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 her against the welfare-for-billionaires arena deal, now agreed with the business community that Dallas didn’t need a “dictator.” Most vehement of all was an African American community long bitterly resentful that Miller had targeted a few of its most revered leaders during her muckraking days. The issue was principle as much as personality; most African Americans were adamantly opposed to any change that would threaten the power they had only relatively recently won after generations of struggle, culminating in a 1991 federally mandated redistricting that finally gave minorities their fair share of seats on the city council.

The idea that power-worshipping Dallas might actually be led by a powerful elected executive seemed to have whipped up a perfect storm of opposition. But behind the scenes, the DCC-led business community was hedging its “no.” Concerned about North Dallas voters who didn’t like the way the city was run but felt that Blackwood went too far, the DCC, months before the election, pressed the city council to pass a nonbinding resolution (i.e., the members voted with their fingers crossed) to put an alternative initiative to a November vote. This compromise solution assures an institutional train wreck; the mayor would hire the city manager (renamed the city’s chief operating officer), who could be fired by either the mayor or a simple majority vote of the city council—allowing the city’s hands-on operator to be kicked back and forth between the council and the mayor like a political soccer ball. But the idea was that North Dallas voters who were always grousing about cleaning up city hall could safely vote no in May (presuming they believed the council’s promise), then drop in on the November clearance sale and pick up the less-filling Strong Mayor Lite. What made this strategy to delay the yes vote even more egregiously boneheaded was that it didn’t work—the strong-mayor measure still passed in the North Dallas precincts—and its supporters didn’t seem aware that it hadn’t. Renewing pledges of a November vote on Strong Mayor Lite in the wake of the blowout, the “yes, but later” faction seemed clueless to the new political reality: Predominantly black southern-sector voters had taken ownership of this issue. Setting records for early voting, they transformed the north’s yes into a thunderous 62 percent overall rejection—a “no” that really did mean no to any version of a stronger mayor. While it’s remotely possible that the DCC can still pull a rabbit out of the hat and strike a meaningful deal with the south—or persuade the north to turn out—it seems that after 75 years of engineering city government to avoid risk, the Dallas business community has now risked most of its rapidly dwindling political capital on a measure that, if it’s lucky, will end up on the November ballot as an even more watered-down face-saving gesture.

What really did in Blackwood wasn’t the freaked-out, freak-of-nature coalition against it so much as a habit of mind Dallas can’t seem to break: a psychological dependency created by generations of single-party (the business party) rule. In so thoroughly privatizing government, Dallas’s oligarchy historically relied on an anti-government ideology that disdained public solutions in favor of discreetly negotiated, behind-the-scenes fiats. Good public policy could be made only behind closed doors; to allow a cacophony of dissenting public opinions was considered “bad for business,” if not simply subversive. As Royce Hanson, the former dean of the University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Social Sciences, notes in his definitive study Civic Culture and Urban Change: Governing Dallas, the city patriarchs fostered a political culture that relied on a passive population and the ruling elite’s monopoly of power. Over the decades the very notion of the public, at least in the political sense, disappeared in prim, privatized Dallas.

Yet none of the Blackwood supporters effectively made the case that a strong mayor would remedy the biggest problem with Dallas’s democracy: Nobody votes. What Hanson calls Dallas’s “phantom public” just might show up if real issues of the city’s long-term vision and viability were raised in the quadrennial mayoral elections. In Houston wild gyrations in public policy are possible with each election: One mayor opposes mass transit, the next is in favor of it, but somehow the two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach actually gets things done at a pace Dallas can only envy. From fighting crime to revitalizing downtown, Houston’s messy public forum is producing measurably better results than Dallas’s decorous, closely held private consensus. It’s not that Houston has a genius for leadership that Dallas doesn’t; it’s that its superior civic entrepreneurship is based on public participation. In Houston’s last mayoral election, more than 30 percent of the voters turned out. In Dallas the figure was 10 percent.

If there’s any exception to this state of political immaturity, it is, ironically, the city’s ascendant African American community. Treated for generations like unwanted children at best, Dallas’s blacks were forced to use—and value—political tools such as organized protests and voting-rights litigation. By virtue of being largely excluded from privatized Dallas, they became a gutsy, politically engaged public, the only real public the city currently has. But of course the shadow of the old paternalism hovers over the African American community as well; there’s a pervasive fear that Big Daddy is coming back, even if it’s only in the form of Big Mommy Miller’s stern but progressive reform politics.

The voting bloc that once sat in the back of the bus isn’t quite driving the bus now. But Dallas’s African Americans have proved they can keep the bus from going anywhere they don’t want to go, which could worsen gridlock in a city that already can’t keep up with its peers. Dallas won’t be saved from that predicament by some kinda-stronger-mayor formula sponsored by a business community seemingly unaware that it began ceding its power a generation ago. It will probably take a leader of a black-brown coalition like the one that recently elected Los Angeles’s first Hispanic mayor in more than a century (though Hispanics are Dallas’s largest population group, they have yet to vote in representative numbers). The ideal mayor would combine the multiethnic appeal of Ron Kirk, the establishment-sponsored corporate attorney who became the city’s first black mayor, in 1995, with the populist, establishment-bucking independence of his successor, Miller—without the former’s embarrassing conflicts of interest and the latter’s hectoring political style. Dallas’ savior could probably write his or her national political ticket. But of course anyone with the political talent to rescue Dallas would have little incentive to run for a city job with no real power.