By James Russell
Special to the TJP
Whether as mayor, councilwoman or investigative reporter, Laura Miller has never shied away from taking on Dallas City Hall. Now, the two-time breast cancer survivor and Dallas’ third female Jewish mayor is the first former mayor to run for Dallas City Council.
That’s at least according to the city employee who accepted her paperwork for City Council District 13 two hours before last month’s filing deadline. At the least, she’s running for office again after 12 years in private life, spending time with her husband, former State Rep. Steve Wolens, a Democrat, and watching her three children grow up.
She enjoyed private life so much she first asked potential challengers.
But they declined.
“The last thing I thought I’d do is run,” she said.
Miller was elected to city council in 1998 from Oak Cliff before running a successful campaign for mayor in 2002. But she’s now running for the zig zagging north Dallas district currently represented by Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, who declined to run for mayor. (Mayor Mike Rawlings is term-limited.) She may be running for a different district, in a different role, and in a Dallas different from a decade ago, but she is running on the same platform as her previous pro-neighborhood, pro-infrastructure campaigns. (“Police, parks, pools and potholes,” as she said when she was mayor.)
She really wishes she had more time.
“Ideally you would get five to six months to run a campaign. But instead we get nine weeks,” she said.
The district stretches from Central and Hillcrest, dips into Lemmon and includes Vickery Meadows.
“It’s a varied district,” she said.
“Unlike running for mayor,” which includes campaigning on major issues such as pension reform to bread and butter issues like potholes, “running for council gives you a different perspective,” she said.
She bought a house in the district after she was elected to the city’s top post in 2002. She then moved to the district in 2004, citing a long commute for her children to get to school, much less from Oak Cliff to City Hall.
Even after she left office, her council members shared her cautious approach to encroaching development.
“The council members were homeowner-centric,” she said. Many of those predecessors have endorsed her, including three of Gates’ predecessors Mitchell Rasansky, Donna Blumer and Sid Stahl.
“But the last six years, Councilwoman Gates has taken the opposite approach,” she said. “She lets developers file zoning cases for anything they want to build, no matter how inappropriate or how much a neighborhood opposes it. We’ve had six years of nonstop fighting between homeowners and City Hall,” Miller said. “Gates will continually tell people she hasn’t made up her mind on a project, so homeowners and developers battle — sometimes for years — right up until projects get a city council vote. It’s exhausting and disrespectful to homeowners. That is the reason I’m running.”
One case in particular involves dense development just south of Preston Center. Single-family homeowners are pushing back since St. Michael & All Angel Church on Douglas Avenue entered a joint venture agreement with Lincoln Property Company to build hi-rise apartments and an office tower on vacant land next to the church. Opponents drafted a petition and made yard signs demanding “No More Towers in Preston Center.” They are calling instead for focus on easing traffic congestion.
Miller points out those recommendations — fixing traffic and infrastructure needs before any new development is approved — were first outlined in a series of recommendations made in the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan. The plan was developed by a panel of homeowners and developers selected by Councilmember Gates and unanimously adopted by the Dallas City Council in January 2017. Miller served on that panel
Miller’s opposition is not to density or development alone but irresponsible development — that is, new development without regard to infrastructure needs, walkability, design, green space, street and side yard setbacks and landscaping.
“How do we sustain our most stable neighborhoods without common-sense development guidelines?” she asked. “The community deserves a choice in who represents them now and a healthy debate about the future of the district.”
Her campaign treasurer Doug Deason, president of Deason Capital Services, agreed.
“The developers have had the upper hand in District 13 for the past six years, and homeowners and small businesses are tired of City Hall ignoring their pleas for help,” he said.
Gates defended her record when asked about Miller’s issues.
“I’ve got a solid record of leading for basics like streets, infrastructure and police, and that’s where I’m focused going forward,” Gates told The Dallas Morning News. “That’s why I chose to run for re-election — to keep leading for these basics and to keep our neighborhoods strong. We’re on the right path, and we need to stay the course.”
But Miller said the potential multistory buildings around Preston Center were not her only issue.
“I noticed west of Midway, we have nice neighborhoods but no good retail,” she said. Many residents have to go east of the Dallas North Tollway to shop for the basics. Streets are crowded with fast-moving traffic, sidewalk crossings are nonexistent or unsafe for pedestrians, and up-zoning on the edges of single-family neighborhoods threatens their character and tranquility.”
“A lot of these neighborhoods haven’t fought these cases,” she said, “because when homeowners want to fight, they don’t know who to call.”
Her other issues for running call to mind her other mayoral priorities: addressing crime, homelessness and the morale of police and fire.
Homelessness is a personal issue. She participates in The Ladder Project through her synagogue Shearith Israel.
The concept is simple: 1,000 families help a homeless person achieve self-sufficiency financially and socially. Working with The Bridge, a homeless center in downtown Dallas, they successfully helped a 58-year-old man move into his own apartment. They are now preparing to work with a second, yet-to-be-identified individual.
For Miller, the project may just help one person at a time. “But we can’t do nothing,” she said. “My heart is with this project,” as much as her eyes are back on City Hall.