Die-In

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

Mike Daniel is one of a tiny coterie of tough activist lawyers who in the 1970s and '80s pushed through a series of federal anti-segregation, anti-housing discrimination, anti-disenfranchisement lawsuits that changed the city forever. Of that barrage of litigation, the piece that struck the deepest blow was a suit seeking the overthrow of the old city council system.

Daniel represented plaintiffs Marvin Crenshaw and Roy Williams, who argued that Dallas had used a series of tricky arrangements to prevent black people and Latinos from achieving power on the city council. When their lawsuit was coming to a head in 1991, Harriet Miers was nearing the end of her single two-year term as an at-large city council member.

Daniel and Roy Williams, his former client, remember Miers as a smart and thoughtful council member who eventually came to support a version of the all single-member district "14-1" council system they were seeking.

"She's really not an ideologue," Daniel says. "She came over to 14-1 way sooner than the mayor."

The mayor at the time was Annette Strauss, nominally a Dallas liberal, sister-in-law to Robert ("Mr. Democrat") Strauss, who was a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Both Daniel and Williams remember Miers as far more interested in fair representation issues than Strauss or any of the other big Democrats still in town in those days.

Roy Williams also was one of two candidates who ran against Miers for the seat she won on the city council in 1989. "She knew the law, and she would always recite case law," he says. "A couple times I rode with her to the debates, even though we were opposing each other. I think she's a fair-minded person."

Daniel also remembers her well from her tenure as a member of the board of Legal Services of North Texas, when Daniel and some of his cadre were legal aid lawyers. "She kept the Bar Association off our backs," he says.

Mary Vogelson, a water expert and activist with the Dallas League of Women Voters, remembers Miers as having a keen interest in an array of public participation issues when she was on the city council. "She was interested in how the public has access to City Hall and to city council meetings," Vogelson says.

Former mayoral candidate Peter Lesser is a liberal who was right in the middle of the racial and political turmoil in Dallas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He says his radar has always given him favorable impressions of Miers: "Number one, I don't think she is a right-winger. Number two, she comes from the real world."

Jim Buerger, a newspaper publisher, served on the council with Miers where he was a centrist, a healer and weaver of consensus during extremely contentious times. He says now that many of the candidate forums during those days in Dallas were set-ups and shooting galleries.

"If you went in to try to pass the test, you couldn't pass the test. You're not going to go pass the test in that thing."

What counts to Buerger is that Miers was consistently diligent, fair-minded and considerate in her conduct on the council. He describes her as intensely private, playing her cards close to her vest and giving away nothing of her innermost makeup.

"Part of the essence of who she is is that she keeps those things to herself. I have absolutely zero, nothing, no indication in all of those hundreds of hours, all of those thousands of agenda items and any other time I've been with her, to indicate there was any type of a prejudice about her or anything of that sort. I just never saw it."

Miers does not emerge in the pictures people paint of her as shy. Just private. Vogelson, the League of Women Voters activist, credits Miers with working a good room. "I will hand her this, she is a good politician in the sense that I can see her once every two years, and she will walk right over to me and pick me out of a crowd and call me by name and shake my hand. It doesn't matter whether it's here or San Antonio or Washington or places I just happen to run into her."

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Dallas as a whole was far to the right of the rest of the nation. It was a city that seemed to have been passed over by much of the political change that swept the nation in the 1960s and '70s. The battle over the city council configuration--single-member seats instead of at-large representation--was the first instance of truly aggressive political action by minorities.

In that context, and with politics being the art of available alternatives, Harriet Miers looked good to many liberals. In fact, she danced just on the verge of progressivism. She supported the change to an all single-member council system. But later she told reporters she chose not to seek reelection herself because she was not interested in representing only one district instead of the city at large.

Dallas is about to find out where all of that puts Miers and Dallas on the national political spectrum.

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