DALLAS - It is now all but certain that Mayor Tom Leppert will not run for reelection this year, setting off a scramble among business leaders and political operatives to find a candidate to replace him.
City Council member Ron Natinsky, a close and reliable ally of Leppert with ties to the business community, has bolted out of the gate, letting it be known without making an official announcement that he is running for mayor.
Leppert’s ambition to run for the U.S. Senate is well-known and was stymied by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s decision to remain in office after her failed gubernatorial bid last year. It has been widely speculated that he is readying himself for a 2012 run for her seat.
For more than a year, he has cozied up to Republican opinion makers and took the unusual step last year — for a person in a nonpartisan office like Dallas mayor— of endorsing Republican Rick Perry for governor.
But even if Leppert decides not to make a long-stakes run for Senate, he has made it known that he is not interested in remaining in City Hall for a second term.
“I thought Leppert would stay, but it looks like that’s not going to happen,” said Dallas lawyer Michael Boone, a past chairman of the Dallas Citizens Council. “I and others failed to convince Leppert to run for re-election. Now we have to turn the page.”
Natinsky, meanwhile, has been making the political rounds for almost a year and has hired Leppert’s political consultant, Carol Reed, to direct a mayoral campaign.
The hiring of Reed by Natinsky is further evidence that Leppert is not running, since it’s unlikely that he would run for re-election without the campaign manager that engineered his 2007 victory.
“I didn’t do all the work that I’ve done because I didn’t think it was a good investment,” Natinsky said of preparations for a possible mayoral campaign. “I’ve done what needs to be done to position myself.”
Natinsky said Leppert has not said for certain that he would not seek re-election. But the north Dallas council member is operating as if Leppert’s time at City Hall is nearly complete.
Even as he moves to gobble up support, other contenders wait in the wings.
Boone acknowledged that he’s heard several names mentioned as a successor to Leppert, including Natinsky. He said Dallas business leaders do not yet have a consensus candidate in the mode Leppert was in 2007.
“Unlike previous years, I don’t see any obvious candidates,” Boone said. “Time is short. We’ve got to crank this baby up.”
The filing period for the May mayoral and City Council elections begins in February and extends for one month.
Dallas lawyer Jim Moore is the only announced candidate.
Last week, Dallas businessman Brint Ryan, who spent over $1 million for an unsuccessful run for council against District 13’s Ann Margolin, commissioned a poll as part of his exploration into a potential mayoral campaign.
Park Board President Mike Rawlings also is being asked by political operatives and business leaders to consider a run for mayor. His appointment by Leppert to the prestigious and powerful Park Board was seen by many observers as a significant step toward the political arena.
Some business leaders and southern Dallas activists tried to convince former City Council member Alan Walne to run for mayor. To this point, Walne has declined.
If Rawlings or Ryan actually enter the race, it would be because some leaders either are not sold on Natinsky, or don’t want to give him a free ride to the mayor’s office.
What’s more, some southern Dallas operatives, angry at Natinsky’s stand on several divisive issues that council members grappled with last year, have expressed a need for an alternative. They have even suggested that they would prefer District 14 council member Angela Hunt, who has been described as a mayoral contender since being elected to the council.
Much like Laura Miller before her, Hunt is unpopular with many segments of the Dallas business elite. Those business leaders worry that Hunt as mayor would not be sympathetic enough to their interests.
Hunt has said she’s focused on representing District 14 on the council.
Asked if he could beat Hunt in a mayoral race, Natinsky said he doesn’t embark on any campaign that he doesn’t think he will win.
And he said he could be a bridge-building mayor.
“I have a good track record of bringing people together,” Natinsky said.
Meanwhile, Leppert’s perceived indecision, and the lack of interest in being mayor from would-be contenders, has narrowed the field to only a few prospects.
Compare that to 2007, when more than 20 contenders jockeyed to replaced Laura Miller as mayor.
Miller announced she would not seek another term months before the municipal election.
Though Leppert has spent much of the year gathering support for a Republican bid for Senate, he’s not said definitively what his plans were.
But with Reed in Natinsky’s camp, there is speculation that he’s given Natinsky a wink, even tacit support, to run to succeed him.
Council member Tennell Atkins, who represents a district in far southern Dallas, criticized Leppert for not making his intentions known to the city and fellow council members.
Atkins says at least three people have sought his support to replace Leppert. He compared the wait on Leppert’s official decision to a college football team waiting to see if a star quarterback or coach would leave for the NFL.
“If he’s going pro, or running for Senate, he should say so right now,” Atkins said. “We should not have to wait until March 14 (filing deadline) to see what he’s going to do. I don’t think he’s going to be here, and it’s not fair to the citizens and not fair to the council for him not to tell us.”
Leppert has a vague timetable for making his announcement. He said he would do it around the first of this year.
Atkins said Natinsky should consider resigning from the council, since the Dallas Charter, in most cases, prohibits a council member from holding office while seeking another.
“We still have a mayor,” Atkins said. “If people on the council are running for mayor, they should resign.”
But Natinsky has not made an official announcement about his intentions. He’s still waiting on Leppert to make an official announcement.
“It’s an awkward situation,” Natinsky said. “I have to wait until he says something.”