Woman in Gray

Laura Miller's white hat has a few stains

That counts for something, doesn't it? Some folks think Miller couldn't care less about the people she represents, just the spotlight on her. But I don't doubt for a moment that Miller sincerely wishes to do something of lasting value for Dallas.

And I believe Laura Miller could be one of the greatest mayors this city has ever seen--if she learns humility.

Which brings us back to the gray.

Laura Miller claims  to have "absolute integrity"; there are no absolutes in politics.
Peter Calvin
Laura Miller claims to have "absolute integrity"; there are no absolutes in politics.
Laura Miller claims  to have "absolute integrity"; there are no absolutes in politics.
Peter Calvin
Laura Miller claims to have "absolute integrity"; there are no absolutes in politics.

I could talk about her habit of making harsh, disparaging comments about people behind their backs, so much a part of her personality that it borders on compulsion.

"Is Laura Miller loyal?" a radio reporter recently asked me.

"No," I said. End of answer.

I could talk about the obvious irony--good Lord, the elephantine hypocrisy--of a woman who showed no mercy as a columnist but falls into a protracted sulk when this newspaper reports something critical about her.

That, in fact, is why I don't get my phone calls returned these days. Like I said, we have a history.

Here's what happened. Mine and this paper's relationship with Miller had been strained ever since the Observer published a lengthy investigative report on Baron & Budd, the large plaintiff's law firm where Miller's husband, longtime state legislator Steve Wolens, is one of the chief shareholders. The article detailed allegations that Baron & Budd was running a factory for asbestos lawsuits, even coaching witnesses to lie in efforts to obtain favorable testimony in its multimillion-dollar claims. The article didn't mention Miller's husband, but it got under her skin.

I can see why. Miller and her husband view themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Ethics, and judge for yourself whether the Baron & Budd practices we uncovered fit that description. (The August 13, 1998, story, "Toxic Justice," can be viewed at www.dallasobserver.com.)

Now fast-forward to early 2001, the last time I talked to Miller. Thomas Korosec, an Observer reporter, had just begun work on a follow-up story about Baron & Budd and how its founder, Fred Baron, manages to seek and destroy his critics. Then Miller called me one day out of the blue.

The call started innocently enough: She asked about my young son, about whether I enjoyed motherhood.

Enough of the gooey stuff. Miller got to the point: Had I talked to the private investigative firm that was looking into the practices of Baron & Budd? Fred Baron, she said, had asked her to call me.

"If Fred Baron wants to know," I said, "he can ask me himself."

I knew what could happen if I answered her question: I'd find my name on a subpoena the next day, forced to testify at a deposition about what, if anything, I'd told this investigative firm. (And, interestingly enough, it had called me just the day before. I wonder how she knew.) The possible result: I'd get sucked into another one of Baron's frenzied, paranoid attempts to silence his critics.

That was pretty much the end of the call, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. To me, the call was a distinctly unfriendly act.

I didn't let my warm feelings about Miller override my instincts as a journalist. No question about it, this was a council member carrying water for an extraordinarily wealthy man who contributes to many campaigns and is a major force in local and national politics. But there's something else that made me burn. She wasn't just being a typical Dallas politician, she was being an untrue friend and selling out the journalistic ethics we once shared--trying to entangle me in a story this paper was covering.

That's not a whole lot different from the stuff Miller so passionately decried--the compromised council members, the weak-kneed bureaucrats, the sleazy, behind-the-scenes City Hall puppeteers--every other week as an Observer columnist.

It made me mad enough to ignore the phony bonhomie and report what she asked me, albeit very briefly, in Korosec's story on Baron & Budd.

We haven't spoken since. Miller made me aware through a third party that she thought I'd betrayed her.

Oddly enough, I saw it the other way around, but since I make no claims to absolute integrity, I could be wrong.

These days, I admire Laura Miller from a distance.

If she is elected mayor, the Observer will continue to cover her rigorously. We will point out the flaws and provide the criticism. Right now our readers appear to be split down the middle on whether we're too hard on Miller or too easy. To a journalist, that means we've found an approximation of fair.

I expect more silences.

And it's too bad. I love Laura Miller. I don't buy the "absolute integrity" thing one bit, but I think she looks OK in gray.

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