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"When he wants to get something done, he knows who to call and who to mobilize," Coggins says. "He gets results, and that's what counts for a politician."
In 1974, West became the first black student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington. He also previewed his knack for business, starting an apartment referral service for many of the school's commuter students. According to UTA's alumni profile of West, the apartment referral service, which helped fund the school's budget, was so successful that the state attorney general closed it after local apartment finders complained. At school on a football scholarship, West played wide receiver and was good enough to be elected into the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.
West earned two sociology degrees from UTA, a bachelor's in 1974 and a master's in 1979. After that a newly married West worked his way through law school at the University of Houston and then did a short stint as a prosecutor at the Harris County District Attorney's Office. West soon returned to Dallas and worked for famed District Attorney Henry Wade, ultimately becoming the office's first black chief felony prosecutor. That was no small feat. Among other failings, which we now know include convicting innocent men on shaky testimony, Wade's office published a manual on how to exclude minorities from juries.
"That thought process prevailed for I don't know how many years," West says.
Guarded in his interviews with the Dallas Observer, West doesn't talk much about how he was treated at the district attorney's office, other than to say that a fellow prosecutor once called him the "N-word."
"We had a little physical disagreement when he said it," West says softly. "I don't think he said it again."
West wouldn't elaborate, but longtime friend and mayoral candidate Don Hill did.
"He decked the guy. He knocked him out," says a chuckling Hill, who has known West since college. "We laugh about that because that's not what you do. You don't put yourself in contempt by hitting another lawyer. He has a reputation as someone who will not be intimidated and will stand up for what he believes."
In 1984, 10 years after West served as the first black student president at UTA, he joined a group of young black activists who took part in one of the most surprising campaigns in Dallas political history. John Wiley Price, a clerk for a local justice of the peace, was running for the southern Dallas county commissioner's seat against the revered Elsie Faye Heggins, a former mentor to Price and member of the Dallas City Council. Working on behalf of Price was a group of young, educated, middle-class blacks, most of whom were from Oak Cliff. That talented group included West, Hill, journalist Rufus Shaw, civic leader Betty Culbreath Lister and Dwaine Caraway, future head of the local chapter of the NAACP.
"Anybody who is anybody right now in their 50s was a part of that John Wiley Price group," Shaw says. "It was kind of like the Obama phenomenon."
Like Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton, Price was taking on a more experienced contender in Heggins, who had the weight of the Democratic establishment on her side. Along with Lipscomb, Heggins was a part of the Fair Park crowd of civil rights leaders who won some real victories for blacks in South Dallas in the 1970s. But Price was a young, brash, captivating candidate and eked out a tiny victory, tilting the balance of power from the old Fair Park crowd to the young Oak Cliff gunslingers, who as they aged began to fight among themselves, particularly Price and Caraway.
Two years after Price's victory, West ran for district attorney and lost. Still, West came out of that race a rising star. In 1992 when state Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson ran for Congress, West ran for her seat and won. No one's run against him since.
It's unlikely anyone ever will. As a Democratic state senator in the Republican-owned and -operated state Legislature, West has been remarkably effective. (If that phrase ends up in a campaign blurb, so be it. He deserves it.) Away from Austin, West can be slippery, if not scheming for his self-interests. But at the Legislature, he's like a good point guard who gets everyone involved in the flow of the action, just as able to score on his own as he is to pass the ball to someone else who can make the winning shot.
In 1997, West crafted the state's top 10 percent law, which is credited for boosting minority enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin, along with other public colleges. The law says that any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class is automatically admitted into a state university in Texas. West backed it after a federal court struck down admission decisions based on race; his law, however, slides around the affirmative action ban by giving minority students at poorly run inner-city schools an easier path to college than their well-heeled suburban counterparts. Republican legislators have tried to toss it out or water down the bill ever since, but West has successfully defended it each time.