|The Guy Who Makes Democracy Work
David Barber, Assistant City Attorney for Arlington, Texas, wanted to be
a politician. Instead, he wound up being one of the people who make
politics work. Barber oversees elections in Arlington, making sure City
elections follow local, state, and federal laws. It is far more important
than it might sound.
Arlington, like all governmental bodies in the Deep South, remains
subject to strict oversight under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1964.
If the City Council has any discretion whatsoever in formulating ballot
language and initiatives, it must submit its proposition to the United
States Department of Justice for prior approval. The law and its
oversight is a vestige of the bad old days of legal segregation.
Because he does his job well, though, the calls are for the most part
routine. The only complaint he’s dealt with in his fifteen years of
overseeing elections came several years back, when a disgruntled
local resident objected to a City-approved ballot initiative. The Justice
Department came in, investigated thoroughly, and in the end decided
that Barber and the City had done things the right way after all.
For anyone who knows David Barber, the fact that he does things the
right way comes as no surprise. David’s journey to the City Attorney’s
office began during a snowstorm on a Missouri farm in January of
1959. The snow was so heavy by the time David’s mom went into labor
that his dad couldn’t get the car from the road to the house. Dad
hitched the horses to a cart and carried mom to the car that way.
Then they set off for Keokuk, Iowa, site of the closest local hospital. As
they passed through Kahoka, Missouri, David’s mom decided she
couldn’t go any farther. They found a doctor’s office in town and
frantically knocked at the door. As it turned out, the office was being
renovated, sawdust and carpenters everywhere. Fortunately, the
doctor was there, too. He cleared the sawdust off a table with a sweep
of his arm, helped Mrs. Barber up onto it, and delivered the baby on
It wasn’t the only adventure of his early childhood. As a toddler on the
farm he stumbled into a beehive, ending up with over a hundred stings
but no lasting damage. When he was two, the family home burned to
the ground, leaving them with nothing. The Barbers had relatives in
the Texas panhandle and wound up resettling there. But for the fire,
David believes, he would have wound up a Missouri farmer like so
many of his relatives.
In 1972, after his parents divorced, David moved with his mother to
Kennedale, immediately East of Fort Worth. He graduated from
Kennedale High School in 1977, then went on to earn an
undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in
1981. David then headed south, earning his law degree from Houston’
s South Texas College of Law in 1984.
His heart by then was set on politics. He landed a job on Martin Frost’s
1984 reelection campaign for the US House of Representatives after
graduation. The work, he remembers, was grueling: 8 in the morning
to 11 at night, seven days a week, throughout the campaign. Frost
won and Barber went on his permanent staff as a case worker.
It was an introduction to governing from the inside out. Since Frost
served a district that even in 1984 contained large numbers of
Republicans, good constituent service was a must. David handled
whatever complaints came in: from barking dogs to government
benefits to immigration issues. Everyone, it seemed, called his
congressman when something went wrong and Frost made it a priority
to respond to each call.
After several years in Frost’s office, David left to spend a year working
as a public relations liaison for an eye doctor in Dallas who was trying
to build a practice. Barber left that position to join the Arlington City
Attorney’s office in 1988. David found time in the midst of his work to
marry his beautiful wife, Pamela, in 1990. Pam in turn presented him
with twin boys, Matthew and Nathan, in 1992. The family lives in
His first post with the City Attorney’s office was as a municipal court
prosecutor. Ninety percent of it was traffic violations, he remembers,
yet he also prosecuted Class C misdemeanors. David recalls vividly
the introduction that gave him to the underside of life in a major
In 1991, overseeing elections became part of his responsibilities.
David takes the ideas that come up in City Council, puts them in legally
acceptable form, and presents the various options to the Council for its
decision. He oversees the transition of an idea for better government
from words to charter language and, if Council and the Justice
Department approve, to a ballot initiative.
Since Texas law prohibits local governments from spending public
money to advocate specific political positions, he also makes sure any
City materials are strictly impartial. Most times that isn’t a problem, but
there have been occasions when he has had to send things back for
rewrite. The City has to follow the law, after all, just like the citizens.
For the most part the job is satisfying. Surprisingly enough, it is seldom
controversial, at least not from where he sits. The highest profile
election he has overseen so far was the recent campaign for the Dallas
Cowboys new football stadium.
David Barber has gone from wanting to be a politician to being one of
the people who make politics work. Democracy is a great idea. As we
see around the world, though, it only works when the people in charge
follow the law too. All of us owe a debt of gratitude to people like David
Barber who quietly make sure that happens for all of us.
John Cunyus is a freelance writer working in North Texas
His work may be seen at www.johncunyus.com
©2006, John G. Cunyus
All Rights Reserved