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As a Council Member, She Was a Consensus Builder

Though quiet, Miers tried hard to lessen acrimony among factions in Dallas. She 'really extended a hand,' says a former colleague.

October 08, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Harriet E. Miers' career as a politician was brief: a two-year stint on the Dallas City Council. And it was not altogether happy, in part because of a redistricting battle that consumed city politics at the time, as well as racial tensions that culminated in a physical confrontation between a black county commissioner and a white police officer here for which Miers offered an unusual apology on behalf of the city.

But her decision not to run for reelection also seemed to highlight a point of agreement among her colleagues and even her friends: In the freewheeling, glad-handing business of Dallas politics, many found Miers an odd fit.

"She was a very quiet, very private person ... quite unusual for a politician, actually," Al Lipscomb, a council member during Miers' term, recalled in an interview. "She was smart as all get-out, but not exactly the outgoing type."

Though Miers opted not to run again, her 1989-1991 council service highlighted her consensus-oriented approach to solving city problems and won her high marks even from liberal Democrats who did not share all of her political views.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Supreme Court nominee -- An Oct. 8 Section A article about Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers' stint on the Dallas City Council identified a county commissioner involved in a racial controversy as John Wesley Price. The commissioner was John Wiley Price.

"She really, really reached out, really extended a hand," said Diane Ragsdale, then-deputy mayor pro tem and one of two African Americans on the council, which had 11 members at the time and now has 15.

"She listened. She attended a lot of town hall meetings, which is more than can be said of a lot of her predecessors. Usually, for them, it was all about the north, the north, the north," Ragsdale said, referring to predominantly white north Dallas, "but she spent a lot of time listening to people in south Dallas."

While Miers listened, she appeared to spearhead few bills and demonstrated a certain distaste for politics, at least at the city level.

Her decision not to run again for the City Council came as she was being selected the first female president of the Texas Bar Assn.

She was elected to the post at the 55,000-member group's annual convention in June 1991. In her victory statement, Miers said she believed that lawyers could "help instigate and promote basic systemic changes" to society's problems.

"Lawyers are an integral part of the community, and they ought to be involved in promoting changes," Miers added. "They are advantaged financially. They are educated. They are in, in many instances, powerful positions. They ought to be using that wherewithal to address issues." She urged lawyers to do more pro bono work.

Miers had entered the council race in 1989 for an at-large seat -- one representing the entire city. At the time, the council consisted of three such positions, including one held by the mayor, and eight geographically based district seats.

Touting her experience running a major Dallas law firm and as president of the Dallas Bar Assn., she placed first in the four-candidate race and won a runoff a few weeks later.

She advocated an overhaul of the council that would establish 14 "single member," or geographically based, districts, leaving only the mayor as a citywide elected position.

She had a split-the-difference approach on gay rights, saying on a campaign questionnaire issued by a gay-rights group that she favored equal civil rights for homosexuals but that she supported a state law, which has since been overturned by the Supreme Court, that made sodomy illegal. (The questionnaire did not specifically ask about issues that are on the front burner today, such as domestic-partner benefits, civil unions or gay marriage.)

The campaign was low-budget, and seemingly the only controversy was an accusation by one of her opponents, an insurance executive named Jim Garner, that her campaign had illegally placed dozens of signs along a major expressway.

She said overzealous supporters might have put the signs up, not knowing their placement was against the law, and the signs quickly came down.

Miers ultimately prevailed over Garner and her two other challengers, one a stress-management consultant and the other a former Common Cause of Texas director.

In advocating the council overhaul, Miers pleased many advocates in the African American and Latino communities here, who said it was the fairest way to increase minorities' representation on the board. (Dallas elected its first black mayor, Ron Kirk, in 1995; it has never had a Latino mayor.)

The ensuing court battle over the single-member plan consumed much of the city's political oxygen during Miers' term, along with a 1990 confrontation between a black Dallas county commissioner and a white city police officer. It was the latest in a string of incidents that sparked tension between the African American community and the city's largely white police force.

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