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?

Kirk spends a few minutes glad-handing, and then his multihued escort committee gathers around him, sweeping him backstage and onto the dais, where he is introduced as labor's best hope for victory in the fall.

The membership, lulled half-asleep by Bentsen's speech, is politely unenthusiastic. This is going to be a tough sell.

On the podium, Kirk is Bentsen's converse. Though it doesn't come across on television, Kirk can easily command a room through the force of his personality. He stands there for a split second before starting, surveying the audience, chest out, arms relaxed, elbows bent, hands resting on the lectern, the lights bouncing off his shiny dark pate and glasses. And then he begins in a booming baritone, starting off with his public-service résumé and his service as mayor.

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.

Kirk is a speaker who feeds off the energy of an audience, and, for a few seconds, it looks as though he might tank. Then he turns on a dime.

"A lot of you don't know me, so let me tell you who I am," he says, pace quickening. Kirk is at his best when, as now, he speaks without notes. With emotion, he talks of his father and his mother, how they dreamed of better things for their children, how they stressed hard work and education and seized every opportunity that came along.

"I have achieved every dream of my mama and my daddy," he says.

He's got them listening now.

He talks of his faith in public education and why he chose to put his own children in public schools. He speaks of his own education and how he struggled to achieve: "Nothing," he says, "was given to me." And then comes the dénouement. "You've got a tough job ahead of you. You've got a candidate [Bentsen] who's on your side. But I want you to ask this question: Who gives us the best chance to win?

"Ladies and gentlemen, I didn't come here to divide you. Because if you come out of here divided, you lose. Brothers and sisters, I need your endorsement. I want it. But if we don't win in November, it's worth nothing. I can lead this party to victory. I give the Democratic Party a chance to put together a winning ticket. I'm gonna win this fall, because I'm a good man with a good heart and compassion. Because I stand on my own laurels. Because I carry the dreams of Martin Luther King. Of A. Philip Randolph. Of César Chávez. Of you all...Thank you very much."

The crowd comes to its feet, applauding and cheering. It was a barn-burner. Gunn walks over to the mike, beaming. "He's gonna unite Texas," he says.

Outside, the media are gathered around Dan Morales. When Kirk comes out, a half-dozen cameras peel off, shine their lights on Kirk and roll. Slowly the pack grows, with Kirk at its center, gesturing extravagantly. Each candidate's spinners fan out in the lobby, bending the ears of journalists and anyone else willing to listen.

Ken Bentsen stands by himself to one side, looking lonely and uncomfortable, like a college kid standing around at a job fair.

The momentum has shifted to Kirk; if the vote were taken this moment, he might well carry two-thirds. But it won't take place until tomorrow afternoon, and Kirk has his enemies. It's payback time for the Dallas firefighters, who are mad about Kirk's role in killing the 1999 collective bargaining bill and are vowing to take their grievances with Kirk to the union floor.

Eventually the cameras go away, and Kirk is left standing at the edge of the lobby, speaking to a tall skinny blond guy in jeans and boots. Kirk appears to be dominating the conversation, as he often does when agitated, and the blond guy keeps getting cut off. Both men are gesturing, crossing and uncrossing their arms, having some sort of polite argument. Eventually, Kirk looks at his watch, excuses himself and goes upstairs to meet a union caucus in his suite.

The blond guy is Mike Buehler, head of the Dallas firefighters union.

On his way up, Kirk punches the button forcefully. "Aw, that guy, they're never gonna endorse me," he says. Then he gives the official spin: Kirk came here without a prayer. Now he has a fighting chance. Therefore, "we've already achieved our objective." The elevator opens, and he's off.

Back downstairs, Buehler explains what happened. In executive session last night, Kirk was given a chance to bury the hatchet. Specifically, the firefighters asked Kirk if he would commit to supporting the Daschle amendment, an obscure bill that would have allowed national collective bargaining for police and firefighters.

Kirk refused to give the firefighters the reassurance they sought. "I told them I'd support it if they found some way to address [the TPOA's] concerns about local control," Kirk later explains.

Now the call has gone out to the brotherhood; firefighters are flying in from Amarillo and El Paso, driving in from San Antonio, Houston, Corpus Christi. Of 8,000 firefighters eligible to vote, 7,900 are promising to be here, opposing Kirk's endorsement. "Show up at 2 p.m. tomorrow. That's when the fireworks will start," Buehler says.

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