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."
While that candor may have won her the newspaper's endorsement, it also created difficulties for her politically.
AIDS was ravaging the gay community, and Miers agreed to meet with activists to hear their concerns. But when she told them she could not support the repeal of a Texas law banning sodomy, some threatened to stage a "die-in" outside the business of Craig Holcomb, an openly gay council member who had endorsed her candidacy. Holcomb called Miers and apologetically asked her not to use his name anymore.
"She took it in stride," Holcomb said. Ironically, the questionnaire she filled out for the Lesbian/Gay Political Coalition of Dallas has now become fodder for conservatives who oppose her nomination, because in it she also said that she supported equal rights for gays.
In another instance, candidate Miers agreed to sit down with a group of abortion rights activists. Operation Rescue was staging regular protests at area abortion clinics, and the group of about 10 women who met with Miers wanted to know whether she supported a 1985 city ordinance that protected patients from harassment. Four of the women in attendance said in interviews that Miers was immovable.
"She said, well, I'm sorry, it's murder, and that's that," said Joy Mankoff, founder of a local women's political action network. "There was no room for any discussion."
Although the women left the meeting convinced that Miers was completely opposed to abortion rights, one, liberal lawyer Louise B. Raggio, continued to support Miers and still does. Miers, for her part, has raised money to promote a lecture series on women's issues bearing Raggio's name. The first speaker was feminist Gloria Steinem.
"The abortion issue is a bad issue for me," Raggio acknowledged, "but overall you look at the whole, and there are many issues I could agree with her on."
With the support of the business community, a network of lawyers from the city's prestigious law firms and former football coach Tom Landry, Miers handily won in a run-off election in the nonpartisan race. Abortion and gay rights were not issues in the election.
Elsewhere in Texas, conservatives on councils were voting to add language to city charters stating that life begins at conception. But once elected, Miers steered clear of abortion. Perhaps the most controversial symbolic action Miers took was to support a resolution asking Congress to amend the Constitution to ban flag burning. The vote was 11 to 0.
For the most part, Miers operated in the background, leaving her colleagues perplexed about her political ideology. She also had a tendency to switch stances on critical issues, a trait supporters said showed her thoughtfulness but that critics labeled indecision.
"We spent about 1,200 hours together and had in excess of 6,000 agenda items, and I never knew where Harriet was going to be on any of those items until she cast her vote," former council colleague Jim Buerger said. "I wouldn't consider her a liberal, a moderate or a conservative, and I can't honestly think of any cause she championed."
If Miers rarely pushed her own agenda, she readily plunged into the middle of the biggest civil rights controversies of the day, winning the respect of council members such as Diane Ragsdale, a firebrand African American whom many in the white establishment loved to hate. "Early on, Harriet asked me what could she do to improve conditions for my constituents," Ragsdale said. "She was always about fairness."
Miers led the council's efforts to settle a key housing discrimination lawsuit after a federal judge ruled that the city had perpetuated segregated public housing.
Although at one point she criticized the resulting record $118.7 million settlement as so open-ended as to constitute a "blank check," the civil rights lawyers who brought the case credit her with hammering out the guts of the deal and said that Miers's problem was that certain provisions left the city open to liability indefinitely, not the substance of the agreement.
Among other things, the agreement forced the city to demolish or renovate dilapidated minority-occupied housing projects and increase the supply of low-income housing in more affluent, white suburban neighborhoods. Miers subsequently voted to make it easier to prove housing discrimination cases by lowering the burden of proof.
"She pressed hard for solutions, and she was the one who would come up with alternatives," said Mike Daniel, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiffs. "She clearly perceived the need for a remedy."
The federal judge in the housing case subsequently handed down another important decision, on voting rights, saying that Dallas's election system discriminated against blacks and Hispanics. Opponents charged the judge was substituting his own preferences for the law, but Miers would not criticize him.
After initially supporting a voter-approved plan that was opposed by African American and Hispanic leaders, Miers switched sides and advocated the plan supported by the minority community -- a plan that eliminated citywide seats like hers.
Shortly before her term was up, Miers, reflecting on her two years in office, summed up her approach:
"I want to be respected, and I want to be viewed as being true to my convictions," she told a newspaper. "But I don't much care what people think."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.