Leppert Takes Mayoral Record Into U.S. Senate Race

5/12/12  Texas U.S. Senate candidate Tom Leppert talks to members of the community (left and right) Michael Osuna and Steve Chappell  at the Christ Fellowship Church in  McKinney, TX during a candidate meet and greet.
5/12/12 Texas U.S. Senate candidate Tom Leppert talks to members of the community (left and right) Michael Osuna and Steve Chappell at the Christ Fellowship Church in McKinney, TX during a candidate meet and greet.

Tom Leppert was a virtual unknown on the Dallas political scene before 2007, when he beat 10 other candidates to become the city’s mayor. At the time, he insisted he was focused on the city’s problems and not on higher office.

While Leppert was mayor, AT&T moved its headquarters to Dallas, the crime rate dropped and major projects that had been stalled for years moved forward.

In February 2011, with just four months remaining in his four-year term, Leppert resigned and began a bid for Kay Bailey Hutchison’s U.S. Senate seat. For his critics, the move was proof that Leppert always viewed the job of leading the country’s ninth-largest city as a political steppingstone. But Leppert, who is fighting to make a runoff in the crowded Republican primary, said he accomplished everything he had set out to do as mayor.

Not only was he ready to move on, he said, but more important, the city was ready for someone else to take the reins.

“When I walked into it, I knew exactly what my agenda was, and I think I can say we accomplished that,” Leppert said. “There’s always more; there’s no question. But look at what we did.”

Echoing his mayoral campaign, Leppert is promoting his businessman’s perspective as the linchpin of his Senate bid. Before entering politics, Leppert held top positions at several companies, including a stint as chief executive of the New York-based Turner Construction. Ignoring the backgrounds of some of his opponents, he has described himself as “the only businessman in this race.”

Yet Leppert would probably not be a contender for the Senate seat if not for his time as mayor, which followed the tumultuous five-year tenure of Laura Miller.

From the start, many people welcomed Leppert’s measured demeanor and overt disdain for drama. For the first time in years, meetings started on time. Public spats were minimized.

“When he took office, there was a great deal of rancor in City Hall,” said Donna Halstead, the president of the Dallas Citizens Council, an influential business group. “Tom was able to really just pull everybody together.”

Leppert campaigned on reducing the crime rate, which was the highest among the country’s largest cities, according to one report. During his time in office, the city added hundreds of police officers and the crime rate plunged. Leppert also rallied the city to his side on two contentious referendums.

One involved a revitalizing of the Trinity River. Leppert supported a planned toll road, which was to be built as part of the river project. Opposition to the road prompted a ballot referendum to try to halt the project, but Leppert prevailed and the referendum was defeated.

During the debate over the referendum, Leppert and his allies implied that the United States Army Corps of Engineers were ready to approve the project. Reports later revealed that the Corps was perhaps not as supportive of the road as Leppert and his allies had led many to believe.

While the Corps of Engineers is expected to greenlight the project this year, critics maintain that Leppert’s rhetoric during the campaign was deceptive — a charge he has denied.

“He had no problems misleading the public or misrepresenting facts when it would serve his goals,” said City Councilwoman Angela Hunt, who backed the referendum to stop the road.

Two years later, Leppert supported a plan for the city to build a $500 million hotel connected to its convention center. He led opposition to a referendum that would have killed the project, and it was defeated with 51 percent of the vote.

Leppert claimed public investment was the only way to revitalize the convention center.

“The Dallas Convention Center was quickly becoming a third tier,” he said. “People understood that.” The hotel opened last year, and early signs suggest it could draw enough business for the debt to be paid entirely through hotel taxes and profits.

“That was a key piece that we didn’t address when I was mayor,” Miller said, “and I think he did a great job on that.”

Leppert is only the latest big-city mayor in Texas to try to translate hometown popularity into a successful statewide campaign. Former Mayor Ron Kirk of Dallas, a Democrat now serving as the U.S. trade representative, ran for the Senate in 2002. Former Mayor Bill White of Houston, another Democrat, tried to unseat Gov. Rick Perry in 2010. Both lost in races in which opponents were able to turn parts of their mayoral records into liabilities.

“Mayors have to balance their operating budgets and can borrow only with voter approval,” White said. “They have to deal with real problems with pragmatic solutions. That can be a plus or minus in races that opponents try to cast in the light of national politics.”

Leppert’s support of a city’s getting into the hotel business has not drawn much attention during the primary campaign, but members of rival campaigns say it could be used as ammunition if Leppert were part of a runoff.

Other aspects of his record have already put him on the defensive.

The city of Dallas raised the property tax rate twice under Leppert. He supported the smaller increase that was largely tied to a bond package agreed to by voters before he took office. Leppert said that in hindsight, he wished he had opposed the increase.

He is less repentant for participating in two gay pride parades while he was mayor, actions that have drawn criticism from Ted Cruz and Craig James, Republicans who are also running for the Senate seat. Leppert has said that the events were opportunities to engage the residents of the city he was elected to lead and that he still opposes same-sex marriage.

Robert Jeffress, an outspoken gay rights opponent and senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, where Leppert is a member, said the parades should not be an issue.

“I know Tom Leppert has a very clear biblical understanding that any deviation from one man-one woman for life is wrong,” Jeffress said. “He was serving as mayor of Dallas, not as pastor of Dallas.”

Ed Oakley, a former Dallas city councilman whom Leppert defeated in a runoff to become mayor, initially praised Leppert’s participation, but he switched course over Leppert’s later actions, including what many perceived as Leppert’s distancing himself from the city’s gay residents.

“I don’t believe he has any convictions,” said Oakley, who is gay. “I think he’s more concerned about his own political career rather than what is good for the city or the state of Texas.”

Mitchell Rasansky, a former city councilman who represented conservative neighborhoods in North Dallas, said he also regretted endorsing Leppert after his handling of several issues, including his resignation, which Rasansky said revealed an all-consuming focus on his political future.

“Everybody knew he was going for bigger office,” Rasansky said. “When he announced his resignation, I went in my office and shut the door and did a dance.”

Leppert said all his actions as mayor were done with Dallas in mind. Even if he were not a Senate candidate, he said, he probably would not have run for re-election.

“I had laid out an agenda, and I had achieved that agenda,” Leppert said. “I wasn’t going to make up an agenda, and I think too often that’s what happens in public life. People run for the sake of running."

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