The Kirk connection

How Dallas' new mayor pulled it off

It was a beautiful afternoon, one week before the Dallas mayor's race, and Ron Kirk was in the unusual position of having 45 minutes to kill.

Political candidates in the home stretch of the fight do not have lives, let alone free time. But Kirk had just emerged from a small fundraising lunch at the Grand Kempinski Hotel in Addison, and his next event--a TV interview--was about an hour away.

Not enough time to go by his law office downtown, he figured. Not enough time to drop by his campaign headquarters. Not enough time to do much of anything, except maybe his favorite thing--second only to eating, sleeping, being with his family, and running for mayor.

"The Kirks have a saying," says the mayor-elect. "It's "Veni, vidi, Visa--we came, we saw, and we did a little shopping."

Our new mayor, besides quoting Julius Caesar badly, is a man with a discerning eye and a snappy wardrobe requiring regular maintenance--preferably when the sales are going on. Walking out of the hotel that day, Kirk could not help but notice the newly remodeled Larry's Shoes store facing him across the Dallas North Tollway--10,000 square feet of shopping heaven, including a foot masseur, a shoe museum, and a cappuccino bar.

In five minutes, Kirk's comfortably worn, white 1984 BMW (with 201,000 miles) was parked outside the store. Inside, fate awaited--and I don't mean just shoes. "He walked in the door, and I said, 'Hey, what's going on, Ron?'" recalls a still-excited, 35-year-old Larry's salesman named Reggie Tinner. "He just looked at me like 'What--you don't know who I am.' But he had a name tag on, and I'd been seeing him on the TV news, and I told him a friend had just called me, telling me I had to support Kirk for mayor. I knew him right away."

He knew, too, Tinner says as an aside, that Kirk's Cole-Haan loafers needed replacing. "They were kind of beat up and chewed--these old brown kilty shoes, like a little moccasin--which were inappropriate with the suit," Tinner says. "I said, 'Here you are running for mayor--you can't go looking tacky.' And he laughed and said, 'Yeah, my wife hates these shoes.'"

So Ron Kirk bought shoes--though it was no easy task. To Kirk's utter amazement, he was suddenly surrounded by a small mob of awestruck employees and customers, acting as though Nolan Ryan or George Foreman had just breezed through the door. "All these guys came up to me," says Kirk. "And one of them says, 'I just love your commercial--what's that thing that you say? Cut the crap? No. Stop the whining? Come on, you say it.' And I said, 'The blame game is over, and nobody's won.' And they all went nuts. One of them took out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $100. I couldn't believe it."

And he couldn't avoid feeling a bit hopeful. "I couldn't help but start thinking, 'I'm going to win this thing,'" Kirk says. "Because we'd been working real hard to get the vote out in South Dallas, and I knew that was working because early voting was strong. These anecdotes were just starting to pop up in North Dallas. But you never knew if it was just dumb luck--running into the five white guys who were going to vote for you."

He need not have worried.
So here's the fairy tale.
An enormously likable but obscure guy (he had 12 percent name identification with registered voters as recently as February, according to his own polling), is suddenly seized with a passionate, heartfelt desire to tie all the fractious elements of the city together as the first black mayor of Dallas.

He does this at a time when the city is fed up with its new, racially diverse city government of the '90s--from its tough-guy city manager, to the 14 keystone cops on the council, to its fork-tongued--"No taxes for an arena--except sales taxes, liquor taxes, and hotel-motel taxes!"--mayor.

Add to this the basic backdrop of the past decade: that the most consistently high-profile black politician in town is the ever-unpredictable, often volatile, always controversial Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price--a man feared and loathed by many of the Anglos Ron Kirk will need to woo to win.

Ron Kirk for mayor? Yeah, right.
"I have a lot of clients in this town that I worked on," says Kirk's campaign manager, well-known Republican political consultant Carol Reed, who is also the queen of corporate PR and blue-ribbon fundraising. "I'd call them and say, 'You need to meet Ron Kirk.' And they'd say, 'Oh, well, we don't get involved with local politics.' Or 'we have to work down at the city so we don't want to get involved.' And if you pushed it, they'd say, 'It would be just fabulous if you could just do this, but there's just no chance that North Dallas won't elect Darrell Jordan. There's just no way. And you know how I feel about you. And you know how I feel about Ron.'"

These are, of course, the same people who are now scrambling--through tight smiles--to do Kirk's next big fundraiser. And every last one of them is saying to themselves, "62 percent? How in the world did this guy get 62 percent of the vote?"

In fact, Kirk's been asking himself the same thing. "I think some of it was message," he says. "A lot was rejection of the negative campaign tactics that were used toward the end."

Nah. All of it was two simple things: Ron Kirk and Carol Reed. The candidate and his manager--two personable, bright people with bigger-than-life personalities who came together in an incredibly unlikely coupling (a black Democrat and a white Republican strategist?) to knock Dallas right on its keister.

Until last year, Kirk and Reed didn't really know each other. But shortly after the primary elections last spring, both were asked to appear on a panel for the Greater Dallas Board of Realtors to help analyze the election results. "I think we were talking about how difficult it would be for George W. Bush to pull women away from Ann Richards, and at some point in the conversation I made a comment like, 'These white men just don't get it--they have no appreciation for what women are thinking,' and Ron just looked at me in surprise," Reed says. "And afterwards we got out to the parking lot, and Ron told me he thought I was right, and we've been kind of soulmates ever since."

So when Kirk decided last fall to run for mayor, the first person he called was Carol Reed. "It is ironic," says Kirk. "Maybe it was fate that we served on that panel. Because I liked her angles, and all of that. Calling her was somewhat intuition on my part."

Their first meeting in late September only buttressed that feeling--for both of them. "We just sat and chatted about why he was running--what he was interested in," Reed says. "And I said to him, 'You know, I am so sick of listening to this town whine. I travel all over the country, and I don't see any other city that is more likable than Dallas. I can go anywhere I want in about 30 minutes, any time of the day or night. There's no corruption at city hall to speak of--not like you hear about in other cities. I'd like people to stop whining, I told him, and I'd like to clean up the city a little bit--it doesn't look so good right now."

Kirk, who will never be accused of being at a loss for words when it comes to decrying the petty political shenanigans that go on at city hall, had plenty of his own thoughts on this score. As an assistant city attorney for six years, Kirk had seen it all, unlike Reed, as an insider--he knew firsthand the devastatingly unproductive effects of the endless race-baiting that has plagued city hall for more than a decade. Reed and Kirk went back and forth on the subject long enough to start developing a bona fide campaign theme. "Whining wasn't the right word, we decided," Reed recalls. "We both knew that. But we couldn't quite come up with it."

They found it four months later, on the night before Kirk held his January press conference formally announcing his candidacy--a city hall event that will no doubt go down in history as the biggest, most highly staged blowout of black, brown, and white faces since the old Coke-on-the-mountain commercial. "We had to have the most inclusive, diverse group anyone's ever put together," Reed says, "and if we could get them out without a riot, that would be great." (In retrospect, the only thing Reed & Co. failed to do was find a way to hang the bigshots--from Nancy Brinker to Diane Ragsdale, who no doubt spent the hour smiling at each other through gritted teeth--from the ceiling of the City Hall Flag Room by their feet to get more faces in the main shot.)

There was no riot, of course. But there was that catchy refrain.
"Mark McKinnon had sent a draft of Ron's speech up to us," says Reed, referring to the Austin-based media consultant who produced Kirk's television spots. "And Ron and I were in my office half the night pulling it apart and reworking it, and that's the night we hit on the words 'blame game.' I can't tell you whether those were Mark's words or our words, but that's what came out of Ron's mouth the next day--and that's what stuck."

(Reed does remember who dreamed up the other memorable--and nauseating--campaign slogan: "Dallas needs a mayor with tomorrow in his eyes." Although campaign literature attributes this catchy little ball of meaningless froth to aging football hero Roger Staubach--faithfully propped up for every big political campaign because of his extraordinarily high, no-negatives name ID--its true author, says Reed, is political consultant Rob Allyn. Allyn wrote and designed Kirk's colorful campaign logo and all his brochures. Just so you know how hard it is to reinvent the political wheel, Kirk's nifty logo of the Dallas skyline is the same one used on the 14-1 council redistricting campaign Allyn worked on.)

But fancy logos and catchy slogans don't elect mayors. A bona fide strategy and a well-financed organization tight enough to implement it does. And that's where campaign managers prove their worth.

In this campaign, Reed put it all together, handed Kirk his weekly schedule and his Mapsco (he's the only client she's ever had who refused to hire a driver to escort him around), and took care of all the other details. Allowing Kirk to do what he does best--be Kirk.

"We had two hurdles to cross from the very beginning," says Reed. "One was we needed to get the business community behind him because I don't care how wonderful you are, if you can't raise money, you're going to have trouble getting your message together. And while there were some key people committed to Ron early on, for the most part we didn't get the money coming in until after the filing deadline, after people had had a chance to meet all the candidates."

(Reed signed a contract to work for Kirk last October 4--when he didn't have the first $9,500 monthly payment she required. She told her new client she'd raise her own fee in campaign contributions, which she did within eight weeks. By the end of the race, Reed had so much faith in her candidate that when the campaign ran out of money, she ran up more than $20,000 in campaign expenses on her own corporate American Express card. This prompted a call of concern from American Express, inquiring what the hell she was doing. "It's really none of your business," she told the caller, before offering assurances that by the time her bill was due--shortly after Kirk's swearing in as mayor--she'd have plenty of money to pay it.)

At the end of January, with the "blame-game" theme now solidly put together, Reed commissioned an $18,000 telephone poll of 700 registered voters--a survey that only confirmed Reed's feelings about what needed to be done. "We learned that Ron was not well-known, but that his message sold," Reed says. "We had very low name ID and so did Darrell Jordan. Domingo (Garcia) had the high name ID. But by the second round of questioning--after we'd given the voter specific information about all three candidates, all of which was positive because we read it straight off their own campaign literature--we were leading."

Which brings us to the second hurdle--finding a way for the voters to meet Ron Kirk and hear his message. "It became real clear to me early on that to meet Ron Kirk was to not only fall in love with this guy, but to change preconceived notions in this town about the leadership that has been in the black community and the fears people have."

Anyone who knows Kirk can tell you why that is. He is funny, articulate, chatty, self-effacing, as colorblind as any person I have ever known, and completely down to earth (we'll hold our breath and see what 62 percent of the vote does to that, however). Case in point: "Oh, Matrice, come on--turn that off," Kirk fussed last Friday night to his wife during a phone interview. "I'm sitting here eating popcorn," he explained, "and she's watching this movie about people eating each other on a mountaintop. Oh, yech!"

Carol Reed knew she needed to display that man. That's all. So in a brilliantly simple stroke, she created a series of "Meet Ron Kirk" neighborhood get-togethers, hosted by individuals and couples from all over the city and held either in their homes, their churches, or their local rec centers. Reed's people found all the hosts, then printed, addressed, and mailed all the invitations for all the gatherings. An impressive 121,000 households, most of which were selected for including voters in at least one previous mayoral election, received invitations.

The beauty of this strategy, which cost $15,000 to implement, was that it was effective in several ways. Though getting people to meet Kirk was the number-one goal, realistically, of the 4,000-plus invitations that went out for each event, 40 to 60 people showed up on a good night. But the invitation itself was effective. "I may not be able to go, but I see my neighbors' names and Ron's name," says Reed. "Some people got four, five, six invitations. And the events themselves were very well done. On the day of the event, our people delivered campaign brochures, name tags, and yard signs to the hosts."

At the get-togethers held in the southern sector of the city, people were recruited to do volunteer work to get out the black vote--an enormous effort, coordinated by African-American political consultant Kathy Nealy, that resulted in an unprecedented 25 percent black voter turnout overall, twice the norm. That effort included registering people to vote, getting people to the polls early to cast absentee ballots, driving through neighborhoods on election day with bullhorns to remind people to vote, and walking door-to-door with Kirk's literature.

"We took the same pieces we mailed, and we knocked on the doors of people who may not have gotten the mailer, because the reality is you can't mail to a half-million doors--you just can't," says Kirk. "So we went door-to-door and gave our brochures to people so they would have something about Ron Kirk in their hands to look at."

During the last few weeks of the campaign, the black ministers, in a united effort, urged their congregations from the pulpit to let their voices be heard with a vote--a plea that resulted in dozens of after-church Sunday caravans to absentee polling places. Says Kirk: "It was just good ol'-fashioned grassroots politics."

Looking back, though, there was something else. Perhaps for the first time in a Dallas mayor's race, a candidate made a personal, heartfelt connection with the citizens. Whether it was white people stopping Kirk at Larry's Shoes or a visit to NorthPark Mall, where a thirtysomething couple told him he was the first mayoral candidate they'd ever agreed on, or black people embracing him like a long-lost child.

At one "Meet Ron Kirk" gathering in South Dallas in mid-campaign, a 94-year-old black woman approached Kirk tentatively when the crowd began dispersing for the evening. Grabbing Kirk by the arm, she hugged him awkwardly, then explained that she was blind. "You have to forgive me," she told him, raising her hands to touch his face, "but I never thought I would live to see the day when we would elect a black man mayor of the city of Dallas."

When Kirk left the meeting a few minutes later, filled with emotion, he called his wife from the car, unable to wait until he got home. He had a story to tell her.

About why he was running for mayor.

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