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.
And then I catch sight of a peculiar vision: A good 10 yards distant from the exhausted throat-singers, Poss is positively beaming behind her lectern, her chin craning skyward as if she were a cocker spaniel puppy getting a great big tummy scratch.
Oh, why? Why is she even doing this?
To make it worse, barely 24 hours ago Miller held her own low-key news conference to announce her endorsement by the Texas Public Workers Association, representing about 400 of the city's 8,200 civilian employees. Leadership of the group told a small gathering of reporters that Miller had secured civilian workers the best deal they could expect in straitened times.
The TPWA is small. So what? The group that endorsed Poss is goofy, running around City Hall with lapel buttons ridiculing the mayor. I think this is at best a draw. Or would be a draw, if it weren't for this: A reporter friend of mine was at the Dixon Branch Homeowners Association mayoral forum in the area east of White Rock Lake, sitting next to his dad, who lives in that part of town. Some of this area is in Poss' council district, and it's all supposed to be Poss territory. In her closing remarks, Poss fired off her bombshell of the evening: an accusation, which Miller promptly denied, that Miller had once said city employees have the brains of gnats.
My friend said his father was genuinely perplexed because it seemed to him that Poss, of all people, should know that in this part of town such a remark--if the mayor had said it--would have won her votes, not lost them.
And that's why there is no mileage for Poss in the city employees being mad at Miller. Everybody knows the city is hammered for money. Half the people in North Dallas think city employees should work for free. I'm sure Poss told the gnat-brain story because she wants to tell people that Miller is mean as a horsewhip, which she is. But it just makes Miller look tough, which is what people want her to be.
Poss' big stinger here is going to be the smoking issue: She's coming after Miller for successfully pushing a ban on smoking in restaurants. Poss will emphasize her own conservative pro-business roots and will paint the no-smoke law as a commie-style abridgment of personal liberty. Here at the press table, do I detect faint hope that Poss may get her first good ride on this?
Miller gets to it first, as usual. She's running down a long list of accomplishments as mayor, getting no visible response from the audience on any of it until she says, "We did a smoking ban, which we've been talking about at City Hall since 1995."
The Realtors erupt in 10 solid seconds of loud applause! There are cheers! These are Realtors! They are cheering Miller for her smoking ban! What can I tell you? I am as dumbfounded as anyone. What is happening to this country, anyway? It's like ChemLawn going organic.
Poss makes her own speech, vowing to ask the city council to overturn Miller's ban if she is elected. She talks about a "market-driven" plan instead, based on separate ventilation systems and "signage," which sounds like "sinus" the way she says it. She gets barely a scattered clappety-clap from her own posse.
But wait! Maybe Poss has got a good one after all. Later in the event, Miller says the city's No. 1 legislative priority must be to persuade the state to let Dallas build a new convention hotel in Dallas with tax money. This is the big hotel next to the convention center that Miller and her husband, state Representative Steve Wolens, have been fighting for since last year.
The most likely location for the hotel is on land next to the convention center owned by Chavez Properties. Chavez owner Michael Anderson is a financial supporter of the mayor. A convention hotel that close to The Dallas Morning News and its owner, Belo Corp., would help draw traffic to Belo's many holdings at that end of town, and the Morning News has been lobbying hard for the hotel in both news and editorial columns.
Poss picks it up: "The more I see the broader issue, and the more I see the economy decline and I see businesses really suffering in the city, and I see the occupancy rate of our existing hotels drop, the less convinced I am that we need a convention center hotel today. We may need it in the future."
She explains in simple enough terms why a tax-subsidized hotel right now could be a bad thing for the city and the convention trade. Owners of existing hotels have to worry that "if you build and book a new convention center hotel, that you won't be taking the rooms from the other hotels, thereby causing those hotels to suffer even more," she says.
What she doesn't get to--and what isn't known in the city because it's been virtually blacked out by the Morning News--is that a major new consultant study argues the Miller hotel would in fact devastate the city's existing hotels (See "Vacancy," page 19). The study says a hotel, in and of itself, won't draw new conventions to town. It will only siphon off business from the conventions that already have been booked.
There are problems with the study. For one thing, the people pushing it--PR people and lawyers--are trying to be coy about who paid for it. Presumably an owner or owners of old hotels paid for it, but they won't come forward and be named. So that's a big credibility hickey.
Nevertheless, I keep thinking Poss has her fingers on a good one with this. Miller is not bulletproof. As mayor, she has had to strike her own bargains and sign at the bottom of the page on her own deals. She can be successfully attacked if she has signed off on bad deals. And this could be the one.
But Poss' hotel issue goes nowhere with the Realtors. Falls to the floor like a sticky pie tin. Maybe this issue is just too new for her. The campaign season is still young. There is still time for Poss to take this or some other issue and fashion it into a sword.
But Poss got into serious trouble with her historic-preservation friends over the infamous (in Old East Dallas) 400-square-foot closet on Swiss Avenue. Two years ago David Dean, a professional lobbyist and newcomer to Old East Dallas, was locked in combat with preservationists over his desire to fatten up his newly purchased Swiss Avenue home by tacking a 400-square-foot addition onto the front for a closet for his wife.
Dean took the fight all the way to the city council and whipped the preservationists hands-down, up one side, down the other and in the mud. With a big assist from Poss, who is a close friend of his wife, Dean left the Swiss Avenue Historic District standing on the corner looking like a 19th-century matron with her hooped skirt pulled up over her head. That's pretty great licks for a lobbyist--the kind of guy you'd want in your corner if you needed zoning for a rendering plant next to a grade school--but a questionable accomplishment for a mayoral candidate.
I live in the Swiss Avenue district but not on Swiss. A member of my own household was very anti-closet. I stayed out of it. I'm not sure how much I even believe in historic preservation. If it's such a great idea, why is it such a gigantic pain in the ass?
But the people who do believe in preservation seem not to believe in Mary Poss anymore. Catherine Horsey, former executive director of Preservation Dallas and now executive director of the Providence Preservation Society in Rhode Island, remembers Poss as talking the talk but never walking the walk when things came to a crunch at City Hall. "Far from having a strong commitment to preservation," Horsey says, "I don't think that there was a single instance of her standing for preservation."
Within Poss' own council district, the people who fought to create a conservation district for the M Streets do not have fond memories, either. "I am very disappointed with the idea that she would portray herself as a strong preservationist," says Angela Hunt, an attorney who was a prime mover in the successful campaign to create an M Streets conservation district.
"Anyone in the preservation community can tell you with certainty that that is not the case. There are people on the council such as Veletta [Lill], such as Laura Miller, who are preservationists and do what they say and say what they mean, whatever the heck her [Poss'] motto is."
Poss doesn't exactly deny the allegation that she sided with Dean against the preservation community in the Swiss Avenue case because of her friendship with Dean's wife. "That's very simple," Poss told me in a conference-call interview. "I actually went in the Dean house before any work was started on it. It appeared to me to have not been swept in over 50 years. It was in deplorable condition. And I think had it been left in that condition for another year or so, it probably would have fallen down.
"The Deans were willing to spend a lot of money to completely renovate the house, but the only way Mrs. Dean would consider making the investment in the house was if she could have a closet. And I think most women in particular understand how important that closet can be."
Sure. In the old days that was where we kept our women.
This comes halfway close to being a decent score for Poss. Miller and her husband have been leading the fight for statewide reform of the absentee-voting laws in Texas, putting them directly at odds with Nealy and Nealy associates like state Representative Terri Hodge, who has earned big fees in the past for helping candidates harvest the absentee vote. Even guilt by second-degree association might work here.
But three points: One, the bond campaign, which admits it is using Nealy, is separate from the Miller campaign. Miller isn't even supporting the full bond campaign. Second, the Allyn company told me through a spokesperson that it has no dealings with Nealy and insisted on a complete contractual firewall between itself and Nealy in the bond effort. Third, Nealy says she's a respected national and international political consultant, and anyway she isn't fielding an absentee-vote effort.
Nealy emerged as a serious factor in local politics in 1997 when she helped Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks get minority votes for tax subsidies for their new sports arena, American Airlines Center--a neat end-run around the North Dallas middle class that opposed the subsidies. Her presence in the bond campaign is evidence the backers may be playing a similar strategy. But she told me she will not carry out any organized effort to harvest mail-in votes for the bond campaign. I asked bond co-chair Demetris Sampson if the bond campaign would carry out an organized mail-in vote effort of any kind, and she said, "The answer is no."
But somebody's doing it. County Elections administrator Bruce Sherbet told me last week that dozens of well-known early-vote operatives already are coming in to his office to pick up boxes of hundreds of absentee-voting applications for the May 3 election.
The first day the county could legally accept an application to vote by mail in the May election was March 3. I have already spoken with one elderly resident who told me he had been visited by a classic "vote broker"--evidence that the vote harvesters are already at work.
Pablo Barrientos, speaking through an interpreter at his home in West Dallas, told me through the screened door one night last week that a man named Tony Hernandez had come to his house to help him vote for mayor.
Barrientos must have been confused. He could not have voted, since ballots had not been mailed out. Whoever came to his house must have had him sign his name on an application to receive an absentee ballot by mail.
He was insistent that the man who came to his door was Hernandez, whom he has known for many years and who he said comes to help him vote in every election, sometimes with his wife. I know the names of Tony and Gilda Hernandez well. They are veteran operatives in the early vote trade in Dallas and have worked in many campaigns.
"Mr. Hernandez came and picked up my vote," Barrientos told me. "He picked it up about a week ago."
I asked him who Mr. Hernandez said he worked for.
"La ciudad. The city of Dallas."
No city of Dallas employee would come in an official capacity to assist in the absentee-vote process. If someone made that claim to Barrientos, he was lying.
Barrientos told me he had known Tony Hernandez many years. "Long time, long time." He said Hernandez has come to the house with his wife, Gilda, in the past. "She has come."
I asked Barrientos if he believed he had voted for someone when he signed the document his visitor presented. "Yes. Si." But what he actually signed must have been an application.
The way the game works is this: The vote broker persuades an absentee voter to sign an application to vote at home. Then the vote broker turns the "app" in to the election department. By turning it in himself, the broker can predict the precise legal timetable by which the absentee ballot must be mailed to "his" voter, and he knows on what day the postal service will deliver it.
Some vote brokers show up and give technically legal assistance to the voter, within the letter of the law. Some of them illegally push the voter to vote for a certain candidate and then mail the ballot for him or hold it for barter later. Some brokers just snatch the ballots out of mailboxes and vote or hold them as their purposes suit.
I asked Barrientos if his visitor had urged him to vote for a certain candidate. He nodded yes.
"Vote for Signora Maria. Maria, I don't know. Maria? The big? Big lady. Big lady."
That would be Poss.
I never reached Tony Hernandez. His wife insisted to me on the phone that neither she nor he had visited Barrientos and that neither was doing any absentee-vote harvesting this season. "That could have been somebody else saying it was him," she said.
Mmm, not likely. I pointed out that Barrientos had told me he has known both of the Hernandezes for years and has seen them many times at his home.
"I know," she said. "I know that. We've known that other people go in our place and say that we sent them, and they get all mixed up."
Shoot! Body doubles like Saddam!
Nealy, Sampson and a spokesperson for the Poss campaign all said they had no knowledge whatsoever of any vote effort by the Hernandezes or anyone else. And that's entirely possible. The vote harvesters often sally out on their own and gather votes that they hope to peddle closer to Election Day when the candidates get desperate.
Whoever went to see Mr. Barrientos must have been preparing his pigeons to vote for Poss when the ballots arrive, but that doesn't mean Poss knew a thing about it. It only means the broker thinks Poss will turn out to be his best chance for a sale.
I regret the implication, but I get the logic. It's what everybody I talk to says. Mary Poss doesn't stand a chance, unless something huge happens between now and May 3.
There are scenarios by which Poss could still take this thing, of course. In one, we find out from the Los Angeles Times on the eve of the election that Laura Miller's real name is Janel "Bad Betty" Betts and she's an escaped serial killer from Arkansas. Half the people I work with will say, "Yeah, I've been telling people that for weeks."
But then we'll have to do the math on whether this hurts Miller or helps her in Dixon Branch. I think it's pretty hard to hurt her right now. And the Laura's-a-phony deal? A tree falling in the forest.