Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, on the left, debates former Mayor Laura Miller on April 22 at Jesuit Dallas. (Photo by Elijah Smith)

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The Debate Between Laura Miller and Jennifer Staubach Gates Sure Was Punchy

The night at Jesuit Dallas was an interesting one.

Judging from last night’s debate between Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates and former Mayor Laura Miller, the race for the District 13 seat will be a referendum on whose fault all this is.

Here is a sampling of the barbs and accusations that were traded last night: Miller left seats on the police and fire pension board open, and a decade later it cratered. Gates was on the VisitDallas board during a blistering audit that found that it violated state law and lacked accountability. The police and fire associations hate Miller. Gates doesn’t answer the phone at City Hall and panders to developers. Miller owns a condo in one of the Preston Center towers that will be affected by zoning decisions she’ll preside over. Gates voted with the mayor so often that he felt obligated to ask the city attorney to investigate whether Miller might have a conflict, using tax dollars to “weaponize” City Hall in a political race. Miller has given out her personal cell phone number to 2,000 constituents. Gates says she gave hers to 5,000!

Gates opened with: “We have to deal with roads. We have to deal with streets, police protection. I know I am the candidate that is going to deliver in a manner that is—you’re going to see a lot of stark differences tonight and one of them is definitely the way our style and demeanor and I’m the one who’s going to be able to get things done.”

Miller countered: “Decisiveness versus vacillation, strength versus weakness, action versus hesitation. Ms. Gates is correct when she says there is a clear choice for you in District 13 and what you want for the next two years in this part of the city.”

The hourlong debate at Jesuit Dallas, which was sponsored by sister paper Preston Hollow People, went a lot like that. Gates would often walk from behind the podium to address the crowd while Miller dug out documents from a rolling suitcase she’d brought onstage. She held them up during her rebuttals. One visual aid was to further allege that the mayor was meddling in the race: Miller clutched a 2-inch stack of paper that she said included the 2,706 times that Gates had voted alongside the mayor, a rate of more than 99 percent.

The debate was about as contentious as the race itself. The crowd hissed at times and had to be calmed by the moderator, our own Tim Rogers. One woman behind me made a routine of saying “shut up” just above her breath every time Gates spoke. The candidates spoke a lot about the past but not much about the future.

Neither got very far about how to improve public safety, despite both agreeing—progress!—that it was the “No. 1 concern for the citizens of District 13.” Gates noted that the police association likes to call her opponent “Lyin’ Miller,” and then asked for DPA President Mike Mata to wave if he was in the crowd. She said Miller didn’t give officers a raise; Miller said she did, just not as much as they were asking for.

Gates said the top reason Dallas has lost 500 police officers was because of the failed police pension fund, board seats for which Miller left vacant during her time in office. Miller gave the crowd a quick history of all the bad investments before her tenure, which she said began under Mayor Starke Taylor and continued through Ron Kirk. Miller spoke about the DROP fund, which allowed officers to keep working while they were retired on paper and shifted their benefit checks to a fund that guaranteed returns of 8 percent. When police officers made a run on it, it nearly torpedoed the entire retirement fund. And, besides, Miller said, she immediately had a civilian pension to fix when she took office.

Tim gave them another 60 seconds each. More mud. Gates asked why Miller didn’t appoint a “fiscal hawk” to the board for oversight to catch this before it went south. Miller told a story about how a cop came to her door and told her that officers just wanted to feel appreciated. They don’t, and that’s partly the current council’s fault, she contended. By the time this portion ended, we learned very little about either’s plans for hiring and retaining police.

Then came Preston Center, the topic that got Miller to join the race at the last minute. Gates and Miller have been at odds on this since the Preston Place Condos burned down in 2017 behind the Pink Wall. Preston Center has for years been stuck in the past because of a decrepit parking garage at its center, which is owned by the city but requires sign-off from the surrounding property owners before anything can be changed. So nothing has. Miller was part of a committee that drew up a plan for the area, which was called, well, the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan. This was also a visual aid.

Miller said the committee spoke with the seven surrounding neighborhoods and came up with “a beautiful vision.” Part of that vision was to limit density, capping the height behind the Pink Wall at four stories. Then came the fire. As with the garage, nothing has happened since. Developers have apparently said that they won’t be able to make their investment pay off if they can’t build higher.

Miller says Gates has tossed out the Area Plan and ceded to the developers instead of the neighborhood. Gates disputes that, arguing that she hasn’t thrown the plan out, that zoning discussions are still happening, and that Preston Center needs density to promote “work, live, play” in the area.

“Something has to change or you’re going to have deterioration of the neighborhood,” Gates said.

If there was a broader takeaway from the debate—beyond that these two don’t seem to care much for one another—it came around this point. Gates was asked about balancing the desires of the neighborhoods with those of the developers. She spoke of reaching a consensus, of involving “all of the stakeholders.” She noted that the only way the garage at Preston Center will become a park or something else will be getting approval from the surrounding landowners. Same thing with Preston Place. Why wouldn’t you consider them?

“To protect neighborhoods, you have to make sure that when you have commercial properties or you have mutli-family, aged dilapidated, burned properties that they’re redeveloped in a manner that’s quality and actually meets the vision that we talked about,” Gates said. “We’re growing in the city of Dallas. We have got to be able to grow appropriately.”

Miller zeroed in on the residents. “You know the way you protect neighborhoods?” she asked. “You listen to the people who live in those neighborhoods and you do what the majority of them want, because you are elected to protect them. That is your job.”

That may be the best vision by which you can view these candidates. Miller is unabashedly for the desires of the residents. Gates seems to be looking broader. It just took a while Monday night to see it. And it also ended with an agreement: both candidates said they support the removal of I-345, the elevated highway between Deep Ellum and downtown. Common ground, after all.

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