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?

Born into a musical family, Kirk found his place in Reagan's school choir and on the student council, where he served as president. But he remembers his high school years as difficult ones, marked by racial conflict. He laughs now about the way racial alliances shifted: Hispanics banding with whites one week, Hispanics and blacks together the next.

In some ways, it was the perfect preparation for a life in politics. "We had fights every week. We just fought. There was always some black kid flirting with some Hispanic girl, and that would cause a fight, and the alliances would shift." Kirk says he was regularly called a "nigger" by the white kids, but the black kids didn't treat him any better. "We were bused to school. And at the end of the day, you came home and had to walk by the [black] kids who went to the other [predominantly black] schools. And they assumed you were an Uncle Tom and thought you were better than they were, because you went to school with white kids."

His sense of alienation, of living between two worlds, was magnified by the Kirk family's ambitions for their children. "My parents always had the attitude, 'Our kids are gonna have the chance to do everything white kids do.' I don't know if I'd describe their attitude as assimilation so much as, our kids are going to be prepared." Thus, for example, when the University of Texas began a pilot program that loaned public schoolchildren musical instruments, Ankie signed up her kids, and all of the Kirk children learned to play instruments and to appreciate classical music. (Kirk suffered through cello lessons.) Likewise, all the Kirk kids grew up speaking the King's English.

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.

"We were taunted by the others--you quote-unquote talk white. But my mom was a teacher, so there was no Ebonics in our house. For me, Ebonics was a second language.

"It was hard to be called 'nigger' during the day and 'Uncle Tom' at night...I spent a lot of time thinking, how do you get beyond this? And what I learned is that friendship is too special to put a color on."


Kirk's genius as mayor of Dallas was his ability to put together what, on the surface, seemed an odd coalition: big business and black voters.

It was this alliance that twice swept him into the mayor's office. Both times, Kirk split the white North Dallas vote and garnered close to 100 percent of a heavy African-American turnout. This electoral equation also saw through Kirk's pet projects, the Trinity River plan and the arena, with one caveat: White voters never voted for Kirk's projects in the numbers they voted for Kirk himself.

The backstory of how Kirk endeared himself to white Dallas has been told many times, and generally it goes something like this: Kirk was "chosen" by the city fathers who have always run Dallas politically and who, in their wisdom, decided it was Time. To some degree, this is revisionist history that fails to give Kirk his due. Ron Kirk put Ron Kirk forward as a candidate; Ron Kirk made his pitch to white business leaders based on his own conservative, pro-business beliefs. Yes, he had the support of some up-and-coming young turks, but Kirk had spent years making these connections through community service, laying the groundwork for when the time was right. In the end, the selling point was the star power of the man himself, his ability to negotiate his way through all worlds with utter ease, something that no other pol of any color had ever done in Dallas.

The seeming strangeness of Kirk's rich white-poor black alliance has, however, led his critics to charge him with being a puppet of the white business community and, occasionally, even a turncoat. Last fall, for example, in a column in this paper, Jim Schutze charged that Kirk was selling out his black constituents in order to further his own Senate run. The specific issue concerned the Trinity River plan and what was best for a group of black homeowners; Schutze wrote that Kirk was "exploiting minority lives in a dishonest attempt to rationalize" a project "sought by his rich white backers downtown."

In Kirk's mind, however, the big business-and-blacks alliance is a natural one, for a simple reason: Black people need jobs, and big business tends to provide them. A lot of them. Jobs are the biggest common concern of all races, and the real business of a humanitarian. It's a fundamental belief of Kirk's and the reason why he appeals "both to the voter that voted for Ann Richards and for George W. Bush."

(As for Schutze: "You know, Jim Schutze can write the most perceptive stuff on race...but then he can write, well, just crap. Jim is just as racist, in a liberal way, as anybody. He still wants to fit me into a box of how a black politician is supposed to be.")

The truth is that the needs of the white business establishment and the black establishment often coalesced during Kirk's tenure. One such occasion occurred in 1999, when Kirk backed white business leaders and the Texas Peace Officers Association, a black policeman's union, both of whom opposed legislation that would have permitted public employees, specifically police and firefighters, to bargain collectively. The bill would have allowed a single organization to bargain for all police, and the TPOA feared it would be cut out.

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