For years journalist Laura Miller has attacked elected officials in Dallas. Now she may be one.
MOST YEARS, A CITY COUNCIL CAMPAIGN in Dallas has all the excitement of airline food. It’s hard to find anyone who knows the names of the candidates, let alone what those candidates stand for. But this year is different: On May 2 Dallas’ most combative and controversial journalist, 39-year-old Laura Miller, vies for a vacant council seat. Since entering the race, Miller has been topic A among not only the usual political junkies but also a number of voters who wonder what the onetime columnist for the city’s alternative weekly, the Dallas Observer, will do if she gets elected.
With her arctic-blue eyes, blond-streaked hair, and penchant for designer clothing, Miller looks more like a buckmaker than a muckraker. In fact, her father is Philip Miller, the CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue. She drives around Dallas in a white Mercedes and lives in an expensive neighborhood just south of downtown with her husband, Steve Wolens, a longtime Democratic state legislator who is a partner at a prominent Dallas civil law firm. All three of their children attend private school.
Although Miller can be enormously charming and affable around her friends and acquaintances, she is an attack dog when she gets behind her computer, viciously lambasting local politicians and leaders of the city’s wealthy establishment. During her six-year tenure at the Observer—which ended when she resigned to run last December—she declared that Dallas mayor Ron Kirk did little but cater to rich developers (she called him the “chief water carrier” for the city’s professional sports teams). She described city manager John Ware as a “mean son of a bitch” who didn’t hesitate to “lie and cheat” to win approval for a major public project. And when it came to the fourteen members of the city council, Miller was positively vitriolic, calling them everything from buffoons to crooks. She labeled one member a “pompous ignoramus,” ripped into another for flipping through a Christmas catalog during a meeting, and derided a third as the council’s “cellular-phone queen” because she kept using her city-issued mobile phone to make personal calls.
Such a slam-bang writing style generated a loyal Dallas following: Miller was often praised in letters to the Observer’s editor for being the one reporter willing to root out civic corruption and ineptitude. But her columns generated equally vociferous criticism. “Laura was very meanspirited to some decent, well- meaning people, and she did not even try to adhere to standards of journalistic integrity,” says the normally diplomatic Kirk, who adds that because of Miller’s attacks on black leaders like him, Ware, and Dallas county commissioner John Wiley Price, many of the city’s African Americans believe she’s racist. “They tell me I’m being naive about her,” he says, “but I don’t think so. I think Laura, like a lot of journalists, just arrogantly believes that she is a whole lot smarter than everyone else.”
Miller does not apologize for any of the personal attacks in her columns, including her last one for the Observer in which she announced her city council candidacy under the headline Mr. Mayor, Meet Your Nightmare. “I wrote about people who were doing something in the news that I found questionable, dishonest, or unethical,” she says, “regardless of what color they were or how much money they had.” Maybe so, but it’s one thing to take shots as a writer and another to make friends as a politician. “Laura is very bright and could be an effective councilperson,” says Kirk, “but I’ll be interested to see if she can create a consensus with council members who have been savaged by her.”
Baltimore-born and Connecticut-bred, Miller graduated from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and political science and came to Dallas in 1983 to work at the Dallas Morning News. She never planned to enter politics. “I never liked politicians,” she says. “When I first met Steve, I thought, ‘Well, this will never work. I can’t imagine dating a politician, let alone marrying one.’ But after all the columns I had written about the way city government was cheating taxpayers or mismanaging their money, the bottom line was that nothing had changed. As a journalist, I was shooting into the wind. I realized I could go back to my office and sulk and write more stories in a vacuum or I could taste what it’s like on the other side.”
Her first challenge was convincing her husband that two politicians in the family were better than one. Wolens was not initially thrilled about Miller’s candidacy: He admits he told friends that he was “a reluctant supporter.” “What makes Laura such a good columnist is that she sees things in black and white,” he explains. “In politics, she’s going to learn quickly that a lot of issues in life are colored gray.” Nevertheless, he has become her unofficial adviser, debating campaign strategy with her every morning at the breakfast table. “For us, fierce debate is a form of entertainment,” he says.
Away from the house, at least, Miller has remained the model of decorum, proclaiming in her speeches that she will do everything she can to work with other city officials. Local political consultants say that because of her name recognition alone, she should handily beat her main opponent, Luis Sepulveda, a little-known political activist whose campaign strategy has consisted mainly of calling Miller “an affluent aristocrat” who cannot relate to common people. To combat that perception, Miller has been campaigning door to door through poor and middle-class neighborhoods. One afternoon, wearing Joseph Abboud pants and a sleek brown raincoat, she dumped over a huge can filled with rainwater for an elderly lady who had no place to put her trash. At the behest of another resident, Miller went through deed records at the courthouse to find the absentee owner of an abandoned, rat-infested home and then got city permission to have the house demolished. “I got more satisfaction watching that house come down than I did from anything I have written about in the last two or three years,” she says.
Such work might be fun now, but skeptics say Miller could quickly tire of the whole experience—especially if she angers Kirk, who could keep her off key committees or cut deals with other council members to vote as a block against whatever she proposes. Other journalists wonder if Miller is running so that she can write a book someday about her time on the other side of the fence. Miller herself predicts that she’ll miss the way her column let her speak in-depth directly to the public—a city council member is lucky to get a ten-second soundbite on the local news—but she insists she’s running only to be a good public servant. “Who knows?” she muses. “Maybe I won’t be good as a politician. But I always thought I could do things better. And now it’s time to show that I can.”