How I Learned to Hate the Media And Love Politics (Well, Sort of)

A hard-charging city hall reporter wins a seat on the Dallas City Council, takes a hard look at her old profession, takes an even harder look at her new one.

I remember the day I went from being the hunter to the hunted. It was a Tuesday afternoon in April 1998, and I was flying down the freeway toward home in my white station wagon. All day I had been envisioning the scene at Dallas City Hall, where TV and print reporters had been summoned for a press conference. One of them had called the day before—to warn and to inquire: “Your opponent says he’s going to drop a bombshell about you that will ruin your campaign. Do you have any idea what he’s going to say?” The reporter was highly amused, of course. Until just recently, I had also been a reporter—a city hall piranha too, prowling for scandal. But in mid-December, after twenty years as a reporter, I had abruptly announced that I was leaving my latest job, as a columnist at the alternative weekly Dallas Observer, to run for the city council. My boss at the paper had been shocked. My friends and co-workers had been shocked. I remember a feisty young reporter rushing into my office, shutting the door, and bursting into tears: Could it possibly be true that I was going from journalistic hero to political scumbag?

If my friends and co-workers were in disbelief, my family was dismayed. I had just spent my thirty-ninth year soul-searching about the state of our household, which had become exponentially more chaotic with the birth of my third child. My husband, Steve Wolens, a traveling lawyer and veteran member of the Texas Legislature, took an apartment in Austin every other year for five months during the session. For most of our marriage, I had spent weekends glued to my computer. In an effort to make us all saner, I had taken a year-long sabbatical from writing in 1997. But that respite was ending, and I had to decide whether to go back to a job that I loved but did too intensely or quit altogether and indulge my fantasy of going to movies on weekday afternoons.

Okay, I’m definitely quitting, I told Steve one evening. But a few days later our Oak Cliff councilman told us he was resigning halfway through his third term, and I found myself suddenly smitten with the idea of trying my hand at a job I’d been obsessed with as a columnist for years. Perhaps, I thought, I could find out on the inside what I had been unable to learn on the outside, namely, why politicians did things that made no sense to me. “I’ve covered this city as a journalist for fifteen years—ten as a columnist and investigative reporter—and I have to say that at this point in my career, I’m frustrated, fed up, and ready for a fight,” I wrote in my good-bye column in the Observer. My epiphany had come, I wrote, at a city council meetingHow I Learned in which the council barely scrutinized the seriously lopsided terms of a $125 million tax subsidy for the owners of a new sports arena. “God, I had a lot of questions … But I was the vermin on the other side of the rope. I was just another flunky reporter with no standing to say or do anything except sit in my designated spot with my notebook open and my mouth shut. And for the first time ever, I was mad as hell about my ghetto status. In fact, it was all I could do to keep from jumping the rope and hurling questions of my own.”

Steve, ever the logical lawyer, had two observations: If I needed to keep busy outside the home, couldn’t I at least take back the Observer job, which paid extremely well, instead of taking the new one, which paid $50 a meeting day? And if I wanted to maintain this new level of sanity in our household, as I purported to, how exactly would I do that while walking door-to-door to 2,400 homes to get elected? My old boss put it a different way: “Can’t you just have a nervous breakdown, like normal people?”

Apparently not. But on that April day when my old pals, the journalists, turned their sights on their old pal, the journalist, I got a glimpse of what it might be like to have one. I remember extreme stewing and second-guessing and anxiety. What could I have done that was so egregious as to be newsworthy? Had a seventies-era college chum outed me for some mild (fondly remembered) transgression at the University of Wisconsin? Did the still- bitter plaintiff in an unsuccessful libel suit against me see my candidacy as a chance for round three? Had I done something I didn’t know I’d done? That was the scariest, most paranoid possibility of all. Had I taken a campaign contribution I shouldn’t have? Hit someone with my car, God forbid? Would it embarrass my husband and kids terribly? I felt ridiculous, but more than that, I felt sharply annoyed: How could the tables have turned on me already? I wasn’t even a politician yet.

The irony of the situation did not escape me. As I chewed on my fingernails, imagining the worst, I couldn’t help but think, “How many times in the past two decades had I ruined people’s days like this: dozens? hundreds? thousands?” It was too irresistible not to get off the highway and head toward city hall. I had no intention of going inside—of giving my opponent the satisfaction of seeing me in this state—but, on the other hand, I wanted to be close by in case the revelation was somehow, inexplicably, huge and in need of a response. The reporters had my cell phone and beeper numbers. I just had to wait. After some period of time, the phone rang. I held my breath.

It was a Dallas Morning News reporter I didn’t know very well, and he was crisp and businesslike. He was writing a story based on information my opponent had unearthed over the past

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