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Dunning Stresses Experience, Leadership Style

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 Reporter: From the beginning of this cramped election season, each candidate has campaigned to restore basic city services. Yet over time, each has honed a slightly different pitch to voters. Domingo Garcia says he wants to represent and empower people in the forgotten Dallas - those in the low-income, minority neighborhoods. Laura Miller says she's for the small things that make a big difference in people's lives, such as better streets and code enforcement. Tom Dunning says he's campaigning to make a great city greater by attracting more businesses and more jobs. But Dunning says this race is not just about vision.

Tom Dunning, Dallas mayoral candidate: I think it's going to be about style and who has the positive leadership. Who has the history of positive leadership in our community. You only need to look at someone's past to know how they're going to act in the future.

Zeeble: Dunning's referring in part to Laura Miller, who is considered the front-runner in this race. Dunning says Miller is combative and rude to those she disagrees with, whether they're proponents of the newly-built arena or the now-moot 2012 Olympic bid spearheaded by former Mayor Ron Kirk. This was an exchange between Kirk and Miller, from a council session last summer about funding that Olympic bid.

Ron Kirk, former Dallas Mayor, from August 8, 2001 Dallas City Council session: You're out of order -

Laura Miller, former Dallas City Council Member and current Dallas mayoral candidate, from August 8, 2001 Dallas City Council session: No, you are, because you're wrong.

Kirk (from 8/8/01 City Council session): - from a non-binding referendum. We have the Attorney General's opinion to that effect -

Miller (from 8/8/01 Dallas City Council session): This is so political. What's the harm -

Zeeble: Dunning says his style is not confrontational, but inclusive. If you have a problem, talk it over with all the major players and work out a civil solution.

Dunning: This is what Tom Dunning is all about. Bringing people together, sitting down, building a coalition, and coming up with a common sense solution. Not being dictated to by the mayor or by anyone else.

Zeeble: Dunning says that's how he's lived and succeeded in business and civic activities his whole life. The 59 year-old chairman and CEO of one of the nation's larger health and welfare benefits firms, Dunning has also successfully served Dallas civic causes for decades. In the 1980s, when racial tensions divided the city, he helped create Dallas Together, a multi-ethnic business group that helped restore calm to the city. He later chaired the committee that led to Dallas's downtown university system and the North Texas branch university in south Dallas. He led the last DISD bond campaign 10 years ago, and served on numerous appointed state boards. Even his opponents agree Dunning's resume looks great. But that may not be enough, according to Rob Allyn, Laura Miller's campaign consultant. Allyn, who usually works for conservative business causes, believes that in picking Dunning, business leaders chose the wrong person.

Rob Allyn, Allyn & Company, Laura Miller's campaign consultant: With nothing to offer but negative attacks on Laura Miller and constant recitals of his resume. I thought I was watching Al Gore without the charisma. He's a robotic candidate that doesn't have any ideas or issues.

Zeeble: Dunning's campaign coordinator, Carol Reed.

Carol Reed, Dunning campaign consultant: Is Tom as glib as Laura Miller? No. Does Tom have a soundbite as good as Laura Miller's? No. But does his style and record say he'd be a great mayor? Absolutely.

Zeeble: Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jilson agrees with both assessments. He says Dunning's not a good candidate.

Cal Jilson, political science professor, Southern Methodist University: By the time he gets finished introducing himself, people are dozing.

Zeeble: But Jilson adds he's also an excellent manager.

Jilson: One of Tom Dunning's difficulties may be that he's an honest man running for mayor. And it's difficult for an honest man to make the sort of promises that get you elected mayor. It's unlikely taxes will be raised in Dallas. So how do you promise to raise police and fire salaries? It's a lot more exciting to say, "I'm gonna raise fire and police salaries by 15%, and we can find that money out of waste and corruption." That's an old Reagan phrase for, "We can lower taxes and spend more money, 'cause waste, fraud, and corruption is rampant in government; we're going to stop it." That's Laura Miller's approach to how she's going to find extra money. It almost never happens.

Zeeble: So instead of making promises, Dunning has finally started carving his own agenda, with some specifics.

Dunning: What I want to do is make sure we look at every DART station to maximize the use of the property around that station, because we're missing economic opportunities by having DART stations where people are dropped off or where they park. And we don't have retail or convenience stores there, or housing.

Zeeble: Dunning also wants to facilitate downtown business development.

Dunning: What I'm recommending is they appoint a czar, somebody who'll help entrepreneurs who want to build a business on Main Street. That they have someone they can go to in city hall to help them cut through the red tape, so they can start moving.

Zeeble: This is just the kind of agenda Dallas's business community loves. Marty Marks chairs the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors.

Marty Marks, President, Greater Dallas Association of Realtors: I'd like to take this opportunity to announce the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors' endorsement for you in the upcoming mayoral election. You've had great success in Dallas, starting with the achievements with Dallas Together in the late '80s and your appointment on many civic and community groups through the '90s. Our industry relies on solid economic development.

Zeeble: To some voters, the Realtors' endorsement and others like it suggests Dunning's message speaks only to business interests, not theirs. Being a good manager, in other words, means he'll manage - as mayor - an agenda handed to him by businesses. Yet longtime community activist David Marquis, does support Dunning and is helping to elect him. In part that's because Marquis says Dunning is his own man, and has even said no to requests for additional tax breaks for the proposed Victory business development around the new sports arena.

Dave Marquis, community activist and Dunning campaign consultant: On the extra money wanted for the Victory project - the extra 44 million dollars - he's already said, to many people, it doesn't pass the smell test. The fact you have someone who's proven himself in that community, and has proven he's willing to stand up to members of the community, really impresses me.

Zeeble: Still, Marquis's support may not be enough. Even though Dunning was the first to declare his candidacy for mayor, he failed at first, says SMU's Cal Jilson, to set himself apart from the better-known Laura Miller and her agenda of better city services.

Jilson: And Dunning felt compelled to say, "Me too. I'll also take care of streets, parks."

Zeeble: Dunning's campaign consultant, Carol Reed, says even though Dunning has never run for office before, and it shows, he's learning fast. And while Dunning's lacked the name recognition of his two leading opponents, advertising is helping, paid for from a million and a half dollar campaign chest, twice that of Miller's. Reed also blames the campaign's catch-up mode on a compressed schedule.

Reed: Not only have we done in six weeks what normally we would've done in nine months, but also you had Thanksgiving, Christmas, the rest of the holidays in that same period.

Zeeble: With less than a week to go before the election, Reed is hoping for a runoff so her client can win. Towards that end, Dunning also recently brought in consultant Lisa LeMaster to help sharpen his message. The last televised mayoral debate is scheduled for Friday on Channel 11, just hours before Election Day. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.