Strikes and spares

The cheese stands (almost) alone: Donna Blumer
Martin Menocal

The news that Mayor Ron Kirk ignored Councilwoman Laura Miller when he doled out committee leadership assignments last month was hardly a surprise: Who could blame Kirk for shutting the door on his loudest critic?

No one except Donna Blumer, Miller's closest ally on the council and the only returning council member besides Miller who was not given a council committee to chair. Instead, Kirk named Blumer vice chair of the Health, Youth, and Human Services Committee. To protest the snub of Miller, Blumer resigned from the committee post in a one-page memo she distributed to Kirk and her City Hall colleagues.

"While I am appreciative of the appointment, I do not feel right accepting it when even one duly elected representative of a significant portion of the city is denied a leadership position," Blumer wrote, referring to Miller, who had a chance to proofread the memo before it was circulated. "Excluding any elected official from a leadership role is a rebuff to his constituents, especially when that official has been returned to office after the voters have had an opportunity to evaluate his performance."

As grand political gestures go, Blumer's resignation wasn't exactly on par with Nixon traveling to China. "Given her popularity with the anti-establishment crowd, this is another example of her thumbing her nose at the powers that be," says Councilman John Loza, whom Kirk has since chosen to fill Blumer's vacated position. "It makes for a good headline, but besides that it doesn't have any meaning."

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But to dismiss Blumer's move as merely a publicity stunt does not take into account her track record as a council member. It also ignores what some say is Kirk's history of vindictiveness toward his political opponents, despite his pledge to end the personal sniping that had marked the Dallas City Council before he took office.

As a new council settles in for the fall, the question is whether the council can come together as a cohesive team, and who will be to blame if it falls into its previous pattern of Miller and Blumer vs. Kirk and friends.

The answer may involve bowling.

In his first mayoral campaign in 1995, Kirk promised to end the "blame game" and usher in a new era of civility around the council's horseshoe-shaped dais. With two notable exceptions, he has largely succeeded, though his critics say the price has been to stifle debate. (see "City Hall's slam-dunk gang," March 3, 1998). These days, the decision to question the specifics of a proposal or, God forbid, its merit is an act of blasphemy punishable by calling the offenders "naysayers" or categorizing them as a member of the "no" crowd.

Enter Donna Blumer, a social and fiscal conservative who was first elected as the District 13 representative in 1993. Long before Miller became Kirk's chief council nemesis, Blumer had demonstrated her ability to understand complex city issues and earned a reputation for asking hard questions. She didn't change a bit the day Kirk became mayor, which, Blumer says, is the same day her relationship with Kirk soured for good.

Back then, Blumer and four other council members very publicly opposed Kirk's wishes to make Chris Luna deputy mayor pro tem and instead backed Charlotte Mayes for the post. Ordinarily, the debate over who gets to be mayor pro tem and deputy mayor pro tem rages behind closed doors, and this unprecedented public controversy reportedly infuriated Kirk, who in the end got what he wanted. When it came time to dole out the committee assignments two months later, he demonstrated what critics say is his vindictive side: With the exception of Al Lipscomb, Kirk didn't give a single leadership position to the four who had opposed him. Instead, he awarded the assignments to less experienced council members.

Kirk's decision to give Blumer a vice chairmanship last month offered her a rare opportunity to make a political statement. Because this was the first leadership position she had received, she says, it was the first time she could resign it without looking "self-serving."

"I have felt all along that the mayor has used his position of leadership to intimidate members of the council to support him unconditionally," says Blumer, who is in her fourth term. "I hoped that he would have recognized a long time ago that I was going to be there for the long haul [and] that he would have made an effort to get to know me. Apparently, he didn't think it was worth his time to do that."

Kirk, who maintains that he uses his appointing authority "judiciously" but not punitively, shrugs off the criticism that he has been punishing Blumer all these years by not giving her any leadership roles. "I gave her one, and she resigned it," he notes. "Life is too short to waste my time on personal retribution."  

While the vice chair position is largely ceremonial, the chairs of the council's nine standing committees have one important power: They can decide what items appear on the committees' agendas.

To some, Kirk's decision to bypass Blumer and Miller is disconcerting because it sends a message to council members that if they question the mayor, he and his "team" will cut them off from the flow of information and, in the end, their constituents will wind up in the dark. David Gray, the chairman of Save the Trinity, a citizen group that is critical of the city's multimillion-dollar plan for new levees and roads along the Trinity River, says it's just as well that Blumer resigned her largely ceremonial post because her outspokenness is more important than any access a leadership position would get her.

"The mayor talks about having a team; well, the team is made up of many voices. But the mayor is surrounding himself with yes people, and that limits the debate that's required for every crucial issue, like the Trinity River," says Gray, who says he is "badly disappointed" that Kirk passed Blumer over for a third time. "Here's a senior member of the council who is smart, who follows the issues, who is well liked in her district, and who is cut out. That just strikes me as petty."

Oddly enough, neither Blumer nor Miller believes that being excluded from committee leadership positions will adversely effect their ability to represent their constituents, and they say it won't cause them to change their brand of politics. "Kirk and I have known each other a long time," says Miller, "and he should know whether he gives me a committee leadership position or he doesn't, it doesn't change how I go about being a council member."

Surely, Miller's lack of a chairmanship will not prevent her from getting her viewpoints out to the public.

Miller -- a former Dallas Observer columnist who announced her entrance onto the political stage under the headline "Mr. Mayor, meet your nightmare" (December 18, 1997) -- has proved to be adept at thrusting herself into media spotlight during her relatively short political career. She has blossomed into Dallas' version of Xena, the Warrior Princess, who is busy waging a war against evil, be it breast cancer (the personal foe), roosters (the auditory foe), or -- as is most often the case -- Kirk (the political foe).

If Kirk's use of committee assignments is petty, at least the man is consistent. Nowadays, Miller contends that she and Kirk are not the archenemies the public thinks they are. Rather, quite the opposite.

"On a lot of levels, the mayor and I like each other," Miller says. "We have a long relationship of being friends."


Yes friends, insists Miller, who offers up an example as proof. Just last week, she recalls, Kirk personally invited her to join him and the other council members on a bowling outing at Don Carter's All Star Lanes and, later, to dinner at Mayor Pro Tem Mary Poss' house. Kirk, who lives on the same street as Poss, even offered to share his baby-sitter with Miller when she told him she couldn't go bowling because she had to stay home with the kids.

"We joked around about it. He told me it was definitely not a black man's sport. I told him I would enjoying beating him," Miller says, laughing.

Miller skipped out on the bowling, but perhaps she should have joined the team, even if it was only for one evening of good old-fashioned blue-collar fun. Kirk, who confirms the baby-sitting offer, says that the outing was one of several casual events intended to give the council members a chance to get to know one another as human beings and that, with the exception of Miller and Blumer (who historically doesn't participate in such outings), it worked.

"Everybody who came had, no pun intended, a ball. Mary Poss fell down three, four times. Mr. Lipscomb got up and down the lanes. We had fun, which for this group is a major victory," says Kirk, who adds that "all of the [council] business doesn't take place at the horseshoe."

But if Kirk and Miller are friends, why did he so blatantly thumb his nose at her last month? Miller suspects the reason is that Kirk, unlike herself, can't separate business from pleasure.

"I don't take this stuff personally at all, and maybe that's the difference between me and him," Miller says.

Maybe, but evidently her friendship with Kirk is a one-way affair. When asked to confirm Miller's contention that she and Kirk are friends, Kirk doesn't pause before answering.  

"No," he says before erupting into protracted laughter. "My friends treat me better than that."

Kirk, who said it would be "disingenuous" for him to suggest he and Miller are friends, declined to elaborate on the exact nature of his relationship with the councilwoman. "I don't want to get into that," he says. "Let's just say it's challenged."

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