Die-In

Harriet Miers' conservative views drew threats of an ugly protest in 1989

Just about everybody who served or worked with Harriet Miers during her brief political career in Dallas remembers her as a hard-working, fair-minded moderate. When the Dallas political spectrum is properly framed against the national matrix, that means many people elsewhere will view her as a right-wing Christian nut case.

Everything's relative.

On the day President Bush announced Miers was his nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court, most of the Democrats and liberals I talked to in Dallas were delighted. But for two participants in local politics, surprise and pride over the Miers nomination were tempered by a bad memory.

It was 1989. Battered by the AIDS epidemic, the Dallas gay and lesbian community was still fairly new at organized politics. Lorlee Bartos, a liberal activist who had run mayoral and city council campaigns, was one of the first local campaign managers to seek the public endorsement of gay and lesbian groups for her candidates.

But Bartos now says Miers, whose Dallas City Council campaign she was running in '89, balked at appearing before the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. Bartos says Miers' hesitation caused her a "crisis of conscience." She resolved it, however, in Miers' favor.

Bartos says that when Miers, a lawyer who worked for an old, ultraconservative Dallas firm, expressed uneasiness about seeking gay and lesbian endorsements, Bartos realized she and Miers needed to take time out from the campaign for a serious sit-down.

"She was honest with me," Bartos says. She says Miers told her she was very uneasy about seeking gay and lesbian endorsements. In the same conversation, Bartos says Miers told her she was opposed to abortion. She says Miers had supported abortion rights in her youth but had experienced a "born-again" religious awakening that caused her to change her mind.

Bartos says she persuaded Miers it would be a mistake not to show up for the candidate night at the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

"She went, and she told them what they didn't want to hear."

The caucus confronted Miers with a list of test questions. Miers answered their questions honestly but did not seek their endorsement. It didn't take long for the caucus to decide that Miers definitely was not their friend.

Craig Holcomb, a former city council member who came out as gay while in office in the late 1980s, says he still has a clear memory of Miers' poor reception before the gay and lesbian group and the aftermath for him personally:

"Harriet was running. It was '89. I was going off the council. And she was a good candidate. I endorsed her."

He says two AIDS activists who are no longer living became extremely angry with him over the endorsement. "They threatened me in a letter with a 'die-in.'"

The threat was that protesters would stage mock deaths from AIDS at both the city council chambers and in front of the family-owned business in East Dallas that Holcomb was running, a dry cleaners founded by Holcomb's father, if Holcomb did not withdraw his endorsement of Miers.

"I called Lorlee, and I called Harriet, and I said, 'Gee, I think it would be better if I did not endorse you, and you didn't use my name,'" Holcomb recalls. "Harriet said, 'That makes sense to me.'"

In the extremely conservative climate of that time in Dallas, Bartos says Miers was still a better candidate for council than anybody else available for the seat. Today, both Bartos and Holcomb have good memories of Miers as a person.

Holcomb, now director of a nonprofit, says that on the morning the White House announced Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court, the endorsement incident was the first thing he and his partner, restaurateur Hector Garcia, discussed.

"Hector and I talked about it. He said as he remembered it, Harriet was very gracious to us when she would see us as a couple after that."

Miers had struck Bartos as a political pioneer, in part because she was a strong single woman seeking public office--a rarity in Dallas at the time. In 1972 she had been the first woman lawyer hired at Locke Purnell, an old-line Dallas firm. She was the first woman president of the Dallas Bar Association in 1985. After leaving the city council in 1991, she would go on to become the first woman president of the State Bar of Texas in 1992 and first woman president of Locke Purnell (now Locke Liddell & Sapp) in 1996.

But Miers, an intensely private person, was also a member and served as counsel to Valley View Christian Church on Marsh Lane, a conservative Evangelical church that teaches that the only path to salvation is a born-again commitment to Jesus Christ.

After leaving the Dallas City Council, Miers' views on abortion did not remain strictly private. As president of the State Bar of Texas, Miers led an unsuccessful campaign to persuade the American Bar Association to drop its endorsement of Roe v. Wade.

But her run-in with the gay and lesbian caucus and the ugly outcome for Holcomb remained almost a secret in Dallas, never discussed publicly by Bartos or Holcomb until this week. In the meantime, Miers is remembered favorably by the people she rubbed up against in Dallas politics, including several liberals.

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