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?

Instead, his Senate campaign is, once more, delivering a hopeful, feel-good racial message, talking about "working together"and "finding common ground." But Kirk, on occasion, seems to despair of this topic. On a campaign swing in East Texas two weeks before the primary, Kirk spoke about the recent Dallas mayor's race. He believes that Laura Miller's election was, in part, a backlash against too many black folks in powerful city positions. And while he doesn't say that Miller herself is racist, he thinks that many of her supporters are. At another point in Kirk's campaigning, he suggests some of Miller's followers embrace her as "an Escada-wearing combination [of former maverick city council member] Max Goldblatt and Billy Jack Ludwig."

Kirk goes on to tell the story of the time when, as mayor of Dallas, he traveled to Canada with Albert Black, a close Kirk friend. While they were in Canada, Black and Kirk agreed to be interviewed by the first black reporter for a Toronto newspaper.

Somebody introduced Kirk as Dallas' first black mayor, and Kirk, who felt Black deserved an introduction as well, made it. "I said, 'And this is Albert Black. He's the first black president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.' And that reporter looked at Albert and started stuttering.

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.

"And [Albert] said, 'I know. That shit's fucked up.' The implication being: a black mayor? That's diversity. But a black business leader? They done gone too far.'"

"I'm gonna come back here and pretend like I like you guys."

It is the last week in January, and Ron Kirk has wandered back to the midsection of the American Eagle turboprop his campaign has leased for its official kickoff. He is 10,000 feet over central Texas, en route from Dallas to Austin, when Kirk works up the energy to come back and do his candidately duty, schmoozing with the Fourth Estate.

The whole trip is an exercise in absurdity whereby Kirk, pretending that he hasn't been campaigning full time for nearly three months, drags his family, his staff and four members of the media around Texas in an attempt to create news where none exists. It is 9:30 in the morning, the flight attendant has run out of coffee, and everybody's having a little trouble getting into character. Kirk's 41-year-old wife, Matrice, an Ivy League-educated former investment banker, is sitting at the back of the plane, looking beautiful and utterly unapproachable. It's hard to tell whether her reticence with the media is the result of shyness, dislike or a genuine distaste for life in the public eye. The candidate's two daughters are, however, having a grand time, bouncing around in their seats, occasionally working up the nerve to say something to the camera- and notebook-toting strangers on board.

"I'll be 10 next week," Catherine confides. "Hey, Mom, can I have another gumball?"

A few minutes later, 13-year-old Alex stops on her way up the aisle. "Ooh, is that, like, hot cocoa?" she asks, peering at a reporter's cup.

Kirk's often antagonistic attitudes toward the press and open government are a complex mix of chivalry, protectiveness and grudges acquired during his time in government and the private sector. After leaving Bentsen's office in 1982, Kirk took a job as an assistant city attorney with the city of Dallas, where he served as the city's chief lobbyist. From there, in 1989, he went to the private sector, specifically Johnson & Gibbs, a large Dallas law firm, where he continued his work as a lobbyist, this time for private business, and where he served with business leaders on a number of boards and commissions. Largely as a result of political contacts Kirk made as a lobbyist, in 1994, Governor Ann Richards appointed Kirk as Texas' secretary of state.

Perhaps because of his long service as a lobbyist--a profession allergic to public scrutiny--or perhaps because of his work as a public servant, Kirk seems, at times, to display a city bureaucrat's vampire-like dread of disclosure and public criticism.

"The press does play a role in sucking [the] personality out of leaders," Kirk asserts at one point in our interviews--a malady he seems so far to have avoided.

In fact, any mention of the press--in Kirk's view, "a necessary, I'm not gonna say evil, incredible frustration"--can prompt a diatribe on access and open records. Then, too, Kirk often seems to share the typical businessman's view that the press has one legitimate function: to serve as a megaphone for his PR. "Unfortunately, if you're not sleeping with an intern, you can't buy press coverage," Kirk complains. "Everyone thinks they have to be Woodward and Bernstein."

Not surprisingly, he has been known to engage in screaming matches with reporters when he does not like coverage. Dallas Morning News reporters complain that he regularly bent the ears of their editors and that, as a result, they were unable to write articles critical of the mayor. Kirk is unapologetic about haranguing Morning News editors: "That's my right," he snaps.

Regarding a shouting match with a reporter whose coverage of police Chief Terrell Bolton Kirk didn't care for: "It's OK for me to think a reporter is a chicken-shit."

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