His own man

Sore losers say the white establishment bought and sold Ron Price. Don't believe it.

Someone must have said something really funny. Or maybe the photographer strode into the DISD boardroom trailing 10 feet of toilet paper.

Whatever the case, he caught Kathlyn Gilliam smiling--an open-mouthed, toothy grin so jolly it looked as though she'd just burst into uproarious laughter.

Needless to say, there is something wrong with this picture. It captures a moment many, many years ago--in 1980, according to the brass plate on the wooden picture frame.

If you continue to follow the series of DISD school board portraits around the room, kind of like doing the Stations of the Cross, you see Gilliam's eyes gradually sink in, the hair go gray, the burden grow heavier.

By the time you advance to this year's group photograph, posted just this month, Gilliam's mirthful smile has turned to a brittle, clenched-jaw grin. A rather more familiar face.

It's a lot like what I saw on May 13, at the precise moment when a glassy-eyed Gilliam emerged from the county office where she'd lost the election recount to an absolute beginner, 30-year-old Ron Price, by a mere 33 votes.

Those of us among the press who'd stayed until the end--sometime around 8 p.m., after Gilliam had been cooped up in the recount room for nearly 11 hours--witnessed a sad little drama by the elevators in the Dallas County Health and Human Services building.

Someone hit the down button for Gilliam. The freight elevator opened, and there stood a jolly Ron Price, grinning, waving, and yakking on a cellular phone. Plenty of room remained inside. So The Dallas Morning News' Alexei Barrionuevo grabbed the door and held it open for Gilliam.

Bad move. The 66-year-old DISD board veteran abruptly stopped, turned to Barrionuevo, and glared. "Would you let the elevator go?" she drawled unpleasantly in that odd Minnie Mouse voice.

Gilliam's look said it all. No way was she gonna share an elevator with Ron Price--no olive branch, no concession speech, not even a begrudging nod to the new generation.

And so the 23-year Kathlyn Gilliam era, begun in a spirit of cooperation, came to a muffled, desultory close amidst the ugliest racial discord Dallas has seen this decade.

To this day, Gilliam hasn't spoken a single word to her successor; she began the silent treatment in March when Price, who'd once done volunteer work for Gilliam's nonprofit organization, Clean South Dallas, informed her that he planned to oppose her.

It's funny how Gilliam and her friends seem to have no capacity for irony--or shame. They responded to Price's gutsy democratic challenge by accusing him of "disrespecting" Gilliam by daring to run against her. But where was the respect from the lady herself in those twilight hours of May 13?

The ultimate question behind Ron Price's startling win has yet to be answered by the local political pundits, most of whom would rather go back to covering police stories on the night shift than try to explain Gilliam's insidious racial politics.

Did only one election separate the myth from reality--that Dallas, black Dallas, was thoroughly fed up with Kathlyn Gilliam's race-baiting tactics?

I'd actually suspected that for months, having spent some time talking to black parents who send their children to DISD schools. In our conversations, I heard frequent expressions of shame, disgust, and embarrassment at the minstrel-show antics of the district's black protesters.

Still, I had no illusions about how inspiring municipal elections are to the average Dallas voter. In the past, Gilliam has won re-election to her District 9 seat with as few as 147 votes.

Getting out the vote on May 3 would be a tough task for any challenger. But Ron Price's surprise victory succeeded in exposing a huge racial charade.

For years, this city has feared a not-always-unified group of 20 or 25 people who make lots of noise and claim to represent all of black Dallas. We've ascribed to them extraordinary, almost supernatural powers. We've seen seemingly rational people vote a number of them into office; we've seen them hold the city hostage with threats of boycotts, violence, and mayhem.

The source of their power really isn't so mystifying; it's a simple lack of choice.

Offer a decent alternative--an authentic, fresh, compassionate voice--and people recognize the difference. Such is the case with Ron Price.

Yet here's a guy so young, inexperienced, and ridiculously free of guile that you could project onto him just about any cynical motivation.

It's easy to see why rumors abound--including the premise of the most recent whisper campaign, which holds that Price's deep-pocketed white campaign contributors pulled strings to snag him a full-time salaried position with one of their own, and therefore own him. (Election to the school board meant that Price had to give up his position as a youth action specialist for DISD.)

Price, however, says he didn't receive any job offers from white supporters. He did field several calls about job possibilities from blacks, and eventually chose to work as a sales manager for Regional Health Supply, an Arlington business owned by a black entrepreneur, L.D. Dabney. Price calls the hospital supplier "the only African-American-owned company of its kind in the nation." (Dabney could not be reached for comment.)

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