By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Is this a girl-fight or what?
Miller, the very popular incumbent, is rounding out a partial term and hoping to get elected to her first full four-year term. It's hers to keep. Poss, an eight-year veteran of the city council, has to shoot her out of the sky to win.
The election is still five weeks off--time enough for real issues to emerge. There are snakes moving in the grass out there in the mail-in absentee-vote process, an area in which Dallas has seen serious voter fraud and campaign fireworks in the recent past. And Poss has touched on some things that seem like good issues to inside-baseballers, especially her skepticism about Miller's push for a tax-subsidized convention hotel downtown.
But Poss' main theme so far, implied in ads and speeches, is the contention that Laura is a big phony and Mary is not. The kind of issue one might expect to encounter in an especially catty middle-school election, it turns on two sub-themes, of which the first is personal. I understand that one perfectly because I hear it all the time in my own business: The people who knew Miller as a rough-talking muckraker for the Dallas Observer think she has undergone some kind of cosmetic psychotherapy to give her the look and voice of a rich Republican club lady. I have my own head-spinning-around-360-degrees moments with her sometimes, as when she remarks offhandedly about how difficult it is for people to trust the Observer after the excesses of one of its reporting staff.
I want to say, "Yes, but we at the Observer are determined to overcome your legacy some day." She's like a quick-change artist with total amnesia.
But to the extent the Poss campaign thinks there is actual political mileage in this perplexing aspect of Miller's inner life, they're nuts. It's all inside baseball. Way inside. We talk about it in the biz; they talk about it at City Hall; that's what, maybe 60 people total? Get an issue.
The more substantive take on Miller's stripe-changing tendencies turns totally on the city employees who are mad at her over pay issues, especially the cops. They've been calling her "Liar Laura" and attacking her in newspaper ads ever since voters turned down their proposed 17 percent pay increase in a referendum last May. And here is where we begin to get to the Laura Miller the voters might conceivably give a damn about. You can accuse her of changing her style till the cows come home, but you can't accuse Miller of lying.
She has said from the beginning that she never told the cops she would back a 17 percent fell-swoop pay hike in the middle of a disastrous budget year. She told me again in an interview for this story what she told the coppers back in late 2001 when she was seeking their endorsement in her first run for office:
"I made a promise during the mayor's race that I would try to get the police and firefighters a 15 percent raise, perhaps staged over three years--five, five and five. I thought they should have that," she says. "So I was gleeful when within six weeks of getting elected, I got the city council to adopt unanimously a five, five and five pay plan."
She promised them five, five and five. She got them five, five and five. Glenn White of the Dallas Police Association has said it was a betrayal for Miller to actively campaign against the referendum after giving the police the impression she was on their team. He says if she didn't agree with their proposal, she should have sat it out. Maybe. But that's all political gaming. It's not: "Liar!"
The biggest proof of this particular pudding came two weeks ago when the police association announced its mayoral endorsement for the coming May 3 election. Everyone who was paying attention had assumed it would be Poss. Instead the DPA announced it was sitting this one out. No endorsement at all. It was the strongest public confirmation yet of my own private thesis: Even the DPA knows Poss doesn't stand a chance, minus a miracle. And for once they wised up.
That leaves the other city employees who are mad at Miller, mainly a group called the Dallas City Employees Association. They have been wearing anti-Miller lapel buttons around City Hall for the past month. Two things you have to know about this group: It's a recent ad hoc group, one of many claiming to represent city employees, and this one is shotgunned by a couple of administrative aides to city council members. So it suffers a certain political taint from the beginning. Second, the "mass rally" in front of City Hall at which this group announced its endorsement of Poss was maybe the weakest, dorkiest, overstaged joke of the campaign season so far.
A straggly squad of city employees in Mary Poss T-shirts are lined up single file on City Hall plaza--I'm going to be generous and say there are three dozen--all of them throat-singing, "Poss for mayor! Poss for mayor!" A professional announcer named Sparky Sparks, assisted by a sound technician, stands several yards away behind a barricade of speakers and amps, loudly declaiming the event in a Wizard of Oz voice. Several PR persons from the LeMaster group, Poss' campaign consultants, are trying to force-feed press releases to the City Hall media corps. The reporters, especially the TV people, are looking green about the gills, because the "event" is almost over and their assignment editors are going to tell them they've seen better demonstrations in Plano club soccer.