By | April 12, 2019

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North Dallas voters will have a clear-cut choice in council candidates on Election Day next month: Laura Miller, the former mayor who has cast herself as the fighter the district needs, or Jennifer Staubach Gates, the three-term incumbent who pitches herself as the pragmatist who gets things done.

The high-profile — and expensive — council race has been a political slug-fest. Gates and Miller have traded sharp barbs over development, traffic congestion, parking concepts, public safety issues, conflicts of interest and even the Dallas Cowboys.

All the while, the two have tried to sharpen the differences in their personalities. Gates said at a recent Dallas Morning News editorial board meeting that she and Miller are “very different people in the way we handle ourselves, our manner, our style and our demeanor.”

And to Gates, that “makes a difference in how you get things done.”

Gates said a council member has "to be able to work with your colleagues." But Miller describes her opponent as someone who won’t — or can’t — curb congestion and the spread of high-rise towers that she says adds to overcrowded conditions and a lower quality of life.

The former mayor defined herself as a leader who can stride into traffic and clear jams with bold, broad policy strokes. And she sees herself as the voice for beleaguered homeowners: “For six years,” she told The News in an interview, “It’s always the same tune: ‘Laura, no one is listening to us at City Hall.’"

Preston fight

The May 4 general election will determine who represents the sprawling and diverse District 13, which has a rich-poor divide that mirrors Dallas as a whole. On one side of the district sits affluent Preston Hollow, home to millionaires and billionaires. And on the other side is Vickery Meadow, which has faced crime and poverty issues and is awaiting its own public library.

The winner will also face challenging citywide issues, including a police staffing shortage, a severe lack of quality affordable housing and a spike in homelessness.

But much of the Miller-Gates campaign has focused on a single area — the neighborhood around Preston Center at Northwest Highway and the Dallas North Tollway.

The district is full of yard signs about development in that area that include slogans such as “No more towers in Preston Center/ Fix the traffic first.”

The biggest dispute is over a lot primed for development after a 2017 fire destroyed condominiums there. The city has proposed rezoning the area’s 14-acre tract to nearly double the allowable units per acre and allow some parts of a future development that could be 20-to-24 stories high.

The City Plan Commission will consider the rezoning April 18. Gates has not taken an official stand on the plan, preferring to wait on the process.

But Miller adamantly opposes the rezoning as proposed, calling it “a horrendous mess.” Miller said Gates has not shown the leadership required for homeowners in the surrounding area.

A look at the brick structure known as the "Pink Wall," which used to be the sign of status in Preston Hollow as homeowners near Preston Center, near the intersection of Preston Road and Northwest Highway in Dallas, battle high-rise expansion efforts that will affect parking, transportation and quality of life aspects in the area. Photographed on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
Disputed donation

The future of Preston Center itself is also up in the air. At their first debate, Miller accused Gates of fumbling away a $10 million offer of a donation for a park — atop an underground parking garage — to replace the shopping center’s decrepit parking garage.

The idea for the park came out of the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan. The task force developed a vision to guide future public policy and development in the area.

Gates appointed Miller to the group, and the City Council unanimously approved the recommendations in January 2017.

“We had a park in the middle of Preston Center that was going to be terrific. And the park would be a catalyst for development … walk-able kind of development that we see at Klyde Warren Park,” Miller said. “That didn’t happen. If I’m elected, that will happen.”

But Gates said that park was never close to reality. The $10 million donation offer came from billionaire Darwin Deason. And Doug Deason, Darwin’s son, is Miller’s campaign treasurer.

Gates said her calendar shows she met with Darwin Deason on June 1, 2016. At the time, the Deasons opposed a development for two office and residential towers across the street from Darwin Deason’s penthouse. Gates said she got the impression the park donation was conditional upon killing the development — a condition she said she couldn’t oblige.

In separate interviews with The News, Doug and Darwin Deason vehemently denied that the donation came with strings attached — except one: the park should be named the Deason Family Park.

On Jan. 31, 2019, Preston Center land owner and developer Robert Dozier unveiled plans to build a parking garage, park and 300 apartments in Preston Center. An aging parking garage is there now, and a task force in 2016 recommended replacing it with a buried garage and a ground-level park. (Robert Wilonsky/Staff)

The area plan gave a window of two years to come up with the money for the park and underground garage before giving Preston Center business owners the option to pursue other options. The city put up $10 million, an amount that the North Texas Council of Governments agreed to match if the project got the green light.

But even with a $10 million park donation and the $10 million in bond funds, the project still would’ve been short at least another $10 million — and likely more. Miller said Gates should’ve fought for more in the bond package, which was loaded with long-desired projects across the city.

Gates also said the project still needed approval from Preston Center business owners. While the city owns the garage, the surrounding business owners, who make up the Preston Center West Garage Corp., have the final say on what happens to it.

At a neighborhood meeting in late January, David Claassen, speaking on behalf of the business owners, said “100 percent of us are completely against" the park-and-buried-parking concept. Claasen owns several Preston Center properties.

Bill Willingham, a longtime Preston Center property owner, recently reiterated that position. "We never would have approved a park for the whole [garage] surface area," he said.

Dallas Fire-Rescue personnel fight a 7-alarm fire at the Preston Place condos in the 6200 block of W. Northwest Highway, early Saturday, March 4, 2017.
Trading barbs

The development disputes have manifested in exchanges between the candidates that have ranged from tense to snarky.

At their debate, Gates said Miller has a conflict of interest in the zoning case because the former mayor and her husband own a condo in the area set to be rezoned. Miller stood and, glaring down at her seated opponent, denied she had a conflict and asked if Gates ever read the ethics code. (Gates replied that she had).

Known as a combative politician, Miller has pulled no punches against Gates. On the day she dramatically announced her candidacy on the last day to file to be on the May ballot, Miller immediately went on the offensive. She said that "the homeowners in our area are under siege by developers, who are fully supported by our council woman without regard to traffic, pedestrian and parking problems."

“And the homeowners need an advocate, and I’m happy to be their advocate," she said.

Underlying Miller’s message, which she’s hammered repeatedly, is that Gates’ husband, John, and her father, Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach, have real-estate interests.

But Gates said she’s a consensus builder who looks out for her constituents and acts ethically. She pointed out that she was the only council member to vote against an agreement with the corruption-plagued Dallas County Schools.

And Gates has tried to use Miller’s feisty nature against her, saying the former mayor was a polarizing figure who alienated groups such as police and fire associations. Those groups have endorsed Gates and have blasted Miller, with whom they once feuded over the size of their raises, as a leader whose election will lead to crime and ruin for the city.

Gates also recently dredged up criticism of Miller for failing to negotiate a deal to bring the Cowboys to Dallas, tweeting that she was “Searching for a bigger venue for forums – wouldn’t Cowboy Stadium be FUN!? Too bad it’s in Arlington! #Jobs #NewTaxRevenue #LostOpportunity”

Gates also faulted Miller on the crisis that faced the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, which began its plunge into risky real estate investments during Miller’s watch as mayor. Gates said Miller failed to appoint council representatives to the pension board during her years as mayor who could have alerted city leaders.

Miller said Gates was correct about the police pension crisis. “My council should have seen red flags,” she said. “Many council members and mayors didn’t see the red flags. I wish I had seen them.”

The former mayor said that at the time — years before the real-estate market collapsed in 2008 — she was focused on fixing the city’s Employee Retirement Fund. Miller helped guide forward a plan that shored up the civilian employees’ pension in large part by taking on $535 million in voter-approved debt.

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller speaks to reporters as she leaves the City Secretary’s office after filing the required petition signatures to secure a place on the ballot for Dallas City Council District 13 on Friday, February 15, 2019 at Dallas City Hall. (Ashley Landis/The Dallas Morning News)
Money pours in

The election’s outcome is difficult to predict. Based on campaign finance reports, interest in both candidates’ campaigns has been the highest of any race outside of the mayoral bid, in which the contribution limits are higher.

Reports through March showed Gates raised $196,750 to Miller’s $123,611 this year. And nearly $162,000, or 82 percent, of Gates’ donations came during the five-week period after Miller made a dramatic entrance into the race on the last day to file in February.

Gates also drew a higher percentage of her donations from inside the council district — 71 percent to Miller’s 53 percent.

And Gates still took in more money from the nearby Park Cities. Gates took in almost $13,000 from Park Cities — doubling Miller’s total of $6,425.

Miller had a significant chunk of out-of-state donations — 11 percent of her total compared to less than 2 percent of Gates’ donations.

But the well-funded candidates will have little time to persuade voters they’re the right candidate. Another debate planned for Monday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. — the day early voting begins.

Computational journalist Allan James Vestal contributed to this report.

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