The suicide of Fermin Vazquez last August posed a turning point for me in my reporting on Laura Miller, who was a city council member when it happened and is a candidate for mayor now. Suicide is a painful issue for me.
This was churning in my head and heart a few weeks back when I drove across the river from my home in East Dallas to Oak Cliff to meet Carlos Quintanilla for the first time. Quintanilla probably assumed he was in the deal only to sip some coffee with me at Norma's Cafe and chat a little bit about bus companies and politics. But I carried larger needs and mysteries across the river.
Vazquez shot himself in the chest with a .380-caliber handgun while he was locked in a code-enforcement battle with Miller over a business he owned in her district. Other private pains in his life, things unrelated to his fight with City Hall, may have been important factors.
The law was not gray where this dispute was concerned. Lucano Transports, a small bus company that takes people to and from the interior of Mexico, had elected not to fight a lawsuit seeking to have it declared a nuisance. Residential neighborhoods nearby wanted to see Lucano kicked out of the area, and Miller, as their champion at City Hall, was pushing the bureaucracy to get it done.
What was more troubling for me than Vazquez's suicide was the impression I had that his code-enforcement battle turned on ethnic and class issues. This problem with the Mexican bus companies is all over town in older areas. They start with a few vans loading passengers in front of a convenience store, and the next thing the neighbors know there are 40-foot-long tour buses parked on side streets with the motors running and hundreds of passengers milling around.
But every time I hear the complaints--"There are cars all over, buses having trouble maneuvering, people all over waiting for the bus"--I can't help wondering what the attitude would be if these were people waiting to get on the park-and-ride for the Byron Nelson golf tournament.
So, I saw this not so much as Miller driving Vazquez to suicide as Miller and a bunch of North Oak Cliff Histy-Disties contributing to an animosity that never needed to get that bad. I knew that after the Dallas Observer published a story on Vazquez's suicide, a mob of Mexican-American bus operators and their supporters besieged City Hall. They circled the building with a caravan of buses and went inside en masse to storm the office of Laura Miller. I saw something on TV that looked like Miller in a conference room about to be burned at the stake by angry Latino citizens.
They were especially angry about a particular quote in our story ("Vamoose," August 30, 2001), in which Miller, using some very salty language, vowed a holy war on small businesses on Bishop Avenue that failed to meet the building and development code. I didn't write the story, but I did provide the quote, which came from an interview I had done with Miller.
Imagine my surprise--imagine my surprise--when I learned a few weeks ago that the same group of bus operators who had confronted Miller that day last summer were now endorsing her for mayor and that the group included Vazquez's widow, Alma, who had taken over Lucano after her husband's death.
Based largely on the Lucano story, I had written some pretty harsh columns about Miller, predicting that her mayoral campaign would never attract minority support, especially Latino support. The news of the bus operators' endorsement was the second or third shoe to fall demonstrating that Miller was attracting some very interesting African-American and Latino support. The people swinging in behind her looked to me like the more independent and entrepreneurial elements of the minority communities, people who tend not to be tied into the traditional Southern Dallas political machine.
Even before I found out who Quintanilla was and talked to him briefly on the telephone, I was deeply curious to know how the bus operators, who were so angry with Miller over the Lucano situation, could possibly have reconciled with her to the degree of backing her for mayor. It was an especially surprising move since Domingo Garcia, the prominent Latino candidate who came in third in the special election, had just endorsed Miller's opponent, Tom Dunning, in the runoff.
Why did these people, of all people, now like Miller so much they were willing to break ranks to support her? I knew Miller had promised them she would work to get city support for a new centralized bus terminal for all the Latino bus companies.
That idea was already around. The bus companies were already talking about a central terminal, and so were the neighborhoods. The bus operators didn't especially need Laura Miller to get it done for them. They weren't unanimously in favor of a terminal, anyway. And why would they trust her for anything?
Something else had happened.
Quintanilla was the organizer of the bus protest at City Hall and led the charge on Miller's office. On the phone, he agreed with me right away. He said something else did happen. He said it happened at City Hall--I had caught a glimpse of it on TV that day--when all of them had gone downtown together to kick Laura Miller's butt and wound up jammed into a conference room shouting at her. He said it happened eyeball to eyeball.
I said I needed to drive across the river and meet him at Norma's and hear this story eyeball to eyeball. This was way too important for the phone.
Over our cups of coffee Quintanilla told me that he had taken "about 200 people" into City Hall with placards and led them up to the fifth-floor offices of the city council. By some published accounts, the group was closer to 100 people, but let's not quibble.
Lots of people. Real mad.
Quintanilla told me when he got to the fifth floor the police were already urging Miller not to come out through the security station into the midst of the crowd. Miller not only came out: She insisted on inviting the crowd back inside to a conference room. Quintanilla eagerly accepted the invitation and then deliberately jammed as many people as he could into the room to scare the spit out of her.
Quintanilla told me: "The room was jam-packed with very angry people. We went in there very angry. We didn't go in there to kiss and make friends. We went in there to declare war on someone who we thought was threatening our position.
"Laura Miller was surrounded by bus-company owners, jam-packed in there around her like sardines. To say the least it was a tense situation."
In the meeting, Miller flatly denied having said what the Observer story had quoted her as saying about waging a code war against seedy shops on Bishop Avenue. She and I have discussed this issue since then. She says she doesn't remember the remark and couldn't possibly have said it on the record. I do remember it, in detail.
Quintanilla said the debate that day turned quickly from the remark itself to issues about the bus industry. He said they shouted at her, insisting that she hear their point of view. He said she listened, but she also insisted on telling them her own point of view.
"She said, 'You know what, I feel very strongly about code compliance and the right of homeowners to have peace.'
"And I said, 'I feel very strongly about the right of businesses to exist and to prosper.' We spent about an hour and a half explaining our position."
Back and forth, parry and jab, give and take. But somewhere in that hour and a half, it happened. It was not that Laura Miller apologized, not that she backed down, not that she promised to be more sensitive or form a committee.
It, according to Quintanilla, was that she did not. Did not back down. Did not apologize or weasel. Did not patronize. And at some point in that process, eyeball to eyeball with her, the bus-company people decided they respected her.
"She was very consistent in her position," Quintanilla told me. "That's one of the things that I told her. I said, 'You know what, Laura, I respect you for not wavering. Most politicians, they would capitulate with 200 people and the media on them.'"
You know that we are a weird city, right? We have this ancient history of avoidance, whereby the single most important aim of all public affairs is to avoid. Avoid friction. Avoid conflict. Avoid loud noises. Did we avoid the civil rights movement, or did it avoid us?
There is a wonderful speech in the play The Madness of King George, in which the doctor who has been hired to cure George III of England of his dementia talks about how just being king can drive a man loony.
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"Deferred to, agreed with, acquiesced in, who can flourish on such a daily diet of compliance?" the doctor asks. "To be curbed, stood up to, in a word thwarted, exercises the character, elasticates the spirit, makes it more pliant. It's the want of such exercise that makes rulers rigid."
In a sense, we have all been little kings here, haven't we? No one may look at us or speak to us unless we look or speak first. We must all bow and back away. And we must never speak directly about anything.
I think that's what all those things like "Dallas Together" were back in the '70s and '80s, those feel-good be-nice committees: fresh gauze stretched over rancid gauze. No air ever gets to the wounds.
Unfailing politeness is not always a sign of respect. Sometimes a willingness to argue shows more true respect. You take it for what you will, but I think the story of Miller and the Mexican-American bus-company owners is very important. Very important.