What price victory?

A youngster encounters tricky racial politics by challenging Kathlyn Gilliam

Ron Price readily admits that he has some learning to do. "I'm a rookie at this," says the 30-year-old South Dallas youth organizer. He is making his first run for elected office this year, seeking a seat on the Dallas Independent School District Board.

Perhaps it takes youthful naivete to attempt the race Price has decided to take on. For his maiden political voyage, Price has launched a nearly impossible endeavor, challenging 23-year-veteran DISD trustee Kathlyn Gilliam in the May 3 election. The contest between the newcomer and the oldtimer promises to be much more controversial than the usual ho-hum school-board race.

Not only must Price overcome Gilliam's formidable strength as an entrenched incumbent, he also must finesse a complex maze of intra-racial politics.

Both Price and Gilliam are African-American, as are many voters in the South Dallas district they are competing to represent.

But Price's challenge of Gilliam makes many black leaders suspicious. Gilliam has served as the sort-of political mother hen to the gaggle of black protesters who have so successfully disrupted recent DISD board meetings, keeping school-district race issues on the nightly news. Largely because of that role, many white leaders would like to see Gilliam beaten.

Some black leaders perceive Price as the stalking horse for white business interests, a characterization which he denies, but which could easily doom his fledgling political career.

Price, a Harlem native with no relation to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, began making a name for himself two years ago by leading a group of students known as the Pearl Guards in protests against liquor stores near schools. But that was child's play compared to challenging Gilliam. Whether Price has the political mettle to finesse the tricky racial issues remains an open question.

To succeed, Price must exploit the generous financial support he is receiving from white business interests and draw support from the white urban professionals and Hispanics who have moved into District 9, which includes Fair Park, South Dallas, Deep Ellum, Pleasant Grove, and the Uptown neighborhood. While appealing to white and Hispanic voters, however, he must be careful not to alienate African-American constituents who make up Gilliam's power base.

Last week, Price found himself facing the first real challenge of his rookie campaign as he stumbled to explain--in a politically expedient manner--why his first campaign treasurer, Derrick Harkins, the pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in South Dallas, has quit.

Harkins' departure has highlighted questions of whether prominent members of the African-American community like Harkins feel they can afford the political price of helping Price challenge Gilliam.

Price says Harkins left the campaign because "He had a little ethical conflict. But he is still going to support me." Pausing for a moment, Price adds, "At least that is what he told me last time I talked to him."

Harkins says he left the campaign to avoid a possible appearance of a conflict of interests. Harkins' church is a member of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, an organization which in the past has tried to serve as an impartial mediator of Dallas school-board controversies. By staying on Price's campaign, Harkins says, "It would have made it appear that I've got an agenda. It is such a heated issue. I can be more valuable if I remain impartial."

The New Hope Church pastor says he initially agreed to serve as treasurer for Price when the young political organizer had been planning to run for city council. But then--only days before the filing deadline--Price switched and decided instead to go after the school-board seat. Price needed a campaign treasurer or he couldn't file, so Harkins says he agreed to stay on despite reservations about the challenge to Gilliam. Price even produced campaign material with Harkins listed as the official treasurer. But all along, Harkins says, he had told Price he would not be able to stay on.

Significantly, Harkins concedes that he discussed his involvement in the campaign with Gilliam before he left Price. Harkins says he also discussed it with one of Gilliam's most ardent supporters, Thomas Muhammad, a newspaper columnist.

"It was discussed," Harkins admits. But their opinions alone did not lead to his decision, he insists.

Harkins acknowledges, however, that it hasn't helped Price's cause with leaders in the black community that the young candidate has received a tremendous amount of financial support so far from white business interests.

"The question arises--" says Harkins, "is Ron Price being enthusiastically supported, or is Kathlyn Gilliam being opposed?"

So far, Price has reported receiving roughly $16,000 in campaign contributions, raising almost $9,000 more than Gilliam. Among Price's biggest contributors--each giving more than $200--were Austin Industries, Inc. chairman and chief executive William Solomon, three different Haynes and Boone law partners, real estate developer Harlan Crow, and the Dallas Realtors.

Asked about their contributions, the Price backers made no secret of their desire to see Gilliam go.

"His opponent has served for a long time," says Bramblett. "It's time for a change."

Austin Industries' Solomon says, "I've been impressed with [Price's] leadership," but adds that "there is real value in turnover." Solomon says that Gilliam "carries some baggage and memories that she might not be able to deal with the school board today and take it to the next level."

That her young opponent is attracting campaign cash from wealthy white Dallasites apparently has not ruffled the feathers of Gilliam, undefeated--and often unopposed--in elections for her seat since 1974.

"I don't even know who they are," contends Gilliam, who says she has not even glanced at Price's filings. "But apparently they can't vote in this district." She says she cannot worry about Price's contributors because "I have a campaign to run myself."

Meanwhile, Price has ready explanations for the composition of his contributor list. "I have plenty of black contributors," he says. "Anyone can cut me a check for my campaign. I'm not hung up on that."

Price, who will have to quit his school administrative job policing truancy issues if he wins a slot on the board, believes that he will prevail because the 66-year-old Gilliam is "out of touch.''

He deflects the criticism he has received for opposing her by noting that every leader of substance, including Martin Luther King, received flak for confronting established powers. "I've never heard of a time when people pass down power," he says.

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