Mildred Greene, my conservative 92-year-old mother-in-law, tells me out of the blue as I drive her from Oak Cliff to East Dallas for the holidays that she has called Laura Miller's campaign office asking for a yard sign. I ask her why she's voting for Miller. Silence on her side of the car.
Finally she says, "I just want to see what happens."
How did we get here?
Since the 1930s, Dallas has been the political equivalent of a big boy in short pants, a major city with small-town politics--powerful city manager, weak mayor, secret suits downtown who run everything. I thought this was exactly what the conservatives wanted.
Now my mother-in-law, who knows very well that Miller and I have not been speaking for the last several months, sits by my fire in my rocker in my own home through the entire holiday season knitting an afghan and muttering like Madam Lafarge, "I think the women need to stick together."
It's scary. By New Year's Day I've heard enough of the Lafarge thing, and I make up my mind to find a way to talk to Miller again. I wind up walking up and down in front of her house in Oak Cliff with a picket sign that says, "Laura, please come out and talk. I'm sorry."
True story. Weird, I know. I'll explain later.
The point is that everybody who started out dissing Miller's candidacy, myself included, has had to come back around and deal with her. She's way out front in the polls, by a factor of two to three times the favorable rating of Tom Dunning, the suit candidate. Domingo Garcia, the middle-class Latino candidate, is deep in third place at low single digits, but there the polls may be deceiving.
Phone polls are all about yesterday's voters--the ones who voted last time around--and in Dallas those mainly are older-generation Anglos. If Garcia succeeds in bringing a major new Latino electorate to the voting booth on January 19, all other polls are off.
Ever since Christmas, the people who work for Garcia and the people who work for Dunning have been talking behind the scenes about how to go negative on Miller, dividing up the dirty duties. Miller has been holding firm at near 50 percent in the polls.
How does she do it?
Married to a Democratic office-holder and with a long public history in journalism as a flaming liberal, Miller, 43, is pulling very strong support from the city's whitest, most conservative precincts. And the assumption that her conservative base will make her anathema to minorities--my own thesis--is going to be wrong. (Whenever I think about these things, I see my mother-in-law by the fireplace with that afghan.) In recent interviews, a number of African-American leaders and operatives, including those sworn to support Domingo Garcia, have expressed secret admiration for Miller.
Sandra Crenshaw, a former city council member and activist in black neighborhoods, is working for Garcia. Crenshaw also has been walking precincts in Southern Dallas on an issue not related to the mayor's race.
"You know what?" she said, laughing a little ruefully. "A lot of those little ladies who answer the doorbell tell me they like that white lady, Laura Miller. They say she tells them how the cow ate the cabbage."
Tell me about it. Are they knitting afghans?
Miller used to do my job. She wrote the column I write now. Before that, she worked for The Dallas Morning News and the late great Dallas Times Herald, and she wrote a column for D magazine. Journalists who knew her when, along with people who were victims of her barbs, remember her as a blue-talking newsroom tough with a mean streak a mile wide and 10 miles deep. There is a sense that her advertising campaign, brilliantly designed by political PR man Rob Allyn, is perpetrating a kind of fraud on the public, depicting this poison-pen hit woman as some kind of Mommy Do-Good.
But after weeks of interviews all over town, I have come to my own slightly different personal conclusion on this point. We're right. We're wrong. There's no fraud. People out there know she's mean. They like it.
Tom Dunning, 59, is exactly what he tells you--an honest man with good intentions, great connections in the business establishment and a long history of conciliation in the community. He says he's not a politician. He's not.
Dunning's attempts at dismissing Miller's back-to-basics appeal always seem to betray that he doesn't quite get what it is. "Let me just say this right up front that I'm not going to be out-potholed," he told a large breakfast gathering of developers and architects early in the campaign. "I think we all agree that potholes need to be repaired."
It's a line echoed even more woodenly in the editorial columns of The Dallas Morning News. While the city desk staff of the News has been reporting the campaigns straight-on, the opinion writers have been a Greek chorus of derision focused on Miller, writing off potholes as the dumbest issue ever.
But who's dumb here? Who could miss the fact that the pothole issue is not just the pothole issue?
Garcia, 43, does get the pothole issue. He understands that potholes are about a city gone shabby that badly wants someone to make it feel pretty and strong again. He has proposed major bond issues and taxing districts to pay for things such as police pay hikes, new infrastructure and amenities. He derides Miller for promising all kinds of things--a 15 percent pay raise for the police, for example--while telling audiences she can do it all without new taxes, a position Garcia has painted as irresponsible.
But I don't see any traction for him on that. The things her supporters want Miller to do don't cost money, just blood. This is not to say Miller isn't out there making nice and cutting deals. The five endorsements she has won from police unions may have turned at least in part on the stealth issue of this campaign season: whether or not a new mayor will push embattled police Chief Terrell Bolton out of office.
Richard Todd, political liaison for the Dallas Police Patrolman's Union, said: "She told me over the phone, I remember it real well, she's not real pleased with Bolton, and both of them [Bolton and City Manager Ted Benavides] are going to have to change the way they do business or have to start looking for a new job."
Miller denied to me that she had said that and suggested Todd may have misunderstood. She gave me a more nuanced version of what she did tell the police unions. The fact remains that people in Southern Dallas came away from their own Miller meeting with an impression opposite Todd's. In fact, Miller signed a contract in Southern Dallas early on in the election cycle promising "support of the Dallas police department and its chief, Terrell Bolton, in his continued role as chief of police."
She penciled in a caveat at the bottom of the two-page "mandate" to the effect that she would endeavor to live up to the spirit of the document but did not consider herself bound by its every word. Garcia signed the same document without a caveat. Dunning refused to sign it and let its authors know he viewed the document and the whole proceeding as insulting.
The Reverend Charles Stovall, pastor of Camp Wisdom United Methodist Church and one of the chief organizers of the Southern Dallas mandate initiative, told me it was the group's impression that Miller's bottom-of-the-page caveat did not apply to her promise of support for Bolton.
"She said straight out that she was willing to let bygones be bygones and that she would be able to support Bolton," Stovall said. "I would feel that the spirit of our conversation would be that she would not be reopening investigations, that she would go into office with the attitude that Chief Bolton is the police chief and that she would support that, and she's not going to dig up stuff from the past administration."
I don't think any of this is at all interesting to the people who support Miller, who just want her to win. To understand that, maybe you have to see the city through the eyes of Barbara Dossett. Mrs. Dossett and I spoke some weeks ago in the front office of her small bookkeeping business, catty-corner from her single-story frame house in the Hampton-Illinois neighborhood in Oak Cliff.
Three years ago, Dossett's pleasant little neighborhood of small frame houses and mature trees was throttled by drugs, prostitution and murder. The root of the problem, Dossett says, was one building, one landlord, right across the street from her home and her business. In that one single-story brick slouch of a building, as many as three private booze clubs operated at one time, wild, stinking, frighteningly out of control.
"The third killing occurred two years ago in March. That one made the paper. They used an AK47 automatic, shot it through a steel door, the front door, wounded five and killed one. In fact, I got one of the bullets in my house. It came through my living room."
Dossett called Miller, her council member, and begged for help. Miller immediately began contacting various agencies to see what could be done.
"The TABC [told Miller] it was the Dallas Police Department's fault because they were not turning their reports in," Dossett says. "The police department said they did turn their reports in.
"Three months later we have another killing. That's the one that happened a year ago January, across the street. And that was an execution-style.
"Laura Miller was learning from this end how the system works, where they just pass you around. But with that ammunition [the fourth killing], she was able to call the TABC, and they shut [one of the bars] down. And then she got the [police department] SAFE team out here, and they shut the other two down."
But that's only the beginning of Dossett's tale. She says Miller, meanwhile, was negotiating with a set of real estate agents and developers to redevelop the entire block where the bad building stands. The block, a warren of dodgy structures and blowing trash only a year ago, is now home to a brand-new drive-in bank and a spiffy new Eckerd drugstore.
To cap it all off and at Miller's insistence, the city came in and fixed all of the potholes in the street outside Dossett's office window.
"So she's fixed our potholes," Dossett said. "We have a nice school, and the kids can walk around here. There's no crime to speak of. And we have business development."
But even that isn't quite the end of this story. It appears that when Miller was helping shotgun the redevelopment of the block across from Dossett's building and home, the one property owner who wouldn't sell was the owner of the bad building with the closed-down clubs. Even though the clubs had been closed, there was always the lingering threat that the landlord would find a way to reopen them.
Dossett took me across the street to show me the building close up. She wanted me to see the exit hole where the bullet had pierced the steel door at one end of the building on its way across the street and into her living room. But I noticed something else--a very odd street arrangement, a brand-new street to nowhere closely hugging one end and the back side of the bad building. In other words, the building now has city street right up against all four walls.
When I asked about it, Dossett smiled--a certain smile with a certain glint in her eye. She said part of the redevelopment of the block had involved some street closings, some land purchases by the city and the construction of this odd little business around the bad building.
"This building now has no parking," she said. "They can never meet the code for retail, so it can never reopen."
In other words, somebody got the city to use its power of eminent domain and its street-building authority to choke this property to death.
"I'd like to think Laura Miller had something to do with it," Dossett said.
See what I mean? This woman's home and business were being kicked and shoved into the grave by criminals and thugs. I don't know what really happened with that street. I know that Barbara Dossett does not care one whit if the building of a fake street involved some ruthlessness, some pushing of the envelope on property rights.
She's the middle class. She wants the trains to run on time. She thinks Laura Miller choked the bad building before the bad building could choke her neighborhood, and she's very happy about it.
Miller is her Giuliani.
There are people in Dallas who have serious reservations about Miller, precisely for the same traits that Dossett admires. David Marquis, an actor and teacher who has been a political activist in Dallas for 25 years, worked closely with Miller on the Ed Oakley city council campaign last year, but he's working for Tom Dunning in the mayoral race.
I met Marquis for lunch at Gloria's on Davis Street in Oak Cliff and asked him why he wasn't still with Miller. Marquis, who says he likes and admires Miller, told me he thinks Miller is too much the revolutionary to make a good leader--someone who makes war, not peace. He said several times that Miller had a tendency to paint anyone who opposes her on issues as "evil."
A week later Marquis called me in the evening to talk again about why he wants to see Dunning elected, not Miller. "I think this thing of Laura calling people evil is important. You know, I've heard her describe people that way, not that they did something wrong, but that they are evil. I don't know who gets to sit in that chair and make that judgment."
It has to be said, however, that in most of the campaign season so far Miller has not been the one throwing caustic barbs. Domingo Garcia is comfortable on the attack. Dunning does it, probably because his own consultant, Carol Reed, the über-guru of establishment politics in Dallas, has told him he must, but he always looks and sounds like a guy being forced at gunpoint to kill his granddaughter's bunny.
In a lifetime in business in Dallas and in voluntary public service, Dunning's conciliatory manner has made him lots of friends and probably didn't hurt him in business, either. Dunning has become wealthy putting together executive compensation plans as part of company buyout deals and mergers. He is an equity partner with financier Tom Hicks in many of Hicks' holdings.
Terribly stiff on the campaign trail, an automaton in candidate forums, he agrees with everybody else in debates. But Dunning is confident, warm and authoritative in a one-on-one. He breezed in the side door of Cafe Express on Lovers Lane in a flannel shirt and jacket on New Year's Day and talked to me for an hour about growing up in Dallas.
"I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was a great kid's life. I used to take the bus when I was 7 years old with some other kids, and we'd go to the village to see a movie."
"The village?" I ask.
"Highland Park Village."
But he means village. Not snotty shopping center. Those really were different times.
Life in Preston Hollow and University Park was different then in other ways--more postwar bootstraps, less money-proud. When Dunning was a teen-ager and wanted his own car, he had to work to get it summers and after school in an aluminum smelter. He and a crew of mainly Mexican immigrant co-workers cut up airplane wings and lawnmowers out in a yard in the baking sun and then hauled the bales of scrap inside to be tossed into a white-hot vat.
At a later summer job in a warehouse, his co-workers were mainly black. He remembers going with them through the back door of the restaurant where they bought carry-out lunches because they weren't allowed to come in the front. These experiences, he says, taught him early that all people are the same inside. I believe him. If you were at this table, you would, too. But I think Tom Dunning hates telling me some of this. I can tell there's a side of him that thinks talking like this to a reporter, cataloging all your democratic deeds, is way too gooey and political.
When the conversation shifts from the personal to the political, a strange thing happens, as if an invisible tube has descended from the ceiling of Cafe Express and imprisoned Dunning inside. His arms fold up tight. His mouth talks, but his eyes say, "Get me out of here!"
I ask him to back away from specifics and tell me where he thinks the city is headed in a human way, socially and spiritually.
"One of the things I would do as mayor is, I would like to have a number of meetings with clergy of all different faiths, to get them together and get them more involved in the city. We're talking about everybody. I served on the board of the community of churches. I really liked that organization, but it was just for Christian churches. I thought it would have been great to have Muslims, others, of course Jewish members also. And one of my goals would be to have that, not as part of the government, but just as making sure that we continue to hear from different cultural viewpoints about what's important."
Maybe it was a dumb question.
At the end of our lunch, as we are getting up to leave, Dunning tells me something stunning. We're talking about Miller, and he says, "I think she's the best politician we've ever had in Dallas. Ron Kirk was great, but she may be better."
Domingo Garcia does not have doubts about being political. Garcia talked to me in his Oak Cliff office about growing up in Dallas a decade and a half later than Dunning and under different circumstances.
Before we got into his life story, however, Garcia said something to me that I found equally stunning. Speaking of Miller's political acumen, he said, "She has a great coach. Steve Wolens [Miller's husband] is probably the best politician in Dallas."
So it's between Miller and her husband? Should we just go home and grab a nap, then? I forged ahead to the biographical questions.
"I was born in Midland, Texas," he said. "My father came to this country as an undocumented worker and immigrant. He married my mother and worked initially in the cotton fields of West Texas."
In 1967, when Garcia was 9, his father brought the family to Dallas for better pay in construction. The family lived in the Little Mexico district of Oak Lawn, and Garcia attended Sam Houston Elementary School.
"My first day in class was fairly traumatic. They put me in a special ed class, because I was at that time primarily Spanish-speaking, what's now called limited English proficiency. I was in with a bunch of children that had disabilities, like mongoloid kids, kids with other types of handicaps."
Garcia, a successful attorney, is well-off now. He has been a crusading champion of public education in Dallas. Both of his kids go to private schools. I sent my kid to private school for a long time, too. I get why.
When Garcia was in the ninth grade, his father moved the family to Richardson, where he was one of very few Latinos in his class. He played football at Berkner High School, graduated and went on to the University of North Texas, where in his first year he integrated an all-Anglo fraternity. He also became president of a group called Chicanos United for Social Advancement.
Adelfa Callejo, a lawyer and political patrona, says Garcia's background--one foot in the working class and another in the upper middle class--has allowed him to be a coalition builder within the Latino community and among minorities in general.
"I know what I want in a mayor," Callejo said. "I want my mayor to be a business person, to be a professional, to be somebody who has met a payroll, who has grassroots experience. Domingo has all of the credentials to be able to fulfill that dream that so many people have had about making Dallas a world-class city."
Garcia gets high marks from the city's few genuine progressives as well. John Fullinwider, now a teacher and writer, was active on the frontier of progressive grassroots politics in Dallas for 25 years, from the turbulent '70s to the soporific late '90s. Fullinwider met me on a Saturday morning at Cafe Brazil in Deep Ellum. (I'm swearing off coffee after this story.)
"I'm for Domingo," he said right up. "Before he got in, I didn't have any thoughts. To me, Dunning is like yesterday's good guy. He's the kind of leader Dallas would have wanted in 1961."
Fullinwider referred to the revelation early in the campaign that Dunning belongs to the Dallas Country Club, which has no black members and still practices some kind of smelly-funky tokenism about Jews. "I think the country club membership, you know, it's indicative of him being past his prime."
Fullinwider remembers Garcia as having been right on all the tough issues over time. He said he believes that Garcia also has heart and generosity, traits that may not always peek through Garcia's chain-mail public persona. Several years ago when Fullinwider was fighting for a community of homeless people camped beneath the downtown overpasses, Garcia, then a council member, persuaded the rest of the council to at least provide the people with water and portable toilets.
"To me, Domingo is somebody that has a track record and a good one and a progressive one," Fullinwider said. "He was on the right side on the lead smelter issue. He was very helpful on the right side on the homeless issue. He was prominent and in the forefront on police review. He was very active in a substantial way in the single-member district struggle. So if you looked at the progressive agenda in Dallas, you would have to say that Domingo stayed on it."
I also drank some coffee with Laura Miller, at Cindi's New York Deli on Central Expressway near Forest Lane (my pick, because my parents live nearby and I needed to visit). I guess this means I have to explain my picket sign. Oh, yuck. This is going to sound like mass media therapy.
Last summer the Dallas Observer published a story about a code enforcement battle between Miller and a Mexican bus company ("Vamoose," August 30). The story, by Thomas Korosec, included a quote that I gave Korosec, something Miller actually had said to me that included a lot of blue language and ruthlessness. I believed then and still believe that the quote provided a useful window on her temperament.
Miller doesn't remember saying it. She says the bad language proves she couldn't have known we were on the record. But more than anything, based on the angry anti-Miller response the story drew from the Latino community, Miller feels that the story and the quote painted her as a racist.
I gave up a long time ago judging other white people on that score. I go to the experts. In weeks of interviews for this story, I found not one black or Hispanic activist who actually knows Laura Miller who would characterize her as racist in any way. If anything, I found a pronounced pro-Miller tilt among many minority grassroots leaders. The cow ate the cabbage and so on.
If the quote made Miller look like a racist, then that impression was wrong.
My treating the quote as on the record and giving it to Korosec was within the rules of journalism. It stretched...no, it broke the rules of friendship. I've been a reporter all my life. I was taught that the first rule in the Reporting Book of Hoyle is: "Friendship, schmiendship." I'm sure Miller remembers that one.
But she cut me off. Wouldn't take my calls. It's not that she called me back and called me a low-down skulking dog racist the way former Mayor Ron Kirk used to. I can handle that. She wouldn't return calls at all, which invokes Rule No. 2, Reporting Book of Hoyle: "Push red button."
The problem is that I know too many people in the community who are taking Miller very seriously. One of them is Will Jarrett, my former boss, former editor of the Dallas Times Herald and of the Denver Post, who went off and made a zillion bucks in the regional publishing business. Early in the election cycle, Jarrett helped arrange a kind of roundtable luncheon just for me at the Prestonwood Country Club (it was so I wouldn't try to come to the real party later).
Quite a group: Bobby McMillan, a business and golf running buddy of former mayors Starke Taylor and Robert Folsom; developer and Republican stalwart Rob Richmond; former head of the Chamber of Commerce and one-time mayoral candidate Forrest Smith; country club developer Vance Miller; and Jarrett.
The general tenor was that the city has fallen under irresponsible stewardship. In fact, when they talked about their impressions of City Hall, I formed a mental image from the children's story Wind in the Willows after the weasels have taken over Toad Hall.
It's money. It's streets. It's lawsuits. It's Bolton. It's a lot of things.
Jarrett said, "I think what's happened here, I think we've spent a lot of time going out and trying to sell the big-ticket items, like Boeing and the arena, kind of like you have a house and you keep trying to put new furniture in it, but the foundation is crumbling. The school thing is awful, and I happen to think this lack of integrity in law enforcement is also awful."
Vance Miller said, "I think too many people have been trying to fool the people about the current state of affairs."
But it was Richmond, Laura Miller's campaign treasurer, who probably put his finger on what these guys really like about her. He talked about airport lease deals and other City Hall transactions where Miller has whipped up on the city manager for giving away the company store.
"She treats it as her own money," he said.
OK, that and my mother-in-law and the rocking chair and the afghan: No matter what bad things have passed between us, I have to go out and find a way to get Miller to talk to me for this story.
So I walk up and down in front of her house in Kessler Park with a picket sign that says, "Laura, please come out and talk. I'm sorry." That's from Reporting Book of Hoyle, Rule 3: "Cause family member to say, 'Get out there and find a way to get that person out of our neighborhood.'"
The "I'm sorry" on my sign was for the friendship thing, definitely not for anything in Korosec's thoroughly reported, sharply written story. I have a job that sometimes requires me to be an S.O.B. So now I'm a sorry S.O.B. Like I said, she used to do this job, too.
She came out. She smiled. We shook hands. She said I had a lousy picket sign that you couldn't read from across the street. She took the picket sign, probably for evidence. We met at Cindi's a few days later.
From that meeting, I can tell you one remarkable thing I learned about Laura Miller. When she was in high school in a posh Northeastern bedroom community--her father was a successful national retailing executive in New York--Miller chose not to go out for the cheerleading squad, not to spend her after-school hours rehearsing for the one-act play or hanging out with other kids.
"I took my first job when I was 14 years old," she said. "I was sitting on a stool of a luncheonette in Stamford, Connecticut, on a Saturday, and the Greek diner owner asked me if I wanted a job. I said I was too young to work, and he said, 'No, that's OK, you can work after school and Saturdays.'
"I had no reason to work, because I didn't need the money. My dad was doing well in retailing. But I said sure, I'll do it.
"So I took a job that I had for the next four years. I never missed a day after school. I never missed a Saturday. I'd watch the whole high school football team and the cheerleaders go by every Saturday on the way to the game, and I stood in the doorway in my pinstripe uniform and my saddle shoes waving a dish towel at the team going by, because I was an obsessive workaholic."
I asked her what her dad thought about all this.
"He thought I was nuts. He didn't know why I was working. 'Why are you working? Why are you killing yourself?'"
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I think I'm with Dad on this. Where does all this extreme focus and willpower come from? Is it a good thing or is it scary?
We talked a lot about politics and City Hall issues. At one point she looked at me as if I were the crazy person, held out her arms and said, "If I don't get elected, nothing changes."
If the choice is Miller/Dunning, she's right. If Garcia brings a Latino electorate to the polls and pulls off a miracle, she's wrong. He's a big change. She's a big change.
What do I smell in the air? What are the vibes? The vibes are Laura Miller big-time. Without a runoff. And if that happens, and if she comes in on that kind of a wave, I will be happy to work with all of the "Anyone but Laura" people on the city council to help them fashion their own "Laura, please talk to me" picket signs.