Stepford Mayor

Mark Poutenis

I'm all for Wizard of Oz voyages of self-discovery. I'm just not sure it's fair to do them when you're the mayor.

But say this for Dallas Mayor Laura Miller. In recent weeks she has been candid about her change of heart since getting elected to her first full term as mayor 16 months ago.

She took office as a firebrand populist hell-raiser focused on potholes and bulk trash pickup, with a long history of attack on "the boys downtown" and their big-ticket projects.

Now she's a boy.

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She was quoted in The Dallas Morning News last week as crediting her husband, asbestos lawyer and veteran political broker Steve Wolens, with her extreme makeover. "My husband told me I was stupid. He's a lot more mature than me."

I'm not sure the voters understood she was still growing.

Miller told D magazine recently she no longer sees conspiracies. Of course, nobody sees a conspiracy after joining it. Then it's a project.

Miller is open about her new love for big-ticket projects, especially the Trinity River project, which she used to revile. In her recent state of the city address, she waxed lustful about efforts to bring three "designer bridges" by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to the Trinity River downtown.

With long dramatic pauses to emphasize the sexy wonder of it all, she told a hushed council chamber: "In 16 short months we will break ground on the 40-story...[pause]...gleaming white...[pause]...Woodall Rodgers extension...[long pause]...Santiago Calatrava signature bridge over the Trinity River, one of three that will be built at the foot of downtown...

"Dallas, Texas, will not only be the only city in the United States with a vehicular bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava. It will be the only city in the world with three of them."

I was holding my breath, too, while she spoke. This is a breathtaking change of perspective for Miller--breathtaking. Don't take my word for it. Visit Sharon Boyd's Web site at and look for the item "In her own words." Boyd, a former Miller supporter turned disenchanted critic, has published a collection of Miller's campaign materials.

In one brochure, for example, candidate Miller said, "We've done the big projects to attract corporations to Dallas...Now it's time to take care of the people who are already here.

"I have a big vision of the little things that make a big difference in people's lives. A world-class system of roads, where potholes aren't deeper than the Trinity. Improving education, because signature schools matter more than signature bridges."

Chuck that.

I can see why the downtown boys would appeal to Miller, a fastidiously fashionable product of corporate Connecticut. I always think of something a liberal political consultant friend of mine said after meeting with an assemblage of neighborhood activists who wanted him to run a campaign for them:

"I looked around this big sweaty church hall," he said, "and the first thing I thought was 'Great, somebody got all the losers in town together, and they want me to work for them.'"

The boys, on the other hand. Well, they're the boys. They can stand in front of her and say, "Look at this suit I'm wearing, Laura. You see any suits like this over at the hippie church? Tell me this suit doesn't remind you of your old man. You think I got this suit being a neighborhood activist?"

All of a sudden she's waxing poetic about the Woodall Rodgers extension.

On June 16 in a little-noticed meeting in a conference room at the back of City Hall, Miller showed how her new personality is going to affect real decisions. This was the biweekly briefing session of the city council. Miller was championing a proposed "limited government corporation" for downtown.

The proposal calls for giving a lot of power--the power to do basic planning, to sell bonds and raise money, to build roads and parking structures, to decide transit issues, basically to determine how downtown should be developed--to a semiprivate body made up of appointees, barely half of whom would even be Dallas residents. It's a product of the mayor's "Inside the Loop" committee of downtown "stakeholders" headed by Belo Corp. (Dallas Morning News) CEO and Chairman Robert Decherd.

Retired TXU Energy Vice Chairman David Biegler, who presented the proposal, told the council over and over that the need was for everyone to be "singing out of the same hymnal" about rebuilding downtown. "The bottom line is we need one plan with one set of accountabilities."

Several members of the council suggested to Biegler that the duly elected representatives of the city's many and diverse constituencies tend to bring different visions to the council chamber. "We probably have 15 different visions," council member Leo Chaney said.  

James Fantroy said resolving those different visions has always been the difficult but politically sacred task of the council.

Other members were piqued that the Inside the Loop proposal seemed to be coming to them full-blown, with details already worked out, even though half the council had been told little about it beforehand.

"I will tell you I am surprised at today's briefing," Councilwoman Lois Finkelman told Biegler. "I recall very clearly meeting with you and [council member Sandy Greyson] in Miss Greyson's office a number of weeks ago. As I recall, we both raised a number of questions with you...and I have heard nothing, nor have I been included in any meetings until today. So I am surprised to hear there are bylaws, that there's a draft contract, that there is an operating plan. And it has not come to any council committee.

"So I'm a little put off by that," she said.

More eager to defend Biegler than to assuage the council, Miller scolded them that it had been her idea and her instruction for Biegler not to continue talking to them in the weeks before the briefing. "When he asked me, 'Should I go around before the full briefing to individual council members?'" Miller told them, "I said, 'Let's just have a full council briefing; we'll all go over it together.'"

Problem with that story: Somebody obviously had been briefing the minority of the council who were solidly on the mayor's team for the proposal. They were gung-ho and knew all about it. They didn't have to "go over it together."

And there we have the underlying problem that always dogs the attempts of Dallas' boys downtown to exert leadership. It's always closed-door and slam-dunk. There's never any consensus building. Get your own team lined up. Shut the other team out. Pick your moment. Slam-dunk the suckers.

That stuff may work in business, but it never achieves legitimacy in politics.

A more immediate problem: While the mayor's husband is helping her become more mature, he might want to help the mayor learn to count to eight. It was clear at the briefing she lacks a majority in support of the Loop idea. ("Dear, you did great, but I think you forgot the 'pick your moment' part again.")

Several council members expressed reservations deeper than mere irritation over not having been properly schmoozed. They wanted to know why the elected city council should surrender fundamental responsibility for running downtown to a semiprivate board, probably appointed as a slate, probably half of whom would be from the Park Cities. In response to close questioning on this issue from Councilman Don Hill, Biegler strove to assure the council that the semiprivate entity would be strictly technical and administrative.

"No one has envisioned this as you passing the vision to someone," Biegler said. "The key to it is the ability to have one professional staff with accountability...creating the plans and implementing after that vision is done."

Yeah. Whatever that means. An eerily Soviet scenario with techno-bureaucrats carrying out the one true policy? But I think it's also just bogus. As far as I can tell, the Inside the Loop Committee, chaired by Decherd of Belo, has a very detailed vision of what it wants done downtown, almost on a parcel-by-parcel basis.

I've tried repeatedly over the last month, without success, to reach Decherd to ask him about his committee's plans, for example, for a second rail alignment through downtown. It's maybe the single most consequential issue downtown in terms of its potential long-range impact on development in the inner core.

Here's a crucial public decision, and the guy who probably has more sway than anyone else in the city on this issue won't take a reporter's call. Unless it's somebody he can fire.

The Inside the Loop Committee and Biegler and the people pushing for this limited government (read: limited democracy) corporation downtown need to share some stuff with the council. A couple of weeks ago, a source provided me with a map of downtown created by the Inside the Loop Committee showing its preferred second rail alignment.

Decherd won't comment on it, but his committee's map shows the new line coming down the south side of downtown on Jackson and Wood streets to within a block of the Morning News' front door, a short walk from most of Belo's landholdings.

It's a controversial alignment. I have spoken with transit experts and read transit research arguing this alignment would be exactly the wrong idea: The new rail alignment, others say, should be on the north side of downtown within a short transfer from the existing alignment on Pacific Avenue.  

Far be it from me to say who's right. All I know is there needs to be a spirited public debate on this question. The mayor's limited government corporation plan, dominated by Decherd, would delegate this huge public decision to the Decherd Loopers. And they already have a map with an X to mark their treasure.

Back to Miller. With all this major maneuvering going on at City Hall right now, who is there to protect the people in the church hall, the neighborhood ladies, the guys like me in the cheap suits? Not her. I hate to tell you, Toto, but I think Laura Miller's not in Kansas anymore.

Hey, Toto. You and I are still here, right? That's the problem.

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