DALLAS – As a Dallas City Council member, Harriet Miers almost always voted with the relatively conservative majority, rarely launched into fiery oratory and, toward the end of her term, often missed votes or entire meetings altogether.

But her soft-spoken demeanor belied her resolve.

President Bush’s Supreme Court choice nominated an openly gay man to a powerful city board and pushed to spend more on public housing. And when Dallas politics was roiled with racial tensions, Miers effectively sacrificed her at-large seat to make a point, lobbying to scrap the council’s districting system in favor of one intended to increase black and Hispanic representation.

“It was political suicide. That was unheard of in Dallas politics. I will always admire her for taking that stance,” said Roy Williams, the plaintiff in a landmark federal lawsuit resulting in a system with 14 council districts and one at-large mayor.

This was vintage Harriet Miers, according to many of the people who knew her during her 1989-91 term.

She was content to skirt the limelight for the backroom deal-making of City Hall in a sustained push to find consensus – until an issue like improving race relations aroused her convictions.

It’s an approach she might use again today when hashing out complicated social issues on a court for which consensus is often elusive, former colleagues who know her well suggest.

From the start, Miers’ supporters were attracted, in part, to the longtime lawyer’s campaign platform. She advocated making public safety Dallas’ top priority, spending more on libraries, museums, parks and recreation centers, and building a light-rail system.

She also vowed to improve race relations and general civility.

Although she took some actions as a council member that advanced the status of gays and supported AIDS-related programs, her dealings with gay rights advocates were sometimes strained.

While still a council candidate, Miers met with a group of Dallas gay rights advocates, refusing to back their agenda but expressing a willingness to listen to them, said her 1989 campaign manager, Lorlee Bartos.

Miers had already answered a questionnaire indicating she supported civil rights for gays and lesbians and public funding for AIDS education. But she didn’t answer questions about housing and employment discrimination, and she didn’t support overturning the state’s anti-sodomy law.

“It was very tense,” Bartos recalled about the meeting.

Craig Holcomb, who was one of the council’s first openly gay members and who served until 1989, initially endorsed Miers, whom he described as “honest, hardworking and thorough.”

After her meeting with advocates, he revoked his endorsement, he said, because “some gay friends got very upset with me. They threatened to stage a die-in. AIDS was a really big topic.”

Holcomb called Miers with the news.

“She was very gracious and said, “Fine,”‘ he recalled.

Although gay rights issues never overtly came before the council, Miers voted in favor of AIDS-related programs, then dear to the Dallas gay community.

On Oct. 11, 1989, she voted in favor of spending $120,000 in city funds to provide AIDS education programs “targeted for the African-American and Hispanic population” of Dallas. The spending measure passed unanimously.

The same day, she voted with a majority to spend $78,650 to provide dental care to “low-income persons with HIV and HIV-related illnesses” and $75,000 on “respite care for children affected by HIV and HIV-related illnesses.”

Miers appointed openly gay attorney Don McCleary to the city’s community development block grant board. AIDS led to McCleary’s death in 1996.

The council’s fight over political representation – an issue that has landed before the high court several times in recent decades – provided the often low-profile Miers with a platform.

At several points during the lengthy redistricting debate, she chided white council members for not embracing a plan for all single-member districts.

She said she understood the sentiments of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which threatened a national boycott of Dallas in 1991 if the council didn’t back such a plan.

About 400 people attended a downtown rally sponsored by the group. Many marched from the John F. Kennedy Memorial to City Hall, singing civil rights songs.

“Today, the City Council has not listened to the minority community,” Miers said after a council meeting that day. “Unfortunately, it may take … (a boycott) to make them listen.”

Later, as council members began drawing boundaries for single-member districts, Miers opposed one of the first plans because it lumped black districts in the south and white districts in the north.

“Institutionalizing the character of all the southern districts as black and all the northern districts as Anglo … is very unhealthy for this community,” Miers said. “We should stop saying we’re trying to pull Dallas together when the entire minority community is behind one proposal and then we vote against it.”

She joined with the two black council members in support of a 14-district plan. The U.S. Justice Department eventually approved a variation.

“Her big thing was moving Dallas into the 21st century in terms of race relations and policies that affect housing and public service,” Williams said. “She was an advocate for the people.”

Such actions may foreshadow her judicial philosophy if she becomes a Supreme Court justice, said Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, who was a young lawyer when Miers nominated him to his first city board, which oversaw cable access television.

“She’ll look at every side of an issue, and I think she’ll be in the tradition of a Sandra Day O’Connor,” Hill said. “There was a lot of discussion at one time about her running for mayor. She really empathizes with a lot of aspects of society.”

Miers led a public housing council committee that tried to settle a federal lawsuit over conditions at a dilapidated 3,500-unit project.

The city of Dallas, the Dallas Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were defendants in a lawsuit filed by seven black women. It alleged that a pattern of racial discrimination had led to inferior, segregated public housing.

The mayor appointed Miers to head the negotiations shortly after a federal judge ruled that the city had blocked implementation of a previous settlement. Under it, the city was supposed to demolish most of the units and replace the rest with certificates that poor families could use to rent privately owned apartments.

The judge had threatened to impose damages against the city if it didn’t come up with a plan to improve conditions.

Mike Daniel, who represented the plaintiffs, said Miers was fair in negotiations to settle the landmark lawsuit.

“She wasn’t denying that a problem existed or that it was OK for people to live in those conditions,” Daniel said. “She didn’t just want to give away the store to us. … Given what was at stake, it was a civil negotiation.”

Said Diane Ragsdale, who served on the council and negotiating committee: “She clearly knew how to balance the needs of those who had been victimized and, at the same time, protect the city coffers.”

Previously, city leaders didn’t seem committed to upgrading the federally subsidized apartments in an impoverished West Dallas neighborhood, Daniel said.

“She had a commitment to a real remedy, as opposed to hitting it a lick and going on,” he said.

Negotiations dragged on for months, and some officials began to question whether a settlement was possible.

Miers maintained confidence.

“As least we’re continuing to talk,” she said in 1990.

Four months later, the City Council approved a $118 million agreement to end the lawsuit.

Ironically, Miers opposed it.

“The city’s budget faucet has been turned on, and there are no controls provided,” she said at the time. “If we enter into this agreement, we’re turning over many basic city services to a federal court to supervise and to plaintiffs’ attorneys who have made a career out of criticizing this city.”

Former council member Max Wells, who also served on the negotiating committee, said he didn’t heed her concerns and voted to approve the settlement.

“She was right; I was wrong,” Wells said. “The judge kept reinterpreting it as we went. … We paid millions more than we agreed to pay.”

Wells, who served on the council with Miers, said she was quickly able to forge coalitions among people of differing views in spite of council discord.

He said Miers may not have been outspoken during formal council meetings, but she spoke her mind freely in committee meetings rarely attended by the public.

“If you were going to have a political debate with her, you’d better know the facts or she’d eat you alive,” he said. “She knew her side, as well as your side.”

While council contemporaries such as Al Lipscomb and Jerry Bartos spoke frequently during formal council meetings and frequently voted against the council majority, Miers’ style typically proved conciliatory.

Miers found herself on the winning side of 303 divided votes for which she was present during her 32-month tenure, compared with 26 votes in the minority – a success rate of more than 92 percent, according to a Dallas Morning News study of council records between 1989 and 1991.

Rarely did she make or second motions to approve council resolutions or ordinances, which members seeking to punctuate their positions often do.

And sometimes, she didn’t show up to council votes at all, especially in late 1990 and throughout 1991, when she missed dozens of roll call votes on issues ranging from land zoning to gun control.

Instead of running in one of the council districts she helped create, Miers left the body when her term expired.

But her exit from the council didn’t end her participation in Dallas politicking. Nor did her reputation as an often soft-spoken but deeply principled leader wane among city leaders.

In 1993, then-council member Chris Luna nominated Miers to Dallas’ Judicial Nominating Committee. She later became its chairwoman.

She resigned in March 1996, but in 1998, then-council member Mary Poss, a future mayor pro tem and mayoral candidate, nominated Miers to a Dallas task force that studied changes to the city’s ethics rules.

“One thing I always say about her, which is true is that she stands up for what she believes in,” Wells said.

(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News.

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