Thursday, August 16, 2007

Trinity Park Toll Road Battle: Grassroots vs well-oiled Dallas political machine

Dallas council talks Trinity toll road today

Officials on both sides gear up for hot campaign

August 15, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Expect a little debating, some grandstanding and perhaps a pointed word or two.
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But Dallas City Council members today appear poised to order a special citywide referendum Nov. 6 to determine whether the city will build a planned toll road within the Trinity River Corridor's earthen levees.

And in acknowledging that inevitability, proposition opponents and advocates are girding for a potentially bitter, confusing and expensive campaign to woo Dallas voters.

Council member Angela Hunt, leader of the pro-proposition TrinityVote organization, said she expects to begin her campaign quickly, relying primarily on volunteers to convince voters that an inside-the-levees toll road would compromise the larger corridor project's planned park and recreation amenities.

The proposition calls in part for no road more than four total lanes with a speed limit higher than 35 mph to be built within the Trinity River Corridor.

"We're a grass-roots organization that's going to work very hard to educate voters as to why it's so critical to remove the toll road from our park," said Ms. Hunt, whose group in June submitted the required 48,000 valid voter signatures to trigger a referendum.

"The referendum opponents will have resources we don't have," Ms. Hunt said. "But at the end of the day, Dallas voters are sophisticated enough to see through slick ads and see through to the core of the issue. They're sophisticated enough to not allow their vision of Dallas to be drowned."

Proposition opponents, however, argue that Ms. Hunt is grossly overestimating public support for her stance.

Opposition leaders say they plan this week to announce the formation of the Vote No, Save the Trinity organization to argue that removing the planned toll road would jeopardize the entire $1.2 billion Trinity River Corridor project. Mayor Tom Leppert and former mayors Laura Miller and Ron Kirk will be the group's honorary chairs.

"I will clearly be very involved in it, but you have people from all walks of life committed to this. The participation will be very wide," Mr. Leppert said.

To that point, the mayor noted that 14 of 15 sitting City Council members oppose the proposition. So do local congressional leaders ranging from Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson to Republican Rep. Pete Sessions and state lawmakers as disparate as Democratic Sen. Royce West and Republican Rep. Dan Branch.

Meanwhile, the paid consultants behind Vote No, Save the Trinity are a veritable facsimile of Mr. Leppert's mayoral campaign.

Carol Reed and Associates will coordinate the group, while Allyn & Co. will handle advertising, Ms. Reed said. Radio commentator Willis Johnson will spearhead southern-sector outreach efforts, political consultant Brenda Reyes will coordinate Hispanic resident outreach, and consultant Becky Mayad will be spokeswoman.

The Dallas Citizens Council also plans to play a key role in the Vote No effort, with Chairman Tom Dunning saying Tuesday that his group would "contribute significant dollars to educating voters."

Ms. Hunt declined to comment on her organization's strategy or who it plans to use as leading consultants. She said this week that she expected former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem John Loza, council members Sandy Greyson and Donna Blumer and state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, to rank among her effort's more public faces.

Former Dallas Elections Manager Brooks Love previously provided TrinityVote with paid consulting services, and veteran political consultant Lorlee Bartos said she expects to work on behalf on TrinityVote, but probably in a volunteer capacity.

Through June 30, Ms. Hunt's TrinityVote raised more than four times and spent nearly five times as much money as the Trinity Commons Foundation, which urged voters not to sign the petition.

Still, both sides acknowledge that proposition opponents will significantly outspend supporters leading up to the November vote, if only by virtue of the number of wealthy Dallas residents who oppose the proposition.

"Whatever our side lacks in terms of cash and resources, it more than makes up for in excitement and grassroots effort," Mr. Loza said.

Said Mr. Leppert: "The energy level we're going to put into this is second to none."

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