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?


The headquarters of the Ron Kirk for Senate campaign takes up most of the three floors of an architecturally confused new building on Henderson Street in north central Dallas, a gentrified area of bars and tony antique stores fronting tiny wood-sided houses.

On a recent day, the place bustled with industry that would make an anthill proud. Staff and visitors alike wandered in and out, talking aloud into desk phones or tiny headsets. About them, assorted photos of The Candidate lined available walls: Kirk on his last day in office. Kirk in front of City Hall and the American Airlines Center, the controversial new $340 million sports arena that Kirk considers one of his greatest accomplishments. Kirk with Al Gore. Kirk with Bill Clinton. Kirk with an assortment of black political leaders and athletes, including Carl Lewis and Tiger Woods. On the top floor, at the center of it all, Carol Butler, Kirk's campaign manager, held forth on a speakerphone in a glassed-in conference room, the front of which contained a Magic Marker countdown: "5 days until early voting starts. 20 days until we celebrate."

Kirk has come a long way since 1995, when, in his first mayoral campaign, he drove himself around the city in his own car, an 11-year-old BMW with more than 200,000 miles. Back then, Kirk's campaign manager, local political consultant Carol Reed, had to charge campaign expenses on her personal American Express card, borrowing from Peter until they could raise campaign funds to pay Paul. Nowadays Kirk's paid staff alone numbers more than 20, a tally that includes seasoned Democratic pros like Butler, who recently engineered Debra Stabenow's upset of Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham in the Michigan race for U.S. Senate. And Kirk has signed on pricey media consultants Struble Oppel Eichenbaum, a D.C. outfit that has produced political advertising for more than a dozen current and former Democratic senators, including Tom Daschle and Bob Kerrey.

Monument building: Kirk still believes in the magnificence of the huge public-works projects he championed in Dallas. He's pictured here with his partners in the $340 million American Airlines Center deal: Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks, American Airlines chairman and CEO Don Carty and former Dallas Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr.
AP/Wide World
Monument building: Kirk still believes in the magnificence of the huge public-works projects he championed in Dallas. He's pictured here with his partners in the $340 million American Airlines Center deal: Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks, American Airlines chairman and CEO Don Carty and former Dallas Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr.
Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen, top, is Kirk's best-funded rival for the Democratic primary on March 12. Kirk and Bentsen have raised the bucks, but the surprise front-runner for the Democratic primary in some polls is Mesquite schoolteacher Victor Morales, bottom, who possesses the new trump card of Texas politics: a Hispanic surname.
Bentsen: Deron Neblett; Morales: Mark Graham
Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen, top, is Kirk's best-funded rival for the Democratic primary on March 12. Kirk and Bentsen have raised the bucks, but the surprise front-runner for the Democratic primary in some polls is Mesquite schoolteacher Victor Morales, bottom, who possesses the new trump card of Texas politics: a Hispanic surname.

On this particular day, while the candidate stumps in Houston, Butler is back home buying media time. In a few days Kirk will, in campaign parlance, "be up" on air, broadcasting ads in 17 of Texas' 19 media markets. (The other two are Dallas and Houston, towns with expensive air time; Kirk's ads will run there this week.) Kirk's people hope that his "air war" will be the coup de grace, the blow that enables them to pull out of a very tight three-way race. Kirk's predictions about the race's narrowing have proved to be mostly wishful thinking, although Dan Morales did, at the last minute, switch to the governor's race. With just less than three weeks to go, the latest polls of likely primary voters show Kirk and Bentsen running neck and neck, with 19 and 18 percent respectively. Victor Morales is slightly higher, at 24 percent, a lead that about equals the statistical margin of error.

The good news: If Kirk can bag his party's nomination, early polls show he has a chance against John Cornyn, Texas' current attorney general, who will be the Republican nominee for Gramm's seat in the general election.

"We will be in this runoff," predicts Butler matter-of-factly. Butler's bravado is based in part on the fact that Kirk has raised $1.6 million to Bentsen's $1 million. More important, Kirk has nearly a million dollars cash on hand to Bentsen's $263,000. In short, Kirk can afford more air time--a critical factor in this race, since neither Kirk nor Bentsen has any name recognition to speak of outside his home turf, and since a third of likely voters are undecided.

Victor Morales is another matter. He has raised virtually nothing--less than $6,000--but may not need to. For Hispanics are the X factor in this year's political equation, and Morales holds the new trump card in Texas politics: a Hispanic surname. Based on that and a stunning 50 percent Hispanic turnout, Morales upset heavily favored Congressman John Bryant in the 1996 Democratic Senate primary runoff. And with the carny-show appeal of Morales driving around Texas in a beat-up Toyota truck, a sideshow that drew national press, Morales went on to make a respectable showing against Gramm in the general election. This time around, thanks to the high-profile gubernatorial slugfest between Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez, Hispanic turnout is expected to be high. "I've heard crazy things, [estimates] as high as 40 percent for the primary," Butler says. "Twenty-five percent is the low end."

Kirk knows that Victor Morales will carry the Hispanic vote, but he's hoping he can capture a significant slice as well, despite the fact that he did poorly among Hispanics in his two mayoral bids. Kirk's election both times was almost entirely a black-and-white phenomenon; in 1995, when he ran against Mayor Pro Tem Domingo Garcia, Kirk garnered only 14 percent of the Hispanic vote. So, why the optimism? Two reasons: Numero Uno, he's been endorsed by prominent Hispanic figures, including San Antonio's Henry Cisneros, and he's touting these endorsements in Spanish-language TV ads to be broadcast in heavily Hispanic markets. And Numero Dos, Kirk's internal polling shows that voters in every market and demographic--even along the border--respond to Kirk's "message."

Which, in the final analysis, is the message he's always relied on: himself.

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