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Commentary: Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert

By Lee Cullum, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Where Bill White of Houston used to be the star mayor of Texas, soon he may well be displaced by Tom Leppert of Dallas. A Republican where Bill White is a Democrat, a construction magnate where White leaned toward oil and gas with some building thrown in, Leppert nonetheless shares with White an affinity for Harvard (source of his MBA and White's undergraduate degree) and a startling ability to get things done.

When Tom Leppert was elected June 9th, Dave Levinthal wrote in the Dallas Morning News, quite reasonably, that the new mayor faced a "Himalayan learning curve." And why wouldn't he? Business and politics are alike only in that you need to take in as much money as you spend. Even the flattest corporate structure affords a lot more command to the guy in charge than the Dallas City Council, which in June had seven other members as unseasoned as the mayor.

But Leppert moved in as if he were a combination of R. L. Thornton and Ron Kirk. He tackled the budget and got it approved with a notable absence of drama. He dealt with Police Chief David Kunkle on the question of burglar alarms, also with a minimum of stress. But the big bomb hit on June 29, only four days after his inauguration, when petitions by the thousands hit City Hall, demanding a referendum on the Trinity River project and its dreaded tollroad. One month later those signatures were validated in sufficient numbers to force an election, and Tom Leppert was forced to forget that Himalayan learning curve and hurl himself right back into campaigning.

This he did with breathtaking effectiveness - rallying the Council, all but one, to work together with a rapport not seen in 40 years; debating the issue anytime anywhere with a presence and confidence that grew increasingly hard to combat; formulating strategy far more sophisticated than his few months in politics would deem possible, especially the personal e-mails, relayed by the hundreds, chain-letter style, that got people to the polls. Leppert also worked hard to raise money for the Trinity when it could have hurt the drive to pay off his own campaign debt incurred during the mayor's race and runoff.

Jan Hart Black, president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, summed it up like this: "Without his leadership I do not believe this thing would have gone the way it did."

She's right. Now Mayor Leppert is pressing for something to show in the river bottom within two years. That will take some doing. There are many rooms in the mansion known as the Trinity, and each room is run by an arm of government that believes in one hand clapping, no more. Applause will require all hands working together. That's where Leppert had better consult his Baptist Church about the wisdom of Solomon.

Meanwhile, the mayor is everywhere - the Dallas Animal Services and Adoption Center, the Homeless Alliance Press Conference, the Dallas Historical Society lunch, the Hispanic Entrepreneur's dinner. What he seems to be saying is what we all want to hear. Forget Houston. Dallas is back.

Lee Cullum is host of the monthly series, C.E.O., on KERA 13.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.