Wide open Dallas mayor race mirrors city's growing diversity. Days of hand-picked business candidates may be ended

At least three of the top candidates in the April 4 Dallas mayor's race are opening storefront offices in the city's neighborhoods, away from their steel-and-glass campaign headquarters. In Dallas, where for years the mayor has been selected from within the white, downtown business establishment and elected by the affluent northern neighborhoods, such practices are hardly the norm.

Neighborhood campaign offices, some of them in minority communities, are just one sign that Dallas - often pictured as a button-down monolith with a one-track mind for efficiency and business, business, business - is changing. Many here say the days of a mayor hand-picked by the business powers-that-be are over.

``This race signals a significant change for Dallas,'' says Lawrence Redlinger, director of graduate studies at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Texas at Dallas. ``There's no consensus from the city's power brokers. And the number of candidates reflects a greater diversity in the populace.''

Among the nine candidates vying for the two-year post are a Socialist Workers candidate and a black man seeking the city's divestiture from companies doing business in South Africa. Very un-Dallas.

But most serious attention is focused on four candidates, three of whom have long-known names in Dallas political life. They are Jim Collins, a former congressman; Fred Meyer, a former chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party; Annette Strauss, a City Council member; and Jim Buerger, a travel industry executive who had virtually no name recognition before beginning his populist, largely self-financed campaign.

No one expects any candidate to cull more than 50 percent of the vote in the April 4 election, which means a runoff between the two top vote-getters is likely.

Still, while many are talking about a new political era in Dallas, others point out that all four ``serious'' candidates are wealthy white individuals who do not stray far from the city's traditional mayoral mold.

``The major difference and the most intriguing aspect of this election is the number of strong candidates,'' says Philip Seib, a journalism professor at Southern Methodist University here. But he adds that there is ``not much of a philosophical gap'' between them.

``There is a breath of fresh air to [this election],'' adds John Wiley Price, a Dallas County commissioner and a leader of the city's black community. ``But for the most part it's pretty much the same old city. ... It's still basically four millionaires.''

One reason for this is that Dallas is the largest city in the country with a professional city manager running municipal government. The mayor receives only $50 per City Council meeting attended, even though the post is a virtually full-time job. That means one must have a secure income outside City Hall to take on the job.

Mayor Starke Taylor says the system has given Dallas a long line of ``community spirited'' mayors who ``do what's best for their city, not what's best for their political careers.'' But others say the system eliminates all but the wealthy. ``The system has prevented a lot of good candidates from coming forward,'' Mr. Price says.

Yet if Dallas finds itself with four major mayoral candidates who are carefully toeing the city's traditional pro-business line, it may be because that's what voters want. The city's economic picture is not one of robust expansion, as it has been in the past, and many voters may find comfort in tried formulas.

Mayor Taylor, who is not seeking reelection, says that tradition has given Dallas the best-run city government in the US. ``What we've had has worked, and what we've had has been a business-oriented type of government.''

Yet with blacks and Hispanics making up about 45 percent of the city's population, the question of their representation is a major issue. The 11-member City Council is made up of nine whites and two blacks. A Hispanic at-large council candidate has a good chance of winning the seat this election, many analysts believe.

To further improve the council's diversity, Mr. Buerger favors changing the council's makeup from eight district and three at-large members to 10 district representatives and the mayor. His endorsement of that plan has earned Buerger support among some blacks. But the proposal is condemned by others, who see it as the first step toward undoing the city-manager, nonpartisan form of government.

Whether or not Dallas minorities achieve better representation in the short term, their growing numbers and the issues they have brought to the limelight are a major part of the changes Dallas is now experiencing. Local political consultant Lisa LeMaster says, ``It's not just that the so-called minority issues - 10 to 1 [council representation], housing, police-minority relations - are the sexiest in the campaign. They're also likely to be the biggest issues in the city in the coming years.''

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