No one in the history of Texas has won election to the United States Senate immediately after serving as a mayor. But Tom Leppert, the 56-year-old former mayor of Dallas, likes his odds.
Last month, Leppert resigned from his post and announced his candidacy for the seat of retiring senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. His only political experience is one term at the helm of the Big D. Before his time in office, he served as chairman and CEO of the Turner Corporation, a construction company.
During his mayoral stint, Leppert tried to make friends, but his fiscal scruples earned him enemies. He led a successful drive to put the multimillion-dollar contracts for restaurants and retail space at the Love Field airport out to bid and, in the process, offended the Democrats who wished to keep the old sweetheart deals in their preferred vendors’ pockets. He also pushed, unsuccessfully, against a 6.5 percent property-tax hike.
As a former mayor, Leppert is most comfortable speaking on fiscal issues. On social issues, he quickly covers the bases: He’s pro-life and anti-gay-marriage — they’re “faith issues,” he adds. On foreign policy, he’s admittedly a neophyte. Asked whether he would have supported New START, Leppert responds, “To be frank with you, that’s where I would have used the position to sit down with our folks in national security and get a good feel for whether they thought that was protecting our interests.”
But on fiscal issues, he can’t say enough. Confronted with a specific question — for instance, “Do you support Sen. Rand Paul’s proposed $500 billion in cuts?” — Leppert paints a broader picture. “I think you need to step back and look at how we got into this position,” he begins. “I think we got into it with politicians who came up with the next neat program that was designed to satisfy some constituency and get them reelected.”
Those neat programs have added up to $14 trillion in debt. With such large liabilities, Leppert considers the fight in the House over cuts feeble. “One side says you can cut $30 billion, another side says you can cut $60 billion,” Leppert notes. “You’re still in rounding errors. We need much bolder action than that. We have to be careful that people don’t just lose their patience on the idea of $4 billion every two weeks. We need something that puts more discipline into the system long term.” (On Paul’s proposal, by the way, Leppert says, “It’s got to be big numbers. Forty-one cents of every dollar we spend is borrowed. We’ve gone that far.”)
How does one put “more discipline into the system”? Leppert has five suggestions: First, institute zero-baseline budgeting. Second, prioritize spending. For an example, he reaches back to his tenure as mayor. Years ago, crime was swallowing Dallas. “We didn’t have enough police officers,” he recounts. “So we added 20 percent to the police force. But we reduced spending in the civilian force by 20 percent, eliminated programs, and privatized others, such as the Dallas Zoo.” Voilà.
Third, give programs expiration dates. “They have lives of their own, and they have just absolutely spun out of control,” Leppert says. Fourth, devise metrics by which to measure these programs’ effects. And finally, pass a balanced-budget amendment.
On this suggestion, Leppert sounds most like the outsider. An old pol might worry that a balanced-budget amendment would fail to pass, leaving any Democrats who voted for it with political cover. But Leppert charges ahead. “I think it needs to be put forward — not just as a political vote, but as a substantive policy change.”
Yet his mayoral past may hurt him still. In particular, Leppert supported the construction of a city-owned hotel and solicited federal funds for the Trinity River Project, a panoply of public works. Now, however, Leppert opposes funding the project — through earmarks at least. “Earmarks are not a good way to do the budgeting. Trinity River is an important project; it’s a good project. I’m happy to have a project like that be measured on its own merits, and on its own merits it will do fine.” It sounds as if he would be happy getting funding through the regular appropriations process.
Nonetheless, Leppert would bring an executive, business-minded approach to lawmaking. He sums up his planned method thus: “When you look at an idea, does it reduce the influence of Washington on the average family? If it doesn’t, we can’t afford it.”
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley fellow at the National Review Institute.