Politics: Mud Fight

Now that Ron Kirk has set his sights on the Senate, the only thing we know for sure is that the next mayor of Dallas will be a middle-aged, wealthy, white person. Tom Dunning and Mary Poss have stated their intentions. And if Laura Miller joins in, it wil

As Ron Kirk sets his sights on the Senate, mayoral candidates prepare to get down and dirty.

The next mayor of Dallas will be a middle-aged, wealthy, white person. At this stage, that’s the one thing we know for certain.

The candidates who have
emerged to vie for the remainder of Ron Kirk’s term are Laura Miller,
mayor pro tem Mary Poss, and businessman Tom Dunning.

You can
almost hear broadcast station managers gleefully rubbing their hands
together. After a worse-than-lackluster advertising year, the stations
will be the prime beneficiaries of a heated race in which each
candidate can be expected to spend $1.2 million or more. The ads should
be fun to watch. Picture two high school girls fighting over the
mild-mannered quarterback.

mayor pro tem for the last five years, Poss is used to filling in for
Kirk at ribbon cuttings and photo ops. And she likes it.

Poss, who turned 50 in
October, lives on the M Streets with her husband Mike and has
represented District 9—East Dallas and the area around White Rock
Lake—since 1995. Poss ran unopposed in 1997 and 1999, when colleagues
unanimously elected her mayor pro tem. This year Poss wrestled off
challengers to come up with the deputy job for an unprecedented third
term, allowing her sleek helmet of blonde hair to become a familiar
sight on the TV news.

Poss has a degree in management and
finance and was a banker before leaving full-time work to focus on
civic projects. Her husband Mike Poss worked for Ross Perot for years
and now serves as executive vice president for Zixit Corp., headed by
David Cook of Blockbuster fame.

The only Republican in
the nonpartisan race, Poss is a master of the details of municipal
policy, an often-bewildering web of local, state, and national
regulations and legislation. Recently elected president of the North
Central Texas Council of Governments, Poss also serves on the board of
the national League of Cities and a variety of other quasi-municipal
commissions and boards.

In other words, Poss is
a policy wonk. She will run circles around her two opponents when it
comes to the last six years of city budgets, legislation, and policies
regarding police and city workers. It’s her greatest strength but also
a weakness. “Sometimes she can’t see the forest for the trees,” says
one civic leader.

Poss has raised about $250,000,
putting her well ahead of Miller, who has about $120,000 in her war
chest, and Dunning, who can’t start raising money until he announces
this fall. She’s signed up political consultant Rob Allyn to run her

“I can point to a
strong record of achievement and know there’s a whole lot more that I
can accomplish,” Poss says. But some of Poss’ current supporters may
shift their loyalties to Dunning, concerned about her biggest drawback:
no charisma. (The only wonk with charisma in history has been Bill

In order for Poss to
build on her strong base—Republican women’s clubs, East Dallas, and
Lake Highlands—she’ll have to reach south across the Trinity to the
minority community, which Dunning will be counting on, and north to
Miller’s populist base in North Dallas. Depending on the timing of
Poss’ announcement, her council seat might be up for grabs in the same
election. If her good friend and longtime park board member Gary
Griffith decides to run for her council seat, it will help bring out
her votes. But most important: in a media-oriented campaign, can Poss
spark excitement?

longtime civic volunteer, Tom Dunning has a hard time explaining
exactly why he should be mayor of Dallas. His earnest pitch: “Being
mayor is a tough job. I have a history of taking on tough jobs and
being successful.”

Well, that’s true. He’s
been a member of the Texas Department of Human Services, Department of
Transportation, Department of Criminal Justice, and chair of the Texas
Water Development Board. Dunning made his biggest mark as chair of
civic efforts like the Dallas Together Forum, pushing corporations and
financial institutions to open their boards and contracts to women and
minorities. Kirk appointed him chair of the DFW International Airport
Board to oversee its $2.5 billion expansion.

But Dunning’s political abilities have never been tested.

toyed with running for mayor once before, but he stepped aside for Ron
Kirk. Now many of Dallas’ civic and business leaders feels it’s
Dunning’s turn. And Dunning, who celebrated his 59th birthday in late
October, says he’s ready.

The timing certainly is
better. In the early ’90s, Dunning was still building his business,
which provides benefit services to corporations. Though still chairman
and CEO, he merged it in 1998 with a Kansas City-based firm to become
Lockton Dunning Benefit Company. Tom and wife Sally, who live in
Preston Hollow, have shepherded their two children through college.

Dunning won’t have
trouble raising money: he (and Poss) will benefit from the ABL (“Anyone
But Laura”) attitude among the business establishment. Of the three,
Dunning is the most likely to put together the coalition that elected
Annette Strauss and Kirk: blacks, browns, and business. And he’s got
Carol Reed, the political consultant who helped Kirk win, on his side.

His votes will likely
come from inner-city Democrats, gays, and South Dallas, where
African-American preachers will give him endorsements. But Dunning
better hope that a strong black candidate emerges to run for Miller’s
Oak Cliff seat. Otherwise those endorsements won’t translate into many
African-American voters turning out for a special election.

And therein lies
Dunning’s biggest problem: he’s gray, corporate, and, like Poss,
charisma-impaired. As the ultimate hard-working nice guy, Dunning would
be an excellent caretaker mayor. But getting elected isn’t about doing
the job. It’s about turning out the vote.

Miller would love to be the mayor of Dallas. But prone as she is to
launching vicious attacks on everyone from white businessman Ray Hunt
to black political activists to hapless city employees, Miller has
spawned her own political counter-movement: “ABL.” The Anyone But Laura
effort will pour money into the campaigns of Poss and Dunning.

The only thing that
will keep her from running, says Miller, who turns 43 this month, is
her family. She has three children ages 11, 9, and 5, whom she drives
to and from school and soccer matches in a Mercedes station wagon. Her
husband Steve Wolens, a personal injury lawyer and longtime state
legislator, is also busy. At press time, Miller hadn’t decided to run,
but longtime allies and enemies are betting she can’t resist throwing
her hat into the ring.

Certainly she sounds like a candidate. “The issues are so stark and the choices so clear,” says Miller.

Since elected four years ago,
Miller’s fought with the mayor, the council, the police chief, and the
city staff. She is a scrapper, and that’s what most people want in
their city council member. But do they want it in their mayor?

The daughter of a wealthy retail executive, Miller honed her craft as a journalist at the Times Herald, Morning News, and D Magazine, where she earned Commissioner John Wiley Price’s enmity for a 1989 cover story called “The Hustler.” But it was at the Observer where she carved a swath through the rich, famous, and political with her scathing columns.

she decides to run, Miller will be a formidable candidate. She’s tall,
attractive, media-savvy, and quick with a pithy phrase. She’ll put Poss
and Dunning on the defensive and look fabulous while doing it. As a
male, Dunning won’t be able to attack her (a mother and breast cancer
survivor); surrogates will have to defend him from Miller’s assaults.
Poss can take her on, but she must avoid looking shrill herself. Look
for Poss to use televised excerpts from Miller’s rancorous debates with
the mayor to do a lot of talking for her.

Miller will focus her
message on potholes. “I think the city needs to clean itself up,” she
says. “The citizens really want to be paid attention. We give away too
much money to people who don’t need it and we don’t pay enough
attention to those we take it away from.”

Miller—fueled by outrage over former city manager John Ware going to
work for Tom Hicks after negotiating the arena deal—almost
single-handedly pushed through the City Ethics Commission, she gets to
carry the ethics banner. Although she’s a Democrat, Miller’s righteous
indignation and message of fiscal conservatism will play well among
North Dallas Republicans who supported former councilwoman Donna Blumer
and the 33 percent of the electorate fondly referred to as the
“aginners”: they voted against the arena, against the Trinity, and,
like her, will vote against the Olympics.

Miller can’t look to the minority community for votes: she’s seen as
responsible for former councilman Al Lipscomb’s fall and disliked by
blacks for her insistence that the city manager investigate police
chief Terrell Bolton. And in early September she earned the wrath of
Hispanics for taking aim at businesses that didn’t meet code. (She was
quoted in the Observer as pledging to get the “motherf——s” out of Oak
Cliff.) She’s an equal opportunity antagonizer.

two milquetoasts as rivals, Miller will prove to be her own worst
enemy. She has a tendency not to retreat after she makes her point, to
pound away with a sledgehammer when a flyswatter will do. She often
launches diatribes that sound mean-spirited, but she turns thin-skinned
when attacked.

political observers, surprisingly, say Miller’s the candidate to beat.
She’ll force a run-off with either Poss or Dunning and then use the
power of her personality to bring her voters to the polls. She’ll be
helped if there’s a strong, like-minded candidate for her Oak Cliff

says that we’ll know by Nov. 6 if she’s running. If the Olympics vote
passes, she says she won’t run. “If the voters say yes to the $14
million for the Olympics,” Miller says, “I probably wouldn’t win. I
would be out of sync with the city.”

what she says, it’s an odds-on bet that whatever the Olympic vote,
Miller rolls up the sleeves of her Chanel suit, enters the race, and
starts throwing punches. The girl can’t help herself.


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