Selling Ron

A pro-business black Democrat who appeals to white voters, Ron Kirk is the sport utility vehicle of Senate candidates. But will voters buy him?

Ron Kirk insists he is neither optimist nor pessimist, cynic nor Pollyanna. "I'm a realist," he explains during a quiet break from campaigning in deep East Texas. "I've had to deal with life as it is."

Because he's a realist, he recognizes some harsh truths. Kirk knows, for example, that he was elected Dallas' first black mayor because he was the kind of black man white Dallas could love: well-educated, pro-business, conservatively attired. A black man who honestly dislikes disorder and ugly racial spectacle and who not-so-subtly promised to make the angry black voices on the news every night go away. A black man who would, in the parlance of his 1995 mayoral campaign, "end the blame game." A black man who grew up negotiating his way between two worlds, being called "nigger" by white kids during the day and "Uncle Tom" by black kids at night, who had spent a lot of time figuring out, in Kirk's words, "how you get beyond" race, how to find the common denominator, how to help people be better than they want to be. A black man, in short, uniquely qualified to ease your racial fears, to make them, as he puts it, "go dormant" for a while.

And because he's a realist, he doesn't think your fears have gone away. He concedes that Laura Miller's recent election as mayor was, in part, a backlash against the big-ticket spending Kirk championed--what he calls "my grand vision." He also thinks Tom Dunning was an "awful" campaigner, an opinion he doesn't guard very closely when reporters are scribbling nearby. And last but not least, he believes in his heart that racism played a role, that the demons he was uniquely qualified to keep at bay have been loosed and are running around making mischief.

Kirk's race: Ron Kirk resigned as mayor of Dallas late last year to run for the U.S. Senate.
Peter Calvin
Kirk's race: Ron Kirk resigned as mayor of Dallas late last year to run for the U.S. Senate.
If elected, Kirk, pictured with his wife, Matrice, at his campaign kickoff on January 22, would be Texas' first black senator.
AP/Wide World
If elected, Kirk, pictured with his wife, Matrice, at his campaign kickoff on January 22, would be Texas' first black senator.

Because he's no fool, he's putting a positive spin on these truths. In campaign commercials and on the stump, Ron Kirk, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, says he was elected Dallas' first black mayor because the voters "decided to put hope before cynicism and trust before fear." He wants them to--no, he honestly believes they will--do so again in the March 12 Democratic primary. And again in the runoff that will certainly result, in which Kirk likely will be a finalist, Kirk being the best-funded senatorial hopeful and money being the mother's milk of politics. And yet again, in the general election. In fact, Kirk believes he can inspire Texans to overcome their baser instincts, be they racist or Republican, thrice in the next eight months, and in the process become not only Texas' first Democratic senator in a decade, but its first black senator. Ever.

That's a lot of hope and trust. And despite his protestations to the contrary, Kirk is neither cynicism- nor fear-free. "What's your angle?" he asked suspiciously, returning a call last November. "This isn't gonna be some 'Laura vs. Ron' story, is it?"

Just 10 days earlier, Kirk had resigned his "dream job" as mayor to make his Senate run, and a man with less self-confidence might have been panicked. He had no money, since funds from his mayoral run can't be used in federal elections. He had virtually no name recognition outside North and East Texas. He had formidable party opponents threatening runs, including Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen, former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales and Mesquite schoolteacher Victor Morales, the guy who drove his little white pickup around the state in 1996 and took on incumbent Texas Senator Phil "Ready Money" Gramm. And he had no staff to speak of, which is why the candidate himself was calling to sniff us over, to determine whether the Dallas Observer's intentions were honorable.

But a man with less self-confidence never would have come as far in life as Ron Kirk has.

Reassured that this story wasn't about Laura Miller, and that the writer had a mind of her own--separate from that of Jim Schutze, the Observer's political columnist--Kirk relaxed. Sort of. He ranted for a few moments about Schutze, a frequent Kirk critic, and about the Observer, which was, during the Kirk years, the only publication regularly willing to take a swipe at His Honor. Eventually, he got down to the topic at hand.

"Hell, yes, I can pull it off," he boomed, and then chuckled. "Of course, I was the only person I know who thought I could beat Gramm. Thank God he didn't give me the chance." (In September, Phil Gramm, the three-term Republican incumbent, announced he would not run for re-election.)

It was vintage Ron Kirk: by turns funny, testy, self-deprecating, profane and, all in all, charming enough to sell a farm dog fleas. With enthusiasm, he began to dish about the race. He hadn't decided when to officially kick off--maybe December, more likely January, by which time he expected the field to have narrowed, in part because he hoped the Democratic hierarchy would strong-arm Bentsen out of running. He never quite agreed to cooperate with the Observer, but in the end the challenge would prove irresistible.

For there are a few more things one must never forget about Kirk. He's no ideologue; abstract notions of government and political philosophy don't stir his soul, and some of his views, particularly on open government and the press, are profoundly cynical, even undemocratic. But he usually will roll the dice on people. Because if there is one true thing Kirk knows after 47 years, it is this: Ron Kirk can sell Ron Kirk to anyone with a half-open mind.

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