Ron Kirk's Crying Game

When he said it was time to end the blame game, he meant that he had won

But enough about you. Let's talk about me. In "Selling Ron," last week's Dallas Observer cover story by Christine Biederman, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk went on at some length about what a racist I am. Among other things, he said, "Jim is just as racist, in a liberal way, as anybody. He still wants to fit me into a box of how a black politician should be."

Two things off the bat: There was a legitimate reason for this issue to come up in an interview with Kirk by a writer for the Observer. Biederman was assuring Kirk, a candidate for Phil Gramm's Senate seat, that her piece would not wind up sounding like me. Fair enough.

Second: When someone as sophisticated as Ron Kirk accuses me of racism, I have to weigh very seriously the possibility that he may be right. As a white man of a certain age, I know that I suffer at least a narrowness of perspective born of growing up white in a divided society. And that can come out as racism. As Forrest Gump should have said, racism is as racism does. I watch for it.

Ron Kirk is quick to play the race card when he has a losing hand.
Peter Calvin
Ron Kirk is quick to play the race card when he has a losing hand.

But finally, enough.

After pondering this and repondering it over a period of years, I have come to a conclusion about Kirk. His whole thing about ending the blame game is an absolute sham. Kirk is the master of the blame game. He has taken the issue of race and turned it into his own fiendishly clever Las Vegas-style card trick. And because his use of the race card has major bearing on the immediate future of this city, he needs to be outed.

This isn't about Kirk's candidacy for the U.S. Senate. I am writing this before the March 12 Democratic primary, which will already have occurred when this column is published. He may or may not still be in the race when you read this.

My issue with Kirk and the race card is about Dallas, with immediate practical consequences for the city. His clever use of race is tied directly to the Trinity River plan, which he calls part of his "grand vision" as mayor and which is probably the single biggest public-policy puzzle on the city's plate right now for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that the city is broke.

Kirk has always used race as a kind of cover story and system of defense for the plan, which makes it really hard for the city to sort any of it out. But the plan itself, to rebuild the river where it runs through the center of the city, was in serious trouble even before we got broke.

Let's cut to the chase: Kirk and the public-works contractors and landholders who bankrolled his mayoralty were never interested in the lakes and parks and nature trails, the warm fuzzies that they used to sell the Trinity River plan. Nor were they interested in flood control. Nor were they interested in extending flood protection to black neighborhoods that had never been protected in the past.

What they wanted and still want is an eight- to 10-lane freeway built right on top of the river, flying over black neighborhoods such as Ideal and Bon-ton on elevated roadways without even an exit or an entrance. The road hustlers need new levees south of downtown in order to provide fill dirt and a foundation for their highway. That's all they want.

And in the process they are willing to commit an act of major environmental racism by ignoring the much safer and saner alternative that the people of the Cadillac Heights neighborhood have been seeking for years, a buyout with no levee.

It's a bad road. It doesn't relieve traffic. It goes from the wrong place to the wrong place. The traffic projections for it don't show enough people ever using this road to justify federal support or to pay the bonds for toll-road construction. The only conceivable reason for the road to be built is that it somehow benefits the narrow coterie of private interests who have lobbied for it so relentlessly in the last five years, among them Kirk's principal financial backers each time he ran for mayor.

One after another the government partners in this multibillion-dollar plan have been lining up against it in recent months. The White House has made the entire Trinity River plan a target in its war on wasteful public-works expenditures. It says the plan provides poor flood protection and was not presented honestly to the public.

The state of Texas is now saying it won't be coming up with its own share of the highway costs any time in the next 12 years. The North Texas Tollway Authority is admitting that its own plans are on hold.

That's bad.

But Ron Kirk, Mr. "End the Blame Game," says that if you take issue with him on the road or any other aspect of the Trinity plan, you're a racist. Specifically Kirk says I'm a racist "in a liberal way," because I want to put him in a box as a black leader. He and I have discussed this before. He says I think he can't be pro-business because he's black.

Nonsense. I believe that as a black man Ron Kirk has exactly the same right as any white SOB to con voters and sell them down the river like fools. My problem is that Kirk throws race at me when I try to argue hydrology with him.

When I wrote a column pointing out that the White House was siding with residents of Cadillac Heights, agreeing it might be better to buy them out rather than wall them in with earthen levees along the river, Kirk called me up. Angry. He shouted at me that I didn't care about the "thousands of black families" in the rest of Southern Dallas who would be protected by those levees.

Simply not true. This isn't about race. It's about where water goes when you spill it. I took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrological topography maps and drove around the area to be protected by the new levees. Not counting Cadillac Heights, which doesn't want the levees, what I found in the protected zone was a bunch of superannuated chemical plants and railroad yards. In other words, the area to be protected is mostly industrial. What black families?

Ron Kirk is pushing for a multibillion-dollar public-works program on the basis that it will benefit black people, even though the people it is supposed to benefit say they don't want it and even though it does not benefit the other black residential areas he says it will protect. But if I point any of this out as a reporter, I'm a liberal racist.

That's a scam. That's all that is.

And Kirk is angry with me because I won't giggle and goo-goo and lie down the way his friends and admirers do down in Austin where he's from.

It's really not all about me. There is a story I have to tell you. It's just an example of the real Ron Kirk. I have known about this for almost four years, but I have never been able to write about it because the person involved was too embarrassed. I called her up last week and said it was time.

Anna Albers is a community activist who has campaigned for years for a buyout for Cadillac Heights. Most of the residents of Cadillac Heights are Latino and African-American. Albers is white. Albers is emphatic in her views and obviously has lots of tenacity, but she is soft-spoken and polite in her demeanor.

In 1998, before the $246 million Trinity project bond election, Albers was invited to a small black church where Kirk was making a speech urging passage of the bonds. When she attempted to question Kirk outside the church, he told her that he didn't have to answer her questions because her side was going to lose the election.

Kirk was upset that Albers had come to the church in the company of black community activists. He said to her--and this is her version of the quote, which I have asked her to repeat to me at least three times over the period of years since it happened--"And now, Anna, you're pimping black men."

She doesn't have witnesses. I faxed a written request for comment to Kirk's campaign headquarters at the end of last week, but I didn't hear back. I do know that a number of female leaders in the community spoke to Kirk about the incident right after it happened to express their displeasure.

I believe Albers. Several years after the fact when I discussed it with her over a sandwich in the cafeteria on the seventh floor of City Hall, her eyes teared up and she begged me not to write about it. She said she doesn't know exactly what Kirk's remark meant.

"I don't know what it means," she said, "but it's degrading. It's racist, and it's sexist, and it's degrading."

It's Ron. And it's all based on the assumption that the best way to manipulate white people is to exploit their racial fear of black people. He goes for the card every time, one way or another.

Does he do it deliberately? Well, now, that's way too psychological for me. Everybody who has dealt with him at close quarters on public-policy issues says he genuinely does not know the details. He says it about himself. He says he's not a detail guy.

So maybe he really doesn't know how the river plan works. But Ron Kirk does know this: He knows what works for Ron Kirk. And if you stick so much as your little toe out in Ron Kirk's road, watch out.

The blame game's not over until Ron Kirk wins.

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