Mayor Struggles With Ties to Black Community

Times Staff Writer

Laura Miller, the mayor of Dallas, set down the script of her State of the City speech and smiled as the audience applauded.

The civic leaders, however, were not cheering her accomplishments -- her efforts to rid City Hall of inefficient bureaucrats or to revitalize a downtown that is gleaming by day and abandoned in parts at night. The crowd at the recent event was cheering, in effect, her defeat -- the failure of her effort to upend the structure of city government by vastly increasing the power of her office.

“Citizens did not want that version of change,” Miller said. When some in the audience clapped, she said: “I’ll take any applause I can get.”

It was a telling moment in a city struggling to move on after a divisive spring. A May ballot initiative, opponents argued, could have made Miller one of the most powerful big-city mayors in the nation. It failed by such a convincing margin -- 62% to 38% -- that it might have had the opposite effect.


The “strong mayor” initiative, opposed by all 14 members of the City Council and many of the city’s prominent figures, has left Miller isolated and, arguably, weaker than she would have been had it never been proposed.

And the African American community -- which has clashed with Miller and saw the measure as an affront to its political viability -- is more powerful than ever, credited with causing its defeat. “This was the black community showing its muscle,” said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Dallas, the nation’s ninth-largest city, has a population of 1.2 million, about 23% of which is black. Most blacks live in South Dallas, a long-neglected sector that seems a world away from the clean industry and white-collar companies that Dallas has attracted in recent years -- almost all of them to white, more affluent areas north of downtown.

In 1990, however, blacks won a hard-fought court order that created a new system of government. Dallas adopted what is known as a “14-1" system -- 14 City Council members elected in districts and a mayor elected citywide. The system was designed to make the council look more representative of its diverse city, and it worked. There are four African Americans and three Latinos on the council.

The May ballot initiative would have eliminated the position of city manager and transferred those powers to Miller.

Miller would have had the power to hire and fire top officials, such as police and fire chiefs. Like mayors in New York City and Chicago, she would have been able to set the city’s agenda and control political boards and the $1.9-billion annual budget.

Consolidating power in the mayor’s office meant taking power away from the council. Many blacks concluded that the measure would have undone the progress won through the 14-1 system.

For instance, the system requires a two-thirds vote of the City Council to hire or fire a city manager -- often the most important voice in City Hall. That has long encouraged collaboration and moderation on the council, analysts say, all of which could have vanished under the ballot initiative.

Blacks say they need to hang on to every bit of representation they have because of the gulf that continues to separate them from the rest of the city. They point, for example, to two parallel highway projects in the city -- U.S. 75 through North Dallas, a project that is ahead of schedule, and Interstate 35 through South Dallas, which is behind.

“It was a naked power grab,” said Rufus Shaw Jr., a Dallas political analyst and a columnist for the Elite News, a black weekly newspaper. “It took power from individual districts where we are best represented.”

Opposition in black neighborhoods was far more fervent than support for the measure was in wealthier neighborhoods, Wilson said. Approximately 60% of white voters supported the measure, and 85% of black voters opposed it.

“The mayor never made the case about why, exactly, this was so important,” Wilson said.

The Dallas mayor has historically been little more than a figurehead, the most visible face of the city, perhaps, but someone with little more practical power than some City Council members.

Miller’s predecessors -- Ron Kirk, Steve Bartlett and Annette Strauss -- were seen as coalition builders. They were people who “did not want to rock the boat,” Wilson said -- friends of the powerful business community, which has long run the city and has historically favored a weak-mayor system.

Miller, 46, arrived with an abrasive style and the belief that her ascension to the mayor’s office in 2002 came with a mandate for change.

The daughter of a wealthy department store executive, Miller was born in Baltimore. In 1977, her family moved to Dallas, where her father became president of Neiman Marcus, the upscale retailer.

After internships at the Dallas Times Herald and the Los Angeles Times, she began a journalism career that took her to the Falklands War and Grace Kelly’s funeral in Monaco.

In 1991, she became the political columnist of the Dallas Observer, where she wrote a series of articles. Many railed about incompetence and corruption, and some took on popular figures in the African American community.

Her final column was written in 1997. The headline was addressed to Kirk: “Mr. Mayor, Meet Your Nightmare.” She announced that she was running for City Council. She won handily and continued her crusading ways upon taking office.

During her term on the council she frequently clashed with Kirk, a popular African American whose job she eventually took when he stepped down to pursue a U.S. Senate seat. Kirk lost to then-Texas Atty. Gen. John Cornyn.

Miller also took on Terrell Bolton, the city’s first black police chief. Miller was convinced that he was incompetent; Dallas’ crime rates were among the highest in the nation among large cities. But she called for his resignation for two years before he was fired in 2003. That was too long, she said, and she began to push for more mayoral power.

An attorney wrote a proposal to strengthen the mayor’s office. Miller initially opposed it, saying she thought the measure was flawed. She later decided it was a step in the right direction and backed it.

In an interview, Miller said she continued to believe that Dallas deserved a stronger mayor. She called the current structure of government a “dinosaur.”

Dallas is at the hub of a sprawling and growing “Metroplex.” Much of the development recently has taken place in suburbs north of Dallas, where schools are better and crime rates lower. If population trends hold up, suburban Plano will be larger than Dallas in 20 years.

In an effort to energize the city, Miller has pushed ambitious proposals. They include the Trinity River Corridor Project, a plan that would provide a sweeping makeover to central Dallas and would represent the largest public works project ever undertaken in the city.

“When you get elected, you should be able to pursue your vision,” she said.

Miller, who is married to a former state legislator and has three children, said her greatest disappointment as a public official was her inability to connect with the black community -- particularly, she said, as a “Yankee woman who is a closet Democrat” (her office is officially nonpartisan) and who went to the University of Wisconsin (an institution many perceive as liberal).

“The fact that I am a mayor in the South and have this issue with the African American community is very disappointing,” she said.

Miller said she was redoubling efforts to support projects important to the black community. She is trying to overhaul the only mall in South Dallas, for instance, which she said is currently “on the verge of collapse.”

“It’s important that the mayor of a city this size has the support from all of the communities,” she said.

Shaw said that was unlikely. “I’ve known Laura Miller for 20 years,” he said. “We’re just done with her.”

Miller will be up for reelection in 2007 and the black community is marshaling to field a strong candidate. But the season of discontent here, it seems, will not end anytime soon.

Last month, the FBI served search warrants as part of an investigation into undisclosed allegations of bribery and fraud. Among those whose offices and homes were searched was the man widely considered the leading African American candidate to challenge Miller, City Councilman Don Hill. Hill has denied wrongdoing.