Writer-Turned-Mayor Addresses Columnists’ Confab

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By: Dave Astor

Many people have started a column after working in politics. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller is one of the few people who took the opposite route. And, once she did, Miller came to believe that elected officials have more impact than newspaper writers.

“I had so much fun as a journalist, but I like the job I have now better,” Miller told attendees Friday at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) conference. “Even when I’m criticized by the media, I wake up each morning thinking I can make a difference — and usually I can. It was hard for me to see that as a journalist.”

Miller was an investigative columnist for the Dallas Observer before being elected to the Dallas City Council in 1998. “I had the best job in journalism, because I worked for a newspaper that had no sacred cows,” she recalled. But Miller said her columns ultimately had little impact on the way politicans and government operated. “I would drink coffee and eat M&Ms in my pajamas at 3 a.m. as I tried to write the best story I could,” she recalled. “But it never changed anything.”

Becoming an elected official did have its difficult moments. The mayor, a former NSNC member who also worked for newspapers such as the New York Daily News, said some fellow councilmen who remembered her critical columns weren’t happy to serve with her. They were also suspicious about Miller continuing to use a reporter’s notebook, though she wasn’t writing in it for journalistic purposes.

Now that Miller’s an elected official, she feels some journalists can be excessively harsh on politicians. The mayor said politicians are “fair game” in some cases, such as when a married Texas official was exposed for frequently calling his girlfriend on his city cell phone. But Miller said the “got-you” mentality goes too far in certain instances — and can be “very, very hurtful.” Miller recalled an occasion when she heard some alleged skeletons in her closet were going to be aired in the media.

Miller was devastated, wondering if she had inadvertently done something really bad in her past — such as during her four years as a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Then Miller learned she was going to be pilloried for voting “only” 32 out of 35 times in various local elections during her life.

“I wish that for six months every columnist could be a public official and every public official could be a columnist,” said Miller. “We’d have a better media and better public servants.”

Why don’t more journalists run for local office? Many see this as “going over to the dark side,” as some of Miller’s former colleagues described it. Another reason, said Miller, is that journalists might have to take a big cut in salary.

Does Miller have plans to run for higher office in Texas? “I’m a Yankee and a closet Democrat,” replied the former New Yorker, noting that those two facts would make it hard to become governor of, or a Congressperson from, the Lone Star State. Besides, she added, her interests are local. “I was obsessed with City Hall as a columnist and I’m obsessed with City Hall as mayor,” Miller said.

And does Miller have any plans to return to journalism one day? Not really, she answered, while admitting that she did have the “fantasy” of maybe trying her hand at a novel.

Miller was introduced by conference host and Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Dave Lieber, who said the mayor was a rare journalist who moved to a position journalists write about. “But she’s still a columnist at heart,” added Lieber, noting that Miller called another politician an “idiot” and didn’t apologize because “it was true.”

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