Private dealing

How Ron Kirk killed the public arena briefing

Ron Kirk was being uncharacteristically subdued. He was standing up against a wall, a good distance from the political action, arms folded across his perfectly pressed denim workshirt, lizard boots planted firmly on the floor.

This was last May, two weeks after he'd surprised the city of Dallas, not to mention himself, by winning the heated mayor's race without a runoff. After months of sunup to sundown campaign commitments--endless coffee chats, church socials, candidate forums--Kirk had earned the right to sit back and relax with his family. To take a month-long breather before his city hall swearing-in ceremony.

Instead, on this warm Sunday afternoon, Kirk caught a 4 p.m. Southwest Airlines flight to Austin, where the hectic business of the last week of the 74th legislative session was in full swing.

During the previous legislative session in 1993--when Kirk was a private lawyer working as a lobbyist for private companies--it would have been nothing for him to sacrifice a Sunday to hustle state legislators to come over to his point of view. But those days were over.

So what was Kirk doing down there?
The members of the House calendars committee knew--all too well, actually. They knew that the newly elected, soon-to-be mayor of Dallas couldn't wait to get started on his new job, at least one facet of it.

The legislators, dressed casually for this brief Sunday meeting, smirked. Their old friend Kirk was there because there was a big, fat sports-arena tax bill stuck in their committee--the committee that puts proposed legislation on the House calendar for consideration. It was the last day bills could be considered for the calendar; bills the committee didn't release that day would die.

The arena bill before the committee would earmark as much as $180 million in state sales taxes over the next five years to help build new sports arenas in cities like Dallas. Several members of the committee believed the money could be better spent elsewhere. Then again, the new mayor of Dallas--the first black big-city mayor elected in Texas, their old friend--had come down to ask for his first personal and political favor. Sure, he was over there--humble, quiet, standing against the wall--but he may as well have been on his knees in the middle of the room sobbing and begging and holding a gun to his head.

The bill quickly passed out.
"Where's Mayor Kirk?" the chairman, state Rep. Mark Stiles of Beaumont, asked aloud from stage center in the ornate meeting room, located just off the House floor. "He can go back to Dallas now. Mr. Kirk?"

Kirk reluctantly signaled to Stiles from his position along the wall. "Yeah, you go back and worry about those school kids," Stiles joked, referring to life's bigger problems.

Kirk, raising his eyebrows at the remark, quietly walked out of the room.
I walked him down the hall. I was a little confused. After all, during the campaign, much had been made about Kirk's status as a new partner in a Dallas law firm that had Mavericks owner Don Carter as a client. He was going to have a huge conflict of interest if he pushed publicly for a sports arena--something he passionately wanted--while making a living, in part, off Carter's legal bills. Hammered on this point by his mayoral opponents, Kirk had finally vowed to stay completely out of the arena issue. He wouldn't influence it one way or the other if he became mayor, he said. He wouldn't act. He wouldn't vote. He wouldn't even sit in on the debate.

But here it was, a mere two weeks after the election, and Kirk had flown halfway across the state to execute a fantastic solo save of the arena legislation. Had he forgotten his promise already?

Absolutely not, he told me, clearly chagrined that a reporter was around. Technically speaking, he was living up to his promise, he insisted.

"I've got 30 days between the day I was elected and the day I'm sworn in," Kirk said, "and I'm going to take full advantage of those 30 days to do everything I possibly can to get this arena built."

As he hurried away--mission accomplished, off to catch the last flight to Dallas--I mulled over the integrity of Kirk's slender-as-a-thread rationale for blowing off his campaign promise.

I remembered wondering if, indeed, this was going to be Ron Kirk's last hurrah on the sports arena. I remembered...well, just hoping.

Eight months later, hope has blown out the window.
Ron Kirk is personally shoving a new sports arena down the city's throat, and he's doing it all behind the scenes in the same, incredibly noxious way his predecessor did: holding every arena meeting behind closed doors; fighting to keep information from the press; shunning citizen input; and protecting narrow private interests over greater public ones.

Same ol', same ol.'
Until last Wednesday--an absolute watershed day for the Kirk mayoral reign--Kirk's arena lustings had all seemed pretty innocent and fairly contained. Sure, everybody at city hall had figured that the new mayor was quietly spearheading the arena effort with the City Manager John Ware, who happens to be Kirk's personal friend. Still, nothing much had been happening. The tax bill in Austin had been unexpectedly killed by an Arlington legislator just days after Kirk's deft resuscitation, and arena negotiations between Dallas and Don Carter had stalled shortly afterward because of the financial instability of the Dallas Stars.

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