It's Her Nature, Stupid!
Picture this. Laura Miller as Mayor Pretend. Mary Poss as Mayor For Real.
Believe it. If nothing else changes between now and the special election, that's what could happen.
The scenario goes like this: A fed-up, cynical, deeply frustrated Dallas electorate--probably including me--votes for and elects Miller in a special election some time early next year.
People who think a Mayor Miller can't happen in Dallas are seriously kidding themselves. According to the polling I'm hearing about, she's way out front already in name identification. More important: Her support comes from the kind of activist voters who are likely to vote in a low-turnout, short-campaign election with no viable minority candidate.
But then what? Is Laura Miller able to put together any kind of reasonable coalition on the city council to govern the city? The people who know her best--including people who really like Miller and admire the role she has played as a city council member from Oak Cliff--say no way. And they say the reasons she won't be able to govern have less to do with politics than personality.
That sound-bite person you see on TV all the time--Laurastiltskin, mad as hell, stomping herself into the ground, calling everybody a liar and a fool--that's the real thing. She's no fake, unfortunately. If anything, Laurastiltskin may be the inner demon that the political Laura can't keep in the bottle.
Dan Weiser, Miller's first campaign chairman, chairman of her husband's first campaign for the state House of Representatives 20 years ago, a family friend for goodness sake, said to me: "People who are not political junkies, if they had to vote today, they'd vote for Laura. If they are political junkies, most of them seem to be very concerned about her not being able to put together a political coalition on the council."
I think it comes to this: Laurastiltskin is the one we love. But Mayorstiltskin?
We're all frustrated with this useless British-style colonial civil service system downtown, in which the bureaucracy never responds to anybody's real needs and spends all of its time instead on ceremonial bagpipe and kilt campaigns for the greater glory of the Raj at the direction of a bunch of rummy, cigar-smoking Park Cities huff 'n' puffs who don't even live in the city and who've never seen a pothole because they ride around in little silk tents on top of their elephants.
It's satisfying and gratifying and ratifying to see Laurastiltskin down there sticking pins in their gravid powdered and bejeweled bellies. But the simple political reality is that a mayor in this dumb system has to be able to put together seven other votes, or she can't actually do anything.
Weiser, a longtime Democratic activist, says, "She's made an excellent member on the council as a critic. We have been friends over the years. But I have told both her and [her husband] Steve [Wolens] on several occasions what I think: One Laura Miller on the council is great. Two Laura Millers on the council would be OK. But more Laura Millers than that you don't want."
Weiser has been around a long time. He knows exactly what happens if you wind up with a mayor who can't put together his or her own ruling coalition: "If the elected mayor doesn't put it together, somebody else will."
In other words, the huff 'n' puffs will just find their way to whoever else it is on the council who can string together eight votes and get stuff done. That's where Mary Poss comes back in.
Clayton Henry, a political adviser to Poss, argues that she already has a reputation for getting things done on the council. "There are those of us who have felt that she was the one really running things anyway while Mayor [Ron] Kirk went around and did the public ceremonial things."
She herself said to me, "I am known for quietly getting things done behind the scenes."
So Mayor Kirk leaves town to run for the Senate. Mayor Pro Tem Poss succeeds him as acting mayor until a special election can be held sometime early next year. Even though her name recognition was impressive in some of the recent polls, she surprised people recently by stepping out of the running for mayor in the special election.
Poss is term-limited out at the end of her current council term in May 2003, but she will still be on the council during the remainder of the term of whoever gets elected mayor in the special election. That puts her in position to be the go-to guy for the establishment if Miller gets elected mayor. And that makes Poss the real mayor, because if she emerges as the coalition broker, the city manager and everybody else in town will kowtow to her, not Miller.
There's a lot of this that I don't like. Weiser's solution, for example, is to support Tom Dunning for mayor. Dunning, a successful insurance man, is an old-line moderate Democrat--one of the few in Dallas who never turned Republican. He's a bright man and very personable. But Dunning, in spite of being a Democrat, comes straight out of the huff 'n' puff club.
What good does it do, I wonder, to support Dunning in order to keep Poss from running the show, since both of them will dance to exactly the same tune anyway? So why not vote for Miller and at least get some fun out of the deal?
I can also see how some people may hope that Miller will be able to govern after all. If she wins, she will have a mandate from the voters of Dallas. Other people on the council can't just snub their noses at that. Even though it's a weak mayor system, the mayor is less weak now than before: She would have power over committee appointments and other perks that might bring some of her fellow members around. And Miller is not without her own charms and powers of persuasion.
When I talk like this, the political pros tell me I am naïve, naïve, naïve. One of them with whom I speak often, who talks to me on a not-for-attribution basis because he doesn't want his friends to know we chat, said he thinks she can win. "She can galvanize the anti's," he said. "She has three arrows in her sling--the arena, the river and the Olympics. She was right on all three."
But he insists she can't rule. "Laura can't go to the business establishment. There's no future in Laura. She brings nothing to the table. Getting on her team makes you a friend of [Web-page gadfly] Sharon Boyd, and I don't know anyone who aspires to that. That's why she's so isolated. If I'm on the council, I get nothing from being on her side."
I'm not totally sold on that argument. What about the reward of being on the side of someone who is actually trying to do what the people of the city want done--like fix some curbs--as opposed to trying to have the 2005 International Hang-Gliding Championship take place on top of City Hall?
But that issue--doing what the people want done--brings us back to the question of Miller's personality and whether she is personally capable of even getting the curbs fixed. Her impatience and deep personal disdain for people who disagree with her may lock her into the role of gadfly. A former council member and longtime observer of the scene calls her "a better-looking Max Goldblatt" (a reference to another gadfly who served on the council in the 1980s and is now deceased).
What's also troubling about Miller is the thing my confidant touched on peripherally in his snotty aside about Sharon Boyd. I like Boyd. But she is very narrowly identified with an all-white ultra-conservative element of professional a'ginners--the people who were against mass transit and who are always trying to gut the county hospital, who always manage to come up with some gripe against every single person of color who has ever held office in the entire history of the world. It seems to be the fact that, in her pursuit of a contrarian base, Miller has wed herself to this bunch without bringing along a shred of support from the black or Latino communities.
I called Miller many times over a three-week period asking for a conversation about some of these issues. But Miller is not speaking to the Dallas Observer because of two stories we have published: The first was an investigative piece that was embarrassing to her husband's law firm, and the more recent was a story detailing her cruel treatment of a woman whose husband had just committed suicide in the throes of a code enforcement battle with Miller.
As you might imagine, people get mad at the Observer all the time. But most people in politics get over it. (We always get over it.)
What's interesting about Miller is that she used to work here. She did my job: She wrote this column before she went on the council. Now she's on the other end of the stick, and she's so thin-skinned you would think she had never been out of the country club.
But there you have it. Miller is my way or the highway. She looks in the mirror for consensus. And especially because she can't bring the clout and money of the business establishment to the table, that arrogance may be fatal.
I may vote for Laurastiltskin anyway, by the way. But then I guess you have to consider this: Given my occupation, City Hall in endless throes of bitter dissent is like 12 months of Christmas for me.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.