Sunday, July 29, 2007

"The idea that there's this clique that knows best for the city – I find that very patronizing and arrogant."

Hunt not backing down in Trinity toll road fight

Council member barrels past city officials, business elite with toll road fight

July 29, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Editor's note: The Dallas city secretary is expected to announce Sunday whether a petition drive for a referendum on the Trinity toll road was successful. Check throughout the day for up-to-date coverage.

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt walks along a Trinity River levee in the area slated for development as part of the Trinity River Corridor Project. Hunt led a petition drive in hopes of forcing a vote this November that could kill the Trinity toll road, a billion-dollar highway that would run between the levees.

It was early 2001. The young lawyer and her husband loved their small 1926 Tudor cottage, one of hundreds of vintage homes in the shady East Dallas enclave.

But all around them, change was afoot, and to Ms. Hunt, it stunk. Developers were swooping in, buying up quaint old houses, knocking them down and putting up big, garish ones.

"There was something special about this neighborhood. It was unlike any other area of Dallas we'd seen," the Dallas City Council member recalled last week. "That character was being eroded by the bulldozing of these 80-year-old homes."

Calling City Hall, she learned that she and her neighbors could organize a conservation district to protect the M Streets' architectural integrity. But to get the process rolling, they would need signatures on petitions – a lot of them.

"People who had lived there a long time told us they'd tried that before, and they could never get the petitions off the ground," she said. "They told us that even if we could do it, it would take five years.

"I looked at what was happening and said, 'In five years, this neighborhood is going to look like Plano.' "

So she and her supporters – much as they have this year in challenging the proposed Trinity toll road – started going door to door. Within months, they'd collected the signatures of 75 percent of M Street homeowners. The conservation district, established by the City Council in November 2002, became a model for other neighborhood preservation efforts.

Friends say Ms. Hunt's "Save the M Streets" campaign revealed much in her character: She is determined, quick, persuasive, inexhaustibly energetic, at times impatient and never one to back away from a fight – especially if it's a fight that people tell her she can't win.

Said Philip Kingston, a friend and fellow East Dallas resident who served as Ms. Hunt's campaign treasurer in this spring's City Council election:

"She doesn't have any fear of upsetting an apple cart."

Where will road lead?

The M Streets initiative did more than preserve a bunch of gingerbread cottages. It launched the political career of Angela Annette Hunt, a career that some predict will lead to a race for the mayor's office one day.

Over the last few months, the 35-year-old City Council member has emerged as the head of a movement that could reshape one of the most ambitious public works projects in Dallas history.

Applying many of the lessons learned on the M Streets, Ms. Hunt is leading the fight to kill the Trinity toll road, a billion-dollar highway planned inside the Trinity River levees.

Transportation officials say the highway is needed to alleviate downtown congestion. But a group headed by Ms. Hunt has gathered more than 80,000 signatures calling for a November vote on whether to scrap the toll road.

The city secretary's office is expected to announce today whether the petitions are valid; about 48,000 signatures of registered Dallas voters are required to place the measure before voters.

Ms. Hunt contends that a big, honking toll road will spoil the downtown riverside park that is also planned as part of the Trinity River Corridor Project. That project, which Dallas voters endorsed in a bond election nine years ago, also includes improved flood-control measures, wetlands, new hiking trails and other improvements.

In opposing the toll road, Ms. Hunt has put herself at odds with most of the city's political leaders and business elite. They argue that the toll road is an integral part of the overall Trinity project and that halting or delaying its construction could cause the rest of the project to unravel – a contention that Ms. Hunt emphatically disputes.

Those who have spoken out against her petition drive include the last two Dallas mayors, Laura Miller and Ron Kirk; the new mayor, Tom Leppert; and most of the City Council.

Also arrayed against her are the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas American Indian Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas Asian Chamber of Commerce, the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.

The Dallas Citizens Council, representing top executives of the city's largest businesses, gave $40,950 to Save the Trinity, a group fighting the referendum. Other large contributors to Save the Trinity include big corporations and real estate partnerships, and wealthy, well-connected Dallas philanthropists that most young and ambitious politicians would just as soon not antagonize.

Ron Steinhart, a longtime Dallas banker and former chairman of the Citizens Council, is one of many business leaders who gave money to Ms. Hunt's campaign when she first ran for the City Council in 2005. Today, he's supporting Save the Trinity in its efforts to thwart her toll-road referendum.

Her stance on the Trinity project "does make me question my support of her," Mr. Steinhart said. "I thought she would make a good council person. But on this issue, which is important to the city, we just completely disagree. I'm disappointed."

Veletta Forsythe Lill is another who has parted ways with Ms. Hunt. She was Ms. Hunt's predecessor in representing District 14, which includes parts of downtown, Uptown, the Dallas Arts District, Oak Lawn and East Dallas.

Ms. Lill, a noted Dallas preservationist, got to know Ms. Hunt through the latter's work on Save the M Streets. As a council member, she appointed Ms. Hunt to a couple of city boards.

When term limits ended Ms. Lill's tenure on the council in 2005, and Ms. Hunt decided to run, Ms. Lill not only gave her money, she publicly endorsed her.

Today, there's a plain chill when Ms. Lill is asked about her former protégé.

"Angela and I have not communicated in some time," she said.

Like Mr. Steinhart, Ms. Lill supports the Trinity project – she voted for it as a member of the City Council.

She said she is "saddened" that Ms. Hunt "has not been able to develop good working relationships with her colleagues, the staff and portions of the community."

If such reactions bother Angela Hunt in the slightest, she doesn't admit it. In defending her position, and criticizing that of her opponents, she strikes a populist tone that may reflect her blue-collar roots.

"The idea that there's this clique that knows best for the city – I find that very patronizing and arrogant," she said.

"The powers that be, the political elite, the wealthy landowners, the Citizens Council, those with vested interests – we knew going in that they were going to oppose us. This was never about persuading them. It was about giving the people of this city an opportunity to have their voices heard at the ballot box."

Mitchell Rasansky, who has served alongside Ms. Hunt on the City Council, said her stance as a foe of the downtown establishment could serve her well in city politics.

Mr. Rasansky, who represents a North Dallas district, is arguably the most fiscally conservative member of the City Council. Yet he supports the huge Trinity project, including the toll road, and calls Ms. Hunt's campaign to scuttle the road "a tragic mistake."

Still, he said, "Dallas seems to go for mavericks. Max Goldblatt, Laura Miller, Wes Wise ... Angela's a nice maverick. I've always gotten along with her. And she's a smart maverick."

Determined path

On the campaign trail, Angela Hunt likes to tell people that she was born in the district she represents.

Until she was a toddler, her parents lived on Chadbourne Road in the Devonshire neighborhood north of Lovers Lane. For a while after that, the family tried the rural life, moving to Bangs, Texas, near Brownwood. Eventually, they settled in Pasadena, an industrial town near the Houston Ship Channel.

Her dad repaired lawnmowers and small engines as his trade. Her mother was a teacher's aide who went back to school later in life, earning a master's degree and serving for years as a caseworker for the state's Child Protective Services office.

Ms. Hunt has one brother, but he's 16 years older, so both of them, she said, more or less grew up as only children.

At Pasadena High School, she was third in a graduating class of 400 and voted "most likely to succeed" by classmates. It was in high school that she met her future husband, Paul Sims, a Web design consultant. Both of them played violin in the orchestra.

She won a scholarship to Rice University. "Our family did not have a lot of resources," she said, "and it was important to get that financial aid. I always tell young people when I speak to them, if you work hard in school, colleges will help you financially if you need it."

At Rice, she earned a degree in what was, in the early 1990s, a new program of women and gender studies.

"I already knew I wanted to go to law school," she said, "so I decided to study something as an undergrad that I just found interesting."

In 1998, she earned a law degree from the University of Texas. A summer clerkship with the law firm of McKool Smith, headed by Mike McKool Jr., a longtime Democratic Party operative, brought her and Mr. Sims to Dallas. She was hired by the firm as a commercial litigator, but left when she assumed her council duties.

Ms. Hunt was one of four freshmen elected to the City Council in 2005. Ms. Miller, then mayor, appointed all four to the council's Trinity River committee. Ms. Hunt thinks that was so the newcomers could get up to speed on the complicated Trinity project. (Ms. Miller declined to be interviewed for this story.)

On the Trinity committee, Ms. Hunt said, she started asking questions – and she didn't like the answers. The project was growing ever more expensive. The downtown park portion was, to her, grossly underfunded. Meanwhile, money was being poured into the transportation portion. And most of that transportation money was going to the toll road.

"I was really shocked and disappointed to see what was going on," she said.

"I talked with people all through the city who voted for the bond issue in 1998. They thought they were voting for a world-class park. When I'd tell them, 'Do you know there's going to be a toll road inside the levees,' they'd look at me in disbelief. They'd say, 'What are you talking about?'

"Have you ever had a picnic next to a tollway? I haven't. I don't want to."

Ms. Hunt demurs when asked about her political plans. She won't say she wants to run for mayor. Neither will she rule it out.

"The truth is, I don't know," she said. "If other opportunities present themselves where I think I could be of further service to the community, then I would certainly consider that.

"But there's no calendar on my wall with my plan for how I'm going to take over the city or the state."

She is highly conscious of her public image. She declined to answer several personal questions for this story, about things like her favorite TV show, what books she's reading, her dream vacation, what her friends say about her. She frets about how she'll be photographed. She still bristles at a story that ran in The Dallas Morning News months ago, pointing out that she'd spent campaign funds to have her hair done for campaign photos and for a news conference.

On a recent steamy afternoon, Ms. Hunt took a photographer and a reporter on a tour of the river bottoms, climbing over the levees near Industrial Boulevard north of Commerce Street.

It was just after heavy rains had swelled the Trinity well beyond its banks. The ground inside the levees was still a bog. Her black boots sunk past the ankles as she fought her way through gooey mud and waist-high weeds. She seemed unbothered.

"It's so peaceful, so quiet out here," she said. "You'd never know that you were right in the heart of a city.

"The idea that they want to put a toll road down here, with cars roaring by – it's just going to ruin what could be a gem of a park."

Angela Hunt

Lawyer; Dallas City Council member since 2005

Age: 35

Born: Dec. 11, 1971, Dallas

Career and civic highlights: Commercial litigator, McKool Smith, 1998-2005; Dallas Cultural Affairs Commission, 2003-04; Dallas Permit and License Appeal Board, 2003; Dallas Homeowners League board member, 2003-04; Preservation Dallas executive board member, 2003-06; Dallas Black Dance Theatre board member, 2003-04; Save the M Streets, founder and chairwoman, 2001-02

Family: Husband, Paul Sims

Education: University of Texas School of Law, 1998; Thomas J. Watson Fellow, 1994-95; Rice University, bachelor's degree, 1994

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