Another Former AANie Rises to Power

Marks shift to left in the cities

In its profile on the AAN Web site, the Dallas Observer offers up a description that could apply to any number of urban weeklies: “The city council doesn’t like us much. Slumlords, con artists, crooked lawyers, and political grafters really don’t like us. And the mayor … well, forget it.”

You’d think the Observer would have to re-edit that contrarian profile now that Councilwoman Laura Miller, a former star columnist for the weekly, was elected mayor of Dallas. But actually, the new mayor, who prevailed in a run-off Feb. 16 with 55 percent of the vote, is on bad terms with her friend and former colleague, Observer editor Julie Lyons.

“Right now she’s not talking with me,” says Lyons. “Our strained relationship dates back to a series of stories the Dallas Observer reported on the law firm where her husband works.”

Miller began her political career in 1998 when she was elected to the Dallas City Council. Before that she had served as a columnist and investigative reporter for the Observer for nearly seven years. An award-winning journalist, Miller has also put in stints at the Miami Herald, the Dallas Morning News, and the New York Daily News.

Last November two other AAN types also ascended the political food chain. R.T. Rybak, former publisher of the now-shuttered Twin Cities Reader, became mayor of Minneapolis, and Charles Meeker, a former investor in Independent Weekly and brother of Willamette Week Publisher Richard Meeker, won the mayorship of Raleigh, N.C. Both gentlemen upset comfortable incumbents.

It’s probably premature to suggest that working in the alternative newsweekly industry is a gateway to the top job in City Hall, but it’s obviously not far off the beaten path either. In fact, many of the more liberal columnists and editors toiling at various alt-weeklies might have a greater shot at launching a political career than they ever would have thought. The nation’s cities, never hotbeds of conservatism, are lurching even more to the left – thus becoming more receptive to the kinds of issues alt-weeklies like to belabor.

“There is definitely a trend in urban politics to be more progressive, and that’s part of a demographic shift,” says John Rowley of the national political consulting firm Fletcher & Rowley in Nashville, Tenn. “The kinds of policies that Democrats and progressives are promoting in terms of growth and education, those are more urban issues.”

And this is not just an emerging trend. In fact, as Rowley points out, last year Vice President Al Gore polled 10 to 20 points higher than former President Jimmy Carter had in 1976 in many cities.

A number of factors in urban politics seem to favor progressives. With crime having declined for the better part of 10 years, there is a less of a desire for law-and-order mayors. In addition, the kinds of issues that foil progressives in state and national contests tend to play well in the cities, he says.

“In the cities you don’t have the social issues that trip up progressives in the suburbs and rural areas,” Rowley says. “Like gun control – people in the cities are a lot more amenable to gun control.”

Of course, even for those reporters whose politics fall on the right side of the spectrum, being a journalist could help you on the campaign trail and in office. Rowley worked on helping elect former journalist Don Cunningham to the mayor’s job in Bethlehem, Pa. “He definitely had a sense on what the press would cover and what they wouldn’t,” he says.

Lyons also says that Miller’s long career as a reporter should aid her as mayor. “She understands how the city works, she knows all the players, and she knows how to obtain and interpret records.”

However, that’s not helping her hold her temper when the shots fall her way, Lyons says. In the column that caused their rupture, “Woman in Gray,” Lyons lambastes Miller, who at the time was serving in the Dallas City Council, for violating their friendship by trying to interfere with an investigative story on her husband’s law firm.

“No question about it, this was a council member carrying water for an extraordinarily wealthy man who contributes to many campaigns and is a major force in local and national politics,” Lyons wrote. “But there’s something else that made me burn. She wasn’t just being a typical Dallas politician, she was being an untrue friend and selling out the journalistic ethics we once shared – trying to entangle me in a story this paper was covering.”

In that same column, Lyons wrote that she voted for Miller and that she could be “one of the greatest mayors this city has ever seen–if she learns humility.”

Lyons says that while Miller has not sunk to the level of the many politicians she used to skewer, she can sometimes evoke them.

“I think one of the attractive things about Laura is that she seems very forthright, and she’s willing to speak her mind,” Lyons says. “In general she is those things, more so than other politicians we deal with, but I just think she’s a little thin-skinned.”

Matt Pulle is a staff writer at the Nashville Scene.