Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Dallas' power elite lined up against Hunt, and she nearly beat them."

In loss, Hunt's road uncertain

November 8, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

People were still lining up to shake Angela Hunt's hand when the staff at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary started to turn out the lights.

With the fight to stop the Trinity toll road project behind her, Angela Hunt, near where the project will go forward, promises she will continue to keep an eye on the plan. 'We're going to hold them accountable,' she said.

Exhausted, and defeated in her effort to stop the construction of a toll road inside the Trinity River levees, the youngest member of the Dallas City Council slumped into a chair at the back of a dark and emptying room where moments before she had conceded Dallas' wildest election in years.

It was her election, fostered in a petition drive she conceived and defined in a campaign she led. Its outcome, for more than anyone else in Dallas, belongs to her.

Defeat is rarely empowering, and Ms. Hunt, 35, is a damaged politician today who staked a great deal on a ragtag, against-all-odds campaign.

But there is a consolation. On Wednesday morning, she awoke not as the leader of an anti-toll road movement – but as the face and voice of the city's loyal opposition.

Dallas' power elite lined up against her, and she nearly beat them.

"I didn't get into politics to make friends or to toe the line or to take the easy route," she said Wednesday afternoon. "Being a City Council member is such a low-paying job. ... Why make those types of sacrifices if you are just going to sit on the sidelines and not take a stand on issues that you think are important for the future of our city?"

Cloudy future

It's Ms. Hunt's own future that is now in question.

Had she won Tuesday, she would surely have sealed a place as one of the city's most important political players.

Her narrow defeat clouds that picture.

She remains marginalized at City Hall, where none of her council colleagues supported her campaign. Some harbor resentment about the bruising nature of the campaign. Much of Dallas' business community sees her as a spoiler. And even city staff have treated her at arm's length.

At the same time, Ms. Hunt has developed a base of thousands of supporters who view her as one person in Dallas with the platform and will to speak truth to power.

"I think she could win as a state representative. She would have a lot of people behind her. She's a powerhouse. She's a force," said Joe Madden, an East Dallas bookseller who supported the anti-toll road campaign.

Ms. Hunt has earned similar admiration from a number of former elected officials and even a handful of deep-pocketed business people.

"People will look to her as that voice who will tell us what we need to hear," said former council member Sandy Greyson, who supported the anti-toll road side.

Still the outsider

If Ms. Hunt's opponents were looking for an olive branch when she conceded defeat Tuesday, they didn't get it.

Instead, she sounded ready to embrace the role of outsider and let the political chips fall where they may.

"We were battling the political establishment. We were battling the business elite. We were battling the wealthy property owners who had a lot to gain," she said Tuesday night.

And as the road project goes forward, she promised "we're going to hold them accountable."

Now, after months of campaigning that caused her to duck out of City Council meetings early and skip committee briefings altogether, Ms. Hunt must go back to the routine work of being a council member.

It will be an awkward return. Some of her fellow council members, including Mayor Tom Leppert, were stung by her campaign's tactics.

There were charges from her most ardent supporters that the mayor lied about toll road facts and figures. Council members were called dupes and worse for backing Mr. Leppert.

"She called us a lot of things that were not justified," said council member Mitchell Rasansky, adding that he has thick skin and wants to move on.

At one point, Ms. Hunt also culled council members' e-mails for evidence they were colluding with city staff in the pro-toll road campaign.

Some of those e-mails showed a cozy friendship that at least suggested coordination between top city staff members and leading toll road backers. In one e-mail, former council member Craig Holcomb waxed nostalgic with a city department director about "the days before AH."

Some of Ms. Hunt's council colleagues saw the e-mail examination as an affront, something they expected from the media but not from one of their own.

"I can't say that some of her colleagues have not felt wounded by the campaign name-calling and the seizure of their e-mail," said Veletta Lill, Ms. Hunt's predecessor on the council and a key Vote No proponent. "By all appearances, the rest of the council seems to be working very well together and hopefully she can work to rejoin the group."

Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

In Mr. Leppert's victory speech Tuesday, he didn't mention Ms. Hunt at all.

And earlier this year, the mayor failed to name the second-term representative as chairman of any City Council committee and left her off the Trinity River Corridor Committee, on which she had previously served and had a clear expertise.

But on Wednesday morning, he dismissed notions that he'll seek to marginalize Ms. Hunt.

"We need to be a team, and I want Angela to be part of that team," Mr. Leppert said.

Council member Pauline Medrano, who works closely with Ms. Hunt on issues that affect their abutting districts, said that with the election over, the council must move on.

"People have differences. We're all grown-ups, and we keep on going," she said.

Looking ahead

Ms. Hunt said she too is ready to move on.

On Wednesday morning, a number of council members whom she wouldn't name called her to wish her well and say they hope to work with her. She said Mr. Leppert had not called her.

As for her political future, she wouldn't say whether she maintains ambitions for higher office. For now, she said she wants to focus on representing her district.

She knows her opponents are murmuring about defeating her in 2009.

Ms. Lill, a longtime popular council member from Ms. Hunt's district, is often mentioned as one of the few people, if not the only person, who could unseat her.

Ms. Lill said Wednesday that she does not foresee running again.

"I feel I've served," she said.

After catching up on rest Wednesday and spending some time with her family, Ms. Hunt said she is unconcerned with whatever plans the powerful people in Dallas have for her.

"The people who claim to be the powerbrokers in this town don't elect me. They don't decide when it's time for me to go," she said.

She promised to continue to bird-dog the Trinity toll road plan. And her next project is to learn more about southern-sector development, she said.

She sounded like someone nowhere close to backing down, like someone with an eye on bigger things.

"I think when you start questioning whether something is possible and do we have the political capital and can we raise the money, you start seeing a mountain of reasons why you can't get it done. I just don't worry about that stuff," she said.

Staff writer Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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