Life of the Party

Just when you thought that the Republicans had a lock on Texas, a gubernatorial debate and a mayoral election indicate that the Democrats are very much alive.

April 2002By Comments

POLITICS IS SO DELICIOUSLY unpredictable. Texas Republicans entered 2002 anticipating their second straight sweep of every statewide office and judgeship plus the election of substantial majorities in the state House and Senate. All of this may yet come to pass. But two occurrences in Dallas during the last days of winter suggest that the Democrats are far from dead. One was the historic debates, in English and in Spanish, between Democratic gubernatorial candidates Tony Sanchez and Dan Morales; the other was the election of populist Laura Miller as mayor of Dallas in a nonpartisan race. The events were significant in their own right, but equally significant was the hoopla that surrounded them.

I was a questioner for the English-language debate between Sanchez and Morales, and I had spent a placid morning at the studios of KERA-TV, the PBS station that was hosting the debates, going over the procedures for the telecast with other panelists. When I returned in the late afternoon, the place had been transformed into a media circus. More than one hundred reporters, many from South Texas and Mexico, had descended on the studios to report on a debate that they were going to have to watch on TV monitors, no provision having been made for a live audience. Reporters stood outside in a misty rain broadcasting live reports, some of them in Spanish. After the English-language debate, first Morales and then Sanchez found their way to the pressroom blocked by hordes of reporters. Still others had climbed up a stairway that made right-angle turns and were leaning far over the railing, shouting questions in two languages. The wild scene resembled a trading pit at a commodities exchange.

The challenge facing the Democrats this fall is whether they will be able to turn out their vote on Election Day. Everyone in Texas politics knows that the Hispanic vote is a sleeping giant, but historically it has been more sleeping than giant. Can that change? The atmosphere at KERA suggests that it can. Here is your basic election math: Republicans currently enjoy at least an 8-percentage-point advantage over Democrats in party-preference polls. Take 8 percent of the 1998 turnout of around 3.8 million voters, and you come up with a built-in GOP margin of around 300,000 votes. To neutralize the GOP’s advantage, therefore, the magic number for Democrats is 300,000 more voters for their candidate than they turned out in 1998. Is that possible? Hispanics accounted for 16 percent of the votes cast in 1998. That’s a little over 600,000 votes. Another 300,000 would require a 50 percent increase in the Hispanic vote. Almost no one outside of the Sanchez campaign thinks this is likely.

I was a skeptic too, before the debate. But the frenzy at KERA indicates that the Democrats are going to have a strong ally in their get-out-the-vote efforts: the media. The prospect that a Hispanic could be elected governor of Texas is the story of the year for local stations in that portion of Texas that lies south of Interstate 10 from El Paso to San Antonio and Interstate 37 from San Antonio to Corpus Christi. Out of sight of Anglo Texas, it will also be a huge story for Univision and Telemundo, which are available on most cable TV lineups. If the election turns into a media event, in which Hispanic voters can star in their own drama, the sleeping giant could wake up.

Laura Miller’s election was expected—she had missed winning without a runoff by a tiny fraction of the vote—and yet it was a landmark event as well. Dallas is a city in which success in citywide elections has usually depended upon being on “the team” (meaning the local business establishment). A few mayors have bucked the trend over the years—such as Wes Wise and at times Steve Bartlett—but the preferred route was the one more traveled by. Yet Miller made her reputation as a city hall critic, first at the late Dallas Times Herald, then at the weekly Dallas Observer; her favorite target was her predecessor as mayor, Ron Kirk. When she decided to run for a council seat that had just been vacated, she announced her intentions in an Observer cover story headlined, “Mr. Mayor, Meet Your Nightmare.” Kirk’s classic response to her election was that he didn’t know which he liked less: her writing about the city council or serving on it. [She did both: see “How I Learned to Hate the Media and Love Politics (Well, Sort of),” TM, March 2001]. Ironically, Kirk made Miller’s run for mayor possible by leaving office early to seek the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.

As a council member, Miller fought lonely, losing battles against such Kirk-backed projects as a new sports arena (which is now in operation) and Dallas’ bid for the 2012 Olympics (which failed). Her argument was that Dallas couldn’t afford to hand out special deals and subsidies to business when it meant that potholes went unfilled and swimming pools had to be closed. To counter her image as a gadfly, she ran for mayor on the slogan, “A Big Vision of the Little Things.”

Miller considers herself a Democrat, and her husband is longtime Democratic state representative Steve Wolens, a senior committee chairman in the House who has passed major legislation, including electric deregulation and an ethics bill. The significance of Miller’s election is the coalition she put together: the large cadre of voters who were disenchanted with city hall and, amazingly, North Dallas Republicans who were attracted by her fiscal conservatism and her life story. She is a soccer mom and a breast cancer survivor (In 1998 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a photograph of her coaching her daughter Lily’s soccer team the day after her first chemotherapy treatment). She is always dressed to the nines, as one would expect the daughter of former Saks Fifth Avenue chairman Philip Miller to be. On the day I joined her and her husband for lunch at the fashionable Palomino restaurant in the Hotel Crescent Court, she was head-to-toe Chanel: a red bouclé jacket and a black skirt with black boots, accented by a pearl necklace and earrings and perfectly coiffed, short-cropped hair. “Never underestimate the power of designer dresses in Dallas politics,” a woman who had backed Miller’s run-off opponent told me.

This crossover appeal makes Miller a potentially formidable figure in Texas politics. She is smart, articulate, knowledgeable, and made-for-TV. “Rick Perry’s worst nightmare,” one Capitol lobbyist and longtime friend of Wolens told me, referring to 2006 in the event that Perry wins reelection this year. The lobbyist was not the only person to figure this out; one congratulatory call to Miller came from Terry McAuliffe, the national chairman of the Democratic party.

But Miller professes to have no interest in higher office. “All the issues Steve cares about, I can’t stand,” she told me. Once, she went to Austin to testify against one of Wolens’ bills. The Morning News headlined the incident, “Bedfellows Make Strange Politics.” I have been privy to some of their marital discussions about politics, in which Steve, once regarded as a gadfly himself, told Laura that she could get so much more done if she would just try to work things out instead of being a critic. In time, however, he came to see the difference between a constituency of hundreds—Capitol insiders, who regard him as one of the two or three best members of the Legislature—and a constituency of thousands of people who, before Miller ran for office, felt unrepresented. “When we drive around Dallas, I can’t see anything that I did,” he told me. “I can’t see electric deregulation. I can’t see ethics. Then I see Laura talking on her cell phone: ‘Let’s fix that pothole. There’s a broken curb at this corner; please fix it.’ There’s no other place in government where you can get immediate gratification. You can bring home your bacon and eat it the same day.”

For Miller to have a political future, she will have to be a successful mayor, which will require her, among other things, to win over council members she has criticized in the past. Miller is confident that she can do it. “I met with almost everybody and asked them, ‘Tell me the top ten things I can do for your district,'” she said. “I don’t think they have ever been asked that before. If they have something they want on the briefing agenda [which is controlled by the mayor and the city manager], they don’t have to get five votes. Just tell me, and I’ll put it on the agenda.” She is also determined to open up the decision-making process by the city staff to the press and the public. “We pay them millions of dollars to give us predetermined outcomes, which I just hate,” she said.

The real test, however, will be how she handles the business deals she has always opposed. For the truth is that Dallas is a troubled city—hemmed in by suburbs, abandoned by many large businesses, burdened by bad schools. Its banks, once the centerpiece of the local economy, are long gone. Downtown Dallas needs some of the projects she scorns, such as another sports arena; if the city doesn’t come through, those suburbs are always beckoning. She will have to deliver on her potholes promises to the people who elected her, but she will also have to deliver something—maybe a revised Trinity River project—for business.

This year may not turn out to be a decisive one. The state may not yet be ready to elect a Hispanic Democrat. Dallas may not be ready to embrace Laura Miller’s ideas in practice. But one can see in these developments the renewed vitality of a two-party system that seemed to be dead as recently as a few months ago. This is good news for the Democrats, and although the Republicans won’t like to hear it, it’s good news for them too.

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