His own man

Someone must have said something really funny. Or maybe the photographer strode into the DISD boardroom trailing 10 feet of toilet paper.

Whatever the case, he caught Kathlyn Gilliam smiling--an open-mouthed, toothy grin so jolly it looked as though she'd just burst into uproarious laughter.

Needless to say, there is something wrong with this picture. It captures a moment many, many years ago--in 1980, according to the brass plate on the wooden picture frame.

If you continue to follow the series of DISD school board portraits around the room, kind of like doing the Stations of the Cross, you see Gilliam's eyes gradually sink in, the hair go gray, the burden grow heavier.

By the time you advance to this year's group photograph, posted just this month, Gilliam's mirthful smile has turned to a brittle, clenched-jaw grin. A rather more familiar face.

It's a lot like what I saw on May 13, at the precise moment when a glassy-eyed Gilliam emerged from the county office where she'd lost the election recount to an absolute beginner, 30-year-old Ron Price, by a mere 33 votes.

Those of us among the press who'd stayed until the end--sometime around 8 p.m., after Gilliam had been cooped up in the recount room for nearly 11 hours--witnessed a sad little drama by the elevators in the Dallas County Health and Human Services building.

Someone hit the down button for Gilliam. The freight elevator opened, and there stood a jolly Ron Price, grinning, waving, and yakking on a cellular phone. Plenty of room remained inside. So The Dallas Morning News' Alexei Barrionuevo grabbed the door and held it open for Gilliam.

Bad move. The 66-year-old DISD board veteran abruptly stopped, turned to Barrionuevo, and glared. "Would you let the elevator go?" she drawled unpleasantly in that odd Minnie Mouse voice.

Gilliam's look said it all. No way was she gonna share an elevator with Ron Price--no olive branch, no concession speech, not even a begrudging nod to the new generation.

And so the 23-year Kathlyn Gilliam era, begun in a spirit of cooperation, came to a muffled, desultory close amidst the ugliest racial discord Dallas has seen this decade.

To this day, Gilliam hasn't spoken a single word to her successor; she began the silent treatment in March when Price, who'd once done volunteer work for Gilliam's nonprofit organization, Clean South Dallas, informed her that he planned to oppose her.

It's funny how Gilliam and her friends seem to have no capacity for irony--or shame. They responded to Price's gutsy democratic challenge by accusing him of "disrespecting" Gilliam by daring to run against her. But where was the respect from the lady herself in those twilight hours of May 13?

The ultimate question behind Ron Price's startling win has yet to be answered by the local political pundits, most of whom would rather go back to covering police stories on the night shift than try to explain Gilliam's insidious racial politics.

Did only one election separate the myth from reality--that Dallas, black Dallas, was thoroughly fed up with Kathlyn Gilliam's race-baiting tactics?

I'd actually suspected that for months, having spent some time talking to black parents who send their children to DISD schools. In our conversations, I heard frequent expressions of shame, disgust, and embarrassment at the minstrel-show antics of the district's black protesters.

Still, I had no illusions about how inspiring municipal elections are to the average Dallas voter. In the past, Gilliam has won re-election to her District 9 seat with as few as 147 votes.

Getting out the vote on May 3 would be a tough task for any challenger. But Ron Price's surprise victory succeeded in exposing a huge racial charade.

For years, this city has feared a not-always-unified group of 20 or 25 people who make lots of noise and claim to represent all of black Dallas. We've ascribed to them extraordinary, almost supernatural powers. We've seen seemingly rational people vote a number of them into office; we've seen them hold the city hostage with threats of boycotts, violence, and mayhem.

The source of their power really isn't so mystifying; it's a simple lack of choice.

Offer a decent alternative--an authentic, fresh, compassionate voice--and people recognize the difference. Such is the case with Ron Price.

Yet here's a guy so young, inexperienced, and ridiculously free of guile that you could project onto him just about any cynical motivation.

It's easy to see why rumors abound--including the premise of the most recent whisper campaign, which holds that Price's deep-pocketed white campaign contributors pulled strings to snag him a full-time salaried position with one of their own, and therefore own him. (Election to the school board meant that Price had to give up his position as a youth action specialist for DISD.)

Price, however, says he didn't receive any job offers from white supporters. He did field several calls about job possibilities from blacks, and eventually chose to work as a sales manager for Regional Health Supply, an Arlington business owned by a black entrepreneur, L.D. Dabney. Price calls the hospital supplier "the only African-American-owned company of its kind in the nation." (Dabney could not be reached for comment.)

As for the most frequent charge against him--that he's sold out to the white establishment--Price quips, "I'm still waiting for my receipt."

While white businessmen contributed generously to Price's campaign--the full amount won't be known until campaign reports are filed in July--their buying power didn't extend to the ranks of the black southern Dallas voters who make up most of District 9.

What attracted them to Price? In a city that's truly fed up with "business as usual"--we're talking about Gilliam's messy business here--something about Price stood out plainly. It's his overwhelming innocence: a quality that, until now, no one has ever considered an asset in Dallas politics.

"My friends and I, we're not negative-thinking people," Price says. "We're positive-thinking individuals. We believe the world can change, and it will change.

"Ms. Gilliam's generation fought a strong, strategic battle through the civil rights movement," he adds. "My generation was the beneficiary of that fight. We had an opportunity to grow up with white children. We were able to get a better understanding of different cultures--which made us universal people, not just community people.

"Today, I'm a strong supporter of the African-American community. But I'm not gonna demoralize another group to promote mine.

"I'm my own man."

Last Wednesday, Ron Price was running a little late. In fact, he'd been running late all week.

His DISD secretary had him penciled in for a 10 a.m. speech at William B. Travis Elementary on McKinney. The topic, according to his schedule: "Education."

"Hmmm," the secretary said to me. "That's kind of a broad subject."
Actually, it seemed rather appropriate for Price--or what little I'd heard of him up until then. This is a guy who speaks only broadly, who spouts nonstop platitudes--little gems you've heard many times before from a variety of extremely familiar sources.

He rolled them all out at Travis Elementary's assembly for school volunteers, achieving a maximum density of motivational aphorisms per cubic foot of hot air.

"I'll speak from my heart, because that's the way my mother taught me," he began. "It is time to put our children first, regardless of what color they are."

Speaking smoothly--he hadn't prepared a speech, but has years of testifying in holy-roller churches under his belt--Price brought smiles and cheers to the group of white and Hispanic volunteers.

"We must become a united village," he said. "Our children watch what we do. It's important we give them great role models."

Yeah, yeah.
Afterward, I tracked down Price in the reception room for what would turn out to be my only extended interview with the rookie trustee.

I had 45 minutes--interrupted by bites on a Wonder Bread sandwich, brief conversations with well-wishers of all ages and colors, photo sessions with smiling teachers and pupils--to hack through the platitudes and get to the real Ron Price.

After a while, I realized I'd never cut a hole in the happy talk. It's impossible. Price speaks in aphorisms because he truly believes them. They're his manner of discourse, his means of expression. (It could also be a sign of a lack of knowledge and depth, but he can belie that perception once he's firmly in his role at DISD.)

Along with it comes a genuine respect for elders, a sure sign of his old-school upbringing.

"I'm in this to bring unity to the board--unity to the whole city of Dallas," he said. "That's just my main agenda. Because I know in my heart that children watch everything us adults do. And we are hypocrites if we tell them to get out of gangs, and we're ganging up on one another."

I asked Price to elaborate further, but one thing he wouldn't do was bad-mouth Gilliam. He hadn't come to diss her; he came to bury her.

"Ms. Gilliam is a beautiful person," he said. "But we do need to put a younger person in there."

Asked if Gilliam had communicated with him in any way during the recount, Price shook his head. "Every now and then I caught her..." He scowled and squinted. "The evil eye! But it doesn't work on me. I was like, 'Oh no!'" he added, making the sign of a cross with his forefingers.

Price went on to talk about his work with the Pearl Guards--a group of boys from South Dallas' Pearl C. Anderson Learning Center that he united around a mission of community service, including a well-publicized campaign to shut down liquor stores located near inner-city schools.

Beginning with 13 youngsters in 1992, Price molded and shaped the boys' characters, teaching manners, leadership skills, and what it means to be a man. Instead of choosing only the brightest students, he hand-picked a diverse bunch: boys from stable, two-parent homes; "at-risk" youths; even a special ed kid.

Richard Harper, one of the original 13, now an 18-year-old student at Paul Quinn College, recalls how at first the Pearl Guards were seen as a "geek thing. We were called 'Price's Puppies.'" But after a while, fellow students acknowledged that the Pearl Guards, clad in their trademark navy blue suits, were going places.

"Ron Price was taking us out and putting us on stage and having us speak in public--there were so many avenues he opened up," Harper says. "What sticks with me most is how he said he was paving a road for us."

Of the original 13 Pearl Guards, 10 are now in college, and two are in the Marines, Price said. The other boy quit the Pearl Guards and moved out of state.

"I can see my work--it's beautiful," he said. "I don't have to give you rhetoric on a radio station. I can show you my work--a transformation of young African-American men's lives."

Price's highly visible efforts with the Pearl Guards brought him name recognition in South Dallas--and the stamp of legitimacy that ultimately made him a contender for Gilliam's seat. Because if ever a candidate has established his genuine concern for DISD kids through tangible accomplishments, it's Price.

"Why shouldn't the black community have a young, African-American role model?" Price asked me. "Kathlyn Gilliam is 66. That's a generation gap. I know the kids' slang. They cain't talk Ebonics and no think I don' know what they talkin' about. I understand every gang sign, every gang paraphernalia and color; I understand what it means if you're wiggling your pinkie. And now I can use the benefits of that understanding to help kids get out of the condition they're in."

Gilliam's supporters exposed their true agenda on election day, when South Dallas witnessed a wave of political activity such as I'd never seen before.

As Ron Price dispatched a handful of Pearl Guards to stand by the South Dallas polling sites and distribute pushcards, Gilliam unleashed an army--dozens of teenagers and adults, including elected officials Thomas G. Jones and John Wiley Price.

B.C. Foreman, Ron Price's campaign manager and president of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, was appalled by the ensuing ugliness. He claims Gilliam's minions ripped up Price campaign signs and knocked pushcards out of the Pearl Guards' hands.

"When it was just the kids, they got along fine," Foreman says. "But when the adults came, that's when it got nasty. People were cursing at the boys. We said if they knock the pushcard out of your hand, pick it up. If they tear it up, let them; we'll come by and replace it. It wasn't a good day for kids."

Although the outcome definitely was.
"It probably changed the whole city of Dallas," Foreman says. "No one likes to lose, but it seems like a group of them all do the same thing and come to the aid of each other, and they threaten newcomers.

"But all you had to do was break the chain. We broke it, and it's going to happen more and more. You'll see changes coming now."

Longtime DISD trustee Yvonne Ewell sounded a bit grumpy late last week when I inquired about her new colleague, Ron Price. "I haven't had any reasoned observations of him," she said.

I pressed her. "He's an affable man and seems to be open to learning," she said. "Everybody's an optimist till they hit hard reality. Having a fresh spirit and believing things can and will get better--that's a part of being new."

I asked Ewell what qualities made for success on the board.
"Legitimacy--a sense of authenticity and integrity," she said.
Does Price have it?
"It's too early to know," she said.

Well, I wanted to find out. So last Thursday, I drove to Price's tiny, three-bedroom frame home on Jamaica Street, just south of Fair Park.

At the height of the crack menace in 1991, this was one of Dallas' nastiest neighborhoods. I came here to talk to Price's mother, 55-year-old Devorah Israel, who'd come up from her country home near Tyler to provide moral support and home cooking during her son's campaign.

A pot of beans simmered on the stove as we spoke, its earthy smells spreading to the living room, the only truly civilized space in what can be accurately described as a bachelor's pad.

It was here, Israel explained, that on her regular visits to see her son, she'd often lay pallets on the floor for members of the Pearl Guards who temporarily lacked a home. She'd iron their clothes, trying to straighten the wrinkles in borrowed blue suits. She'd feed them, talk to them, give them a place to bathe.

I was curious how she'd responded when Price informed her he was running for Gilliam's seat. But I had it all backwards.

"I told him," Israel said. "I had a vision--God told me to tell him that. When the Lord first revealed that to me, I just mentioned it slightly to him. And he listened. Because he always listened to what I had to say."

The vision wasn't something she actually saw, she explained. But God told her to tell him "he could do more for the kids on the school board than he could anywhere else.

"I knew there was gonna be a battle," she added. "But I knew God was with him."

Price's mother was responsible for her son's strict upbringing. While growing up in Spanish Harlem in the early years, and later in Garland, Ron attended Pentecostal and Baptist churches with his family. Back in those days, black Pentecostals didn't drink, go to movies, or even wear makeup.

They made up for their abstemiousness in other ways, preaching a message of racial reconciliation that rubbed off on Ron Price.

And when he popped into his house moments later, pulling on a suit to attend his next function, he spoke freely about his religious faith--as well as some of the errors he's made.

Like fathering a son out of wedlock. Today, six-year-old Caleb Price lives with his mother in the Washington, D.C., area. Ron hasn't seen his son for two years.

"I learn from my mistakes," Price said. "I give my love to other children to make up for the son I lost."

On his living-room wall, he's hung a painting of a black father reaching out for his toddler son. Seemingly as an afterthought, Price has wedged snapshots of his son into the bottom of the picture frame.

Other parts of the house reveal more about Price. In the back room, beside an old desk erupting with papers, Price has posted dozens of certificates he's earned for community service with and without his Pearl Guards.

One of them, awarded in 1992 "for continued support of the beautification efforts of Clean South Dallas," is signed by none other than Kathlyn Gilliam.

Later that day, I witnessed a sorry little spectacle outside district headquarters. Twenty-three people lined up behind a borrowed DISD podium and, metaphorically speaking, peed into the wind.

There was New Black Panther groupie Thomas Muhammad, who handed out an incomprehensible press release. There was former Dallas city councilwoman Diane Ragsdale, dressed in a hot pink pantsuit. And there were other all-too-familiar faces: former DISD trustee Thomas G. Jones, assorted Panthers, Gilliam sidekicks T.L. Youngblood and Johnnie Jackson.

One of the last to arrive was Yvonne Ewell, who stood silently at the fringes of the gathering.

Kathlyn Gilliam, doffing her dark sunglasses, solemnly read the press release before the cameras. Representatives of all of the area's major media recorded the moment.

The next day, it merited all of two paragraphs at the bottom of a story on the News' Metropolitan page.

Yep, these are the people who've set Dallas' racial agenda for the past seven years. These same 20-plus people--and that's being generous. Most of them had wandered back into oblivion by the start of the 6 p.m. board meeting.

And what a meeting it was. The atmosphere was remarkable--a reporter next to me tagged it a "lovefest," with more than a little sarcasm.

There was board president Kathleen Leos, laughing mirthfully beside superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez. There was rookie trustee John Dodd, an amiable doofus of a man, making clueless comments about this and that which weren't met with derision.

At one point--I swear--trustee Lynda McDow actually uttered the words "beauty of the flowers."

Trust me, the context of her remark wasn't significant; I stopped taking notes and looked up, momentarily stunned.

Ron Price looked at ease. He got loose, he spoke well. He leaned back his leather chair and rocked when the meeting began to drift amidst all this strange merriment.

When trustee Jose Plata thrust his increasingly ornery self into one discussion, Price got perturbed. I remembered something he'd told me earlier in the day. "I'm not on this board to be part of a show," he said. "Show-and-tell got to go."

But other than Plata's nitpickings, which, Price assured me, had already been hashed over and resolved in committee meetings, the meeting progressed with uncanny kindness.

Price seemed in his element.
Sure, he's got a lot to learn--lots of things to cram into "my little bitty brain," as he self-effacingly puts it. But he'd already made an enormous difference--because for the first time in 23 years, we benefited from Gilliam's absence.

You can e-mail comments or news tips to Julie Lyons at julie_lyons@dallasobserver.com.


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