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.

February 2006By Comments

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 on the Trinity River, because that’s the big catalyst project that is going to put us on the map internationally. So football stadium versus largest urban park and waterfront development in the country? No question about it.

The only way we could have had the $325 million was if the hotel and car rental tax had been levied countywide. Right after the county said no, I went to see the Cowboys guys, and I said, “I’ve got the hotel and car tax just in Dallas. Run the numbers.” They said, “We don’t have enough money.” I remember sitting with [Cowboys owner] Jerry [Jones] and [his son] Stephen and saying, “Listen, you’ve got to go to Fair Park. It’s going to cost us $120 million to $150 million to clear the land, make infrastructure improvements, put in new water-main lines, and all that, but you build your building and you keep all the revenue.” And they said no. They were very nice, but they said, “Somebody is going to give us the $325 million just for the building.”

Sure enough, within three weeks I find out that Arlington is going to offer $325 million. And then the Citizens Council guys call me. They say, “All right, we want to get in on this now and get them back to Dallas.” And I say, “Well, number one, I don’t have $325 million. Number two, what’s your counter?” And they say, “$326 million.” And I say, “Well, again, we don’t have that for you to offer, so what am I missing here?”

What’s funny is that I went to the Citizens Council and the chamber of commerce recently and asked to meet with their executive committees. I walked in with a white paper: my accomplishments, my failures, and my goals, from my perspective. I said, “Okay, what do you guys want to talk about? What are you mad about?” And one of them said, “The first thing is the Dallas Cowboys,” and the second thing is something about not understanding my priorities or my strategy for the downtown revitalization, “and the third thing is the Dallas Cowboys.”

ES: What about the Cotton Bowl? You’re willing to put in, what, nearly $50 million?

LM: Absolutely. Because here’s the thing: Texas-OU is a huge tradition in the State Fair, and the fair is a huge cash cow for the city.

ES: What happens if you lose the game?

LM: It’s a big problem. It’s a big blow. And needless, because, you know, the Cotton Bowl was ignored for so long. Everyone should have seen this coming a long time ago.

ES: Help me understand the Mercantile versus Ray Hunt.

LM: I will always throw money at old buildings full of asbestos in the city. That was a no-brainer. Without the Mercantile block next to the downtown Neiman’s, that whole end of downtown doesn’t get redone. The issue with the Ray Hunt thing was, here we have the arts district, the largest urban arts district in the country, which we’ve put a lot of public money into. That part of downtown is the most oversubsidized place in downtown, and it is the hottest. Ray Hunt wants to build a new office tower a block outside the arts district. He wants a tax abatement. I don’t blame him for asking. I love his building, but he’s going to build in the most beautiful part of downtown with the most public subsidy all around it. We’re not asking for a donation; we would just like the taxes paid.

ES: People think this is about you and Ray Hunt personally.

LM: I have never said anything negative about Ray Hunt as mayor. The last time I said anything negative about him was eleven years ago as a reporter.

ES: You’re telling me it really is about taxes?

LM: We have doubled the number of TIF districts that we have, which makes me crazy. We had seven when I was elected mayor, and we have fourteen now. And I can’t stop it.

ES: Why not?

LM: Because the staff keeps proposing them. The staff believed that in order to get the new downtown TIF, since this was going to be the second in downtown—given that this is a 14-1 system—you had to give the single-member districts something. So the staff did a page—I swear I was going to have a heart attack—listing 21 other TIFs we could do in Dallas. Since that list of 21 was born, we’ve created 7. It’s this hemorrhaging of tax money that I’m choking on. And I haven’t even been able to get the media to cover it. I go on the radio and talk about it, but it isn’t sexy. Ray Hunt is sexy.

ES: All this sounds like an argument for strong mayor.

LM: Excuse me, it’s such an argument for strong mayor. The problem is that there’s nobody who can put their foot down and say, “Yep, by God, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that tomorrow.” It’s a city without leadership, because everybody’s doing their thing.

ES: Let’s talk about race. The percentage of the vote that you’ve gotten from the African American community is well below 20 percent.

LM: It was 13 percent the first time, 17 percent the second time.

ES: Shouldn’t that concern you? And can the racial healing that Dallas needs happen on your watch?

LM: The biggest surprise when I ran for mayor was how low the black vote was for me. I mean, I’m a Democrat from New York. I would think that that would have been kind of an easy thing to get. So I was shocked. I think a lot of it has to do with the articles that I wrote [before I got into politics]. [Former city councilman] Al Lipscomb and [Dallas County commissioner] John Wiley Price are two icons of their community, and no one did higher-profile stories—negative stories—about them than I did. Ever since then, the drumbeat every day is, I’m a horror. I’m a dream killer. That’s been difficult. And [the ouster of police chief] Terrell Bolton, of course, was a huge factor. What’s so unfortunate about it is that it’s that community in particular that suffers the most when you have a chief who can’t fight crime and can’t marshal the resources to protect them. It’s such a travesty to me that even though we now have a much better chief in place, there’s still this bitter feeling about how we lost our first black chief.

ES: There’s also the FBI investigation of city hall, which has focused on black council members.

LM: One of the things that happened when the FBI came in the building was that a lot of people in that community said, “She caused that. She made the phone call that did that.” Well, I did not. However, the first time I saw what looked to me like corruption in the building, I took the whole city council behind closed doors and told them what was going on. In the end, the city council decided that we weren’t going to do much about it, so I told the media about it. That was the first time that what the FBI is now looking at went public.

ES: So they can blame you indirectly. You don’t regret it?

LM: No, of course not. I’m a journalist. My whole thing when I was a journalist was, How can the culture in the building be such that when there is something illegal going on or something clearly unethical going on, everyone just turns away? I saw that. I saw the elected officials doing that in the past, with maybe a Lipscomb situation or different things going on.

ES: Would Laura Miller the journalist vote for Laura Miller the mayor?

LM: Oh, absolutely.

ES: Wouldn’t she be railing against an authoritarian, dictatorial mayor—a divider rather than a uniter?

LM: How am I dictatorial if I can’t do anything without a council vote and the city manager backing it up?

ES: Are there ways in which you’re different, or are there positions you take now that are different from the ones you took before?

LM: Sure. I was totally against the Trinity River project, voted against it at the ballot, said I was against it, didn’t understand the benefits of a project like that, and now I understand it totally. As a journalist, I wouldn’t have understood even funding the Merc, really. I didn’t have the big picture. I was always looking for the weird political motivation. I always thought that there was this grand lever-pulling being done by six guys who met in the mayor’s office every morning and decided what was going to happen. That’s just not the case.

ES: You’re up for reelection in May 2007. I gather there are people lining up five deep to run.

LM: As they should. It’s a job that should attract a lot of people. I’ve been at this for going on five years now. If I win, it will be the longest anyone has served as mayor in the history of the city. No one has ever served nine years, so it’s a good time to jump in.

ES: When the next term is over, assuming you do win, are you done?

LM: I’m done.

ES: Done with Dallas politics or politics in general?

LM: Politics. Totally.

ES: What are you going to do?

LM: I don’t know. Write, hang out, run a marathon.

ES: So never mind all the batting of eyelashes in your direction, from Austin and elsewhere, to try to get you to run statewide?

LM: Why would I want to continue in politics?

ES: If you like weak mayor, you’ll love weak governor.

Yeah. Forget that.

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