Mr. Mellow

John Wiley Price, the man who once toted a bullhorn in protests outside Mayor Ron Kirk's home, learns that it helps to have friends in high places

John Wiley Price did most of the talking, holding forth grandly on his reasons for supporting Mayor Ron Kirk's Trinity River Plan.

Clad in a typically natty outfit--tapered jacket, gleaming cuff links, high-collared shirt--Price appeared at ease, in control. He handily outshone the four men beside him, the collection of white guys in limp wool suits known as the rest of the Dallas County Commissioners Court.

It was an improbable sight for many reasons, this image of grandness and blandness at an April press conference, televised just one week before the bond election that swept in another phase of Kirk's extravagantly ambitious vision for Dallas.

"I had asked them to do something unprecedented," Price says of his fellow commissioners, recalling their show of unity with obvious pride. "We had never taken a position on a city bond."

But that was the least of the surprises that morning.
After all, Price, the county's only black commissioner, notorious for his incendiary tactics, was publicly allying himself with Kirk--the middle-class guy whose house he'd surrounded last year with a scraggly band of picketers, noisily protesting that the mayor had forgotten the blacks who put him in office. For days, Price had besieged Kirk and his family with bellowed insults.

Now Price was offering his enthusiastic endorsement of a bond package whose centerpiece was the Trinity River Plan--Kirk's public-works fantasia of lakes, levees, highways, and mythical sailboats that seemed almost comically detached from the realities of life in the poor minority neighborhoods along the river's floodplain.

Only a few weeks earlier, Price had clearly articulated his reasons for opposing the Trinity plan in a radio interview. Now he'd corralled conservative commissioners Jim Jackson, Kenneth Mayfield, and Mike Cantrell and County Judge Lee Jackson to provide a last-minute push for the controversial measure.

"I guess he was the leader," Commissioner Jim Jackson concedes about the event. Apparently not thrilled to be cast as Price's supporting actor, Jackson puts a spin on the notion of Price running the show. "It just goes to show on our court anybody can be the leader," he says.

The $264 million bond package, Price told reporters, called for such an unusual measure. The Trinity plan's provision for new roads would fix downtown traffic jams. "We cannot do nothing and let this city clog and wait for a heart attack," Price said.

On the television news that night, Dallas did a double-take at the mellow man in the wide-lapeled suit, sounding so comfortable, so practical, so reasonable. This was a John Wiley Price even white Dallas could learn to love.

Suspicions and speculation, of course, would soon follow.
Had Price--as some accuse Kirk--sold out to the white business establishment, gaining little in return for his working-class constituents?

Or did he somehow get religion?
Kirk's religion, that is--a thin glaze of righteous talk on old-fashioned, business-coddling boosterism that has made the mayor an almost unstoppable political force in Dallas?

Or had Price--at 46, a grandfather--just plain mellowed out?
Whatever the case, whatever the motive, Price's about-face would prove critical at the polls. On May 2, the Trinity bond issue passed with overwhelming support among blacks, who voted 4-to-1 in its favor.

Since the overall results were close, with Trinity naysayers losing by only 2,357 votes, election analysts handed Price much of the credit for victory.

So did Mayor Kirk, whose political power soared to new dimensions with the bond package coming right on the heels of his $240 million sports arena. Analysts had deemed Price's endorsement significant in that close contest too.

Immediately after the Trinity win, Kirk paid his debt of gratitude. He trotted over to the county offices and thanked the whole commissioners court, specifically naming Price.

"We're cordial to one another," Kirk says today about his onetime nemesis. But he adds a qualifier: "There is going to have to be a lot more water under the bridge before you can say we're close."

Price's endorsement signaled a truce with Kirk. If he hadn't exactly climbed on board the mayor's bullet train, he'd certainly adapted to Dallas' new political realities.

Which shouldn't surprise anyone who's taken the time to examine the extraordinarily complex man known as John Wiley Price.

It has become an initiation rite for white newcomers to Dallas, a bit of local code that's picked up within a matter of weeks.

New folks learn all about Commissioner John Wiley Price. His name is shorthand for black anger in Dallas, and many whites develop a reflex response--rolling their eyes in exasperation whenever his name comes up.

With his booming, raspy voice; enormous, muscular build; and ever-changing eyewear, Price is different enough from your typical middle-class white person to chafe against the norm in multiple ways.

White people learn that Price can be expected to show up regularly on the evening news, protesting loudly against perceived racial injustices anywhere in Dallas.

He is the one--a North Dallas resident will warn a new neighbor during a casual conversation at the park--who pledged in 1990 when the city was searching for a new police chief, "If you try and bring in a good old boy in this system, we're going to be in the streets. Physically, literally, shooting folks."

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