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?

But the needs of Kirk's rainbow coalition aren't always so easily reconciled.

The AFL-CIO's annual COPE convention is taking place in late January at Austin's Hyatt hotel, a suitably shabby venue just south of the Colorado River. At first glance, the gathering is just what you'd expect: conference rooms overflowing with beefy, baseball-capped union members, a smattering of cowboy hats and an unnaturally high percentage of guys wearing mullet cuts. Upon closer inspection, however, a surprising number of the caps and hats cover faces of color.

It doesn't take long to gather that it's not your father's union anymore, in membership or outlook. "Labor has advanced its commitment to minorities far beyond what you're used to," says T.C. Gillespie, a tall, slim, bearded white auto worker from Grand Prairie. "We're for all working people. Even undocumented aliens."

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 a cynic might expect, it's not wholly a moral crusade. Gene Freeland, head of the Dallas AFL-CIO, is happy to explain what gives. In 1998, after a demoralizing 10 years of Texans sweeping Repubs into office, a trio of Democrats running statewide came surprisingly close to upsetting the GOP.

"In 1998, John Sharp [the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor], Paul Hobby [the Democrat running for state comptroller] and Jim Mattox [the Democrat running for state attorney general] barely lost," explains Freeland, a dapper 70-something sporting a neatly trimmed white beard and a natty blazer of blackwatch plaid. According to Freeland, after Democrats recovered from the shock of near success, they vowed to find out why they didn't win. Labor leadership hired consultants, who pointed out that minority turnout was unusually low in a number of races where incumbents ran unopposed. For just one example, in District 30, the Southern Dallas district where Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson ran unopposed, turnout was 30,000 to 50,000 lower than in comparable races where Democratic incumbents faced Republican challengers.

"If [Eddie Bernice] had been opposed, she still would have carried the district with 88 to 90 percent," Freeland says. "But she would have drawn another 25,000 votes." The difference in that district alone, Freeland says, "would have swept the top [Sharp, Hobby and Mattox] into office." The message seemed clear: The Democratic Party had to give minority voters a reason to turn out.

Inside the main ballroom, Joe Gunn, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, is providing introductions to the candidates, who have come to address the rank and file and to size each other up. It is the first time the Democratic contenders have appeared together, and the ballroom has the eagerly bloodthirsty aura of a crowd at an Ultimate Fighting Championship rumble.

The mood is mutinous. Gunn wants the membership to endorse the AFL-CIO's multiethnic dream slate: Tony Sanchez for governor, Ron Kirk for Senate and John Sharp for lieutenant governor. Gruff and pushy, Gunn comes on with the subtlety and charm of an extra from the Sopranos, and he isn't shy about telling the brother- and sisterhood what he expects. The rank and file naturally resent being ordered around by high-handed managers, Gunn included.

As gubernatorial candidates Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez slice each other up on the dais, Kirk is upstairs, fine-tuning his speech and counting heads. As Gunn has indicated, Kirk is the Democratic Party's handpicked candidate, wooed by the Washington establishment and national labor bigwigs. Thus the fix is in with the executive committee, which will make its report to the membership tomorrow. Freeland, who sits on the executive committee, predicts the committee's report will recommend Kirk's endorsement: "In fact, I know it will," he says.

The question is whether two-thirds of the rank and file will go along.

Ken Bentsen is up next. Though he comes off well on television, in the flesh, Bentsen is physically unimpressive. He is slight, with wavy, dark hair not yet graying appreciably and a 42-year-old face so unlined that he easily could be mistaken for a graduate student. He is earnest, a policy wonk, utterly lacking in gravitas and, next to Tom Dunning, possibly the most boring white man alive. He speaks of statutes and voting records, of ergonomics and repetitive motion sickness, and little wonder--he has a 90 percent-plus approval rating on these issues from labor. Naturally, he's running on that record: "I may not have gotten straight A's in college, but I've got a Phi Beta Kappa with the AFL-CIO," he tells the membership.

As Bentsen drones on, Kirk descends from his hotel room and enters the lobby. The effect is not unlike watching a movie star stroll into a sporting event. At 6-foot-2 and some 230 pounds on a skinny day, he is a big man, but he somehow seems even larger. Everything about him is at once bold and neat, with a quiet sartorial flair, from the near-shaved head and tiny gold wire-rim glasses to the single-breasted designer suits with wide pinstripes and lapels. He has charisma, a strange magnetism that makes people want to be near him, to shake his hand, to be acknowledged by him. He is not standoffish. When he is being solicitous, he will get physically close to you and look you in the eye; when mad, he'll rail at you inches from your face. On rare occasions, when he is upset or wants to escape the conversation, he will turn away at a slight angle, or look away and pout.

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