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Laura Miller, the fiesty and fashionable mayor of Dallas, has an eye for high-style and the determination to take on the city’s politicos.
This story first appeared in the October 10, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Laura Miller did the seemingly impossible in the Dallas mayoral race earlier this year: she won.
Miller, a former investigative journalist and outspoken city councilwoman known for her fiery personality, passion for human rights and head-on clashes with political adversaries, broke a long-time powerlock on the mayor’s office dominated by old money, big business and men.
“Citizens of Dallas, welcome to the Mayor’s Office,’’ said Miller after her decisive victory on Feb. 19 over businessman Tom Dunning, a wealthy political newcomer who reportedly spent several million dollars in his unsuccessful bid against Miller.
Dunning, in fact, drew heavy criticism for a series of low-blow ads that portrayed Miller as a hot-tempered outsider who didn’t have what it takes to lead a city.
But Miller’s self-confidence and poise was unshaken, and after each affront she fought back even harder by focusing on issues, not personality.
It’s a tactic Miller learned as a child from her father, Philip Miller, former chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue and now a New York-based consultant.
“When I was a little girl, maybe four or five years old, some neighborhood kids were picking on me,’’ recalled Miller, 44. “I ran to my Dad and he said, ‘Laura, you’ve got to stick up for yourself. If they kick sand at you in the sandbox, kick it right back.’ And that’s what I’ve always done.’’
Ironically, Philip Miller was against his daughter running for Dallas mayor. “I flew to Dallas and spent two evenings counseling her not to run,’’ he admitted. “I was very concerned about the tremendous stress and time requirements that being mayor might have on her family. Besides, I told her that maybe one politician in the family was enough.’’ (Laura Miller is married to Steven Wolens, a Texas state representative. The couple has three young children, ages 7, 10 and 12.)
But now Philip Miller is all smiles. “Needless to say I’m very proud of Laura and pleased at her finesse in transitioning from a career as an investigative journalist to city councilwoman and now mayor.’’
He was on hand for her swearing-in ceremony in February, suave as always in a gray pinstripe suit.
When it comes to fashion, Laura Miller took some cues from her Dad and appreciates the value of subtle elegance and low-key glamour.
She favors tailored suits by day, usually black, gray or navy, and sleek evening columns or pantsuits for night.
But despite growing up in a retail environment, Miller swears she’s no fashionista.
“Growing up my dad was the king of fashion as far as I was concerned, but fashion wasn’t on my personal radar screen until I got into college,’’ conceded Miller, wearing a gray Guy Laroche suit and matching silk blouse from Escada. Her accessories include sculpted gold and gemstone earrings and a mayoral badge on her lapel.
Miller said her personal style is to a great extent shaped by a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus.
“My whole secret to looking great is Dorothy Schnallinger, who works in the couture department at Neiman’s flagship in downtown Dallas.’’
Miller met Schnallinger about eight years ago at a Neiman’s Last Call event and the two quickly became simpatico.
“Laura loves clothes and has always had a great understanding of fashion,’’ said Schnallinger. “Her active lifestyle and joy of running allow her to wear fashions from many designers. She loves classic pant looks from Agnona and Giorgio Armani, and she often complements her wardrobe with avant-garde looks. Her personal style is introduced by an unexpected twist such as a Gaultier underpinning or unusual accessories.’’
Miller also has a passion for pearls and recently acquired a couple of new strands, having broke one of her favorites while on the campaign trail earlier this year.
Though her look is polished and refined, Miller’s demeanor often turns rough and rumble.
She won’t hesitate to tussle with political adversaries, especially when it comes to helping Dallas’ underprivileged. Her crusade to reopen and refurbish the city’s public swimming pools, especially in poorer neighborhoods, became front-page news.
True to form, Miller spent her first day in office picking up roadside trash in one of the city’s most derelict areas.
“I believe in a genderless power structure,’’ explained Miller. “I don’t think in terms of women versus men. A lot of people have asked me what it means for the city now that there’s a woman mayor. But it really doesn’t register or sink in with me that way. I’m here to do a job and help the citizens of Dallas.’’
She said her journalism career, which includes stints at the New York Daily News, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Dallas Observer, provided invaluable training in diplomacy and looking at issues from both sides.
“My reporter instincts help me in every single situation on the job as mayor. I know how to ask questions to quickly get to the root of an issue, which as you might imagine can help a lot in a city council meeting.’’
Miller is an avid jogger, loves to cook Italian food and can’t get enough of the beach.
Her family makes an annual pilgrimage to La Jolla, Calif., each summer, and she typically indulges in relaxing by the sea with a good book. Anything by novelist Anita Shreve, who typically writes about relationship dynamics, is a must-read for Miller.
Miller and Wolens have been married for 15 years, and they have a rock-solid hierarchy that puts family first and jobs second.
“We have an agreement that if I can’t balance family life with being mayor, then I won’t be mayor anymore.’’
Miller recalled her first date with Wolens, for which she bought a vintage velvet dress with rhinestone collar at a flea market in Woodstock, N.Y. It cost $2.
“I bought some wonderful retro-styled hosiery with spots running up the back to complete the look,” she said. “Unfortunately, Steve thought I had a serious skin condition on my legs. It’s fair to say my style has changed a great deal since then.’’