As a take-no-prisoners political columnist for an alternative newspaper in Dallas, Laura Miller made mayors miserable. She declared city officials "brain dead" and portrayed them as fawning sycophants to wealth -- the immediate past mayor, she wrote, "whittles away his political capital, running hither and thither, obsessing about what he can do today to help H. Ross Perot Jr. increase his net worth." Throughout the 1990s, Miller's columns for the Dallas Observer newspaper exposed cozy ties that Dallas officials maintained with that city's economic royalty, revealed evidence of mayoral subservience to billionaire Hunts and Perots, and reminded readers that the squandering of precious resources on the pet projects of Dallas's economic royalty meant that the city's commoners had to put up with potholes and pool closings.
Now, as the new mayor of Dallas, Miller will get a chance to turn her populist penmanship into public policy. Though her candidacy was opposed with vigor and venom by the city's oil elites, the outgoing mayor, most of the city council and the powerful Dallas Morning News newspaper, Miller won 55 percent of the vote in a runoff election Saturday.
Before a crowd that chanted "It's Miller time!" the winner immediately distinguished herself from her predecessors, declaring that hers would be a "citizen" mayoralty. While past mayors promised to build arenas or bring the Olympics to town, Miller announced that one of her first official acts would be to dispatch a city dump truck to clean up garbage around a local recreation center.
If that doesn't sound glamorous, well, that's the point. After years of reporting on city officials who made it their priority to aid the construction of expensive projects favored by the city's billionaires, Miller ran for mayor on a pledge to "get back to the basics" of fixing neighborhood streets, filling empty pools and cleaning up parks. With a campaign that delivered its message in English, Spanish and Chinese, Miller declared that the time had come for Dallas to stop catering to the whims of the billionaires downtown and to recognize that, "What really matters are the little things. The pothole in your street. The teacher at your kids' school. The police car cruising your house when your husband's away on business."
"We've done a sports arena for millionaire basketball players," the candidate said. "Now let's give our young people basketball hoops in their neighborhood rec center."
Miller's insurgent campaign gave voice to sentiments that are not unique to Dallas. In cities across the country in recent years, neighborhood activists have battled downtown business interests to define municipal priorities -- arguing, as Miller did, that when cities use limited resources to help private interests build stadiums and downtown projects, they cheat the public interest by drying up funds for schools and basic services.
A hell-raiser since the days when her incendiary columns provoked her high school principal to suspend publication of the school paper, Miller always wanted to be a journalist and after earning a degree from the University of Wisconsin she became a very good one -- writing award winning investigative articles and columns for the New York Daily News, Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald. Times Herald editors decided her fearless writing -- she called the police chief a "liar" -- was inappropriate for a respectably conservative newspaper. So Miller found a gig with the Observer, where she kept stirring up trouble but started feeling frustrated.
"I have 14,000 documents in my office that show just how crooked, how manipulated this system is," Miller said of her reporting. "But nothing changes."
So, in 1998, she made a change. Borrowing a page from Upton Sinclair, the crusading journalist of the early 20th century who got so mad at politics as usual that he made things unusual by running for governor of California, Miller closed her notebook and got into city politics. Unlike Sinclair, this crusader-turned-candidate won.
Elected to a council seat, Miller started muckraking inside the corridors of power, pushing for tougher ethics standards and raising hell about policies that favored downtown elites over neighborhood needs. Even as she fought and beat breast cancer, Miller kept banging away at the special interests that controlled City Hall. She made enemies among the political and business establishment and most of them opposed her mayoral run this year. But the journalist-turned-politico succeeded in getting her message to voters like Janet Weachock. After casting her ballot Saturday, the woman told a reporter she liked Laura Miller because, "She will blow up in the face of the good-ole-boy network."