By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The news that Mayor Ron Kirk ignored Councilwoman Laura Miller when he doled out committee leadership assignments last month was hardly a surprise: Who could blame Kirk for shutting the door on his loudest critic?
No one except Donna Blumer, Miller's closest ally on the council and the only returning council member besides Miller who was not given a council committee to chair. Instead, Kirk named Blumer vice chair of the Health, Youth, and Human Services Committee. To protest the snub of Miller, Blumer resigned from the committee post in a one-page memo she distributed to Kirk and her City Hall colleagues.
"While I am appreciative of the appointment, I do not feel right accepting it when even one duly elected representative of a significant portion of the city is denied a leadership position," Blumer wrote, referring to Miller, who had a chance to proofread the memo before it was circulated. "Excluding any elected official from a leadership role is a rebuff to his constituents, especially when that official has been returned to office after the voters have had an opportunity to evaluate his performance."
As grand political gestures go, Blumer's resignation wasn't exactly on par with Nixon traveling to China. "Given her popularity with the anti-establishment crowd, this is another example of her thumbing her nose at the powers that be," says Councilman John Loza, whom Kirk has since chosen to fill Blumer's vacated position. "It makes for a good headline, but besides that it doesn't have any meaning."
But to dismiss Blumer's move as merely a publicity stunt does not take into account her track record as a council member. It also ignores what some say is Kirk's history of vindictiveness toward his political opponents, despite his pledge to end the personal sniping that had marked the Dallas City Council before he took office.
As a new council settles in for the fall, the question is whether the council can come together as a cohesive team, and who will be to blame if it falls into its previous pattern of Miller and Blumer vs. Kirk and friends.
The answer may involve bowling.
In his first mayoral campaign in 1995, Kirk promised to end the "blame game" and usher in a new era of civility around the council's horseshoe-shaped dais. With two notable exceptions, he has largely succeeded, though his critics say the price has been to stifle debate. (see "City Hall's slam-dunk gang," March 3, 1998). These days, the decision to question the specifics of a proposal or, God forbid, its merit is an act of blasphemy punishable by calling the offenders "naysayers" or categorizing them as a member of the "no" crowd.
Enter Donna Blumer, a social and fiscal conservative who was first elected as the District 13 representative in 1993. Long before Miller became Kirk's chief council nemesis, Blumer had demonstrated her ability to understand complex city issues and earned a reputation for asking hard questions. She didn't change a bit the day Kirk became mayor, which, Blumer says, is the same day her relationship with Kirk soured for good.
Back then, Blumer and four other council members very publicly opposed Kirk's wishes to make Chris Luna deputy mayor pro tem and instead backed Charlotte Mayes for the post. Ordinarily, the debate over who gets to be mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem rages behind closed doors, and this unprecedented public controversy reportedly infuriated Kirk, who in the end got what he wanted. When it came time to dole out the committee assignments two months later, he demonstrated what critics say is his vindictive side: With the exception of Al Lipscomb, Kirk didn't give a single leadership position to the four who had opposed him. Instead, he awarded the assignments to less experienced council members.
Kirk's decision to give Blumer a vice chairmanship last month offered her a rare opportunity to make a political statement. Because this was the first leadership position she had received, she says, it was the first time she could resign it without looking "self-serving."
"I have felt all along that the mayor has used his position of leadership to intimidate members of the council to support him unconditionally," says Blumer, who is in her fourth term. "I hoped that he would have recognized a long time ago that I was going to be there for the long haul [and] that he would have made an effort to get to know me. Apparently, he didn't think it was worth his time to do that."
Kirk, who maintains that he uses his appointing authority "judiciously" but not punitively, shrugs off the criticism that he has been punishing Blumer all these years by not giving her any leadership roles. "I gave her one, and she resigned it," he notes. "Life is too short to waste my time on personal retribution."
While the vice chair position is largely ceremonial, the chairs of the council's nine standing committees have one important power: They can decide what items appear on the committees' agendas.
To some, Kirk's decision to bypass Blumer and Miller is disconcerting because it sends a message to council members that if they question the mayor, he and his "team" will cut them off from the flow of information and, in the end, their constituents will wind up in the dark. David Gray, the chairman of Save the Trinity, a citizen group that is critical of the city's multimillion-dollar plan for new levees and roads along the Trinity River, says it's just as well that Blumer resigned her largely ceremonial post because her outspokenness is more important than any access a leadership position would get her.