'The Right Result' Was Key to Miers

By Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 8, 2005

DALLAS, Oct. 7 -- This city was already on edge, divided along racial and class lines over how to desegregate public housing, under court order to change an election system that kept minorities out of power, and seething from a series of police shootings that killed innocent blacks.

So when a black county commissioner was arrested after a physical altercation with an off-duty police officer who allegedly had spat a racial slur at him, more than 1,000 demonstrators marched on City Hall. Many feared violence until Harriet Miers, a first-term City Council member and local lawyer, spoke to the crowd.

"If it means anything to you, I want to apologize," Miers said in her native Texas drawl. "I want to apologize to the African American community of this city for an unprovoked and unexcusable attack on one of their elected leaders."

Her apology, met with applause from the crowd, played a key role in defusing the tension that November night in 1990, many here recalled. Those who knew Miers at the time said her apology that night was characteristic of her tenure -- unafraid to take on controversial issues, sometimes even to her own political detriment.

Now President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court, Miers served one term on the Dallas City Council, from 1989 to 1991, a period that offers a rare view of her political philosophy and style. Her campaign, votes and public stances defy easy characterization.

She would meet with abortion rights advocates and gay rights activists but tell them firmly she did not agree with them. She backed a redistricting plan aimed at electing more minorities even though conservatives called it a quota system. She voted to raise taxes two years in a row, disagreeing with some colleagues who favored deeper budget cuts.

"That's the thing about Harriet -- she did things she didn't have to do and that, if you were only looking out for yourself, you wouldn't do," said John Wiley Price, the Democratic county commissioner whose arrest sparked the protest. "She was gutsy."

At the same time, Miers's supporters and detractors say the woman who campaigned on a promise to bring "good manners and decorum" to the rancorous City Council was never comfortable with the more rough-and-tumble aspects of politics.

A loner who liked to say that she made her decisions based on "the facts," Miers brought a lawyer's intellect and courtroom demeanor to a venue where ego-massaging, compromise and vote trading were more common. She left elected office of her own choosing after one term, lamenting to a local reporter that "decisions are more political" than an effort to reach the "right result."

"She didn't distinguish herself as a leader who could deliver votes," said Domingo Garcia, a lawyer and Latino activist who was elected to the council the year after Miers left. "She just wasn't the go-to member if you needed something done."

Those were difficult days for Dallas. The real estate market had crashed, the city's banks had collapsed, and racial discontent was palpable. Rena Pederson, the former editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News, remembers being impressed by Miers's willingness to discuss difficult issues.

"What was unusual about Harriet is we'd ask her some questions, she'd think about it, and then she'd actually give you a straight answer," Pederson said. "She was such an un-politician politician."

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