Mommie Dearest

Potholes, motherhood and high fashion mingle in Miller's populist campaign kickoff

On Sunday afternoon, as the Cowboys are showing the Eagles a good time across town, a caravan speeds down Ross Avenue, toward Laura Miller's party in Oak Cliff. The councilwoman and erstwhile Dallas Observer columnist is not scheduled to announce her mayoral candidacy for two hours yet, but the caravan's organizer and vanguard, Avi Adelman, wants to get a good spot up front.

Adelman is a Lower Greenville gadfly who runs an outfit known as the Barking Dogs. Its objectives include the enforcement of codes and laws, in particular those that prohibit bar-goers from urinating in his yard. He is a citizen less concerned with theoretical bridges over the troubled Trinity River than he is with extant potholes on his own street. He is the prototype of a Miller voter. Adelman explained his position back at the caravan's staging area, the parking lot of a Whole Foods Market. "The mayor has to pay attention to the big things, sure," he said. "But Laura will focus on the streets and codes. This is a populist movement." Then he and his 9-year-old daughter hopped in his gold Ford Ranger XLT (vanity plate: THE DOG).

Despite e-mail appeals from Adelman for others to join him, the entire caravan includes, from head to tail, in this exact order: Adelman, a guy named Mike and a reporter. Nonetheless, the populist movement has difficulty following Adelman. He blows through no fewer than four yellow lights before he reaches downtown. In Oak Cliff, he makes a wrong turn, perhaps distracted by several oversized Tom Dunning yard signs. Dunning, who resigned as chairman of the D/FW airport board to enter the contest, is Miller's only real opposition in the race, to be decided January 19. He was apparently unaware of a city code that prohibits campaign yard signs until 60 days prior to an election, a window that won't open--legally, that is, if you comply with the code--until Tuesday. In any case, Adelman arrives at Stevens Park, site of Miller's speech, 90 minutes early. A few people are still setting up, and he has his pick of good spots up front.

Dorit Rabinovitch

At length and despite (or because of) the Cowboys game, maybe 300 souls gather. An unofficial estimate puts the number of black people present at five, one of whom is operating a television camera. Dogs and children are in abundance. Some of the latter swing on a set a few feet from the sign-in table, their tiny feet cutting arcs through the air, giving the adults hell as they navigate the area. And, oddly, another mayoral candidate is in the house. The not altogether spry Billy Jack Ludwig shows up looking like the dearly departed Desmond Llewelyn's elder brother. Over the years, Ludwig has made six unsuccessful bids for mayor, spending several hundred dollars in the process, much of it on his trademark "Billy Jack Ludwig for Mayor" emery boards.

A quarter till 3, the appointed hour, and Miller is still nowhere to be seen. But her husband is. Democratic state Representative Steve Wolens, wearing dark sunglasses, makes his rounds. "We're proud of your wife," someone tells him. "It's exciting," he says. "There's kind of a buzz."

The reporter has been instructed to ask Wolens about earlier comments of his. Wolens said that if Miller ran for mayor, she would run as a single mother. The reporter was also told, "Keep in mind that Wolens may slap you when you ask" (presumably because Miller has a rather complicated relationship with her former employer, refusing to talk to several still in its employ). So the reporter girds himself and approaches Wolens. He feeds the representative his earlier quote concerning single motherhood and asks, "Did you mean you were going to commit suicide or divorce her?"

Wolens smiles and hits him with: "My wife did in the family what she did in the City Council. She lobbied us over a period of two to three months. And we started having votes almost nightly at the table. My wife went for consensus, and not only did she get a consensus from the family, but she got a unanimous vote out of us about five nights ago."

The reporter is relieved to have avoided injury but wonders about the legitimacy of this alleged voting. He has, in fact, read newspaper accounts of a Miller household ritual that involves nightly debates, complete with Magic Markers and a flip chart for the purpose of vote tallying. This strikes the reporter as hokum. So he tracks down Alex, 11, Miller's oldest child. She is wearing a sweatshirt with the word "FLIRT" on it (which her mother would later turn inside out for a carefully orchestrated family photo op). Alex confirms the voting story. She was the only other original "run" vote (besides her mother's) and says she voted her conscience, knowing that whatever made her mom happy would be good for the family. But there's more.

"There are going to be a lot of social events," Alex says. "I'll have a lot of fun, and I can invite all my friends for free. My mom, like, barely let's me go and hang out and do stuff like that at my house, and I think that if there are going to be more social events, then I'll be able to bring friends over to go to those. So that's cool to me." Alex says these considerations generated 20 percent of her "run" vote.

At five minutes till 3, literally as the clouds part, Laura Miller arrives. She strides into the sunlight. She is wearing black pointy-toed, stiletto-heeled Donna Karans; a black pin-striped Richard Tyler suit with an American flag pin in its lapel; and a blue blouse, designer undetermined. She walks like a more feminine John Wayne, slightly bowlegged, swaggering, leading with her shoulders. Maybe it's the shoes. Television cameras and constituents beset her. She glows. Did she sit in her car, waiting for the weather to cooperate? She poses for a picture with Billy Jack Ludwig, towering over him, and, inexplicably, no one laughs.

Wolens takes the podium and asks "folks" to "mosey over." They mosey. Today happens to be Miller's 43rd birthday, so Wolens leads the assembly in singing "Happy Birthday." He shouts, "Mom for mayor!" in the pauses between lines. With Miller standing stage right, Wolens delivers an enthusiastic introduction. He shouts, "It's Miller time!" But the crowd is right there with him, and he leaves the podium hoarse.

And then, finally, after all, it is Miller time. She steps up to the podium. The crowd chants, "We want Laura! We want Laura!" "I want to thank you all for being here on short notice," she tells them, "especially on a day when there was a Cowboy game." This elicits a wan chuckle that suggests only a few present even knew the Cowboy was playing the Eagle today.

Miller's oratorical quarterback rating puts her somewhere between Jake Plummer and Elvis Grbac. She says, "I have a vision for Dallas. It's a big vision of small things that make a big difference in people's lives." She says, "In times like these, being a good mayor is not just about what we can do. It's about what we must do." But the crowd is right there with her, applauding at every pause, going wild after she says, "I've said things I shouldn't have said. I've spoken out of turn. But I'll always say it like it is."

Most striking is that Miller--wife of a state representative, daughter of a Saks Fifth Avenue chairman--somehow manages to come across as Avi Adelman's populist. She will say it like it is, even if that means haranguing certain members of the "establishment," as Miller puts it. Even if that means sometimes using colorful language, including, but not limited to, the word "motherfucking." And who, besides her enemies, wouldn't love such a woman?

After her speech, as Miller shakes hands and hugs people, the reporter reintroduces himself. Miller has met him exactly once, three years ago, but remembers he has a son. Then the reporter reveals the sad nature of his errand. "I know you have a policy against talking to people from the Observer," he says, "but I was hoping I could ask you a few questions." There is tension initially. She mentions unethical reporters. The reporter chooses to believe Miller is referring to other unethical reporters. But then she makes a move as if to pinch the reporter's cheeks and says, "It's only because you're such a sweetheart that I'll talk to you."

Most of the folks have moseyed home by now. Maybe 20 people remain. Miller and the reporter sit down on folding chairs, facing each other.

"The last time I saw you, you were wearing that same pin-striped suit," he says.

"I like this suit. It's the suit I'm most comfortable in, in life. My husband hates the shoes. He thinks they're so ugly because they're pointy, but they go with the suit."

"You had your kids up there onstage. They're sort of your brand now. You know, like, 'Run, Mommy, run.' Do you worry about using them?"

"The only way this works is to make my kids feel like they're part of what's happening. I want them to come to parades with me and learn from this experience and not just feel like I'm off doing something and not with them."

"So you have to resign your City Council seat to run, right?"

"Oh, yes," she says. "I'll write my official letter of resignation Monday and go in to pack up my office."

"What happens if you lose the election?"

"I don't think I'll lose. But if I do, that's OK. I'll spend time with my family. That's what I did for a year after the Observer, before the City Council, and it was one of the best times in my life."

"But that would only be..."

Her youngest, 6-year-old Max, interrupts with a plastic baggie full of sand. Its origin is unknown. Max has had one too many complimentary Cokes. He is wound up and wants Mom to take the sand home for him. This is very important. The baggie of sand must go home with him. He stresses this.

Then Wolens appears and reminds Miller that it is her birthday, after all, and she has a party to attend. She tells him to go on. She'll walk home. But the reporter doesn't have the stomach to make her walk. Plus, there's the issue of Max's sand. So he excuses himself, thanks her. As he drives away, though, she is still standing in Stevens Park, hugging well-wishers. And it's clear that Laura Miller will be hitting the streets, Donna Karans and all.

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