Despite an indictment, a Dallas legislator draws no opposition
State Rep. Terri Hodge is an old-school politician: blunt-talking, sharp-elbowed, unconcerned with how her rhetoric strikes those outside her predominantly poor and minority Dallas district. If you are one of Hodge’s constituents, she probably knows your name, your mother’s birthday, and your needs. Those traits have endeared Hodge to District 100 voters and may help her withstand the federal bribery and tax evasion charges she faces. Despite a multicount indictment hanging over her, no Democratic primary opponent stepped forward by the January deadline to vie for Hodge’s seat. She faces no Republican opposition in the general election.
Word of the investigation had swirled around town for more than two years, and its details were finally unsealed last October by U.S. Attorney Richard B. Roper of the Northern District of Texas. The indictment accused Hodge of taking bribes over five years in exchange for supporting a developer that was trying to win seven-figure contracts to build affordable housing in South Dallas. The developer, the indictment said, also was seeking federal subsidies for the construction. Instead of sparking outrage, the indictment of Hodge has been met with skepticism by many in the African-American community who feel they’ve been shortchanged for decades by the city’s white power structure. They view the charges against Hodge as “Mickey Mouse” infractions no different from the usual political back-scratching common to Dallas.
The reaction reflects the nature of Hodge’s district, which includes parts of South Dallas, Oak Cliff, Fair Park, and Pleasant Grove, and the political history of African-Americans in Dallas. The city is a national center for telecommunications, transportation, conventions, and trade shows. Over the past decade, it has forged an identity as a growing high-tech center rivaling Northern California’s Silicon Valley. That dynamism has largely bypassed minority communities. A common refrain here is that Dallas is actually two cities: the one known nationwide for its sports teams and distinctive downtown skyline, and the other Dallas south of the Trinity River, bereft of supermarkets, jobs, and quality government services.
“Tell me the name of one large hotel south of the river. There’s not one,” said Dallas Democratic Party Chairwoman Darlene Ewing. “Oak Cliff is a beautiful place, (but) there’s no hotels, no meeting arts area.”
District 100 runs from northwest Dallas to the city’s south and east sides, incorporating many of its least-developed neighborhoods. The per capita income is at least $7,000 below the state average of $19,617, according to figures from the 2000 census, the most recent data covering the district. Twenty-seven percent of residents live in poverty, compared with a statewide average of about 15 percent.
Yet a few blocks from some of the most run-down areas sit pockets of middle-class and upper-middle-class prosperity, like the gated, cul-de-sac community on Ferguson Road in the eastern part of the district. Comprised of picturesque, new $400,000 homes, it’s an example of how poverty sits alongside promise in the district. Many of Hodge’s constituents identify with her because she overcame the same economic and social challenges they face.
Hodge, 67, is a Dallas native who went to high school in Los Angeles. She got a job at Southwestern Bell in 1966 as a long-distance operator. Hodge retired from Bell in 1991, having worked her way up to external affairs-government relations manager. A single mother, she raised a son on her own in a district where 45 percent of families had a single parent, compared with a statewide average of 26 percent, according to the 2000 federal census.
Before she was elected to the Legislature, Hodge was active in Democratic Party politics-getting people to the polls on Election Day as a precinct organizer-and belonged to several community organizations, including the D/FW Minority Business Development Council, Friends of Fair Park, and the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. She’s even been president of the Dallas Sidekicks booster club.
“She’s got a lot of grassroots support. Her people are very loyal, and she takes care of their families,” Ewing said.
Folks at the corner Subway, Rent-A-Center, or dollar store say they’ve met Hodge or know someone she’s helped apply for government services or reach out to an incarcerated family member. (Hodge is a member of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.)
Such personal attention has earned the loyalty of activists like Helga Dill, chair of Texas Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, or Texas CURE. The group lobbies for inmate rights and rehabilitation. Dill said Hodge has been her staunchest House ally over the past five years.
“She does a lot for folks in prison. She does all these things, yet she’s being attacked,” Dill said in her Garland home as she leafed through CURE correspondence.
Mina Gayton, 42, is a short woman with large, brown eyes. She was released from prison in November after serving 10 years of a 12-year manslaughter sentence in the death of her fiance, John Anthony, 32. Gayton had been drinking before she crashed the couple’s Chevy truck on the way to Corpus Christi, throwing Anthony more than 100 feet from the vehicle.
“You don’t want (inmates) to come out and be lost,” Gayton said. She earned a college degree in prison and cited the efforts of Dill and Hodge with helping her and other inmates. “I am terrified of going back to that place. It’s an awful place to be. The goal is supposed to be to reintegrate offenders, right? She’s the one who turns the wheel to make the process go.”
Hodge’s political work aside, many in her district have a deep-rooted suspicion of the city’s old-boy political network. Unlike Anglo politicians who come from the business world or from well-heeled families with long political pedigrees, African-American politicians in Dallas tend to be men and women of modest means.
Since seats in the local City Council and in the Legislature don’t come with large salaries, public service can be a financial hardship. Several years ago Dallas voters approved council salaries of $37,500. Previously council members were paid $50 a meeting, plus a meal.
“She lives on retirement income. She’s not a wealthy person. Her constituents don’t have money,” Ewing said of Hodge.
Many African-Americans point with still simmering anger to the case of former City Council member Al Lipscomb. An outspoken activist and grassroots organizer, the colorful Lipscomb was indicted in 1999 on federal bribery and conspiracy charges. He was convicted of taking bribes from a taxicab owner in return for his support on tax issues before the council. An appeals court later overturned the conviction on a technicality.
Hodge supporters see a parallel between Lipscomb and the indicted state representative. Once an African-American gets into power, supporters suspect, he or she plays the game right, or the establishment comes down on them. The Democratic Party’s Ewing compared Lipscomb’s transgressions-an African-American man of modest means getting rides around town-to the way many white politicians are wined and dined at the Dallas Petroleum Club, whose members include top oil and gas industry executives. Amid elegant furnishings and works of art, politicians and businessmen discuss bond abatement issues and other concerns, Ewing said.
Others compare the cases against Lipscomb and Hodge with that of former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Southwest Housing Development Company, Inc. owner Brian Potashnik, the same developer accused of bribing Hodge. There have been no charges of impropriety regarding his relationship with Miller.
“Al Lipscomb, he was a civil rights stalwart,” Ewing said. “Why aren’t they looking into all these sweetheart deals that white businessmen have been doing for white politicians for years?”
The fact that most of those named in the federal indictment were African-American has raised countercharges that prosecutors were targeting black officials. U.S. Attorney Roper’s office said that’s not so.
“Every investigation in this office is conducted thoroughly, fairly, and impartially,” Roper said in a statement. He’s also said that during more than 20 years as a prosecutor, race has never been a factor in pursuing any case.
When the charges were announced, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Dallas, Robert Casey Jr., noted the investigation “required an extraordinary commitment on the part of FBI special agents and professional support staff.”
But Casey’s claim that his team had uncovered a “web of crimes” left some district residents and Hodge supporters scratching their heads as they considered its findings. “It hasn’t really rocked the community,” said Shawn Williams, who helped spread word about the Jena Six case nationwide through his “Dallas South” blog.
If convicted on all counts, Hodge could serve up to 100 years in prison and be hit with a $3.5 million fine. For Hodge, first elected to the statehouse in 1996, that seems a high price to pay for alleged infractions that amounted to a few hundred dollars a month in rent and utility payments.
“A lot of people are skeptical as to the validity of the claims. (Others) are reserving judgment, as I am,” said Kevin Felder, 48, a precinct chair and longtime resident of Hodge’s 100th District. A college graduate, real estate broker, and investor, Felder is not prone to conspiracy theories, but he said he feels something about the case “doesn’t add up.”
“I’ve known her before she was an elected official, (when) she worked hard as a community activist. This indictment doesn’t speak to the Terri Hodge I know,” Felder said.
Backing for Hodge can also be found outside her African-American, South Dallas base. Jean Ball, 70, is a retired banker and precinct chair living in the district’s Urbandale neighborhood. Her house sits on a tree-covered lot that serves as a gathering spot for local cats looking to be fed. “I don’t think that Terri will ever lose my confidence,” said Ball, who is Anglo and has known Hodge since the 1970s. “I trust her. I haven’t even bothered to delve into what they (the charges) are.”
Pam Curry is precinct chair for the northernmost tip of the district, which has a large Latino population and is home to a country-western radio station and the offices of the Dallas Observer, an alternative weekly. The area is removed from the rest of the district, and people there don’t interact much with folks in South Dallas.
Curry, 50, who is Anglo and transgendered, said she’s still in Hodge’s corner because of her stand on issues like AIDS funding. She cited a 2003 effort by Hodge to prevent cuts to the state’s AIDS drug assistance program. “She’s accepting of everybody that walks in her office with an issue. (And) when it’s an issue she’s passionate about, she’s fierce,” Curry said.
Hodge declined to discuss specifics of the case, but insisted in an interview with the Observer that the indictment was not preventing her from doing her job. “I’m still working seven days a week. I’m still working from 7 a.m. every day,” Hodge said. “I am working right now ’till one and two in the morning.”
Some disgruntled constituents considered giving up on Hodge and finding a primary opponent for her legislative seat. But a credible challenger never materialized. Political observers said potential candidates were wary of Hodge’s political skills and campaign style. “Terri understands the concept that politics is a contact sport,” Ewing said during a recent interview in her Dallas office. “She’s not going to go down meekly. She’s going to go down swinging.”
The unfolding scandal has some wondering if the city’s African-American leadership has come up short, and whether it’s time for a new generation of leaders to step up.
“We have neighborhoods that are highly infected with crack cocaine, and now black-tar heroin,” said Roy Williams. Williams was a lead plaintiff, along with Marvin Crenshaw, in a long-running lawsuit that changed the City Council election system and expanded the number of minorities on the council.
“The elected officials in Dallas County could do more about the blight in these neighborhoods, the crime, the poor condition of the schools,” Williams said in an interview. “Something is wrong.”
The disaffection with elected officials may be prompting some to look elsewhere. Michael Sorrell, president of the historically black Paul Quinn College, said African-Americans are turning from elected politicians to alternative sources of leadership, such as successful businesspeople, clergy, and grassroots organizers.
“Increasingly, due to the high cost of public service, people are leading from positions that traditionally haven’t been defined as public service,” Sorrell said.
Vicki Blanton is president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association, the African-American bar in Dallas. The indictments aside, she thinks a shake-up in leadership would be a good thing.
“As with everything else, it’s time for a change right now. Time for a different kind of leadership,” Blanton said. “I’m 40, so I’m in the generation that is sandwiched between the civil rights generation and those who have never seen a whites-only sign. I don’t know if the older generation is ready to hand things over, but the younger generations are very anxious and ready.”
Paul Stafford, 39, a senior trial attorney at Dallas’ Hughes & Luce law firm and former prosecutor in the Denton County district attorney’s office, said the city has a mixed record on grooming young talent in professional and leadership fields. “People that I generally speak with think that it’s time that we need to develop young leaders,” Stafford said.
Perhaps one of the harshest critics and strongest advocates for new leadership is Williams, whose lawsuit changed the face of local politics. He said it’s no longer enough to support somebody simply “because they look like us.”
“I don’t see any payoff for the voters of their vote. (And) I don’t see anybody being groomed,” said Williams, 65, who added that he shares some of the blame. “Those of us who came out of that grassroots groups (movement) in the early ’80s did not bring anyone else along to do training.”
Still, Williams expressed support for Hodge.
“She’s compassionate,” Williams said. “We need more Terri Hodges in the political arena.”
Jason B. Johnson is a freelance writer based in San Antonio.