Sizzle and Stakes

Dallas mayor Laura Miller is hungry to take on the big problems facing the city. She'd better be—because her plate is full.

September 2003By Comments

THIS ISSUE IS ENTIRELY ABOUT DALLAS. If we had done a similar issue 25 years ago—about the time that the current mayor, Laura Miller, made her first trip to the city—many of the stories might have been the same: the Cowboys and their pursuit of the Super Bowl, Dallas women and their pursuit of beauty, Highland Park and its pursuit of the pluperfect life, personal-advice gurus and the pursuit of self-improvement. Indeed, Miller landed smack in the middle of the stereotype on her initial visit, when her father, who was then the president of Nieman Marcus, invited her to come for the store’s “French Fortnight” promotion. She remembers three things about the trip: watching girls in cancan costumes race to a hangar at Love Field to greet a private jet, attending a barbecue at a ranch and standing next to a spit that held half a cow, and arriving from the University of Wisconsin, where she was a student, to discover that the wool wardrobe she had packed was not a good choice for Dallas in September.

But there is more to the story of Dallas than stereotypes. Miller’s improbable career path—from chief critic of city hall as a reporter for the Dallas Observer, an alternative weekly, to a gadfly member of the city council from Oak Cliff to mayor—would not have been possible if Dallas were still (as it used to style itself) “the city that works.” Dallas is the first city in Texas to be surrounded and eclipsed by its suburbs, one of which, Frisco, is featured in this issue. Downtown, once the financial nerve center of Texas, has the highest vacancy rate in the country. No large building project has been undertaken inside the downtown freeway loop since 1985. Property valuations inside the loop declined more than 50 percent between 1990 and 1996; a partial recovery collapsed last year with a 5 percent downturn in values. When Ron Kirk, the city’s first black mayor, stepped down in 2001 to run for the U.S. Senate, Miller entered the race to finish his term with a small-picture platform of fixing potholes and fighting crime. She won easily and was reelected this spring.

Today Miller is one of the most intriguing figures on a rather drab Texas political scene. (I confess to being a less-than-impartial observer, having been an admirer of Miller's, professionally and personally, for years before she became a politician.) She is a Democrat—her husband, Steve Wolens, is a Democratic state legislator—whose electoral profile looks like George W. Bush's: She carries very affluent, very Republican North Dallas but gets less than 20 percent of the African American vote. The latter circumstance she attributes to her sometimes-strident criticism of Mayor Kirk, both as a journalist and as a council member; her North Dallas success, she says, is due to her council record of opposing (to no avail) city subsidies for projects by politically connected developers and investors like Ray Hunt, Ross Perot, Jr., and Tom Hicks. This stance, which is equal parts populism and fiscal conservatism, is part of the package, to be sure, but her appeal is far broader: She is a soccer mom, a breast-cancer survivor, and—how to say it?—no female politician ever had better taste in clothes or looked better in them.

Before our interview, Miller had a brief media availability for local TV. Two crews had set up their cameras outside her office. They wanted to know about a meeting she had had that morning with the city's embattled police chief about a spike in the crime rate. Like another successful Texas woman politician, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Miller is totally at ease during a TV interview—or, as political consultants say, "The camera loves her." She was animated—hands flying, head turning to make eye contact with both cameras—and upbeat as she answered questions. "It went great! It couldn't have gone better." Someone asked if the meeting had violated a city-charter provision limiting direct contact between elected officials and department heads; officials are supposed to take their concerns to the city manager. "We could have said, 'By the city charter, we're not going to do this,'" Miller responded. "The manager has always been flexible about letting me go off with my wild-hair ideas." You won't hear the phrase "wild-hair ideas" from many politicians.

What I really wanted to know from Miller was what she had learned by being on the other side of the closed door. All of us who cover politics think we know what's going on, but there is always that nagging doubt that we don't really know, that the secret eludes us. "The day I announced for council," she told me, "I believed that the city was really run by about ten people who had an unhealthy and incestuous relationship with city hall behind the scenes. Even when I was on the council, I still thought it was true. Now that I'm mayor, I see that we have the opposite problem. There are very few stakeholders who have a commitment to the long-term health of the city. Dallas has suffered for a long time for having lost its CEOs."

I knew exactly what she was talking about: the "yes or no" men. Before I had come to Dallas to interview Miller, I had dug out from a bookshelf a long-forgotten volume called Dallas Public and Private, written by a former Dallas Morning News reporter turned corporate executive named Warren Leslie. Writing in the weeks after the Kennedy assassination, when Dallas felt the onus of universal contempt, Leslie attempted to explain the peculiar civic psychology of Dallas to its residents and to the world. He started with Dallas' most cherished myth—that it had become a great city despite a poor location because its leading citizens had willed it to do so. "The truth is, there really isn't any reason for Dallas," Leslie wrote. "It sits in the middle of nowhere and nothing. The land around it is dry, black and unproductive; farmers do battle with it to exist. The only natural waterway is the Trinity River which is, alternately, almost invisible or flooding to the danger point." Leslie related how Dallas started on its way to becoming the largest inland city in the nation—a title it recently yielded to Phoenix—by bribing one railroad into coming to Dallas and outsmarting another by slipping into legislation a requirement that the train had to stop within a mile of Browder Springs, which happened to be in you know where. He quoted from a 1949 article about the city in Fortune: "Everything in Dallas is bigger and better; the parties are plushier, the buildings are more air-conditioned, the women better dressed and the girls more fetching. Dallas doesn't owe a thing to accident, nature or inevitability. It is what it is—even to the girls—because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way."

"The men of Dallas," Leslie wrote, meant the Citizens' Council, a group of business leaders organized in the thirties by a banker, civic leader, and future mayor named Bob Thornton. To belong, you had to be able to commit your company to donate money—to say yes or no. Leslie's thesis was that the narrowness of leadership had created a uniformity of ultraconservative thinking that made it possible for political extremism to gain a grip on the city in the years leading up to the assassination without anyone speaking up. The yes or no men did good things for Dallas, but they had also done incalculable harm. They ignored racial issues like substandard housing, excluded blacks from the decision-making process, and created racial polarization that persists to this day. Whatever was left of their influence dissipated when their banks and real estate interests went belly-up in the eighties or their companies moved to the suburbs.

City government's subsequent relationship with business leaders in the years after the collapse has been to give developers whatever they want for projects that can be located near downtown, such as the new American Airlines Center; otherwise, it ignores them—and vice versa. The cabal of business leaders that council member Miller had thought ran city hall, Mayor Miller found did not exist. When she tried to raise money for a downtown land-use study, she asked Robert Decherd, the CEO of downtown-based Belo Corp., which owns the Morning News and WFAA-TV, to contribute $25,000 and, as she tells the story, got an earful in response: "Why would I do anything for city hall when I can't even get my phone calls returned about changing a sign?" Today Decherd is the chairman of Miller's Inside the Loop 2003 committee, whose members, Miller said, "had to be able to commit their organizations." In other words, to say yes or no.

Other Miller efforts to reconstitute the business community as a force to get things done (and provide money) have been less successful. The Dallas Chamber of Commerce, she said, is a "gigantic disappointment" with "zero connection to city hall." Ray Hunt, whose Hyatt Hotel got all sorts of sweeteners from the city, has declined to help underwrite the planning for a Trinity River project that would turn a ribbon of dirty water and a bottomland of weeds and brush into a tollway, lakes, shops, residences, trails, a forest wilderness, and—maybe—the Cowboys' new stadium and an accompanying entertainment complex.

The lesson of this story is that Dallas faces the same issue today that it faced when the railroads were being built and when the yes or no men were being organized: As Warren Leslie put it, "There really isn't any reason for Dallas." The statement, coined to explain the city's strength, has become its weakness. In contemporary lingo, "Dallas has no sizzle." That's what Miller was told when she went to Washington, D.C., to woo national conventions to the city. Perhaps the river development can be to the Dallas of tomorrow what J.R. and America's Team were to the Dallas of yesterday. In the meantime, the city's future rests with a mayor whose first exposure to Dallas sizzle was wearing wool in September.

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