The Lone Ranger

Up against the wall: Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher's efforts to change county government have irritated her colleagues.
Mark Graham

A former accountant, prosecutor and judge, Margaret Keliher doesn't seem like the type of person to daydream idly. Still, you have to wonder if she looks at Harriet Miers, the president's besieged nominee for U.S. Supreme Court justice, and thinks how that could have been her had she ever met George W. Bush. After all, both Dallas women are graduates of SMU's School of Law and have held elected office. They're both gender pioneers, with Keliher the first female head of Dallas County government and Miers the first woman to lead the Texas Bar Association. Finally, the two are each moderate Republicans in a state where the party of Tom DeLay couldn't find the center with the help of MapQuest.

That, however, is where the draw between the two ends. Keliher, 50, is now on the back end of her first term as judge on the Dallas County Commissioners Court, while Miers was a quiet one-term city council member. And only Keliher has sat on the bench as a well-regarded civil district judge. If Miers ever donned a trim black robe, it was because she was singing in a church choir.

But Keliher's résumé and impeccable Republican pedigree hasn't exactly insulated her from opposition, even from her own party and former allies. In fact, as Keliher has sought to make a more open, more effective Dallas County government, she has incurred the wrath of the three Republican county commissioners. Adding insult to insult, the self-proclaimed lifelong Republican recently seems to have found an ideological soul mate in, of all people, Democratic Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has been an anathema to conservatives in Dallas County for nearly a generation.

"What's going to hurt her is that John Price is her only ally in the commissioners court, and come November he will turn on her like a snake," says Republican political consultant Pat Cotton, referring to next year's election. "She has three Republican partners who ought to be her cohorts, but she completely ignores them."

Commissioner Ken Mayfield, a Republican in his third term, once derisively called Keliher a "lone ranger" during a meeting of the commissioners court, lecturing her that her behavior was "no way to get respect."

"It's been surprising," he says about her strained relationship with her fellow Republicans. "I would have thought she'd be more of a team player."

That doesn't seem to be Keliher's primary objective. After being unable to keep the Cowboys in Dallas County last year, Keliher escaped with little criticism and proceeded to refine her blend of progressive Republicanism. She's fought to secure more funding for county mental health programs, probed for ways to clean North Texas' badly polluted air and led the effort to improve health care at the county jail. More recently, the judge and her staff, along with Commissioner Price's office, worked tirelessly to help the Katrina evacuees coming into Dallas County while city officials, including Mayor Laura Miller, seemed to panic. Dressed in jeans and boots, Keliher welcomed many of them as soon as they stepped off the bus.

"She made calls to various furniture companies and got mattresses and beds and when there wasn't a way to get it there--she moved it herself," says Bob Johnston, her executive assistant. "There she was out there moving mattresses and moving furniture and had her kids and husband helping her."

That's the sort of effort likely to win the hearts of the rank-and-file voters, and it might help explain why, with county elections a year away, no candidate in either party has emerged to take on Keliher.

"On the grassroots level she's very respected and very well-liked," says Republican consultant Clayton Henry.

But Keliher's instincts to tackle problems on her own have rankled her fellow Republicans on the commissioners court. At times, they've mocked her openly, attacking her with sarcasm and rolling their eyes when she speaks. Meanwhile, Keliher sometimes acts as though she is still a district judge sitting alone on the bench, forgetting that making good decisions means nothing if she can't enlist the support of her peers. No wonder that to some Keliher is considered a Highland Park version of Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, another smart, meticulous woman with shaky political skills.

If Nora Ephron were a Republican, she'd script a stock character just like Keliher, a stylish woman whose conservative bearings began precociously amid the trappings of wealth and success but evolved into a practical theory of governing. As political biographies go, Keliher's doesn't exactly make you believe in a place called Hope, but she has a certain intellectual independence that rises above her party id, making her one of the more compelling, if relatively obscure, politicians in Dallas.

Growing up in Highland Park, Keliher carried signs for Barry Goldwater as a 9-year-old. As a high school student, she showed horses until she fell in love with a boy named Lester, whom she would later marry. He is now a senior vice president at Wells Fargo Bank and is her closest political adviser.  

Keliher's bloodlines are soaked in law. Her father, Jim Coleman, was named the trial lawyer of the year by the Dallas Bar Association in 1997 and most respected attorney in town by D magazine. He is defending former Enron CEO and Chairman Kenneth Lay. Keliher's grandfather was the lead name in a national law firm, while her great uncle was a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Keliher initially bucked her family's legal tradition and went into accounting after she graduated from the University of Virginia. Later, in her early 30s, Keliher was on the verge of being made a partner at the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche when she figured that reading financial statements was not what she wanted to do the rest of her life. So after a brief stint as the chief financial officer for a real estate company, she decided at last to become a lawyer like her father.

"I called him and told him I wanted to go to law school, and there was silence on the phone," she recalls. "I said 'Dad, Dad,' and he said, 'Pick me up off the floor.'"

After graduating from SMU's School of Law magna cum laude and taking the bar exam while pregnant with her second child, Keliher worked at the District Attorney's Office as a prosecutor. "That's a kick job," she says. "It's the best. You really feel like you're doing God's work. If people are not guilty of a crime, you could do something about it. If they were, you could do something about that." From there, she moved to the corporate firm of Jones Day, handling commercial and business litigation. Terrance Murphy, the head of litigation for the firm's Dallas office, says that Keliher was an "outstanding trial lawyer...She's very hard-working and very tenacious and very determined."

By 1998, Keliher had become disillusioned with how judges often favor the side with the most money and time. So with idealism more suited to a law student than a blue-blooded mother in her 40s, Keliher decided to run for the bench. She chose to run against the hapless Judge Candace Tyson, who had come in dead last in the Dallas County Bar Association's judicial evaluation poll. Tyson vacated her seat, and Keliher won an uncontested election.

In 2002, after an impressive ranking in the association's poll, Keliher ran for Dallas County judge after Lee Jackson announced he wouldn't seek re-election after 16 years in office. Keliher won a close but polite contest over Democratic state Representative Harryette Ehrhardt in the general election.

Keliher's campaign for county judge, however, was not without its sour notes. On May 12, 2002, Keliher announced she was stepping down as district judge, days after Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze reported how the Texas State Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to resign their judgeships if they become candidates in "a contested election for non-judicial office." Despite what its name implies, the position of county judge is largely an administrative job. Schutze wrote that one possible reason Keliher did not resign was that she was six months away from being eligible to qualify to become a visiting judge, a plum gig that can bring in $300,000 a year.

Keliher says that she didn't know she was eligible to become a visiting judge and resigned so she could campaign for office full time. She says that she did nothing wrong by campaigning for a political position while sitting on the bench, in part because the position of county judge does contain some judicial responsibilities. Here, she seems rather "Clintonesque" in her defense.

"Constitutionally I am still a judge. I can still try cases if I want to, and I am the judge that oversees the truancy courts." In fact, Keliher can't send you to jail, make you pay a fine or hand over half your assets to your philandering spouse.

The job of county judge is about as obscure a role as a supporting actor on a WB sitcom. At any given meeting of the commissioners court, only one reporter is likely to be present, while ranks of cameras are often seen at Dallas City Council meetings. That's in large part because the commissioners and the judge have relatively few powers. They basically help set the budget for the county jail, the District Attorney's Office and Parkland Memorial Hospital. They also divert tax dollars to repair roads and bridges.  

"Their job is to give the money," says former candidate for mayor and district attorney Peter Lesser. "Maybe that's why people zone them out. It's not an area of government that most people pay attention to."

Keliher, though, has tried to raise the profile of county government, making it less about paving lonely roads and more a regional leader on air quality and transportation, while even trying to tackle social problems, including the lack of mental health care for the poor. Nevertheless, Keliher's biggest bout of publicity was over one of the few powers of county government that the public cares about--its ability to raise the hotel-motel tax rate to fund a new stadium for the Cowboys.

On April 30, 2004, the Cowboys approached the county about funding two-thirds of the cost of a $650 million football stadium in Fair Park. The NFL franchise wanted the county to levy a 3 percent hotel tax and a 6 percent rental-car tax. The team also was working with Mayor Miller on some of the details but really needed the funding arm of the county, since the city was more or less tapped-out. But the team wanted to break ground as early as this year, so when negotiations lagged, the Cowboys became impatient and audibled on a new site in Arlington, across the border in Tarrant County. The Cowboys' swift change of plans made more than a few wonder if the team had called that play months in advance, but team officials maintain their flirtations with Dallas County were heartfelt.

Some of the commissioners blamed Keliher not so much for losing the team but for meeting with Cowboys officials without informing the rest of the group. They say that while a compromise with the Cowboys was unlikely, she made it seem like the whole commissioners court was unwilling to make any sort of deal. "She represented to the Cowboys that this was our position without talking to us about it," Mayfield says. "We were not going to roll over for the Cowboys, but we were willing to talk."

Keliher, though, says that she never even had the chance to bargain with the team. "I never had negotiations with the Cowboys, period. I never talked to Jerry Jones, even though Laura Miller did. He never called me. Still hasn't to this very day."

Still, she concedes that she did talk to the team's consultant, Rob Allyn, and told him that the team's original proposal wouldn't fly. (Ever the lawyer, Keliher is clearly splitting hairs on the meaning of the word "negotiate.") "I went over and talked to their media person and asked is there something we can do about this deal, because you and I both know that nobody is going for the 3 percent hotel-motel tax."

The team later modified its offer but never put it in writing.

Keliher says that when she talked to Allyn she was expressing the commissioners court's opinion on the original proposal, although she admits that she had only talked to then-Commissioner Jim Jackson.

Commissioner Mike Cantrell disputes Keliher's version of events. "I'm not aware that the court ever as a group said that we were adamant about not giving a 3 percent hotel tax and a 6 percent rental car rate."

Cowboys officials are reluctant to blame Keliher, but they say that nobody at the county really had a sense of urgency to negotiate a workable deal--even though the team made it clear that it needed to have the tax increase put on the ballot that November if they were to finish the stadium by 2009.

Keliher never emerged as the scapegoat for losing them to Tarrant County. Several factors likely muted any outcry, including the team's abrupt decision to halt negotiations and Mayor Miller's own apparent lack of interest in relocating the team to Fair Park. To many, Keliher's reluctance to hammer out a deal showed a sense of fiscal responsibility.

"I don't think there will be any repercussions for Mayor Miller or Judge Keliher," says SMU political science professor Cal Jillson. "If there are any repercussions, it will be on the mayor of Arlington."

The September 27 meeting of the commissioners court featured rare rows of cameras and an unusually large crowd of middle-aged people attuned to the mechanics of county government. There were two major issues on the agenda: a 5 percent property tax increase and a new, generous budget that would go toward county employee raises and new hires at the sheriff's office. In a move that startled her colleagues, Keliher switched the order of the votes, asking the four commissioners to vote on the budget before the tax increase. OK. Don't nod off just yet. This may seem like minutiae, but it pointed to a side of Keliher that her colleagues don't find endearing.  

When she switched the votes, it seemed to others that she was trying to put her Republican colleague Ken Mayfield in a bind. He had come out against the proposed tax increase; however, he said that if the increase passed, he did not have any problem with how additional revenue was allocated in the new budget.

To some, it was obvious that Mayfield wanted to have his campaign cake and eat it too. Up for re-election next year, Mayfield could tell some constituents he stood up against the tax increase and others that he voted for pay raises and new hires for law enforcement. But thanks to Keliher, Mayfield had to vote on the budget first and, if he approved it, that was a de facto vote for a tax increase.

Caught in an awkward situation, Mayfield seemed agitated and placed what he deemed a "conditional" vote on the budget. Minutes later he opposed the tax increase to fund the budget that had already garnered his vote. Commissioner Price, who has squabbled with Mayfield off and on for 10 years, called his colleague's vote "hypocritical" as Mayfield nodded his head in disgust.

That day, Mayfield told the Observer that Keliher was either trying to embarrass him by switching the votes or "she doesn't know what she's doing." Commissioner Cantrell, another Republican who has sparred with Keliher, did not want to speculate on why the agenda was switched but still seemed irritated by it. "You would have to ask the judge what she was trying to do; I have yet to figure it out," he wrote in an e-mail. "All I know is that this is the first time I have ever heard of a governmental body voting on a budget before setting the tax rate."

Republican Commissioner Maureen Dickey, who had once been close to Keliher, looked perplexed after Keliher switched the votes. "Would you set a budget for your home if you didn't know how much money was coming in?" she asks.

Keliher, though, says a vote for the budget was a vote for the tax increase. That's all there is to it. "If you felt strongly about the budget, then how can you say no to the tax increase?"

Finally passed by a 4-1 vote, the 2005 budget recognized that past years of cutting taxes have resulted in, among other defects, a county jail that has failed state inspections for two years running. The $700 million budget provided 120 new positions for the sheriff's department, which runs the jail, and 23 new positions for the district attorney. The commissioners court also doled out 15 percent raises for prosecutors and public defenders while handing 5 percent raises to just about everybody else--this after years of salary freezes.

And as The Dallas Morning News pointed out in its coverage of the budget, the new tax rate will cost the owner of a $139,000 home, the average value in the county, a whopping $11.

Unlike county executives in other states, county judges in Texas don't craft the budget, and they only have one vote on it, so the buck doesn't exactly stop with them. But as the only member of the five-person commissioners court to be elected countywide, Keliher has a certain level of symbolic authority. Her unflinching support for the budget ensured its passage.

Keliher also fostered support for additional funding for the county jail by tapping an outside consultant to study the abysmal health-care delivery system at the facility. Ultimately, the privately funded study detailed how mentally ill and chronically ill inmates often fail to receive even basic health care. That report guaranteed that the commissioners would give the jail at least some of the money it needed to take care of its sickest inmates.

But during the budget process, the judge flubbed an important opportunity. Keliher had wanted to take money from the county's capital improvement fund, which is divvied up among the four commissioners, and use it to pay for the more expensive budget. That, along with using money no longer earmarked for debt service, would preclude a tax increase and strike a blow for efficient government in the process. Here's why: Each year, a set amount of dollars go into the capital improvement fund, which is then split equally among the four commissioners into their road and bridge funds. Under this arrangement, it does not matter if one district has few infrastructure needs while another has potholes spreading like fungus; each commissioner receives the same money, funding road improvements in their districts as they see fit.

"It's classic county politics for individual commissioners to have control over their road projects," says SMU's Jillson. "It's inefficient and illogical but highly desirable to have control over those funds."  

Keliher figured she could take a tiny portion of the $31 million capital improvement fund to help pay for next year's budget. She certainly made a good argument for it on the basis of policy, pointing out that the fund includes money that has not even been allocated yet.

"That's like robbing Peter to pay Paul," says Mayfield, who's no more or less protective of his road and bridge fund than his colleagues. "We made a commitment to the cities that we would be participating in those projects, and it's the wrong message to send to take those funds for something else."

Commissioner Dickey called the funds "a quality of life issue" in a quote in the Morning News, while Price, who typically allies with Keliher, said sternly that "those are dedicated dollars."

It was entirely predictable that Democrats and Republicans alike would fight to protect their best source of power and patronage, but Keliher says she was taken aback by their reaction. "I thought there was some attitude to try to not raise taxes. I like to see what all my options are. It wasn't anything personal."

But that may be the problem. Keliher acknowledges that she didn't try to persuade any of the commissioners beforehand to give up part of their road and bridge fund, citing open meetings law. But experienced politicians can find ways to build consensus. To many observers, even if Keliher's heart and mind are in the right place, too many times she has nothing to show for it. The judge seems to think that politics is like law: If you craft the better argument, you win. But in politics many times the merit of your case is not as important as how you deliver it.

Bob Stimson, a former city council member and one-time Republican candidate for commissioners court, says that the judge missed an opportunity. "If we are really worried about being stewards of people's tax dollars, you would take a look at the commissioners road and bridge fund, and in the last process what happened? It was left intact," he says. "The judge appears to have some good ideas, but without the leadership skills to bring the rest of the troops along, it does no good."

Pat Cotton, who was on the opposite side of Laura Miller during the recent election to strengthen the mayor's powers, says that both Keliher and the mayor of Dallas have intelligence in spades without the requisite personal skills.

"It's amazing to me how often these very bright women fail miserably because they don't care what others think," Cotton says. "They are twins separated at birth--very intelligent women who don't understand the team concept in politics."

After the commissioners roundly rejected Keliher's proposal, she voted against a tax increase on second reading. It was essentially a vote out of protest.

On the third and final reading, Keliher finally voted for it but not without a few interesting moments. After Price opened the motion for the tax increase, someone needed to second it before the commissioners could vote. But no one would. There was a long, awkward silence in open court. Keliher looked at Dickey to second the motion, who glanced back at her fellow Park Cities Republican. They muttered to each other. Both were ultimately going to vote for the tax increase but did not want to look like they were leading the charge. After a long pause, Cantrell, arguably the most conservative of the three of them, seconded the motion for the tax increase.

It's unlikely that Lee Jackson, Keliher's venerable predecessor, would have engaged in a silly showdown over who should second a motion. Understated and self-effacing, Jackson was seen more as a consensus-builder than Keliher. While her approach is more open, direct and occasionally confrontational, he worked quietly to get things done, keeping spats to a minimum.

"Judge Jackson was very laid-back and more diplomatic," says Ron Harris, the Collin County judge who has worked closely on regional issues with both Keliher and Jackson. "Margaret finds something and stands for it. She's very forthright. Lee got things worked out internally, not to where he violated open meetings laws, but he was just more behind the scenes."

It's hard to fault Keliher for tackling county issues in open court rather than behind closed doors, but that upfront style clearly irritates the other commissioners, who seem to prefer the milder touch of her predecessor. Nowhere is this more evident than in how Keliher has handled the county's messy problems with the Adult Information System, the jail's booking program. The pet project of Cantrell, AIS was designed to help different police departments in Dallas County and beyond to share data about suspects and defendants.  

The problem is that AIS flopped right from the moment it launched on January 31. In a front-page story, the Morning News identified at least 40 cases in which inmates languished in jail for days or even months too long. Some of them, who were found innocent of their charges, remained in jail because the system simply lost track of them.

The company that built AIS, InfoIntegration, was formed just weeks before it made its bid to establish the tracking program. By the spring, the county's data services director faulted the design of AIS, and the county had to pay Microsoft nearly half a million dollars to figure out what was wrong.

When the county first began hearing of AIS's inability to keep track of inmates, Keliher wanted to find out the extent of the problem. When court officials and sheriff's employees called her to complain about the program, she asked them to talk about it at a commissioners court meeting. At the March 1 meeting, AIS users testified one after another that the system is slow, inaccurate and a nightmare. Other than that, they liked it. The problem, though, is that some of the other commissioners felt as though Keliher was sticking it to Cantrell by recruiting people to speak out against a project he spearheaded. The Morning News quoted Cantrell as saying that Keliher was "on a witch hunt," while Mayfield bristled as one person after another criticized AIS. "Well, judge, you sure know how to run a meeting," he remarked during open court.

Cantrell says that AIS wasn't entirely to blame for the county's failures to account for inmates and calls many of its problems "bumps in the road." He says the judge was "more interested in grandstanding than in really seeking to solve the problem."

Keliher says that the press had already publicized AIS's many issues--all she was trying to do was gauge what exactly was wrong. While Lee Jackson likely would have made more of an effort to ascertain the problems quietly, Keliher choose to air them out through public questioning. "I believe in open government," she says. "I am not going to sweep some of these things under the carpet."

Later, though, when Keliher tried to remove federal grant money from the project until its defects were remedied, the other commissioners railed against her. Her measure failed. It's another case in which Keliher may have been right on the issue yet failed to convince a majority of commissioners.

In part because of her strained relationship with some of the other commissioners, Keliher has been most effective when she's parlayed the symbolic authority of her position for reform rather than trying to achieve it administratively. The way the state constitution is written, a county judge does not have any more power than the other commissioners, with the only defined perk being the right to preside over the weekly meetings. But a county judge is still the face of the government, and Keliher has used her platform effectively, even as the other commissioners have grumbled about her style.

Working with Collin County's Harris, Keliher helped change a bill to maintain local control over the assets of the North Texas Toll Authority, yet another arcane issue that has broad implications. Also, the two county leaders fought to prevent local tolls from being raised to pay for Southwest Parkway. Once again, though, Keliher's work on this front aggravated her colleagues, who claim they weren't consulted on Keliher's actions.

"I read about that in the paper," Mayfield says.

On the issue of mental health, Keliher helped guide a fledgling diversion program that takes non-violent, mentally ill inmates out of the county jail and into a coordinated program of therapy and care.

She also successfully lobbied the Envrionmental Protection Agency to include Ellis County, a major contributor to ozone formation, in a clean air plan. That will only help air quality in Dallas County. Interestingly, her fight put her on the side of Democrats such as former Congressman Martin Frost and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson and pitted her against Republican Congressman Joe Barton.

"It was a good experience working with her," says Johnson from her Washington office. "I find her to be very professional and pleasant. I would certainly welcome her into the Democratic Party."

It's a funny remark, since at times Keliher seems to take on issues closer to the heart of Democrats, whether she's talking about mental health, air quality or the importance of improving health care at the county jail. But don't expect her to jump parties any time soon.  

"Caring about people doesn't belong to one party or another," she says. "Republicans have appreciated the job I've done in taking care of those issues. What's that term? Compassionate conservative?"

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >