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?

Since then, he's spent two-and-a-half hours schlepping around to six churches. At each stop, Kirk talks with the ministers and asks to address the congregants. Most let him address the crowd but specifically say they do not endorse candidates. Kirk is respectful; he understands, and he'll talk wherever they'll have him.

This is retail campaigning, and of the most brutal kind. As Kirk's campaign manager Carol Butler puts it, "campaigns are a series of hard choices; the person who makes the better choices is usually the person who wins." Though Kirk has raised nearly $2 million, he's a million shy of where he wanted to be by now, and he's betting the correct choice is to spend it all on television. That means, among other things, that they will spend little or no money on the ground turning out African-American voters--a key feature of Kirk's mayoral victories.

This is Kirk's get-out-the-vote effort, and at each successive stop, the audiences seem to be dwindling. This morning's listeners have ranged from a high of maybe 100 to a low of about 20. And since he'll be doing good if 20 percent of these voters actually turn out, he's gathering, in effect, five votes here, 10 votes there. The morning's tally: maybe 45 votes.

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.

As usual, Kirk started the morning in high spirits. A brilliant public speaker, he gives extemporaneous lectures on black history, on politics, on faith, on his parents. But the last few stops have been really tiny, quiet crowds, and he's giving the same lecture over and over, and the punch lines are getting forced and the delivery canned.

One of the last stops of the morning is St. Paul Baptist. As Kirk's entourage walks in, announcements are going on, and while the routine is the same as everywhere else, the attitude is somehow different. This place is more relaxed, more spontaneous. Although the older generation is decked out in finery from head to toe, some of the younger members are in jeans and T-shirts.

The Reverend Vandell Smith stands behind the pulpit, beaming. "We are blessed today to have with us an old friend, Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas and a candidate for the U.S. Senate..." He provides the usual introduction and then steps away from the pulpit to shake Kirk's hand.

As he does so, it becomes apparent: Instead of a robe, the Reverend Smith is wearing jeans, a long purple T-shirt and sneakers.

As Kirk takes the mike, three women on a pew near the front of the church jump up and start dancing. This is no ordinary call-and-response. The women wave their arms in the air and start chanting: "Oooh, oooh! Oooh, oooh!"

"This place," mutters one Kirk staffer, "has got it going on."

A big smile crosses Ron Kirk's face. He's been rejuvenated. "One of the reasons I'm running is, like your pastor, I've been blessed. It's not every day you get to introduce someone who looks like me as the former mayor of a city like Dallas. So many of our parents worked to open doors so I could graduate from a law school like the University of Texas. They said, if you just give this child a chance..."

"Uh-huh."

"Tell it!"

"Now they can go to Harvard, or they can go to Howard. You see, my life is a blueprint for what can happen if you give people a chance."

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