Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A tragedy of Shakespearian proportions

I like Don Hill. I have ever since I got to know him beginning over eight years ago now. I always will like him. And the fact that a jury found him guilty earlier today ... or was it yesterday, now ... of some sort of public corruption doesn't alter my feelings about him one bit.

Don Hill is not a bad guy. Doesn't even come close. Now, someone who strikes or in some other way injures a defenseless child or a woman will be writ in large script in my black book of eternal damnation. But, c'mon, this is politics here and not even politics on a grand crooked scale like Watergate, Iran-Contra, Teapot Dome, Tammany Hall, New Orleans, Detroit.

I'm not excusing Hill or absolving him of any blame. Don Hill came across to me as a man who lived from paycheck to paycheck, not really ever getting ahead, one of the very few whose election to the Dallas City Council was an advancement in pay grade and who perhaps saw the opportunity to get a better brand of used car and took it. And even with that, I'm not convinced he's convinced he did anything wrong.

"I know in my heart that I didn't have a corrupt intent in anything I did," Hill told Gromer Jeffers Jr. of the Dallas Morning News after the verdict was announced. "I know the things that we did, my wife and I ... all we wanted to do is the very best for the citizens of Dallas, and we were doing it at great sacrifice."

Dallas has a municipal political structure that does not allow for leaders to develop. Take a look around you and count the real leaders in Dallas politics. You won't find any. Da Mayor likes to run things, but being in charge and being a leader are two entirely different things. In fact, the closest thing we have to a leader at City Hall is not even an elected official ... it's City Manager Mary Suhm. She has united normally warring political factions unlike any predecessor I can think of and when she raises her sword in the air and commands "Follow me," her employees will be right behind her. They may chafe at her brusque style now and then, but when all is said and done, May Suhm is the person you want commanding the troops in the field as well as dealing with the generals that ordered those troops there.

Hill, however, was emerging as a leader the black community of Dallas desperately needed and still needs. Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway is trying to fill that void, but Caraway only wants to make the black community a much-needed adjunct of the white power structure and not a separate voice with its own concerns, cultures and passions, which is what Hill wanted and what would be in the best interests of the black community.

When I was the public information officer for the City of Dallas, I wrote, among other things, a number of speeches for City Councilman Ed Oakley. Once, when Hill needed a speech written for a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration event, Oakley recommended me for the task. Hill sent me an e-mail, describing the event, what he wanted to accomplish and I wrote a speech for him. After the event, he sent me another e-mail saying it had been the most well-received speech he had ever given and asked me to do another one for another unrelated event, possibly even on the need for additional public housing. This relationship went on for a couple of months when one day I received an e-mail from Hill asking me if I was available for lunch. I told him I was and would meet him in his office at 11:30 a.m. I walked in at the appointed time, he took one look at me and said "What do you want?" I mentioned the lunch he had proposed. "But .... but .... but ...," he stammered. "You're white!" It was one of the nicest compliments I had ever received.

But I formed my greatest admiration for Hill watching him tackle difficult, divisive issues that came before the City Council. Unlike most of his colleagues, who only want to be on the winning side of any close vote, all Hill cared about was that he was on the right side and that usually meant the compassionate side. More than anyone else I've seen on the City Council, Don Hill gave a voice to all those who had no voice in city government.

And now these voices are silent once again and that's the greatest tragedy.

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