The subject was former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who since arriving in Dallas has stirred nearly every emotion—except indifference. The men, enjoying an after-tennis drink in the bar at the Lakewood Country Club, had been told that the former journalist/councilperson/mayor would be sitting for a sort of “Where are they now?” interview the next day. They then spent more than an hour assuring the entire table that Ms. Miller was either a cross between Joan of Arc and Maggie Thatcher or Nurse Ratched and Lorena Bobbit.
The next day Miller sits in a backroom two-top table in Dallas’ fashionable Sevy’s Grill. Her suit is sleek, smart and black. She has long worn this sassy hairstyle and displayed a penchant for white pearls. Combine that with her flawless makeup, and you can imagine the former mayor spent a good bit of time crafting this look that’s at once mature and purposely cavalier.
It is a special day, after all. The relaxed and confident Miller, who turns 52 on Nov. 18, will see her doctor in about two hours and learn that she remains cancer-free after 12 years. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments in 1998, about a year after leaving the Dallas Observer to campaign for a Dallas city council seat.
Although arguments endure regarding Miller’s job performance as mayor, controversy also rekindled over exactly what her new job entails. Two years ago, when a Dallas Morning News headline proclaimed, “Summit Energy hires Laura Miller to do PR for Coal Plant,” Miller protested the portrayal and said she was doing neither public relations nor lobbying.
She tells D CEO that as her mayoral term drew to a close, she looked at her options. “I could go on the road and preach a tutorial about environmental issues,” she says. “I could found a company and speak to foundations nationwide. I could preach to build clean power plants so others won’t be built.” In essence she would be continuing a long-running fight against TXU.
Miller considered all the options carefully. Robert Redford had produced a film, Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars, that lionized Miller as a tough, smart, and camera-friendly environmental heroine. She knew she could work off that connection. Then, just after her term in office expired, “some environmental groups took me to Europe to view some government-built plants,” Miller says. During this tour, Miller discovered a private company touting its ability to capture a majority of CO2 emissions. “This was 2007, and such carbon capture was unheard of,” Miller continues.
If Miller thought politics created strange bedfellows, she must have awoken really surprised one day to see Chairman Donald Hodell writing her checks at Seattle-based Summit Power Group Inc. Hodell was a Ronald Reagan appointee, formerly secretary of the federal departments of energy and interior where, Forbes magazine says, he “was the scourge of environmentalists.”
Even liberal Laura admits the two are “at far ends” of the political spectrum. “I know it sounds funny,” Miller says, “but Donald recalled how his think-tank people were concerned about ‘global cooling’ in 1978, and here I am convinced the polar bears are dying and the glaciers are all melting.”
Leading The Way
What the two agree upon is that America must wean itself from energy policies of the past. The 73-year-old Hodell admitted to Forbes that he doubts a financial payoff in his lifetime for the new clean-coal technology, called IGCC (short for “integrated gasification combined cycle”). Miller, for her part, says that when she first came on board, such a coal plant seemed more like a dream. “I mean, it was like building a garage for a Ferrari you wanted to buy some day,” she says.
However she’s referred to—her title at Summit is director of projects, Texas—one undeniable fact is that Miller has already proved instrumental in getting that Ferrari and parking it in a Texas garage. She’s worked full-time on this project for Summit since January 2008, and has much to show for her efforts. Last year, Miller led the way in winning a $350 million clean-coal federal grant that allows Summit to build a 400-megawatt plant at Penwell, near Odessa in West Texas. (The total has since grown to $450 million.) The plant, whose total cost will be about $2 billion with financing costs, will turn coal into gas rather than burning it, thus capturing up to 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
With no office in Texas yet, Summit has five people working on the project from five cities—Dallas, Houston, Austin, Midland, and Marble Falls. Miller is in charge of all media, both social and traditional, including the project web page design and content, job inquiries, community outreach, and government affairs in both Austin and Washington, D.C. She has a three-person lobby team in D.C., a lobbyist in Austin, and a project liaison in Midland. Summit plans to open an office in Odessa when it gets closer to breaking ground, estimated for the fall of 2011. But don’t call her a lobbyist.
Miller calls her current gig “the perfect job for me,” and she is probably right. She has always played the role of advocate well. By most accounts, the rabble-rousing Miller was a better columnist advocating her ideas than a beat reporter confined to short interviews and fact-checking. Now she spends most of her days, including weekends, working by phone and computer from home equipped with two phones and three computers—a laptop, a desktop, and a BlackBerry. She has a minimum of four conference calls a week, every week, and she’s constantly writing—e-mail, PowerPoint presentations, letters, press releases, and web page content. But don’t call her a PR person.
She’s constantly on the road. So far in 2010 she’s been to Omaha, Neb.; D.C.; Austin; Amarillo; Midland; Odessa; Portland, Ore.; Morgantown, W. Va.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Seattle. She’s going to China in November to see IGCC and other carbon-capture projects there on an educational trip with elected officials, industry representatives, and environmentalists.
What she calls her “BlackBerry duty” is a 24/7 obligation. “Pretty typical,” she says, “when you have a $2 billion project … ” She bought the latest BlackBerry model, the Torch, the week it came out. Though she loves the speed and screen resolution of the iPhone, she says, she can’t type 75 words a minute on it, and that’s her No.1 requirement. Miller is as hard on BlackBerrys as she was on some disagreeing council members, and has been through four of the devices in 18 months.
Certainly her time as a city councilmember projected an activist agenda as a woman intent on asking her own tough questions and to hell with consensus building. As a journalist or a politician, once she got her teeth into something, she never let go. Her brightest days as mayor, and the ones she recalls “most fondly,” centered on “fighting TXU and dirty power plants.”
Supporters and detractors alike admit that Miller has never backed down from a duel, whether the weapons of choice were red knuckles or a brown nose.
She learned the gloves-off technique early in the newspaper game after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and reporting for the Miami Herald and Dallas Morning News. The schmoozing techniques were likely perfected at the knee of her longtime husband, attorney and former state Rep. Steve Wolens, a well-rewarded shareholder with Baron and Budd (and now a partner with McKool Smith PC).
The bare-knuckle fighting harkens a more natural pose for Miller, who, in March 1991, detonated an article for D Magazine that vividly accused County Commissioner John Wiley Price of the most reprehensible behavior, including a fiendish sexual assault on a campaign worker. Uh, yes, this is the same commissioner she was supposed to collaborate with 13 years later in an attempt to woo Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys back to Dallas.
So let’s get to that: When Miller is asked if she really put her hand on Jerry’s knee and if she really told him, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”—as widely reported—she moves a tad closer across the white tablecloth and emphatically mouths the words, “No, it never happened.”
Something else didn’t happen: Miller did not fight for a Cowboys stadium in Dallas. She talked about meeting with Jones several times and trying to peddle a $140 million package, “right after the county stopped negotiating.” Miller says her package included moving DART, adding electrical substations, making other utility upgrades, demolishing the old Cotton Bowl and “paying $60 million to Starplex [it would have to go also] for loss of future revenue from a deal negotiated by Annette Strauss.”
She is, of course, probably right when she says, “The way Jerry wanted things, it would have to be countywide, with every city participating and council passing … a city car and hotel tax would not be enough … it required a countywide funding. The city options were limited.”
If you know Miller, you know there would still be blood on the streets if it was a deal she had advocated. Heads would have been knocked together. Deals and side deals, a helluva lot better than any formulated by Annette Strauss, would have come to pass. But here the Tiger Lady demurs. “I think it is fine if [Arlington] wanted to pay for half the stadium,” she says. “Arlington had no mass-transit tax like we do.”
People will still eat, stay, party, and shop in Dallas during events at the new $1.2 billion stadium in Arlington, Miller says, and she would not be surprised if the football stadium bonds were retired early, like the ones for the Texas Rangers stadium. “And,” she adds, “we gave $50 million to upgrade the Cotton Bowl. We still have four great weeks of football.” She recaps a bit on negotiating longer contracts for the Texas/OU football game—something she wanted—and says, “I still send roses to both athletic directors every year.”
Back To Basics
Campaigning as “the pothole candidate,” Miller won her first term as mayor in 2002, and kept her constituents reasonably happy by attempting to save us from the evils wrought by too much secondary smoke and topless clubs. Her aura was contrary to that of her predecessor, Ron Kirk. She describes Kirk and then-city manager John Ware as “big business and big projects.” Miller much preferred the style of Dallas’ current city manager, Mary K. Suhm. “I wanted to return to the basic city services,” Miller says.
And so they did. More than $270 million was spent on street repair. City services were scrutinized, and code enforcement picked up. During her tenure more homeless found shelter, she worked with popular Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle to effectively cut crime, and she partnered with other politicos to repeal the Wright Amendment. All the while Miller’s coalition of voters hummed I-told-you-so’s right up until early in her second term.
Through it all, Miller never quite shook the “anti-business” label—a gift from the establishment that hung neatly on her like her ever-present pearls. To them she was just a limousine liberal whose father had presided over Neiman Marcus from 1977-1983 and taught her nothing about making payrolls or properly stroking the Dallas business community. Even Miller admits that, “Sure, there were issues the business community wishes I had gone after that I did not.”
However, she takes umbrage at the notion that she simply shunned big Dallas business and its leaders. “I thought I was a pro-business mayor,” Miller says. “When I was first elected I called Robert Decherd at Belo and told him we needed to get downtown back on its feet. He was surprised to hear from me and even joked that he thought I had just misdialed his number. But he put on a great luncheon for me right before I left office and thanked me for turning downtown around.”
If downtown was getting a facelift, council meetings were growing much uglier. Along with the increased acrimony came whispers of corruption and bribery in minority districts. Twice the council defeated charter amendments designed to give the Dallas mayor more power.
Then came the Trinity River Corridor Project. The way Miller tells it, “I was opposed to the Trinity project as a councilmember, but [U.S. Sen.] Kay Bailey Hutchison came to me and asked, ‘What are we to do with the money earmarked for that?’” It was a flip-flop Miller does not regret, and she still reflects pride in the contributions she and Suhm made “to make the project better and keep it afloat.”
Many of Miller’s supporters turned on her for getting in bed with evil Dallas developers and for her “redesign” of the Trinity project they said was hemorrhaging money the city did not have. It didn’t help when supporters of the project and its toll road hired “blockers” in an attempt to stop petitioners seeking a voter’s say-so on the project. The blockers were called “goons” and Miller, once liberal royalty, was called much worse by her former subjects.
Midway through 2006 she had seen enough and announced that she would not seek reelection. And, seeking another elective office was not in the cards, Miller says. She would slow down and try to enjoy life more. She would plan a vast remodel of the Tudor home in Preston Hollow that would be featured in Traditional Home magazine. It was a redesign her successor at the Dallas Observer, Jim Schutze, described as “like the mayor … very put-together and buttoned down.”
So while Miller mulled all the previously mentioned options, she decided finally to spend time with her children. Her son was at St. Mark’s and doing well, and her youngest daughter had moved in 2009 from Hockaday to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, where Miller says she just “luuuuuuuuuuuvs” the performance and visual-arts programs.
“I am not as crazy-can’t-breathe-busy as I was when I was mayor, thank goodness,” she says. “When I’m in town, I never miss picking up my son from school, and I cook dinner six nights a week. Also, I wear a whole lot less pantyhose now—which is a very, very good thing.”
Miller’s oldest daughter is a junior at Stanford University and writes for a weekly publication there. But, her mom says, “She doesn’t really know what she wants to do.”
With this Miller sits back, and a genuine smile inches across her face. “I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do,” she says with a half sigh.