Earlier this week, the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News endorsed Tom Leppert in the Dallas mayoral runoff election to be held June 16. Unsurprisingly, they got this one wrong.
The best candidate is City Hall veteran Ed Oakley. Oakley, 54, is an experienced city councilman who currently serves as chair of the Trinity River Project. Oakley’s strong showing in the May election can be attributed in part to his support from the gay and Hispanic communities, specifically in Oak Lawn and Oak Cliff. Leppert, 52, is a former Reagan staffer who rose to prominence in Dallas while serving as CEO of the Turner Construction Company. Mr. Leppert’s campaign brilliantly exploited the Park Cities and corporate Dallas to become a formidable fundraiser. Oakley – a Democrat – has struggled to win support from conservative areas, and has faded over the last week as Leppert continues to secure more local endorsements. Only this morning, the Dallas Mayor Pro-Tem Don Hill – himself a peripheral candidate last month – urged his supporters to vote Leppert.
All four of the other Dallas citizens who watched Friday’s mayoral debate (full video) will also be voting Oakley. Repeatedly, Oakley’s use of details made Leppert’s tangential and rehearsed answers appear foolish. Leppert, who has never held public office, could not avoid looking inexperienced when directly juxtaposed with a candidate who was clearly better prepared, more knowledgeable, and more articulate. At times, some of Leppert’s ideas seemed like they hadn’t been fully thought through.
The best example is Leppert’s policy position on public education. He spoke frequently of how education changed his life, invoking his Harvard scholarship no fewer than three times. Although Leppert’s optimism about education is refreshing, he fails to explain how he can legitimately impact the system from the largely detached post of Mayor. I giggled when Leppert deconstructed the DISD acronym for his perplexed St. Mark’s-graduate supporters, and wondered how a man with a Harvard education could have such an amusingly bizarre interpretation of an “independent” school district. Fortunately, DMN political correspondent Gromer Jeffers used the word “specific” in his follow-up question. Leppert then conceded that he could not actually guarantee any logistical changes – but he promised that several unnamed members of the DISD board had already given him assurances that they would “appreciate his support.” Desperately looking to save face on his lead campaign issue, Leppert then confusingly explained how the mayor has certain (conspicuously unnamed) tools – presumably a reference to a Johnson-esque bully pulpit – with which he can influence education.
When it comes to the Trinity River, Oakley is clearly the better candidate. During the course of the entire debate, Leppert mentioned the Trinity only once, and even then only in passing. As Chair of the committee that translated Laura Miller’s generalized promises into detailed, financially responsible blueprints, Oakley has proven that he can exhibit forceful leadership on environmentalism. Leppert’s company, on the other hand, was fined over $6 million for illegal dumping (a fact that could not be simply refuted or explained during the debate, even when Leppert was given direct opportunity).
Perhaps the largest single individual issue in the race, however, is Oakley’s sexuality. Oakley, who has publicly acknowledged his homosexuality since the beginning of his work in local politics during the early 90s, says that the issue “never comes up” and that, even after the election, his orientation will still be “a part of who [he is].” If elected, Oakley would be the first openly gay mayor of a major city in US history – a fact indicative of the progress Dallas has recently made on issues of tolerance and racial harmony.
The DMN published a thought-provoking story earlier this week documenting the decline of “the gay factor” in influencing politics. City Hall responded yesterday by holding closed-door hearings discussing the possibility of “censuring” Oakley for being gay.
The “gay factor” has some Oakley extremists up in arms, though. They argue that Leppert excessively flaunts his nuclear family at joint appearances, and that this essentially amounts to homophobic campaigning. But Leppert, whose ridiculous “I Love Dallas! (and Dallasans (?))” radio spot should’ve cost him a spot in the runoff, used the debate as a forum to express his indifference to Oakley’s personal life. Equally excessive are some Leppert supporters who note that Oakley’s Wednesday TV spot stresses Leppert’s facial tick, an accusation that Oakley articulately shut down during the debate.
And then there’s the issue of negative campaigning. Many Oakley supporters (including myself) were disappointed to see the malicious ad he dropped last week. Nonetheless, the ad beautifully accomplished its goal of instilling doubt in the leadership style and “construction credentials” of Leppert. For those of you thinking of voting Leppert in protest, take a look at the direct mailing released by the Leppert camp the previous week, which was equally nasty.
On the whole, Leppert is clearly running on his admirable experience at Turner, while Oakley is leaning on an even more admirable reputation earned by dedicated service to Dallas for more than a decade. I am entirely convinced that Oakley is substantially more qualified for the post than is Leppert. Oakley is admittedly detail-oriented, but I believe this can be shaped into an asset that Dallas desperately needs after too many years of Laura Miller’s glittering generalities. Oakley might not have gone to Harvard, but he is considerably more informed when it comes to Dallas.
Early voting begins today. Election day is June 16.