The Pearls

Forget political science. The strong-mayor debate is about Laura on the sofa.

You know. You get to a certain point, you say, "Story's too good. Shut up. Go to your room."

How good is a story in which Laura Miller is the one good soldier at City Hall and every single other person down there is a malingerer? You listen to that story for a while, you start getting nervous, right? That's a lot of malingerers.

The role of Miller's personality in this debate is by no means entirely positive for her. Her personality, in fact, is a major reason for some of the vehemence of the opposition. Many of the Blackwood opponents bear what I call "the Mark of Laura"--a certain wide-eyed expression when they tell you how they thought she was their friend, but then...

That, of course, is all insider business. The mark of Laura is sort of like those saber scars Polish aristocrats used to bear so proudly. You have to join her in close combat to get one.

The point is that the Laura Miller personality is politically volatile. Rob Allyn, the Johannes Vermeer of direct mail, paints her in serenely glowing tones, of course. But most of us remember a far more shrill incarnation during her first term on the council, before she hired Allyn to run her for mayor. That's still in there somewhere, too, yearning to be free.

And here is the one new twist that could make mischief for Miller, Allyn and the Blackwood amendment: Last week it became evident that a third path was at least in the development phase. Serious discussion and negotiation were going on within a major bloc of the business community about an entirely new option.

What if we took Laura out of it? What if we conceded that City Hall needs fixing? But we said we're not going to fix it with a slapdash search-and-replace rewrite of the existing charter. We're going to take our time and carefully craft a new version of strong mayor that isn't so extreme. And it won't go into effect until after the current mayoral term ends.

Now you have a whole new ball game, not so much because of the wonky technical differences in the various proposals. Those just put people to sleep. You have a whole new ball game because a third path with serious business support makes it much tougher for Miller and Allyn to shape the battle as a straight-up personality contest between her and the council.

You have a third player--the backers of this new path. All of a sudden, Miller and her supporters have to come down off the sofa and stop saying it's just Laura, with her hands folded demurely in her lap, and that other guy, the council.

This is how it's going to unfold: A coalition in the business community, probably led by the Dallas Citizens Council, is going to propose a two-part program. Part one: Defeat Blackwood. Part two: The Dallas City Council, minus Miller, will promise to put a new proposal on the ballot a year from now--one designed to create a more efficient structure at City Hall while allaying fears of Bossism and corruption. And this new proposal will not take effect until after Miller's current term ends.

She can run again if she wants to. But the voters get to decide two things separately: Do we want a strong-mayor system of some kind? Do we want Miller?

There are problems with this scenario. It requires us to believe, for example, that African-American council members would actually go to their constituencies, where the whole strong-mayor theme is anathema, and tell them they have signed off on an alternative strong-mayor proposal. Is that really going to happen?

And the city council has not objected to Blackwood alone. Before the Blackwood petitions were turned in, when the mayor introduced her own much meeker and milder version of a strong-mayor concept, the council voted it down, predicting all kinds of mayhem and knavery if such an abomination were to come to pass. They already had a shot at a moderate version, and they stomped it into the mud.

The council may say, "Trust us." Miller can sit on the sofa with the pearls and the folded hands and say, "Trust whom?"

It's Laura against the world. The third path will complicate things in an interesting way and give Miller and Allyn a steeper hill to climb. But the battle is still going to turn on Laura Miller's personality.

Meanwhile I've given myself nightmares. Rob Allyn is waving a pocket watch in front of my eyes. He keeps saying, "Your cat is a dog. Your cat is a dog." I won't sleep for weeks.

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