Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dallas' District 100 and My Own Pet Peeve

Whose the best candidate for District 100 in the Texas State Legislature? Terri Hodge or newcomer Eric Johnson? While my political leanings are at some times obvious (there are some things on which I'm probably more conservative than progressive), I generally don't endorse candidates and I won't start here.

I know Terri Hodge personally. I first met her in Austin after she first won election to the Texas House. She can be engaging and personable. She's funny. She can be both profane and disarmingly profound. I don't know that I've ever seen her as anything less than helpful.

By the same token, she can be difficult at times. She can be loud and bombastic. She can be intimidating if you aren't prepared to go toe-to-toe with her on issues that you care about. But if you make your case to her and show yourself to be serious, you have no more sure ally.

When I went with a group of interns from UTA to meet with her about legislation to increase compensation for the exonerees. Representative Hodge was almost combative, defending her record and bemoaning the near impossibility of what we were asking. It was a meeting that went on much longer than it should have, with the representative and I going back and forth about why this needs to be done.

At the end of the meeting, I told the group I was with, 'She'll vote for it'. Because I knew she was listening. She may not always say what you want her to, but if you have her ear, she supports you.

That's why I'm irritated.

If a recent story in the Dallas Morning News is correct (no aspertions on the integrity of the paper - but they've been pretty strident in their criticism of local black politicians lately. Ok, they've not been totally without reason...), this race has an element that is a pet peeve of mine.

Ms. Hodge, and her opponent, political new comer Eric Johnson, appeared before DMN's editorial board. One thing came out of the appearance that rubs me the wrong way:

"The stark differences between Hodge and Johnson were evident during their endorsement debate in front of The Dallas Morning News' Editorial Board."

"That's when Hodge, to Johnson's dismay, said property rights were more important than sending people to college."

""One of the most major moves in the city today is taking property rights through the process of eminent domain," Hodge said. "That is a far greater issue in District 100 than how may children we have getting to college.""

"Johnson reacted strongly."

""I don't think, under any circumstances, would I say that issue is more important than children going to college," he said. "I almost detect a tinge of hostility toward the concept of going to college.""

Me too.

Don't get me wrong. I know what Ms. Hodge is saying. First, eminent domain has been an issue for more than 30 years in South Dallas. It hearkens back to the early to mid '70's when the homes of people were condemned to make room for an outdoor theater and a parking lot. There have been proposals for a type of eminent domain recently. Unfortunately, residents were ill informed (and in some cases uninformed), on what was actually being proposed.

Absentee landlords and property heirs (many of whom have taken no effort to repair homes which have become urban nuisances), tend to, as I heard someone say, 'get awfully proud' of their property, when redevelopment begins in the area. In some cases wanting two to three times - plus, what the property is actually worth. The formerly proposed type of eminent domain wasn't meant for private developers to come in and 'take Big Mama's house'. It was intended to make it possible to obtain multiple properties at a reasonable price in order to build affordable housing in a declining neighborhood in Ms. Hodges district. This episode, which turned bitter and contentious, stoked fears about eminent domain as a tool for for-profit developers - in an area that is going to be redeveloped anyway!

The point is, any politician, Ms. Hodge, Mr. Johnson - anyone - could go in and educate the community on what is happening and how to participate in and benefit from the redevelopment rather than feed the fear as a campaign issue. Ultimately, you end up playing to the baser instincts of fear and suspicion, rather than the making the choice of becoming a hero by leading the community by promoting opportunity and hope. It saddens me to see Ms. Hodge choose the latter. In the areas of South Dallas specifically, and southern Dallas in general, redevelopment ought to be something on which a State Representative leads the charge. "Big Momma" (a colloquialism for 'grandmother', for those among the great unwashed), can stay in a brand new house in the same area if the right kind of policy is enacted. Its being done all over the country and it can be done in Dallas. Besides, Texas' eminent domain laws have been changed to offer greater protection to property owners.

But that's not my pet peeve!

""One of the most major moves in the city today is taking property rights through the process of eminent domain," Hodge said. "That is a far greater issue in District 100 than how may children we have getting to college.""

No! Terri, NO!

There is no greater issue in District 100 or any other district than how many children go to college!

""Believe me, I believe in education," she said. "I would love for every child to finish high school and go to college. But all of them will not do that. We need other alternatives for those students.""

I know, common sense tells you, that every child won't go to college. Every child who goes to college will not finish. But there are far too many variables which influence why that is true (many of which are rooted in state legislation), to send any message that suggests that college is not a 'live' possibility for the child who wants it. I cringe whenever I hear anyone say this!

The fact is we don't know which child will or will not make a good college student. Some kids who are stellar public (or private) school students, don't do well in college. Other students who can't get their act together in high school go on to graduate magna cum laude. If you begin with the premise that its not a possibility - and if you do not work to make it a reality - for all children, someone is short changed. And many of those who are short changed live in District 100.

And to suggest that the need for all children in that district to attend college is subservient to some lurking suspicion about eminent domain, is ridiculous. A politician, willing to put this picture properly in its frame, can allay those fears and help create an atmosphere in which a quality 16 years of education is possible for all of her constituents and their families is an opportunity too good to pass up. The right message has to be sent.

Oh, and there's one other thing...
There was a time when African-Americans valued education and its importance. There was an older generation who celebrated the academic achievements and exploits of the children in the community. They wanted them to finish school; they encouraged them to go to college. They applauded them when they graduated and returned home. Whites and blacks invested in the education of black youth and young adults in establishing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) and civil rights victories made it possible choices between Morehouse and Michigan a reality instead of a dream.

Criticism of Barack Obama for being 'elitist' and 'not black enough' because he was Harvard educated irritated me. With all of the criticism of the drop out rate among black youth, what do you tell them when you criticize a presidential candidate who happens to be African-American because he is 'too educated'?

Eric Johnson has a Harvard education as well. He is a native Dallasite. For one African-American to demean, in anyway and for any reason, his education and cite is as something that disqualifies him as a serious candidate - in anyway and for any reason - sends the wrong message to black youth. Whether his degree is from Harvard or Hardin-Simmons, his education is a life achievement that says something about his ambition and his determination. Things to which young black, Hispanic and white youths ought to be encouraged to emulate.

You just don't tell them that they can't accomplish the same thing in order to win an election.

Come on Representative Hodge, you're much better than that.

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