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?

He's still angry over a story the Morning News did about stock options his wife received from Chancellor Media. The story disclosed that the Kirk family had received options potentially worth $500,000, and quoted critics questioning whether the options had bought Chancellor owner Tom Hicks undue influence in his negotiations with Kirk over the American Airlines arena.

"I don't think that it painted a fair picture," Kirk says. He thinks the article failed to adequately stress that, at the time Matrice went on the board, there was no actual or apparent conflict, because Hicks was not involved with the company. He really seems to believe the article was done "to hurt" his wife in order to get at him. "That's one of the things that keep people from public service," he fumes. "The day I get comfortable with that type of behavior is the day I don't belong in public office."

Nor is he any more understanding about questions surrounding his employment arrangement with Gardere & Wynne, a downtown Dallas law firm with a number of clients who do business with the city. For years, he refused to disclose the exact amount and circumstances of his compensation. Thanks to stiffer federal disclosure requirements, Kirk has finally revealed that he makes $227,000 a year for putting in a few hours a month at the firm.

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 and his partners at Gardere say the deal has always been structured so that Kirk gets no profits from clients of the firm who do business with the city. They describe the arrangement as a kind of pro bono gesture, a public service to the citizens of Dallas that enables a talented public servant to feed his family. They appear to be telling the truth. In interviews, a half-dozen current and former Gardere partners--none of whom would allow their names to be used--say that Kirk has never shared in the firm's profits as other partners have. As one might expect, a number grouse about the arrangement, complaining that in seven years Kirk has never brought in any clients. Some say Kirk has actually conflicted the firm out of significant business; one former partner with significant American Airlines work says he left because Kirk's presence created "too many conflicts."

But the problem of perception still exists. Critics say that the Gardere arrangement is a means of keeping Kirk in line, of making sure he goes along with the agenda of Dallas' white business elite. As usual, when it comes to questions about his finances or his ethics, Kirk just doesn't get it. In fact, he sometimes displays a sense of entitlement that is downright, well, white: "If I hadn't been practicing law for 20 years, I might see [questions]." And he doesn't see why it's the public's--or the media's--business. "The question is, is there anything in your private life that compromises your judgment? If there is, you recuse yourself. Knowing the amount of money I make doesn't change that. And I never did anything that created a conflict of interest."

Yes, but unless the full arrangement is disclosed, how can the public be certain that Kirk is conflict-free? Who provides oversight? "That's my private decision. I don't think there's anybody else in this process [the Senate race] who's been asked."

Kirk goes so far as to assert he's being picked on, being punished for following the rules. "The people who are getting a free ride are the people who haven't filed anything." He is referring to Victor Morales, who regularly neglects to file required disclosures, and to Bentsen, who may or may not have filed one late. "There's an inverse amount of scrutiny if you do right," Kirk complains. And then he becomes downright petulant, refusing to answer a softball question about his political mentors because he's worked himself into a snit.

"There are people in my life that I've admired, and that's not limited to politics," he says, steaming. "People who have dignity and who have the proper balance between work and being a husband and a father...I'm not going to name them, because there are too many of them. And the way you guys play, if I leave anybody out, or if I have more whites than blacks, you'll say 'aha.'

"I can learn from anybody. At the end of the day I want people to believe that I am a person who has values and is a decent husband and father. If you get the core set right, then everything else will follow." With that, he looks out the window, silent and pouting.

Ron Kirk, indefatigable campaigner, is finally beginning to flag.

It's two weeks before the primary, a beautiful Sunday morning, and Kirk is making the rounds of black churches in Longview. The morning began with a rally at The Butcher Shop in downtown Longview, during which Kirk was too busy talking to eat. The night before, he won New Boston's straw poll, a rowdy gathering of several hundred Dems in a high school auditorium who tout their biennial political divinations as being 90 percent accurate.

"[Bentsen's] actually been counting on, well, that people in East Texas won't vote for a black guy," Kirk says, standing in front of his breakfast, a half-finished glass of orange juice. "He's wrong."

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