Inside the monster battle over strong mayor

And how do you convince Mr. Snake-Smart that this isn't some hokey sales pitch people are going to forget the minute they get Jerry Jones to give them what they want for Christmas? Griffith thinks a united front by the city council would have demonstrated that the whole city was sincere, committed and taking this one seriously.

"You have to enter this as a partnership," he says. Instead, Miller kept the city's end of the Cowboys talks close to her vest, cutting the council out of the picture almost entirely.

Griffith doesn't fault Miller for seeking a good deal. He says the city always needed to be ready to break off talks if the ultimate price demanded by Jones was too high. He's even willing to say that his family legacy idea might not have been the perfect tactic. The problem, he suggests, is that Miller went at this without any coherent tactical plan. Her first shot out of the box, he says, was to challenge Jones to make his move.

Council members Lois Finkelman, James L. Fantroy and 
Gary Griffith
Steve Satterwhite
Council members Lois Finkelman, James L. Fantroy and Gary Griffith
Mark Andresen

Which he did. To the suburbs.

Griffith says there is no getting around the fact that losing the Cowboys was bad for Dallas. "It would have been a billion-dollar company leaving the suburbs to come to the inner city. That's a very unusual occurrence."

It's especially hard to swallow, he believes, because he thinks we don't know if there might have been a way to get a better deal.

"What I wanted was a strategy," he says, "and the city never adopted a strategy toward getting the Cowboys. It is unclear to me today why we never had a strategy."

Asked directly if Miller's background as a journalist failed to prepare her for negotiations with someone like Jerry Jones, Griffith says, "That's my point."

The point is sensitive sometimes when a columnist for the Dallas Observer is interviewing city council members about the personal shortcomings of a mayor who is a former columnist for the Dallas Observer. But several council members seemed to overcome those qualms without breaking a sweat and pointed directly to Miller's history as a columnist for the Observer as the source of all dysfunction.

Lois Finkelman, who represents District 11 in North Dallas around the Hillcrest and Spring Valley area, says, "Many of the columns in papers like the Observer turn out to be more editorials than columns. The ultimate position is defined on the front end of the article, and you build your case to prove that point."

It's a kind of thinking, she says, that never doubts itself, doesn't let the facts get in the way and never changes course. "It was the mayor when she was writing as Laura Miller who was absolutely opposed to funding for Fair Park, called it a total waste, and why would we do that?

"That may be part of what happened with the inability to land the Cowboys. Many of us thought that Fair Park was an ideal location for the Cowboys and would have brought tremendous value to the South Dallas community and to Fair Park as well."

Council member Veletta Forsyth Lill, who represents District 14, a horseshoe around the southern border of the Park Cities, points to experiences that are missing from the backgrounds of many journalists, especially Dallas Observer columnists.

"The challenges that the mayor has not had in her life experience include managing people or consensus-building," Lill says. "Most people either have the experience of managing staff or serving on boards in which there must be consensus as part of the governing process. That may be as simple as your church board or nonprofit board or a for-profit."

What Lill does not see in Miller's background is "any experience that demands more than unilateral thinking."

A personal history in the hands-on, small-time, low-glory crafting of political outcomes does more than merely develop powers of personal persuasion, Lill believes. It also teaches people the real-world significance of ideas, even of slogans. She suggests, ever so gingerly, that Miller is manipulative in her use of ideas and slogans in front of the cameras when she's barking out those wonderful sound bites.

Take potholes--in many ways the emblematic issue that first got Miller elected mayor in 2002. Public dissatisfaction over the miserable condition of city streets was symptomatic of a deeper malaise, a worry that someone wasn't minding the store, that various pirates and shills were building pyramids for themselves with city money while the basic plant went to hell. With the help of a skilled political consultant and ad agency, Miller was able to tap into that vein of pain with her motto, "a big vision of the little things that make a big difference in people's lives."

This is an important issue to Lill, and she chooses her words carefully, with long pauses and hands together at the fingertips before her face. She says the pothole issue was real; the voters were right; and it happened for a reason.

"We had not kept pace with infrastructure repair needs in more than a decade, beginning with probably the 1985 budget," Lill says. "The street repair budget was depleted, and the 1985 bond program turned out to require 10 years for implementation so that no tax increase would be incurred."

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