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?

"I think Ron got a little overconfident," says Gene Freeland, sitting around the hotel bar that evening. "He thought he had it sewn up because of Joe Gunn. And now he's having to beg."

Freeland is at least partially wrong. Recognizing that neither he nor Bentsen will have the necessary two-thirds, Kirk is, as Freeland speaks, upstairs negotiating a last-minute settlement whereby the union will endorse both men. Just before midnight, the parties all accept the deal, and the union manages to avoid a bloody floor fight.

Love it or hate it, Ron Kirk did have a vision for the city of Dallas. And it is a vision that will no doubt inform his views as a senator, should he become one.
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.

It is a vision based on Kirk's many years inside government, as well as his absolute belief in government's ability to effect positive social change. Not little changes, but broad, sweeping ones. Indeed, it often seems as if Kirk has a faith in the public sector and its servants that hasn't been seen since roughly LBJ.

Kirk's faith is based in part on his parents' experiences, and in no small part on his own. After graduating from Reagan High in 1972, Kirk attended Austin College, a small, predominantly white liberal arts college in Sherman, where he earned a degree in political science/sociology. From there, Kirk went on to UT's School of Law, one of the most competitive graduate schools in the country.

In interviews, Kirk has said he probably never would have been admitted but for UT's affirmative action policies, and he has cited this as one example of the way government has opened doors for minorities. To his credit, Kirk has always been one to seize an opportunity. One such opportunity presented itself right after law school, when Kirk went to Washington as a legislative aide to Texas' four-term senator, Lloyd Bentsen--uncle of Ken.

During these years, Kirk formulated his views on many of the issues he would champion as mayor. One of those issues was what to do about flooding along the Trinity River. "When I worked for Bentsen in '82, we worked on the original authorization for those levees," Kirk recalls. "As far as I know, that is still the same authorization that [the Army Corps of Engineers is using] today.

"See, because of that flooding, jobs for black families have gone. And we said then, 'We are not gonna have another time where the Trinity River floods, and Channel 8's showing all those black people standing out there, flooded. Black families need flood control.'"

He grows temporarily tongue-tied when asked about critics, who charge that a voluntary buyout of black families in the Cadillac Heights and Joppa neighborhoods of South Dallas is the best solution to flooding. Clearly, he doesn't know where to begin.

"The Corps tells me that a voluntary buyout is saying, 'Those who get out, can, and those who can't, stay.' What happens to them? They flood. So our answer is that we condemn those neighborhoods to be flooded. Forever."

Many of the people who are advocating the buyout, he suggests, have their priorities backward. "Their agenda is environmental. It's not humanitarian. They stood up and lied to those people about what they were gonna get for their houses. If you do a buyout, you're just giving up on South Dallas. This isn't about those levees. This is about killing the entire Trinity River project.

"I have fought for development in South Dallas every day as mayor," he adds. "It ain't happening. You've got to change interaction--patterns of interaction. When I was on the zoo board, the number-one response to all our surveys about 'Why don't you go to the zoo?' was 'I'll go there if you move it.' So what happened? We put a nice clean new train in to the zoo, and ridership doubles. A lot of their fears about going 'down there' dissipate.

"If you create the two most spectacular lakes in this part of the country," he says, citing one of the goals of the Trinity River project, "and put them in this part of the city, it will give North Dallas a reason to go 'there.' Give people a more powerful reason to come into Southern Dallas, and I firmly believe the developers will say, 'Look at all this land.' I am betting my future that the development will follow. It [the Trinity River project] is the last best hope to get Dallas to confront its fears about the south part of the city."

Kirk is proud of his accomplishments as mayor, especially of the big-ticket, controversial public-works projects he saw through. On the American Airlines arena: "The arena was about my grand vision. How do you get people to come downtown every day of the week?" On the Trinity River project: "I believe in it. I love cities. I don't think it's any accident that any city with water in it has reinvested billions there. It's magical."

But these are, to say the least, not universally popular projects, and the bond elections that approved them were squeakers. Whites and Hispanics voted heavily against them, and thus it is no surprise Kirk's not bragging about them on the stump, talking instead in the most general terms about creating jobs, cutting crime and attracting investment.

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