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.
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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 few days. I couldn’t breathe. He reviewed his notes, cleared his throat. He was relaxed, just doing his job. It seems, he finally said, that I had voted in local elections 30 times over the past ten years. But my opponent had voted 32 times. I had missed the previous year’s city council election and maybe one or two others. What exactly did I have to say for myself?
As a flush instantly rose up my neck to my face, I sensed for the first time in my life what I would sense again and again as a future council member: the slight disdain in the reporter’s voice, the tone of superiority, the pride of capture. “You sleazebag,” it said. “You loser.”
My second, unspoken, reaction was this: What the hell kind of exposé is this, you little creep? Why are you treating me like a felon? And why am I letting you?
My husband would tell you that one of the things that irritated him about my column writing was that, in his opinion, I saw things only as black and white, never gray. I used to wince at that remark, but it’s hard to say it wasn’t true. My columns were built on an unshakable bedrock of deeply felt personal precepts: Bad legislation should be killed. Good legislation should be passed. Rich guys shouldn’t get handouts from the government. The government should focus on delivering basic services, especially to those who foot the bill. Public officials should never personally benefit from, nor should they abuse, their positions. People who help the less fortunate are saintly. People who tell lies are evil. Evilness should always be exposed, preferably in one of my columns.
All of which made for interesting reading. But how would it play out in politics? I, of course, thought it was a match made in heaven. Wick Allison, the publisher of D Magazine (which I used to freelance for), disagreed completely. “Can she be effective? Probably not,” he wrote in a column during my candidacy to fill the unexpired term of my predecessor. “Soloists are notoriously bad choir members. Miller doesn’t know how to cut deals, and she won’t want to learn; she’ll only slice up anyone who tries. Remember, she’s always on the right side, and she stands on the moral high ground. The resulting corollary is that everybody else is on the wrong side and on morally lower ground. This will make for limited conversational opportunities with fellow council members.”
I remember being stung by those words. Back then, I had a ridiculously simplistic view of my job change: I was merely going from being a journalistic watchdog of the people to being an elected watchdog of the people. If Wick Allison didn’t see it that way, surely my alma mater, the Observer, would—after all, they knew where I came from, so they would naturally approve of where I was going. Wrong again. Within days of my election victory over two opponents, the Observer reprinted every nasty thing I’d ever written about the council members I was now going to serve with. (Which I certainly would have done if I’d been writing.) On the heels of that came a long assessment of my first week in office, which, as luck would have it, had thrust me into a zoning holy war between the biggest economic engine in my district, the local hospital, and some of the toughest neighborhood sharks in the city. “[Pam] Conley, a very intense, wiry, big-eyed lady who can go from coquette to bulldog in the blink of an eye, says she’s proud of having intimidated Miller during a lonely elevator ride at City Hall, especially after Miller had appeared at Conley’s neighborhood meeting using a lot of swear words.”
Guess who doesn’t swear (in public) anymore?
Actually, Allison’s words no longer wound. Like my husband’s remarks about my writing, I can see the truth in them. “Soloists are notoriously bad choir members.” Well, no one on the city council would accuse me of being in the choir, that’s for sure.
Allison’s theory was put to the test immediately. In June 1998, the first month I was on the council, then-city manager John Ware put an innocuous-looking item at the tail end of a 143-item voting agenda. We were being asked, for no apparent reason, to put some vacant city-owned land up for sale for a minimum bid of $2,000. It was 1.4 acres of property just off a major downtown highway, and I remember wondering how it could possibly be worth only $2,000. But I was new on the council, and that morning I’d already lost a bloody battle over giving the city’s precious power of eminent domain to Ross Perot, Jr., so I said nothing. We voted unanimously on a voice vote in a split second to approve the sale. The next morning a reporter called me on the phone. “You’re the so-called expert on Ray Hunt—do you know what you voted on yesterday?” Well, it turns out that Ray Hunt wanted the land so he could expand his Hyatt Regency Hotel. Not only were we not told that, but included in the fine print of our agenda item was a waiver of two significant city policies. First, no For Sale sign would be posted on the land, as is typically required. And second, no area realtors would be notified that the land was for sale. But it was the $2,000 price tag that was most outrageous. According to an appraisal commissioned by the city, the land was worth $1.7 million. But thanks to a previous (bad) deal that the city had cut back in 1974, Hunt had one-hundred-year leases on numerous parcels of city-owned land around his hotel (25 acres in all), many of which he leased for $100 a year, including the parcel that was for sale. Since the land that Hunt now wanted to buy was encumbered by that lease, the city staff had decided that it was worth only $2,000.
Why would intelligent city bureaucrats, who are paid big salaries by the taxpayers to protect their interests, forgo $1.7 million? Government Lesson Number One: The council-manager form of government is designed to get “politics” out of “government” and let management professionals run the city in a businesslike way—but all too often, the business community is the bureaucrats’ real constituency, not the council or the taxpayers. (And often, it’s their future employer too: Ware had announced two weeks earlier that he was quitting his job to go work for Tom Hicks, the Dallas Stars hockey team owner who had spent much of 1997 holed up behind closed doors with Ware negotiating the $125 million tax subsidy for himself for a new arena for his team.) Surely, I thought, the council would cry foul once they were aware of the facts. Here was my argument: If Hunt didn’t want to pay market value for the land, the taxpayers didn’t have to sell it to him; we could just abide by the lease until Hunt wanted the land badly enough to pay what it was worth. Better still, it just so happened that the city needed some of Hunt’s land (in that same area) for a future convention center expansion—why not view this as an opportunity to renegotiate the 1974 deal and do a land swap?
Only one council member agreed with me: Donna Blumer. A veteran of eight years and my one true council ally, Blumer represents the wealthiest part of North Dallas, and despite her tony constituents, she is a tigress about government giveaways and waste, beholden to no one and intimidated by nothing. Although she and I missed the boat on allowing the land adjacent to the Hyatt to be put on the market for such a paltry amount, we both voted no—and we were the only ones to do so—when the council was asked seven weeks later to approve the sale for $100,000 to the highest of five sealed bids. That bid, of course, belonged to Ray Hunt.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Hunt apparently was not satisfied with the council’s largesse—he didn’t want to have to pay property taxes on the hotel expansion either. So Ware, whose last day at city hall was the day we accepted Hunt’s bid, placed another item on our agenda for two weeks hence, exempting Hunt from 90 percent of those taxes for ten years—a savings of $2.9 million. Hunt also requested a rebate of all the building-permit fees that everyone (else) incurs when they do construction. Ware dutifully recommended we approve a $40,000 rebate.
The council was only slightly nauseated by this plethora of riches: The vote this time was 10-5 in favor of Hunt.
As a reporter, i spent years observing city council meetings, during which I usually ended up asking myself, What are these people doing? Why don’t they just do the right thing? Why is my version of the “right thing” so different from their version of the “right thing”? Why don’t they just do what the citizens who elected them want them to do instead of doing what the city’s business leaders want them to do? Worse, why do they always insist on doing it in the name of “doing what’s best for Dallas?”Now I am finishing my second term on the council, and I still don’t know the answers. I have spent much more time than I would have liked on the losing side of lopsided votes, and whenever I argue against this subsidy or that tax break for the rich and powerful, I think, “There, that’s sure to convince them.” It never does. Government Lesson Number Two: Politics is not a debating society. Politicians make up their minds how they are going to vote for many reasons, but one of the rarest is a fact-packed argument made in the heat of battle.
As a reporter, I was forever searching for specific explanations for defy-all-logic behavior—bribes, arm-twisting, threats, payback, flashy gifts, hefty campaign contributions. I dug and dug and searched and searched. And if I couldn’t pinpoint the reason, I figured it was because of my failure to find it, not that it didn’t exist. Now, as a politician, I see that political causation is far less tidy.
Government Lesson Number Three: Just about everybody in politics thinks that they are doing the right thing. But why would elected officials think that rubber stamping a $4.6 million gift to an exceedingly prosperous oilman like Hunt—in his twenty-fifth year of uninterrupted city subsidy, in a time of unprecedented prosperity for everyone in Dallas except the lowly taxpayers—is the right thing? Government Lesson Number Four: Because this is Dallas. Every city has its rich and powerful business leaders who want city hall to make them richer, but only in Dallas is the view so widely held that, yes, of course, the city should do it. And the choir goes along. On and on ad nauseam, the council is presented with proposals for tax abatements, rebates, grants, infrastructure reimbursements, forgivable loans, and insanely cheap land. And every time, the argument is the same: This is good for Dallas, and so if you’re not for this deal, then you’re not for Dallas.
So, Wick, you were right: I am not a good choir member. I just can’t get rid of the attitudes I developed as a reporter, especially my belief that the City of Dallas gives away far too much taxpayer money to those who need it the least. Then, to add insult to injury, we turn around, lament the fact that we don’t have enough money, and deliver mediocre city services to the average, working-class citizens who never get any tax breaks and would never even think to ask for any.
Okay, okay, I know this sounds self-righteous. I admit it. And sanctimonious. (The Observer recently described me as a “sanctimonious vigilante.”) But when I was first running for office, I seriously worried that if I actually won, I would wake up the morning after the election and be a totally different person. Somehow, the mere mantle of the job would automatically transform me into an agonizer and a compromiser who would never again make a spontaneous, nakedly honest statement about anything. After all, as a reporter, I’d seen plenty of candidates go from being passionate populists on the campaign trail to indistinguishable pulp in office. “Just shoot me when it happens,” I told people, who promised to do just that.
Well, no one has had to shoot me. But, I can tell you, doing things my way does come with distinct disadvantages.
When I joined the council, I was, as they say in politics, radioactive. As a columnist, I had made unflattering comments about a number of council members, particularly Mayor Ron Kirk. A lawyer, a former legislative lobbyist for the city, and an African American, Kirk is probably the greatest salesman the city has ever had. He’s a terrific ambassador for Dallas. He can be charming and self-deprecating, and he is one of the funniest people I know. On the other hand, he can be hot tempered and mean, and he constantly gives away the city store. He remains permanently and irrevocably exasperated with me. He recently told me over lunch that he’s not sure which he dislikes more—my writing about the council or my serving on it. And we both laughed. In the council-manager system of government, the mayor and the council have little real power. But make no mistake, Ron Kirk is a powerful mayor. Government Lesson Number Five: Personality and popularity matter more than the limitations of position. The business community relies on Kirk to keep all bad things from happening, which he usually does, and to be the chief salesman for their projects—in particular, a new sports arena (51 percent of the voters agreed to levy car rental and hotel room taxes to generate the city’s $125 million share) and the Trinity River Corridor Project (51.6 percent voted to spend $246 million in bond money to build a tollway, a lake, and some parks and levees in the river bottoms). Kirk is paid a six-figure salary by a downtown law while he is mayor; he freely admits he does very little legal work. Fear of Kirk—of having him publicly humiliate you, privately revile you, gleefully strip you of any leadership post he bestows upon you—is one of the most prevalent themes on the council.
Kirk gets a large helping hand with damage control from the Dallas Morning News (for which I wrote from 1983 to 1986). The News not only embraces everything the business establishment pushes as “good for Dallas,” but, in those rare instances when a reporter digs up an embarrassing fact that can’t be easily ignored, it may appear as a one-day story that is barely mentioned later—a case in point being the report, shortly after the hotly contested sports arena vote, that Kirk’s wife had accepted a $12,000 annual corporate board salary and more than $500,000 in stock options from one of Tom Hicks’s companies before her husband joined the city manager behind closed doors to negotiate the $125 million tax subsidy for Hicks.
When Kirk appointed his council committee chairs in 1999, I swallowed my pride and asked him to make me chair of the Housing and Neighborhood Development Committee, which handles all of the meat-and-potatoes issues that I care about. Whatever I managed to accomplish in that position, I promised the mayor, I would give him all the credit, just for giving me the opportunity. He scoffed: “You’re not on the team. People who aren’t on the team don’t get chairmanships.” And that is Government Lesson Number Six.
As Wick Allison predicted, “Miller doesn’t know how to cut deals, and she won’t want to learn; she’ll only slice up anyone who tries.” What if, in our discussion of the team, Kirk had said to me, “If I make you the chairman of Housing, will you shut up about the arena and fully support the Dallas 2012 Olympic bid?” I wonder what I would have said. “Fine”? Or “Don’t pull any quid pro quo with me”? Would I have felt like a sellout? Or a really smart pol? Would the chance to make an impact on the so-called little issues be worth going along on the big ones—especially since I typically lost the votes on those anyway? I simply don’t know.
In the wake of Kirk’s successes on the arena and Trinity projects, he admitted in his annual State of the City address that the quality of city services had declined. “With our thriving economy, the time has been right to capture important long-term projects,” he said, “but now we must refocus on the nuts and bolts of our city services. Problems facing code enforcement, housing, and city streets are realities that can no longer be ignored.”
I praised him profusely for his speech that day—but a mere three weeks later, Kirk announced that he was backing the Dallas business community’s grandiose plan to lure the 2012 Olympic Games to town. The business leaders promised to fund the $5 million bid and the $2.2 billion Games with private money, but Blumer and I were skeptical: If they wouldn’t build their own arenas or pay their own property taxes on their projects, why would they pony up hundreds of millions to build athletic facilities, housing, media centers, and transportation systems that they ultimately wouldn’t own or control?
To obtain a unanimous vote for a crucial council resolution endorsing the Olympic effort, Kirk agreed to accept an amendment from Blumer that prevented the city from ever allocating more than a “minimal” amount of taxpayer money and city staff time to the Games. But this past November, only two years into the fourteen-year effort, the Dallas 2012 Committee requested that the council remove that restriction. The outcome was a familiar one: The council voted to remove it, 12-2.
Oh, well, you can’t win them all. But I did see a victory last spring after the city staff and the Dallas Park and Recreation Board (appointed by the city council) unexpectedly decided to shut down 26 neighborhood swimming pools—more than half the pools in the city. The pools were small, old, and in need of updating (new filtration systems, handicapped drinking fountains, and restrooms) to comply with new state regulations, but the majority of them were in the poorest neighborhoods and were much loved by the surrounding residents. The most beloved pool of all was located in my council district. Only one Park board member, my appointee Ralph Isenberg, cried foul. The city staff, he said, had briefed the board about the new regulations too late to fix the pools before summer and, for good measure, had floated a grossly overblown $4 million price tag to do the repairs. So began a two-month odyssey. First, I got a real cost estimate for fixing our pool—a manageable $30,000. Then I found existing bond money to pay for it. Then I went to the Park board, hat in hand and neighbors in tow, and begged them to make an exception for our one pool. The answer was no.
I appealed to city manager Ted Benavides, who told me he wanted nothing to do with saving my little pool. In fact, he said, he completely understood why the Park department wanted to keep me from opening it. “They have a business plan,” Benavides told me matter-of-factly. “And if you let one council member interfere with the plan, that invites other council members to interfere with it, and then you unravel the plan.” Government Lesson Number Seven: No system that gives bureaucrats more power than elected officials is good.
Finally, the only option I had left was to appeal directly to my colleagues, none of whom wanted to get involved in this issue. I spent an entire rainy day on the telephone, trying desperately to get four of them to support putting my pool repairs on a future council agenda. (It takes five council members to get an item on the agenda, which is otherwise controlled by the mayor and the city manager.) At five o’clock, fifteen minutes before the deadline, I made a last-ditch attempt—in my car, on my cell phone, in the rain—to find deputy mayor pro tem Steve Salazar in Japan, where he was on a city trade mission. By what I can only attribute to divine providence, Salazar answered his hotel room phone and became my fifth signature.
But I knew I faced an uphill battle. Park board members were lobbying the council not to make an exception for my pool. A few of my peers feared they would look bad if I saved my pool but they didn’t save theirs (not that they were trying). One felt I wasn’t respecting “the process” by not going along with the staff’s recommendation. And another saw this as an irresistible opportunity to lecture me about … me: “Do you respect us? I mean, do you really respect us? Because, in our opinion, you don’t act like you do.” A long-winded response about how much I respected the council failed to get me her signature.
I managed to line up a corporate gift of $50,000 to repair the pool, but it had to be accepted by the council. After a vitriolic debate, the council voted 8-6 to accept the donation. But as the vote was read aloud, a clearly surprised mayor loudly and pointedly asked an ally if she had made a mistake voting yes. “Oh, yes” was the quick response. “I must have hit the wrong button.” As I yelled out to her to stay the course, the mayor allowed the vote to be changed and the motion failed.
Which would have been the end of it, except that a North Dallas resident with a good heart, a humble-paying job, a couple of kids, and no previous interest in politics heard about the vote on the radio at work that morning and became suddenly seized with a severe case of moral outrage. Tim Daniels went home to his wife at lunch and told her he was going to open a bank account to raise money for the pools. And that’s what he did. And then he called me. In the ensuing 28-day blitzkrieg of activity—constant radio and TV coverage, e-mail and fax overload at city hall, a saveourpools.com Web page, eight billboards donated by local businessmen stating “Millions for Billionaires, But Zero for Kids,” and a pools fund-raiser on the City Hall Plaza, where I was repeatedly soaked in a dunking booth for the cause—we raised $100,000.
Through it all, Kirk repeatedly told the public not to bother making donations because the pools were never going to open. Which only stirred up the public more. Finally, after a month, Kirk gave in, instantly bringing all but one member of the council with him. “I never change my mind,” he told me and a reporter the day the issue came to a head at a council meeting. “That is, I never change my mind until the public beats the crap out of me, and then I change my mind.” We fixed four swimming pools in four council districts by midsummer. Government Lesson Number Eight: You can fight city hall—but only if you wake up the sleeping giant called the masses to help you do it. On the opening day of my pool, I swam with Tim Daniels; my Park board appointee, Isenberg; and my three kids. It was the sweetest day I’ve had in public service.
It sounds trite to say that thanks to my unexpected foray into politics, I now believe that journalism would be a much more thoughtful, reasoned, credible institution if every reporter were forced to run for some sort of public office at least once. But it’s true. Being the pursued and realizing that you have zero control over what people tell the public about you, because they’re going to write whatever they darned please, is a humbling and frightening experience, and it poses the ultimate question to someone like me: If I ever go back to journalism, will I be any good at it? Conversely, will I be much better at it?I think the latter, in part because of what happened when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, only two months after I was sworn into office. I recall with extreme clarity the morning after the surgery that removed a malignant tumor from my left breast. My husband had taken the kids to school, and I was drinking coffee and aching over the morning paper. The phone rang. It was a young, unmarried, carefree city hall reporter for the Morning News: “I hear you either have breast cancer or you had a test for breast cancer. Which is it?”
I wasn’t ready to discuss it yet, I told him. I hadn’t gotten back the pathology report from the procedure, and until I knew how serious my situation was, my husband and I had decided to postpone telling our children. I would let him know when I was ready to go public. The reporter paused. “That’s fine,” he said, “but my editor and I have discussed this, and we’ve decided that if we think you’re not able to represent your constituents, we’re going to write the story anyway.”
Which has not endeared me to my former profession.
Quite frankly, I’ll take the public over the media any day, even when I get a question like, “Why don’t you shut up and get out of politics since you’re such a loudmouth and so completely ineffective”? A man did ask me that recently, following a speech I gave to a breakfast club of mostly wealthy businessmen. The questioner added that I should take more advice from my universally respected husband, who was clearly a much better politician than I. When he said that, the room grew quiet. People were embarrassed for me. I just smiled at the man, knowing what I would say—that I agreed with the part about the more politically savvy husband. But in the second before I answered, the seasoned journalist that I used to be spoke to the politician that I am: “You did this to yourself, pal,” I heard it say. “Nobody forced you to run for public office.”