last line of Leppert’s first television ad was “I may not always do what’s popular, but I’ll always do what’s right.”) To his credit, Taylor also campaigned on improving life in South Dallas, reducing crime, and bringing businesses to the city. It’s a measure of the intractability of those problems that they are the same ones Leppert now confronts.

Nothing about the young Tom Leppert suggested the turn his life would take. He grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Glendale, Arizona—the kind of place where people live their whole lives. His father died when he was an infant, leaving his mother, Margery, to care for him. What she couldn’t provide with her secretary’s salary she more than made up for in doting attention. She taught him to love books, and he read with relish about a world he couldn’t experience firsthand. To help make ends meet, he worked odd jobs (his early campaign ads made much of his time as a janitor in a doctor’s office).

He likes to tell people, “I’m obviously not the smartest person in the room,” but his academic record suggests otherwise. He spent a year at a junior college before earning a scholarship to study economics and accounting at Claremont McKenna College, in California. “There was only one other kid I remembered growing up who talked about going to college out of state,” he said. “For me, the exotic was going to Northern Arizona University, one hundred miles up the road in Flagstaff.” He excelled in the classroom, but he was also popular on campus. He was drafted to run for student body president, the only other office he has held. “I can’t say that I ran a campaign,” Leppert recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t run unopposed, but we won by a substantial margin.”

He knew his hard work was paying off when he was accepted to Harvard Business School right after graduation. Aside from the culture shock—it was the first time in his life that he had seen snow fall—the academics proved overwhelming. “I thought, ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into? I must have done something bad, and this is my punishment.’” After taking one midterm his first semester (a case study on building a refinery in Indonesia), he left the classroom and was greeted in the hallway by fellow students in tears. But when his professor returned his exam, Leppert had received an “excellent.” “All of sudden I thought, ‘Maybe I do belong here.’”

After graduation he took a job with the consulting firm McKinsey and Company and became a White House Fellow in the Reagan administration. “Then,” Leppert said, “Castle and Cooke Properties took a chance on me and made me CEO.” He was only 34 years old.

The skills he honed as an executive will be put to the test as mayor. Dallas is a council-manager form of government, which means that his vote is only one among fourteen other council members. For Leppert to emerge as a true leader, he must rely more on his personality than the authority of the office. Being mayor will provide him with a bully pulpit but little actual power to go with it. And despite his margin of victory, the truth is that fewer than 50,000 people voted for him in a city of 1.2 million. One of his biggest challenges is overcoming apathy about city government.

But if his election-night party at Gilley’s is any indication, perhaps there’s hope. The overflow crowd was remarkably diverse, representing all neighborhoods and walks of life. Even by his own unflappable standard, Leppert seemed relaxed as people congratulated him and asked to snap his picture with tiny digital cameras. Long after the house lights had come up and the bottles of light beer were packed away, he still couldn’t escape. I watched him from a distance as he leaned in to meet the umpteenth well-wisher, shake her hand, and mouth the words “Hi, I’m Tom Leppert.” The business of introducing himself to the city he’d lead had literally begun.

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