The Lone Ranger

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.

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle