The Pearls

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

Be honest with me. I can take it. If I say four little words, you get drowsy and want to lie down for a nap, right?

Dallas City Charter Amendment.

We know all about that in the newspaper business. Charter amendment stories are what we call "snoozers." Do not operate heavy machinery while reading charter amendment stories.

The city election next May will be about Laura Miller and Laura Ashley. Forget everybody else.
The city election next May will be about Laura Miller and Laura Ashley. Forget everybody else.

But let me put this to you differently. The "strong mayor" debate going on in Dallas is not about charter amendments or political science or any of that wonky business. Put all that stuff right out of your mind.

This is about Laura.

This is totally about the personality of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller. See. Got your interest a little bit, didn't I? I know: She's interesting. That's one reason it's about her.

She's the issue. This is about Laura Miller, Laura Miller and Laura Miller. The Blackwood proposal is a complicated package of changes to the city charter to do away with the city manager system in Dallas and concentrate power instead in the office of the mayor.

Zzzzz.

But none of those very technical points will drive the debate. Instead, what you're going to see on TV and in the expensive direct-mail pieces showing up at your door soon will be Mayor Miller sitting on the sofa in her home or some facsimile, wearing her pearls and the Republican suit again. She's a Democrat, of course, but her political consultant is Rob Allyn, and he could make you think your cat was a dog.

She's gonna look great. She always looks great, but she's going to look greater. She's gonna look tough. She's also going to look a little bit sad. Hands folded primly, chin thrust upward, eyes cut to your eyes, she's going to tell you, "Ever since I was elected mayor, I have been trying and trying to get City Hall to work. But that naughty city council just won't let me do my job."

If Laura Miller can make that sale, you and a whopping majority of the other people who vote in this town are going to vote IN FAVOR of the so-called Blackwood amendment.

In her public statements about it, Miller is already crafting the debate on the May 7 charter election as a one-on-one boxing match. In one corner, Laura Miller. In the other corner, the other guy. The Dallas City Council.

Following last week's council briefing on legal issues in the Blackwood proposal, Miller told the TV cameras that if Blackwood goes down to defeat, the only thing the city council will ever offer to replace it will be plans to strengthen the city council.

See. That's a simple paradigm. Laura Miller in white hat. Dallas City Council in black hat.

We could also say that the Dallas City Council has helped frame it this way by uniting unanimously against the Blackwood proposal, as well as by showing a certain dismal whininess about it, as they did again last week. So far the opposition to the Blackwood amendment has been less than charismatic.

Let me just tell you something about a contest of personalities here. Laura Miller wins. If she and Allyn succeed in framing it that way, Miller wins by a knockout in the first round. I don't know if the council gets that or can admit it to itself. In a battle of personalities, the council is no match, because very few people would be a match.

I've been a Laura Miller watcher since she showed up in Dallas as a college intern at the Dallas Times Herald in 1978. Even as a kid, Miller had a mega-wattage buzz about her. I remember one of my editors expressing doubts she'd ever work out as a reporter. I asked why. He said, "She's got too much personality."

It's true.

Of course, in order to make the boxing-match scenario come alive, she and Allyn have to accomplish what the dramaturges call "suspension of disbelief." That is, they have to fool you out of your natural tendency to say, "But wait a minute, that's not a guy in the other corner. That's 14 guys."

Think about it. Let's say you happen to agree with me that Dallas City Hall is stuck on the dime and needs some kind of a fix or a whack on the head with a two-by-four or something. Why is it stuck on the dime?

The Laura-and-Rob thesis is that it's all the council's fault. Laura is the only good guy. The rest of them are all Palookas.

How can that be? Do you mean to tell me that Lois Finkelman and Steve Salazar and Maxine Thornton-Reese and Sandy Greyson and Elba Garcia and Gary Griffith and all those people on the council are exactly alike and equally no good? And here's the risk for Miller and Allyn: If Miller and Allyn fail to make that story stick, then Miller starts to sound like a naughty teenager.

"My stupid math teacher kicked me out of class even though I wasn't the one talking. And that idiot assistant principal sent me home because he thought I was somebody else. And that mean Tommy tricked me into getting into the car with him and Amie. And that slut Amie lied to me and said those cans of beer were ginger ale."

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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