Woman in Gray

Laura Miller's white hat has a few stains

"A Mayor of absolute integrity."

I keep tripping on those words, a blustery little sentence fragment with "Mayor" proudly capitalized, on Laura Miller's Web site. I was shocked when I first read them, but not in the good way I was back when Miller was putting out some of the best investigative journalism this city has ever seen.

It's the "absolute" that bugs me.

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.

Maybe I should just rest easy knowing that the woman likely to be our next mayor is right up there on a moral pinnacle with Jesus.

But instead I wonder if she's as arrogant, smug or superior as those words make her seem.

"A Mayor of absolute integrity."

I chewed on that word, integrity. I remembered something I'd heard: Integrity is what you do when you think no one's looking.

Now, I know several people who possess integrity. I am privileged to know a handful of people with so much integrity--observed, tested and proven over the years in difficult circumstances--that I would entrust them with my life.

On a whim, I called one of my best friends in Dallas, a pastor's wife, surely one of the most wretched occupations invented by God or man, where one must continually absorb all of the insults aimed at you by people too chicken to attack your husband. Diane, I believe, has integrity. She'll counsel bratty couples till 3 in the morning, stay cool when people get jealous about her family's narrow grip on the middle class and withhold their contributions, even manage to summon a chuckle when a 400-pound woman comes on to her husband. In church. Right up in her face.

It takes a person of integrity to put up with that mess, and I've watched Diane for 11 years and know she has it in abundance.

So I asked her a question.

"Diane, do you have absolute integrity?"

"No," she said without hesitating. "But I'm working on it."

Oh, I know I can't draw any scientific conclusions from my sample of one. But it points up something I've seen. People of integrity usually have another quality that goes along with it: humility. An ability to recognize their flaws, laugh at themselves, even occasionally ask forgiveness. It's what keeps them sane.

And I've thought about that enough to realize there was considerable risk in the ballot I cast for Laura Miller last week.

Yes, I voted for her, and it's not the first time. As a resident of District 3, I've voted for her each time she's run for Dallas City Council.

In fact, let me make a couple of things clear up front. I like Laura Miller, personally and as a mayoral candidate, though not in the same unflinching, fanatic way some of her supporters and sycophants do.

Another thing I need to confess: As I told Miller's political consultant Rob Allyn last week, "I'm one of the people Laura Miller isn't talking to." We have a history. But more on that later.

When Miller was the Dallas Observer's marquee columnist, she viewed everyone and everything in black and white: evil or good, smart or stupid, strong or insipid. That works in the columnist's dichotomous world, but it's never worked for me. I know Miller fairly well, and I know enough to see her another way: in vivid gray.

These days, folks are practically tripping over themselves to greet Miller at candidates' forums, lining up like groupies to shake her hand, drop a few words of encouragement, even score an autograph. And Miller has a way of looking you in the eye, hunching down slightly to hear you, just you, share your personal Armageddon with a ravenous pothole, a stray dog or a slothful city employee.

But this column isn't about the groupies; it's about the gray.

We at the Observer have had a complicated relationship with Miller, whose work as a journalist most of us admire. On more than one occasion in the four years since she left the paper to run for city council, Miller has not been on speaking terms with us.

The reasons, some of which were detailed in Jim Schutze's cover story last week on the mayoral election, "A Hole in Every Pot," are revealing. They basically add up to this: Miller can dish out scathing criticism, but she can't take it.

I have a little tale of my own, and it's time to come clean.

Over the years, I've been interviewed several times about Miller, and I shied away from the gray. I focused instead on her many excellent qualities: hellacious investigative skills, an untouchable work ethic, extreme tenacity, an obsession with thoroughness and accuracy, even a great sense of humor.

This is a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer and sentenced to months of chemotherapy treatments. She didn't miss a single city council meeting.

She won her seat by going door to door and meeting her neighbors in Oak Cliff, where I have lived for the past 12 years. When my husband and I bought our home in Southwest Dallas two years ago, Miller could describe for me the elderly couple that used to live there. She'd knocked on their door, gotten to know them. And they obviously were impressed: We found a stash of Miller campaign signs in the garage, not that anyone needs them. It's wall-to-wall Miller on our street.

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.

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 Observerpublished 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 Observerwill 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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