Which mayor will the voters get on May 3: the Mommy Mayor who cares about parks and potholes? Or the moralistic mayor who would rather be right than effective?
The 50 or so anti-smoking activists and supporters who gathered outside Maggiano’s on a recent Saturday night did all but sprinkle rose petals in front of their well-dressed guest of honor. Accompanied by council members John Loza and Mark Housewright, Mayor Laura Miller walked in looking glamorous and confident. Not even the stern signs behind her that read "Second-hand smoke kills" could diminish the impact of her all-black designer dress suit and nose-bleed high heels as she stood before print and broadcast media proclaiming this day, March 1, as the first day of Dallas’ new anti-smoking ordinance.
She spoke of the determination it took to get this law, tabled for eight years, passed against great opposition. She celebrated Dallas joining other major American cities in a 21st century public-health progressiveness. She couldn’t, of course, leave out The Children, who’ll be rescued from second-hand smoke. Every sentence was showered with applause. After the press conference, autograph-seekers, well-wishers, and allies engulfed her. It was a sterling example of just how brightly Laura Miller can shine. She is the Laura Miller who has state Republicans scared. With U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison murmuring about early retirement to care for her recently adopted children, Miller would be a formidable candidate to grab a Senate seat back for the Democrats.
A month earlier, the mood was decidedly less positive. At Miller’s State of the City address on February 5, the mayor gave a listless speech reciting her familiar mantra of "police, parks, pools, and potholes." Perhaps her delivery had something to do with her audience. The address was given during a break from a typically volatile debate over the arrangement of the bond package ballot—a bond package she did not support. Just the day before, she’d dropped the bombshell suggestion that City Manager Ted Benavides should resign—a sentiment not supported by most of her fellow council members. As Miller talked about Dallas being a "can do" city that "can do better," her audience watched with crossed arms, never interrupting with applause. More than a few of the city employees who had escaped their cubicles to watch the boss sported buttons that read "I Have My Five! Do You?" a pledge to gather five other voters who would help oust Laura Miller in the upcoming election.
City Hall isn’t the only place where you’ll find critics of Miller. And you can find supporters outside of North Dallas. But the great majority of people—the ones who put her in office—are not of one mind when it comes to Laura Miller. Why is it that so many Dallas residents view her with a mixture of admiration and mistrust?
The answer, of course, is that there are two Laura Millers. One is a straight-talking, scrupulous maverick who won’t tolerate incompetence and who has tackled with laser-like concentration most of her stated campaign goals. The other Laura Miller is a moralizer who inflicts her personal beliefs on others, who will bend the truth to suit her political needs, who belittles anyone who disagrees with her, and who speaks without regard to the consequences.
"I’m in awe of her ability to understand complicated issues in a very short time," says one council member. "And I believe she thinks she’s doing what’s right for the city when she tries to push something through. But that means she ignores you or treats you like an idiot if you disagree with her. As a mayor you have to be a negotiator, and as a negotiator, she’s started at the bottom of a long learning curve."
On May 3, the question may not be "Will Dallas vote for Laura Miller?" but "Which Laura Miller will Dallas get?"
Rolling Up Her Fine Silk Sleeves
Laura Miller couldn’t wiat to get to work. So the day before she was officially sworn in as mayor, back in February 2002, she alerted the media that she was personally going to help clean up some trash in a southeast Oak Cliff neighborhood, at one of the city’s worst illegal dumping sites. She summoned workers from the sanitation, public works, and streets departments, and, dressed in bluejeans and running shoes, Laura Miller picked up trash with her bare hands. It was the signal of a new day of activism at City Hall. The only problem was that she forgot to tell James Fantroy, the city council representative from that part of town. In essence, she staged a photo op that made Fantroy look bad. At least that’s the way he took it, later saying, "There’s one thing an old black man like me believes in, and that’s respect." To make matters worse, Miller showed up late to take out the trash because she was trying to appease Fantroy and convince him to come pick up trash, too. He refused. The delay meant that some of the city workers had to be paid overtime. So she started off adding to the city’s deficit.
In the Horseshoe
On Wednesdays in years past, then-council member Laura Miller was bullying and brash in the horseshoe. She was all pointed fingers and raised voices as she squared off against then-mayor Ron Kirk. Mayoral candidate Tom Dunning tried to capitalize on Miller’s image with TV ads pitting Kirk’s gavel against Miller’s yelling and an ominous voiceover that said, "You are out of order, Ms. Miller!" Maybe those ads made an impression on the mayor, because one council member said he was "pleasantly surprised at how respectful and nonconfrontational" she has been now that she is presiding over the horseshoe.
Except she may be overcompensating. Council members complain the meetings are rambling, unfocused, and longer than they were under Kirk. Miller sets no parameters for the discussion the way her predecessor did, and she declines to get the discussion back on track when it derails—and it derails often. Miller insists on replying to each of her 14 fellow legislators whenever they make a point.
Also, she tends to tell the kind of little white lies that only an amateur in politics would attempt. In just one example, she told several council members that Ed Oakley supported the smaller bond package to try and garner the eight votes she needed to pass it. The only problem was he, in fact, explicitly championed the larger package. As one city official said, "Doesn’t she think we talk amongst ourselves?" Oakley reportedly dressed her down for lying to his colleagues, and she sought revenge by endorsing his opponent Mark Housewright—in the newly drawn district where she’d promised to back Oakley.
Dissension in the Ranks
Ask around city hall and employees will swear that it’s true even though they have no proof. Everyone knows someone who heard it from someone else who was there at the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Dallas meeting, or a meeting very much like it, where Mayor Miller allegedly said that city employees have "the brains of gnats." At the first mayoral debate, opponent Mary Poss suggested that the mayor’s well-known ridicule of her employees was the reason potholes haven’t been fixed. Miller denies ever making such a comment (and after dozens of phone calls, this reporter couldn’t find that she ever has), but the fact that people believe she could gives the story legs. Miller’s tirades and niggling, not to mention a budget crisis, have dramatically reduced the morale of city employees. Productivity is nil. People spend more time at the water cooler wondering what Laura Miller is going to say next than doing their jobs.
But even if Miller did describe city employees as gnats, she was merely saying what everyone’s been thinking for the past 20 years. Dallas’ City Hall is infamous among cities in Texas for its stagnation and fear of innovation, which—strangely—is coupled with an odd arrogance that makes doing business with it a chore most businesspeople and other governments would prefer to avoid.
Standing on Ceremony
The Dallas Museum of Art celebrates centennial anniversary in January with a Nasher, a Perot, but no Miller present. The mayor had been invited twice to attend the lavish cake-cutting ceremony, but she declined because of a prior obligation with state legislator husband Steve Wolens in Austin. And yet, when the DMA’s big day arrived, there was Miller at an Oak Cliff church to kick off her campaign for mayor. Last-minute schedule changes? They happen all the time. After all, the mayor had declined, so there wasn’t any reason for anyone to get his nose out of joint.
But if you were to ask Laura Miller, investigative reporter, schedule changes are inexcusable. In 1996, Miller devoted an entire Dallas Observer column to lambasting Ron Kirk for not appearing at a fundraiser for Akiba Academy, which was then her daughter’s day school. In a stunningly irresponsible piece of journalism, Miller concluded, "In Kirk’s mind, he’d done enough for the Jews in the short 15 months he’d been mayor." Seems Kirk had committed the anti-Semitic crime of taking a trip to Las Vegas that weekend and forgetting about the Akiba commitment on Sunday.
Cozying up to the Hispanics
In a city where the race card is played with more enthusiasm than high school football, Miller has been unafraid to criticize those who do not meet her expectations, regardless of the perpetrator’s color. And if she should happen to upset the city’s fastest-growing voting bloc—the Hispanics—in the process, so be it. For her, exposing incompetence and fraud takes precedence over being politically savvy.
When Miller publicly announced that she’d lost confidence in City Manager Ted Benavides, close on the heels of forcing the resignation of Chris Luna from the chairmanship of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, it was par for the course. She thought they ought to be fired, so she said so. As for Benavides, most observers agree. He was close to being fired in his Denton post before he was suddenly picked for Dallas. His lack of business experience has led to expensive debacles with public water utilities, a Southwestern Bell phone system that overcharged the city and won’t repay, and an embarrassing payroll system miscalculation. Whether the big or little bond package is approved by voters, he will be almost solely responsible for tracking between a third and a half billion dollars in city investments, because the city manager’s and auditor’s staff have been cut to the bone by personnel reductions.
Miller also upset the Hispanic community with her endorsement of an Anglo in a gerrymandered district designed to increase Hispanic representation on the council. The beneficiary of the new district was presumed to be Steve Salazar—a former council member variously described as a "nonentity" and a "benchwarmer" by City Hall observers. So it was no surprise that Miller ignored racial politics to recruit a candidate to run against Salazar.
But if the mayor truly was worried about Salazar’s competence, she certainly could have found a better alternative than Sharon Boyd, impassioned gadfly and shrill conspiracy theorist. Boyd emerged from the netherworld by leading the campaign against the arena and was overjoyed when someone as presentable as Laura Miller joined on her side. If Salazar is incompetent, does it help the mayor’s cause to support someone who is seemingly insane?
As for Benavides, Miller may have had the truth on her side, but that was about all. Rather than rallying council members to actually do something about the inept city manager, she instead rallied them in support of Benavides, which not only made him more likely to stay, but also widened the gap between her and the working majority she needs to run the city.
Miller as Visionary
While championing the importance of parks and potholes as council and mayoral candidate, Miller denounced the big projects by which Kirk clearly wanted his legacy defined. And yet, as mayor, one of her obsessions has come to be our dormant downtown. She created a membership of civic-minded business leaders called the Inside the Loop Committee, and appointed as its head Belo CEO Robert Decherd (Belo owns both the Dallas Morning News and local ABC affiliate WFAA Channel 8). She also commissioned a spiffy if scaled-down Trinity River roadway that met with more approval than the original multi-lane tollway.
But imagine the ink that Miller, anti-establishment journalist, would have spilled if a mayor created a committee of downtown fat cats called the Inside the Loop Committee, chaired by one of the biggest landowners downtown! And when the report came in, Miller shared it with business leaders but not with the City Council or the Landmark Commission—what journalist Miller could have done with that! Meanwhile, what about all those potholes she promised to fill? The News reported Miller actually lagged behind Kirk—Mr. Big Projects—in street repairs during comparable time frames.
Keeping up With the Joneses ...
and the Rodriguezes
In her city council and mayoral runs, Laura Miller made sure folks knew that she was an "Oak Cliff" girl, a champion for neighborhoods south of the Trinity. When she first campaigned for the City Council, she marched across lawns in her Manolo Blahniks, literally knocking on every single door in her district. Miller, the Code Compliance Queen, walked past automobiles on cider blocks, roosters behind backyard fences, and refrigerators on curbs so that she could personally tell folks face-to-face that she deeply cared about her neighbors in the southern sector. More recently, at a Charter Review Commission meeting that specifically addressed racial issues, Mayor Miller declared that gaining the confidence of the black community was "my burden and my goal."
But her street cred took a hit when the Oak Cliff rooster ban she so passionately pushed through as elected councilwoman got one of her beloved neighbors deported to Mexico. He was discovered by city officials with plenty of roosters but no citizenship papers. And as close as she likes to stay to her roots, she and her family are now movin’ on up—to a $2.5 million Preston Hollow estate with a pool and cabana (although the house lies eight blocks beyond the state’s 103rd district, which elected her husband to the Texas House of Representative, so the couple plans to ask the Legislature to redraw the district). Reminiscing to Dallas Observer colleagues about her experiences as a sidewalk campaigner, the South Dallas gal said with wide-eyed amazement, "There are some really sh- - -y neighborhoods in Oak Cliff."
The first mayoral debate between Laura Miller and Mary Poss happened before a full media contingent at a church inside Poss’ district, where Miller undid Poss with all the effort it takes to remove one of her pearl necklaces. Wearing a constant smile that must have cramped her face, Poss made generous references to her appointment by President Bush as a regional homeland security advisor, highlighting her connections with the Republican Party. Her closing comments included the "city employees have the brains of gnats" anecdote, presumably as a bombshell, but it barely creased the mayor’s brow.
Miller, for her part, didn’t smile while she spoke, but gestured with her hands toward all corners of the audience. Without once fumbling a sentence or referring to notes, she delivered a cogent and comprehensible explanation of the latest Trinity River plan and noted that she had solicited private donations to commission it. She revealed a 4-year-old tax-abatement plan for an expansion of the downtown Hyatt Regency as an example of the city’s rampant wastefulness. And she replied to an audience member’s insipid question about how the mayor will help curb drunk driving and road rage with three emphatic words: "Enforce the law." Even though the moderator had asked the audience to refrain from making sounds that suggested approval or disapproval, the crowd gave Miller several enthusiastic ovations. Poss, even in the district that elected her to the council, got none.
This Laura Miller was the one that the people love: intelligent, persuasive, articulate, and resolute. Here was the whipsmart, sincere idealist whose refusal to Play Well With Others is part of her appeal. But waiting in the wings is always the suspicious, deceptive, loner Laura Miller, the one who will never build consensus with her colleagues until she learns a little about city politics and personal humility. If Miller’s reelected, Dallas will get a full term to decide which Laura Miller has emerged victorious—and whether that version will move Dallas forward or mire its City Hall in even more stagnation.
LAURA MILLER AS COLUMNIST - Infamous commments from the infamous writer.
DECEMBER 18, 1997
"John Ware is [a] formidable personality—a tough sonofabitch who developed his unmistakable style fighting in the trenches in Vietnam. He’s infamous around City Hall for reaming out city staffers in an always fabulously profane and embarrassingly public way."
DECEMBER 4, 1997
"The bottom line is that facts about the arena, no matter how compelling, are never going to get in the way of the mayor’s mission. That’s how it’s been all along—even before John Loza became the most pompous ignoramus on the Dallas City Council."
JANUARY 16, 1997
"For more than a decade, Al Lipscomb has been allowed to wallow contentedly at thepublic trough, privately pimping his elected position to the monied and comfortable while publicly (and superficially) lambasting them in his self-appointed role as the savior of the poor and disenfranchised."
SEPTEMBER 12, 1996
"And while Kirk, Ware, and Poss may truly believe that Ray Nasher is seriously in love with them--and that he will put aside his natural tendency to, very à la Ray Hunt, screw the City of Dallas taxpayers to the wall every chance he has—citizens just have to let history be their guide."
SEPTEMBER 12, 1996
"Mary Poss [is] a good, hardworking councilwoman who is extremely responsive to her constituents and would think long and hard about the wishes of 3,000 united North Dallas homeowners.
IT’S MILLER TIME: Laura Miller’s Rise to Power
NOVEMBER 18, 1958
Laura is born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Rita and Philip Miller.
Laura’s parents divorce, and their three children (Laura, Brandt, and Heather) live with their mom in Massachusetts for a few years before moving to Connecticut to be with their father.
At 14, Laura gets her first job, waitressing at a Greek diner, even though she doesn’t need to work. At the time, her father is an executive at Lord & Taylor.
Laura is editor of Rippowam High School’s literary review, yearbook, and newspaper. She also starts a group called Students With a Purpose that raises money to keep water fountains clean. The senior class votes her "Most Unpredictable."
Laura attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison based on the recommendation of a friend there who tells her, "You have to come. The football players and beer are unbelievable!"
After her sophomore year, Laura interns at the Style section of the Dallas Times Herald, a move not hindered by the fact that her father was then the president of Neiman Marcus.
Laura enters and wins Glamour magazine’s "Top 10 College Women" contest and graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in journalism and political science. She works at the Miami Herald but leaves after one year because she "didn’t like Miami."
After spending a year in Europe, Laura writes for the Dallas Morning News, including a five-part investigative series on NCAA recruiting violations. She continues to work there until 1986.
Laura goes on a blind date with State Rep. Steve Wolens to a political fundraiser at the Dallas Museum of Art. She wears a $2 velvet dress from a flea market and spotted pantyhose, which makes her suitor think she has a mole condition.
Laura lands a job as a columnist for the New York Daily News, but, tired of the commute to be with Steve, she leaves after one year. (Laura had converted to Judaism, and the two married during her New York stint.)
Laura gets hired at the Dallas Times Herald. David Burgin, the editor at the time, describes her as "hell on wheels." She is fired two years later when Roy Bode takes over as editor. In 1990, she’s a writer-at-large for this publication.
Laura becomes a columnist for the Dallas Observer. Her last column, "Mr. Mayor, Meet Your Nightmare," announced her bid for the District 3 council seat, which she won on May 2, 1998.
Laura is diagnosed with breast cancer. After months of chemotherapy and radiation, doctors give her a 96 percent chance of no reoccurrence.2002
Running on a platform of pothole populism, Laura defeats insurance executive Tom Dunning in a runoff to become mayor of Dallas after Ron Kirk vacated his post to run for the U.S. Senate.