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The girl can't help it

Amidst a slippery, slimy city council, Laura Miller's integrity stands out.
Mark Graham

If you listen to what people in Dallas are saying on talk radio and in line at the grocery store, you can't help hearing a general undertone of disgust and cynicism. Something in last month's 65-count federal bribery conviction of city councilman Al Lipscomb seems to have rubbed the city raw.

Maybe it was the casual, matter-of-fact, almost condoning way prominent city leaders talked about people on the council taking thousand-dollar-a-month cash bribes in envelopes. It seems to have knocked the city for a loop. In their comments, many people are just as furious with the cynical rich whites who corrupted Lipscomb as with Lipscomb himself for feeding at the pig trough and betraying his own people.

Unfortunately, there is often a tone of despair in what people say, as if that's just how Dallas is, how things have always been, and what are any of us going to do about it?

With one exception. The one hopeful thing people say now, when they get really down about Dallas, is, "I wish that Laura Miller would run for mayor."

So what about that?

Miller, who has three young kids and is a cancer survivor, has always said she was going to do her stint on the council and go home. But here's a news tip: She could be talked into it.

That's not what she says. It's my opinion. But you be the judge. Here's exactly what she said to me: "My husband's worst nightmare is that I run for mayor. Steve told me, 'If you do this, you will do it as a single mother.'"

But here's a discount factor: I don't know them socially, but I think she and her husband, state Rep. Steve Wolens, may just talk like that. It's a kind of power-couple hyperbole, like Nixonian love patter.

I said back to her, "So I guess you're not going to consider it because of what you just told me."

Silence.

I said, "So I guess it's a definite no, like, 'rule it out.' Hmmm?"

Silence. Then she says: "I would love to run for mayor. I would just love it, because I am infatuated with potholes and code enforcement and cleaning up the city. I think people are really tired of the same-old same-old at City Hall. They don't understand why we don't get it together at City Hall."

OK, you tell me: Does that sound like N-O no, no way, get outta here with that, absolutely not? No, I didn't think so either.

Of course, assuming Mayor Ron Kirk doesn't bail out sooner, there won't be another mayoral election for three years. And there is already a designated establishment successor lined up in northeast Dallas council member Mary Poss. So why even discuss the notion of a Mayor Miller?

Here's why Miller looks more formidable now than ever: At a time when the rest of the Dallas City Council has pretty much covered itself in grease in the corruption conviction of Lipscomb, former Dallas Observer columnist Miller and North Dallas conservative Donna Blumer have emerged in the public eye as perhaps the only people at City Hall anybody can trust.

Example: When The Dallas Morning News ran an informal poll on its Web page last week asking people how they graded the Dallas City Council, two-thirds of the respondents gave horrible marks. People who submitted comments to the poll expressed outrage that only Blumer and Miller had called for Lipscomb's resignation after he was convicted on 65 counts of bribery in Amarillo last month, but they were even more angry that Mayor Kirk had gone to court and painted Lipscomb as a paragon of virtue. (Kirk, by the way, angrily disputes that he ever condoned Lipscomb's bribe-taking. "I defended his historical role in the city," the mayor told me. "I never once condoned what he did.")

But judging by the comments on the News' Web page, a lot of people thought Kirk went to Amarillo to tell the jury Lipscomb had done nothing wrong. "I am dismayed at Ron Kirk's backing of Al Lipscomb," one person wrote. Another wrote: "I lost a great deal of respect for [Kirk] when he testified that Mr. Lipscomb couldn't have done anything wrong. Is [sic] he and other council members that naive? And, whatever happened to his wife taking the job with Hicks?"

A common theme among the people who sent in comments was that the rest of the council probably didn't call for Lipscomb's resignation because they are guilty of similar stuff themselves. The comments frequently included descriptions of the city as "saturated with corruption" and plagued by "corruption on all fronts."

In this landscape of slime, Miller looks clean. She and Blumer. They stand out. They offer hope.  

If Mary Poss is tarred by the broad brush of public cynicism these days, it's unfair. Poss has been an able and faithful steward of her district over the years; she's smart; she knows the nuts and bolts; and there has never been even a whisper of anything suggestive about her own personal integrity.

But if you run through her campaign finance statements, the names are a virtual carbon copy of the names that brought us Ron Kirk -- Bankston, Barzune, Wildenthal, Brodsky, McJunkin, Rachofsky, Hunt, Hoffman, Nasher, Sleeper, Brinker, Kelleher, those kinds of names. Do we really need that again? Is the city in the mood for another Blue Light Special in the mayor's office?

There are lots more people who would make credible candidates. One is Darrell Jordan, who was defeated by Kirk for mayor five years ago when Kirk was first elected. Jordan is a respected lawyer who has been working quietly behind the scenes for the last several years to get the Cotton Bowl domed and transformed into a major sports venue. When people talk about possible mayors, Jordan gets mentioned, even though he denies having heard it himself.

"It's flattering to hear you say that others have said that," Jordan said, "because they haven't said it to me."

But Jordan's friends say he won't run against a Citizens Council candidate. He would have to be the anointed one. In that regard, Jordan suffers from a major liability -- integrity.

He told me he disagrees with the Citizens Council's plan for rebuilding the Trinity River. "I think we should do something with the river," he said, "but not something that makes it worse. I disagree with building levees instead of buying people out."

That kind of talk is the kiss of death in terms of ever getting the backing of the Dallas Citizens Council, the semi-secret club of CEOs who hand out the big political money in Dallas. On things like the river, they're not open to debate.

We're not out of people who could run. There is always talk about state Rep. Domingo Garcia, who has run in the past, but Garcia now has his sights on statewide or national office. Regina Montoya Coggins, running now against Pete Sessions for his seat in the U.S. House, gets mentioned as an attractive mayoral candidate, unless something untoward happens and she actually defeats Sessions.

Donna Blumer has emerged as the one other city council member who, with Miller, looks clean and responsible these days, and some of the comments on the News' survey page urged her to run. She's smart and attractive, and she stands up to bullies.

But Blumer says she doesn't think she could run for mayor in 2003. Term limits will force her off the council next summer, and by 2003 she will have been out of view for two years.

"The public forgets quickly," she said. "And I really don't have a desire to be mayor. But I would walk door-to-door for Laura Miller if she ran. I would do anything for her."

There are bad raps on Miller out there, of course. People say, "Would she get along with the rest of the council?"

In the current mood of the city, the most likely answer to that one is, "Maybe, but we can always hope she won't."

People ask, "Would she be good for Dallas?"

So does that mean: "Would she put too much emphasis on fixing the streets and the sewers and not enough on gigantic Soviet-style monument-building campaigns?"

Yeah, she could be really bad that way.

The better questions: How hard would the Citizens Council fight to defeat her? Could she beat them?

Our own municipal history offers an instructive case in point: In 1985, Pleasant Grove hardware-store owner and perennial gadfly Max Goldblatt, who was then 74 years old, came within fewer than 500 votes, or a tenth of a percentage point of the overall vote, of forcing A. Starke Taylor, the Citizens Council candidate for mayor, into a runoff.

Goldblatt was an old, funny-looking, not terribly well-spoken guy who raised pathetic money to run against a very smooth, well-known, lavishly funded, silver-haired golf-cart guy. But Dallas people thought Max Goldblatt was clean, and they stormed the polls to vote for him.

In 1988, the Federal Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology published a report on computerized voting in which the 1985 Goldblatt-Taylor race in Dallas was described in some detail. The report explained how Goldblatt actually had been winning on election night when suddenly the vote-counting computer in Dallas experienced an unexplained power failure. When the power came back on, Starke Taylor had moved mysteriously ahead during the downtime. It should have been impossible for the computer to change its mind while it didn't have any electricity.  

Subsequent re-counts produced even stranger results, according to the report. When the Texas Legislature tried to investigate the Goldblatt election, Dallas officials reported that all of the ballots had been prematurely destroyed. The Goldblatt election was an important factor in laws passed later by the Legislature requiring tighter security measures for ballots and voting equipment.

Bottom line? I'm just going to overcome my personal shyness and say this: Laura Miller is somewhat better-looking than Max Goldblatt. She's way smarter, tougher, more politically savvy. She can raise tons more money. If she overcame her qualms and ran, she could win.

And for that reason there probably is no downward limit on what they would do to stop her.


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