A Hole in Every Pot

A city gone shabby yearns for a mayor to put things right

Mildred Greene, my conservative 92-year-old mother-in-law, tells me out of the blue as I drive her from Oak Cliff to East Dallas for the holidays that she has called Laura Miller's campaign office asking for a yard sign. I ask her why she's voting for Miller. Silence on her side of the car.

Finally she says, "I just want to see what happens."

How did we get here?

Tom Dunning says he won't be "out-potholed." He may be wrong about that.
Peter Calvin
Tom Dunning says he won't be "out-potholed." He may be wrong about that.
Dunning is personable one-on-one, stiff as a board on the campaign trail.
Peter Calvin
Dunning is personable one-on-one, stiff as a board on the campaign trail.

Since the 1930s, Dallas has been the political equivalent of a big boy in short pants, a major city with small-town politics--powerful city manager, weak mayor, secret suits downtown who run everything. I thought this was exactly what the conservatives wanted.

Now my mother-in-law, who knows very well that Miller and I have not been speaking for the last several months, sits by my fire in my rocker in my own home through the entire holiday season knitting an afghan and muttering like Madam Lafarge, "I think the women need to stick together."

It's scary. By New Year's Day I've heard enough of the Lafarge thing, and I make up my mind to find a way to talk to Miller again. I wind up walking up and down in front of her house in Oak Cliff with a picket sign that says, "Laura, please come out and talk. I'm sorry."

True story. Weird, I know. I'll explain later.

The point is that everybody who started out dissing Miller's candidacy, myself included, has had to come back around and deal with her. She's way out front in the polls, by a factor of two to three times the favorable rating of Tom Dunning, the suit candidate. Domingo Garcia, the middle-class Latino candidate, is deep in third place at low single digits, but there the polls may be deceiving.

Phone polls are all about yesterday's voters--the ones who voted last time around--and in Dallas those mainly are older-generation Anglos. If Garcia succeeds in bringing a major new Latino electorate to the voting booth on January 19, all other polls are off.

Ever since Christmas, the people who work for Garcia and the people who work for Dunning have been talking behind the scenes about how to go negative on Miller, dividing up the dirty duties. Miller has been holding firm at near 50 percent in the polls.

How does she do it?

Married to a Democratic office-holder and with a long public history in journalism as a flaming liberal, Miller, 43, is pulling very strong support from the city's whitest, most conservative precincts. And the assumption that her conservative base will make her anathema to minorities--my own thesis--is going to be wrong. (Whenever I think about these things, I see my mother-in-law by the fireplace with that afghan.) In recent interviews, a number of African-American leaders and operatives, including those sworn to support Domingo Garcia, have expressed secret admiration for Miller.

Sandra Crenshaw, a former city council member and activist in black neighborhoods, is working for Garcia. Crenshaw also has been walking precincts in Southern Dallas on an issue not related to the mayor's race.

"You know what?" she said, laughing a little ruefully. "A lot of those little ladies who answer the doorbell tell me they like that white lady, Laura Miller. They say she tells them how the cow ate the cabbage."

Tell me about it. Are they knitting afghans?

Miller used to do my job. She wrote the column I write now. Before that, she worked for The Dallas Morning News and the late great Dallas Times Herald, and she wrote a column for Dmagazine. Journalists who knew her when, along with people who were victims of her barbs, remember her as a blue-talking newsroom tough with a mean streak a mile wide and 10 miles deep. There is a sense that her advertising campaign, brilliantly designed by political PR man Rob Allyn, is perpetrating a kind of fraud on the public, depicting this poison-pen hit woman as some kind of Mommy Do-Good.

But after weeks of interviews all over town, I have come to my own slightly different personal conclusion on this point. We're right. We're wrong. There's no fraud. People out there know she's mean. They like it.

Tom Dunning, 59, is exactly what he tells you--an honest man with good intentions, great connections in the business establishment and a long history of conciliation in the community. He says he's not a politician. He's not.

Dunning's attempts at dismissing Miller's back-to-basics appeal always seem to betray that he doesn't quite get what it is. "Let me just say this right up front that I'm not going to be out-potholed," he told a large breakfast gathering of developers and architects early in the campaign. "I think we all agree that potholes need to be repaired."

It's a line echoed even more woodenly in the editorial columns of The Dallas Morning News. While the city desk staff of the News has been reporting the campaigns straight-on, the opinion writers have been a Greek chorus of derision focused on Miller, writing off potholes as the dumbest issue ever.

But who's dumb here? Who could miss the fact that the pothole issue is not just the pothole issue?

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