Laura Miller

The 47-year-old mayor of Dallas on the weakness of her office, saying no to the Cowboys and Ray Hunt, why African Americans don’t like her, and what she’ll do next.

Evan Smith: You don’t look so divisive and unpopular to me.

Laura Miller: I’m wearing the same costume pearls I’ve always worn.

ES: Why are you in the crosshairs?

LM: There are two issues. One is “strong mayor.” I ran on strong mayor. I totally believe in strong mayor. I think it’s the right thing to do. All fourteen council members were strongly opposed to any change.

ES: Surprise, surprise.

LM: If I were still a council member, I would be right in there with them—you know, “Don’t change to strong mayor because that means that we have less power and she has more or he has more.” The only thing I’m surprised about is that I really expected the business community to support it. Forget me—this is about the next ten mayors who are elected. It’s the one way to launch Dallas into another category of city. You can’t have the ninth-largest city in America run by an unelected city manager who has to spend every day catering to fifteen politicians.

ES: Is there a weak mayor—for lack of a better phrase—in any of the eight more-populous cities?

LM: Yeah, San Antonio.

ES: If it works in San Antonio, why doesn’t it work in Dallas?

LM: San Antonio doesn’t need a turnaround. And there’s another difference too. We’re one of the only big cities that have single-member districts in a city-manager form of government. Most other cities that have a city manager have council members elected at-large, so there’s more of a balance, more of a citywide perspective among the elected officials. With us, the way a city manager stays in the job is by apportioning everything into fifteen equal pieces to keep everybody happy. And the way you keep a council member happy is you take care of his potholes and his sidewalks and her alleys. I know—I used to be one. When the city manager got me a sidewalk, I was indebted for a year.

So, fundamentally, one of the major problems I’ve had in the last year is that I started a year ago running and leading a campaign for strong mayor that failed, and failed by a pretty large margin.

ES: Surely you acknowledge that the perception, at least, is that it was not so much an up-or-down vote on strong mayor as it was an up-or-down vote on you.

LM: Right. But I still believe that reelecting me is a separate issue from whether I have more power.

ES: Could Ron Kirk have gotten strong mayor passed when he had your job?

LM: I don’t think so. When Ron Kirk wanted to do strong mayor, his council said no, the Morning News beat up on it and said “bad idea,” and it never went anywhere. He decided, perhaps smartly, that it wasn’t worth the bruising fight. It was a little different for me because I offered a version to council, like he did, and got beaten back, like he did, but then a week later, an outside group filed the petitions [to put a strong mayor referendum on the ballot]. They never talked to me. If they had, I would have said, “I like the concept, but here’s a version that will have a chance to pass,” because theirs was so extreme.

ES: Could your version have passed if it had gotten on the ballot?

LM: I don’t know. Mine was very simple. I only asked the council to do two things: to allow the mayor to hire and fire the city manager and to give the mayor line-item-veto power on the budget. And that’s it. It’s baby steps, but it’s enough.

ES: So strong mayor is one of the reasons you’ve been in the crosshairs. What’s the other?

LM: I sometimes say no when people want money.

ES: Isn’t that what mayors do—say no?

LM: I remember the first time I opposed a tax abatement at city hall. It was about a month after I was elected to the council. After the long, drawn-out discussion about it, Ron Kirk leaned back in his chair and said, “You know, I’ve never had a tax abatement come before this council that was turned down, let alone debated. Why would anyone be opposed to doing this?” And I remember thinking, “What do you mean they don’t debate tax abatements?”

For my entire seven years here, city staff has been giving away money: fee rebates, tax increment finance (TIF) districts, sales tax rebates, tax abatements. It’s easy. It’s a very reactive system: Someone walks in the door, they ask for it, and the staff makes a recommendation to council. By the time the recommendation is made, it’s already a done deal. The staff has the power under this charter, not the elected officials. They had never been turned down until I got elected.

I ran for council and then for mayor because I don’t want to be reactive—I want to be proactive. I want to go to the negotiating table. I want to make hard deals. I don’t want to be taken advantage of. I don’t want to give our money away. And I want to use our money to seed our revitalization. I don’t want to keep hemorrhaging it because we’re told that unless we give everybody a deal, downtown will never come back or the southern sector will never grow. I just don’t believe that.

ES: Clearly, though, you’re willing to do it in certain cases. No to Ray Hunt’s downtown headquarters but yes to the Mercantile Bank Building. No to a new stadium for the Cowboys but yes to refurbishing the Cotton Bowl. Why are some deals okay and not others?

LM: Because it’s about being a catalyst, starting a trend, taking an impossible situation and showing that we can get it done to encourage other people to come in. Even if I had the $325 million that the Cowboys wanted just for the building—forget the infrastructure—I would have preferred to have spent it

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