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Mr. Mellow

John Wiley Price did most of the talking, holding forth grandly on his reasons for supporting Mayor Ron Kirk's Trinity River Plan.

Clad in a typically natty outfit--tapered jacket, gleaming cuff links, high-collared shirt--Price appeared at ease, in control. He handily outshone the four men beside him, the collection of white guys in limp wool suits known as the rest of the Dallas County Commissioners Court.

It was an improbable sight for many reasons, this image of grandness and blandness at an April press conference, televised just one week before the bond election that swept in another phase of Kirk's extravagantly ambitious vision for Dallas.

"I had asked them to do something unprecedented," Price says of his fellow commissioners, recalling their show of unity with obvious pride. "We had never taken a position on a city bond."

But that was the least of the surprises that morning.
After all, Price, the county's only black commissioner, notorious for his incendiary tactics, was publicly allying himself with Kirk--the middle-class guy whose house he'd surrounded last year with a scraggly band of picketers, noisily protesting that the mayor had forgotten the blacks who put him in office. For days, Price had besieged Kirk and his family with bellowed insults.

Now Price was offering his enthusiastic endorsement of a bond package whose centerpiece was the Trinity River Plan--Kirk's public-works fantasia of lakes, levees, highways, and mythical sailboats that seemed almost comically detached from the realities of life in the poor minority neighborhoods along the river's floodplain.

Only a few weeks earlier, Price had clearly articulated his reasons for opposing the Trinity plan in a radio interview. Now he'd corralled conservative commissioners Jim Jackson, Kenneth Mayfield, and Mike Cantrell and County Judge Lee Jackson to provide a last-minute push for the controversial measure.

"I guess he was the leader," Commissioner Jim Jackson concedes about the event. Apparently not thrilled to be cast as Price's supporting actor, Jackson puts a spin on the notion of Price running the show. "It just goes to show on our court anybody can be the leader," he says.

The $264 million bond package, Price told reporters, called for such an unusual measure. The Trinity plan's provision for new roads would fix downtown traffic jams. "We cannot do nothing and let this city clog and wait for a heart attack," Price said.

On the television news that night, Dallas did a double-take at the mellow man in the wide-lapeled suit, sounding so comfortable, so practical, so reasonable. This was a John Wiley Price even white Dallas could learn to love.

Suspicions and speculation, of course, would soon follow.
Had Price--as some accuse Kirk--sold out to the white business establishment, gaining little in return for his working-class constituents?

Or did he somehow get religion?
Kirk's religion, that is--a thin glaze of righteous talk on old-fashioned, business-coddling boosterism that has made the mayor an almost unstoppable political force in Dallas?

Or had Price--at 46, a grandfather--just plain mellowed out?
Whatever the case, whatever the motive, Price's about-face would prove critical at the polls. On May 2, the Trinity bond issue passed with overwhelming support among blacks, who voted 4-to-1 in its favor.

Since the overall results were close, with Trinity naysayers losing by only 2,357 votes, election analysts handed Price much of the credit for victory.

So did Mayor Kirk, whose political power soared to new dimensions with the bond package coming right on the heels of his $240 million sports arena. Analysts had deemed Price's endorsement significant in that close contest too.

Immediately after the Trinity win, Kirk paid his debt of gratitude. He trotted over to the county offices and thanked the whole commissioners court, specifically naming Price.

"We're cordial to one another," Kirk says today about his onetime nemesis. But he adds a qualifier: "There is going to have to be a lot more water under the bridge before you can say we're close."

Price's endorsement signaled a truce with Kirk. If he hadn't exactly climbed on board the mayor's bullet train, he'd certainly adapted to Dallas' new political realities.

Which shouldn't surprise anyone who's taken the time to examine the extraordinarily complex man known as John Wiley Price.

It has become an initiation rite for white newcomers to Dallas, a bit of local code that's picked up within a matter of weeks.

New folks learn all about Commissioner John Wiley Price. His name is shorthand for black anger in Dallas, and many whites develop a reflex response--rolling their eyes in exasperation whenever his name comes up.

With his booming, raspy voice; enormous, muscular build; and ever-changing eyewear, Price is different enough from your typical middle-class white person to chafe against the norm in multiple ways.

 

White people learn that Price can be expected to show up regularly on the evening news, protesting loudly against perceived racial injustices anywhere in Dallas.

He is the one--a North Dallas resident will warn a new neighbor during a casual conversation at the park--who pledged in 1990 when the city was searching for a new police chief, "If you try and bring in a good old boy in this system, we're going to be in the streets. Physically, literally, shooting folks."

That particular quote earned Price days of front-page, above-the-fold stories in The Dallas Morning News and the old Dallas Times Herald, as well as national media coverage.

For many black Dallas residents, however, Price is "Our Man Downtown." They can turn to the local black-oriented radio station, KKDA-AM, and hear Price every weekday night invoking the old days of civil rights activism, praising Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and "all those freedom fighters." They have seen him raising hell at Dallas school board meetings, holding the white-dominated board accountable--for something.

Like his martyred heroes--the uninitiated will soon hear--Price, too, has taken risks and served jail time. Dallas County's white district attorney spent years nipping at Price's heels and ultimately charged him only with misdemeanors--for whitewashing billboards that advertised tobacco and alcohol products in poor neighborhoods in 1990 and damaging someone's windshield wipers while on a protest line in 1991. For those offenses, Price served 25 days in the county jail, according to his office manager, Joyce Ann Brown.

But both common perceptions of Price--the black and white versions--are inaccurate. Neither captures the political balancing act that Price, the first and only African-American to serve as a commissioner, performs every day.

For years now, Price, showing up for citywide protests with his small band of "warriors," has managed to maintain his image as a firebrand who represents the disenfranchised. He has served this mostly black constituency with tireless zeal from his commissioner's seat.

With several inch-tall stacks of message slips bearing witness, officer manager Brown seems to hear from every individual in Dallas who's ever entertained a thought that he's suffered racial discrimination at work or abuse within the prison system, as well as a good chunk of the people having trouble paying their overdue utility bills.

Brown and the rest of the commissioner's staff claim they follow up on all of these complaints, no matter how little they relate to county business. "If they are a constituent," Brown says, "it is county business. The door here is not closed."

By mid-morning one day last week, two women had called in to complain about child protective services. "One woman told us two white men had taken her children," Brown says. Another mother had called because she believed her son was unfairly convicted. "You're calling us after the fact," Brown told the woman, advising her how to go about initiating an appeal.

While running his clearinghouse for complaints, Price has, at the same time, much more quietly established himself as an astute county commissioner who favors big business just as much as his conservative colleagues. Price, indeed, has cultivated several alliances in the white-dominated business community and attracted financial support for his campaigns from an unlikely array of establishment players. The late Jack Evans, former mayor of Dallas; James Bankston, the car dealer; and Robert Shaw, the real estate developer, to name a few, have all contributed thousands of dollars to Price's campaigns. "He's a friend," says Shaw about Price, whom he meets for lunch about four times a year.

With his controversial endorsement of the Trinity River bond issue, Price's two worlds crossed. The result: friction.

"I don't want a public fight with him," says Roy Williams, a black activist who vehemently opposed the Trinity plan. "But I have concerns. How can a black politician support this?"

Less than two weeks before Price orchestrated the commissioners' press conference, NAACP chief Lee Alcorn and other Trinity plan opponents had announced their objections to the bond proposal not so much for what it did but for what it didn't do. The package provided no buy-outs--as other cities had offered--for the poor, wretchedly decrepit minority communities in the river's floodplain. Instead, it proposed levees that would protect the crumbling neighborhoods of Cadillac Heights and Joppa in Price's district, some of Dallas' poorest locales.

"How come they could not get something to buy these people out? Why did he sacrifice the people in his constituency?" Williams asks about Price. He ends with a warning: "There will be a backlash against this."

Alcorn is more diplomatic. "I cannot really question his motives," he says of Price. "He is a roads-and-bridges person. That is what he stated."

 

Questions nonetheless remain. Why has Price changed his story on whether he supported the Trinity plan? In an interview with Wade Goodwyn, a reporter for National Public Radio, Price mentioned a deal he'd cut with University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center leaders: He'd back the Trinity project if they would build a biotech research center in his district.

But in an earlier, tape-recorded interview, Price told Goodwyn that the Trinity River package was "not part of our agenda. We are not land owners along the Trinity. There is nothing in that that builds infrastructure in the historically African-American communities. If you don't built infrastructure, you don't build community."

A few weeks after making that statement, Price issued his endorsement. Asked about the flip-flop, Price first denied it--telling the Dallas Observer that Goodwyn "never got me on tape."

When told that he was, indeed, caught on tape, Price responded vaguely. "I don't think it was ever opposition," he said. "There are a whole number of issues out there." In a later Observer interview, he insisted, "I took only one official position."

Price's white allies give him the benefit of the doubt. "I have to be very careful to hold back my judgments that persons of color have to perform better than whites as politicians," says Michael Daniel, a lawyer who has handled some of the city's biggest housing discrimination cases. "I think Price's support [of the Trinity bond proposal] points out that the commissioner is realistic about what can be accomplished. He gets what he can, and he provides for his people."

Trinity proponents insist there's nothing fishy about Price's endorsement. "John Wiley Price was doing the right thing for his district. All the work was going to be done in his district. His endorsement is the least remarkable," says Rob Allyn, a political consultant hired by the pro-Trinity campaign. "The greater question is why would Lee Alcorn, whose unrelenting desire to be on television overshadows everything else, be against it?"

For Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson, head of the commissioners court, Price's support of the Trinity plan came as no surprise. "While he has an image against business and as an obstructer," Jackson says, "that is not what happens on the commissioners court."

It's a regular Tuesday-morning session in mid-May at the Dallas County Commissioners Court, and John Wiley Price, who sits to the left of Judge Lee Jackson, keeps rubbing his eyes as if to wipe away the sleep.

To be sure, county court business is about as exciting as counting pennies. On the agenda this day, the commissioners will consider issues such as settlement payments to a man who was hit by a county vehicle, tax abatements for Southwestern Bell, and approval of an employee health-benefit contract.

Although he looks tired and exasperated at times, Price's attention to detail and sensitivity to staff members initially astounds newcomers to the court who expect the same blustery fellow they see on television.

Among his colleagues and staff, Price has earned a reputation as a perceptive, detail-oriented public servant. "John does his homework," says Commissioner Jim Jackson, a conservative Republican. "I tell my constituents, and they don't always believe me that he is a good commissioner. Sometimes we are on separate sides of the issue. But when we get down to the county business, we are in agreement 99 percent of the time."

A high-level county administrator, who asked that he not be identified, says about Price: "He will bring up an issue that seems bizarre at first, but about 60 to 70 percent of the time he has caught on to something real. There is so much more to him than I thought. I have been so pleasantly surprised. He is just like one of the good ol' boys. One of the Republicans."

Not so long ago, Price's dealings with his fellow commissioners were not so cordial. In the early '90s, Judge Lee Jackson used to snap off the microphone when Price started screaming at his colleagues. One such episode occurred when Price told former Commissioner Chris Semos, who'd presented a resolution to honor a group of war veterans, to "stick it up your ass," according to a magazine account at the time. Price was angry because no minorities were represented in the veterans' group.

At a recent session, Lee Jackson put forth a resolution to honor POWs. "Let us not forget these are the lucky ones," Price said as he eyed the three men--all white--who came forward to receive the county's recognition.

For a split second, Judge Jackson seemed worried. He might have remembered the commissioner's boorish performance of years ago.

Instead, Price softly thanked the men for appearing and moved on to the next bit of county business.

 

Price's persona in black Dallas, of course, is altogether different. His nightly broadcasts on KKDA-AM are hyped and energized but, like most of talk radio, often pointless. Talk Back Radio opens with Willie D, a rapper who once belonged to Houston's notorious gangsta group the Geto Boys, and closes with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes singing "Wake Up Everybody."

"That's my classroom," Price says about the show. He brings on guests who represent a wide range of fields and often pitch products. Among them are Thomas Muhammad, a particularly shrill Dallas schools activist and Minority Opportunity News columnist; Delbert Blair, a Chicago-based doctor-turned-health-and-herbs-salesman; and Aaron Thomas, whose Dallas firm offers computer and Internet classes.

Price constantly offers his listeners glib maxims aimed at raising political consciousness. "We will be black," he says when taking a commercial break. He refers to the white-owned station on air as "Liberation radio, the superstation for education and liberation, taking you to a higher level."

Kidd Kraddick, Dallas' top-rated DJ, needn't lose any sleep about Price stealing his place. The Arbitron ratings for the commissioner's show are abysmal. When Talk Back Radio is on, KKDA gets only .6 percent of the listening audience over the age of 12--or 1,800 people at any one time, according to the independent rating service.

Price's show is invaluable, however, as a source of information on traditional black politics in Dallas. He touts black bookstore events, NAACP meetings, and educational outings.

At times, particularly when wayward callers dominate, the show gets downright bizarre. A few weeks ago, Price presented Dr. Blair pitching his herbal remedies under the thin guise of talking about preparing for tornadoes and other natural disasters. But when Price started taking calls, the conversation turned decidedly strange, causing Dr. Blair to ponder whether the full moon had prompted such weirdness.

First, a man wanted to talk about communicating with the dead. "Brother, what's your point?" Price said, cutting him off.

Then a fellow named Clarence called in.
"I need a good attorney," he said. "They took my car, and they took my money."

With a note of irritation in his voice, Price asked, "What kind?"
The man responded, "A lawyer."
"I figured that. But do you need a civil or criminal attorney? Just call me tomorrow at the county," Price said, resigned to his role as the first-stop resource for aggrieved African-Americans.

A few moments later, a woman calling herself Tasmania came on the air. "Is that your real name, or is that a nickname?" Price asked.

The woman ignored the query and blurted out her point. "If John Wiley Price is supposed to represent the African-American community," she said in a sneering voice, "how come he is always seen walking around the neighborhood with a dog?" She drew out the last word as if to encode it with special meaning.

Was she making a snide comment about a persistent rumor that Price dates Anglo women? The commissioner didn't bother to find out. He hung up immediately. (Price, for his part, told the Observer that he feels obliged as a black community leader not to date white women.)

In addition to his radio show, the commissioner speaks publicly several times a week at other functions. On Tuesdays, he hosts St. Luke Community United Methodist Church's "Dallas Community Leadership Luncheon."

Anyone can join the audience at the church, home to many of the area's top black political and business leaders. Lunch--at $6 for catered Southern soul food--is optional. Each week Price invites a guest speaker.

At one of last month's lunches, 30 people, almost all of whom were black, gathered at banquet tables in the old, smaller sanctuary of St. Luke to hear Danny Defenbaugh, the white, newly appointed special agent in charge at the North Texas regional office of the FBI.

Price, dressed in an exquisitely cut tan suit and eye-catching two-tone shoes, arrived right on time. After the group had sampled platefuls of fried chicken, fried corn bread, and collard greens, Price introduced the speaker. As a preface, the commissioner--who's been under investigation by several government agencies in the past two decades--joked about his own Freedom of Information Act requests for his FBI file. "I'm told that you cannot acquire your file if it is active," he said with a smile.

"It's a very, very new FBI," Defenbaugh told the group when Price turned over the microphone. "Over 50 percent of agents have come in the last three years. J. Edgar Hoover died May 2, 1972."

When it came time for the Q&A session, however, Price made it clear he wasn't going to be an easy sell. "You talk about a new face on the FBI," he said. "J. Edgar Hoover is a lot to overcome. While that spin sounds good, how many of [your agents] are people of color in charge?"

 

Defenbaugh returned to the podium and stated that five of the 12 supervisors were minorities (including one woman). "Close to 50 percent," the FBI man said.

Behind him, Price shook his head in an exaggerated manner. Leaning forward into the microphone, he announced the results of his own calculations. Five of 12 is not half, he said triumphantly.

Insisting that African-Americans get jobs of authority has been John Wiley Price's most persistent theme as an elected official. In the last 10 years, his protests at television stations, North Dallas shopping malls, and Parkland Memorial Hospital have all hinged on the concern that blacks get low-paid, low-level jobs, but fail to make the top tiers in significant numbers.

It is startling, then, to examine the ethnic composition of Dallas County employees--the one arena where Price officially possesses the authority to make a difference. The roster of county employees, at best, resembles a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting.

Some 37 percent of the county's 5,076 total employees are persons of color; among the 1,622 workers who would be deemed professionals, 46 percent are black or Hispanic.

But whites still hold the great majority of the highest-ranking jobs. Of the 22 top administrators at the county, each paid more than $70,000 a year, only two are black: Dr. Mattye Mauldin-Taylor, director of personnel, and Betty Culbreath, director of Health and Human Services. Not one African-American or Hispanic man holds one of those top rungs. By the standards Price applies to other business and government entities, that absence amounts to a complete failure.

Price argues in his defense that one should look instead at the seven top supervisory positions for which the commissioners make hires. Culbreath and Taylor are in that group, so the way Price sees it, two of the top seven are people of color.

Hires for the other 15 supervisory positions are handled by the sheriff, the district attorney, and other white officials, Price contends, and he can't be held responsible. His argument provokes another question: Who, then, is supposed to influence the county's hiring of black and Hispanic administrators, if not Price?

The county's contracting with minority firms presents a murkier picture. Although Price frequently demands to know whether city and county contracts go to minorities, he and his staff have so far failed to keep worthwhile statistics about the county's deals with Hispanic-, black-, and women-controlled businesses. Irwin Hicks, the administrator who now handles such matters, says he's only recently been asked to develop such figures. With no relevant data on the computers, Hicks expects the task to take weeks.

Meanwhile, the other commissioners simply assume that Price is on top of the matter. "I know that John pays a lot of attention to that," Commissioner Jim Jackson says.

On the second floor of the School Book Depository Building--where the commissioners' offices are housed--Price's suite has a decidedly personal stamp. Old papers and a boombox lie on the floor. His crowded desk displays numerous photos, including one of him and his grown son.

On the walls, the bricks are almost outnumbered by a striking collection of black Americana. Under a drawing of Aunt Jemima, the words "No more" are written. A copy of an "admit one colored student" ticket for the state fair is blown up and framed. In another illustration, Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old girl who was the first black to attend an all-white New Orleans school in 1960, walks to class surrounded by federal marshals.

In person, Price makes as strong an impression as he does on television--but a much more favorable one. For a man who never played in organized sports in high school or college, the 46-year-old Price has made up in a big way. Every day before dawn, he pumps iron. Michael Brodnax, DeSoto's white police chief, lifts with Price and attests to the rigor of his workout regimen. So do the commissioner's broad chest and muscular limbs.

Indisputably handsome, with high cheekbones and piercing light-brown eyes, Price's face attracts attention because of how animated it is. In several minutes of conversation, his eyes can bulge in disbelief, his eyebrows rise in exasperation, and his mouth drop open in utter shock.

At the start of his first two-and-a-half-hour interview with the Observer, though, Price played coy, adopting a jaded, faraway look. He leaned back far in his chair. "I don't think I bring anything to the table," he said flatly. He was--rather transparently--trying to extricate himself from a commitment he'd made one day earlier to answer questions for the Observer.

 

The commissioner has had a long-standing policy, which he broke for this story, of refusing to speak to the Observer. Perhaps not coincidentally, Price reconsidered his own gag order only after Laura Miller, a six-year Observer columnist, put down her pen and won a seat on the Dallas City Council.

As a reporter, Miller has done more to cast doubt on Price's motives than anyone else. In March 1991, Miller, writing in a previous incarnation of D magazine (before Wick Allison revived the publication and several months before Miller joined the Observer staff), produced a scathing, watershed profile of Price. Coming at a time when articles on Price in the local dailies were either embarrassingly simplistic or shamelessly fawning, Miller's piece lunged straight for the throat. (To this day, the copy of the story in the clip files at the Dallas public library contains a piece of magnetic tape to prevent readers from pilfering it.)

The story raised questions about Price's business practices--alleging that the commissioner benefited financially from exploiting his position as a government official and black leader. Miller reported that Price and Kathy Nealy--a well-known black political consultant who, incidentally, played a role in Price's decision to back the Trinity River Plan--ran a business that advised companies on how to handle minorities. The implication: Price protested or threatened protests, then hit up the companies for money.

The bombshell in the Miller article, however, concerned Price's relationships with women. Miller quoted three women, who weren't identified by name, accusing the commissioner of raping them--allegations that Price denied. Miller also revealed that Price had borrowed money from his campaign fund to pay off his personal home-improvement loan and failed to report the transaction, as state law requires. After the article's publication, the district attorney investigated the sexual-assault and campaign-finance allegations, but eventually dropped the cases.

This time, rather than outright refuse an interview, Price opted to let a reporter sit in his office for several hours and, at the same time--as if to negate the interview taking place--permitted his secretary to interrupt constantly with a stream of phone calls.

But eavesdropping on Price's conversations offers its own rewards. Among the callers that May morning was Municipal Judge Charles Rose, a man who, years ago, accused Price of physically striking him.

It seems KTVT-Channel 11 had run a story the previous night questioning Rose's actions as a judge--inquiring why several truant youths who'd come to Rose's court had somehow ended up in a youth camp in Mississippi that was under investigation by the local district attorney. Rose seemed to be trying to figure out whether Price had sicced the reporter on him. (Rose later told the Observer he'd never called Price.)

"They haven't talked to me," Price said. "Judge, nobody really knows anything. Judge, I understand that, I understand that, but I haven't talked to one person in the media. I don't know how it could be leaking. [Channel 11 reporter] Stephanie Lucero has not telephoned or paged this office. My advice to you would be to get you an attorney. It's not about having anything to hide, but about whether or not you want to protect yourself," Price concluded, clearing his throat.

The oldest of six children, Price grew up in Forney, which is about a 45-minute drive east of Dallas. His mother, Willie Fay Price, still lives in the same house where he spent his high school days. The modest, wood-frame home--which has no central air--is freshly painted dark blue with maroon trimming. Inside, the front parlor has white walls, gold carpet, and gold velvet furniture, all reminiscent of the '70s. On display at the coffee table are programs from receptions where Willie Fay's oldest son received honors, including a South Dallas Business and Professional Club meeting in 1985 and the City of Dallas' Martin Luther King Day in 1988.

At 74, Price's mother is too weary to detail all of her son's exploits. In the past two decades, Willie Fay Price has suffered a heart attack, become dependent on insulin, and lost her husband and two sons. Price's youngest brother died at the age of 17 from a mysterious illness. And his closest brother in age, a juvenile diabetic, died in his 40s after losing limbs and sight.

"He calls me every day," she says of Price. He also visits her once or twice a week, and court records show he provides a $400 monthly supplement to her Social Security stipend.

When Willie Fay was younger, she worked full-time as a domestic. "I had some real nice people that I worked for," she says. She named three of her children with the monikers her employers had chosen. "I let other people do my naming," Willie Fay says. "I had so many. It didn't matter to me." (John Wiley Price was named after his grandfather.)

 

For Price, his mother's line of work meant he spent his early years living in servants' quarters in the white part of Forney. "He had some real nice white friends," Willie Fay recalls cheerily.

Price was also one of the first black children to travel to white schools when integration began. Unlike his white classmates, Price recalls, he and most of the other black children picked cotton every summer. His mother says she always permitted her kids to keep the money they earned and use it for school clothes. "We brought them up in a way that we thought would be useful," Willie Fay says about her children. "So they knew about working and did not mind working."

But with her oldest, she says, "Nobody had to push him to do things." He was always "apt," she says, a quick study. He favored mechanical pursuits as a youngster--such as taking apart machines.

Price's father, who died in 1980, labored as a janitor, cleaning offices. He would often take his son with him. On weekends, the older Price was a Baptist minister, driving his big family around to rural congregations. Price's grandfather was an educator at an all-black school and an active community leader in Saint Augustine, Texas, where both his parents were raised and much of his extended family still lives.

Price has named his own children--two sons--after himself. The older son, John Paul Wiley Price, came from the commissioner's marriage to Vivian Pauline Salinas, a woman of Italian and Hispanic heritage. Price married Salinas in 1970; he was 19, she was 23 and already had two small children. They met at El Centro College, which Price soon quit to support his family. The union lasted only three years before the couple split, divorcing several years later.

Price's son, now married and a father himself, preaches at a nondenominational church in Chicago, the commissioner says, and rarely contacts his father. Price says he isn't concerned about the distance in his relationship with his first son. "I told him to just make sure I end up in a convalescent home," he says. In her article, Miller detailed at length the tardy child-support payments Price made when his first son was growing up. Price still defends his reasons for postponing the payments. He used to make his son work for the court-ordered money, and if the boy neglected to come to his house on the weekend and help out in the yard, Price didn't pay until his son made good on his chores. The commissioner says he wanted to instill in his son a strong work ethic, and "that's the only carrot I had at the time."

His attitude seems less harsh toward his younger son, three-year-old John Nicholas Watson Price. Price and his close friend, DISD administrator Ora Lee Watson, became the boy's foster parents, as they'd done with a number of other needy children. But this time, Price says, he was moved to adopt. He sent out adoption notices to friends and associates and came home to tell his mother, who keeps a picture of the smiling pre-schooler at her house, "This one I'm going to adopt."

The precise terms of that adoption have become an issue in Price's federal bankruptcy case. Price filed for protection under Chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy code in late 1996, and his case is still pending. When he filed, Price said court judgments against him had forced the move. "I don't find it embarrassing at all," he told the Observer's Thomas Korosec, then a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I tried to do the right thing; I ended up doing the white thing." The court judgments entered against Price included $147,000 stemming from the commissioner's role as a borrower in a failed savings and loan, and $113,000 awarded to the man who claimed Price broke his ankle during a 1991 tussle outside the county court administration building.

Under bankruptcy laws, Price normally would have been allowed to keep his Oak Cliff home and one car. Several months after he filed, however, Price wrote to the bankruptcy court about John Nicholas, seeking to keep $60,000 in additional assets, double what he would have been permitted as a single man with no dependents. Bankruptcy trustee Tom Powers says he plans to raise questions about the proposed exemptions--hoping to determine whether Price actually did adopt the child. Price, asked about the adoption in a follow-up interview, declined to discuss it.

Ora Lee Watson, for her part, referred the Observer to the court record. Adoption files are not available to the public, but the computerized index names only Watson as the adoptive parent. The family-court file on the case does say the boy has a "significant relationship with a special friend of his foster family. He often spends time with this gentleman, and he should be recognized as a strong male role model in the child's life."

 

Price's fortune isn't particularly impressive, according to the figures provided in his bankruptcy claim. Price states he has $339,080 in assets and $398,046 in liabilities, including a $3,000 jewelry-store bill for items he bought shortly before he filed for protection. In his claim, Price lists his annual income as $80,302 from the county and $22,522 from KKDA for his one-hour radio gig five times a week.

But the commissioner doesn't lack for material things. As part of his homestead, Price lists a collection of timepieces, African art, and a fleet of exotic and antique cars that includes a 1948 Pontiac, a 1948 Oldsmobile, and a 1989 Lotus.

Price has tried numerous times to drum up other sources of income. He owned an Exxon station that went bankrupt and a host of other small enterprises, including a Tyco Toys franchise.

He also ran the consultation business with Kathy Nealy, specializing in advising clients about minority protests. Miller reported that their largest client at the time was Darling Delaware, a Dallas-based company that owned animal-rendering factories nationwide. The company's plants were often located in minority neighborhoods, and Price tamped down potential legal troubles for the company in California and Georgia.

These days, the consulting company--which was run from Nealy's home--is past-tense, Price says. The commissioner waves his hand and dismisses the subject. "This," he says, pointing to his desk at the county administrative building, "is a 24-hour job."

Price ran for county commissioner, winning his seat in 1985, on the advice of a former Democratic Texas governor. "Mark White told me, if you can't be governor, be county commissioner," Price says with a laugh.

At the time, Price had already been working for several years in the public sector, serving as a clerk to Justice of the Peace Cleophas Steele Jr. The two met through grassroots political work in the Progressive League, with Steele initially tapping the bright young man to work in his law office. When Steele became a JP, he took Price with him to the courthouse. "Cleo fingered me," Price recalls. "He said I could do the job."

The job--as Price defined it--was a big one. A desperate need existed back then for a court where criminal lawyers could get "examining trials"--hearings held before the DA referred cases to the grand jury. District Attorney Henry Wade tried to discourage judges from making time for such proceedings, but Price, knowing full well the consequences of slap-dash justice in the minority communities, helped keep Steele's court running until the wee hours.

"We worked until midnight if we had to," Price says. He became known among criminal defense lawyers as the guy who could get their clients a hearing before the DA rushed their cases off to the grand jury.

Nowadays, people are asking whether Price has lost the fire he had back then.

For almost a year now, Price has stayed away from front-page controversy.
"People have asked me if he was mellowing," Judge Lee Jackson says.
"There is still only so much time," Price responds. "I've got to try and marshal the forces around the issues. It does not mean I am any less passionate about them."

He also claims he can achieve success these days without waving picket signs. Specifically, he mentions the case of Southwest Airlines. About 18 months ago, he met with Herb Kelleher, the airline's CEO, to press Southwest about affirmative action. Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart says Price wanted to know why Kelleher had not participated in Dallas Together--a corporate-sponsored program designed to foster better racial relations.

The outspoken Kelleher apparently told Price he wanted nothing to do with such "hypocrisy." But he did pass on details about Southwest's employees: The company has 6,192 people of color among its 25,000 employees, and 95 of 658 managers are black or Hispanic. In return, Price, whose sister is a Southwest flight attendant, sent Kelleher a book about a pioneering black woman aviator.

Price warns people not to assume he won't strike again. "I'll still take matters into my own hands," he says. If the issue merits, he adds, sounding a little like his younger self, "I'll resort to whatever is necessary."

The last time Price hit the streets and got a major dose of television air time, he was patrolling Ron Kirk's home with a bullhorn.

The mayor responded by telling a Dallas Morning News reporter that the demonstration was "the most distasteful thing that's happened to me the last two years." He added: "I thought the invasion of my family's privacy and the needless endangerment of them was certainly the low point of this particular experience...and I still find that to be a fairly unconscionable, reckless act."

 

For Kirk, the bitterness still lingers.
"Unquestionably, the decision to picket my house has inalterably changed the nature of our relationship," he says of Price.

But the mayor also concedes he was getting pressured by black leaders to get along with the commissioner. "Not getting into who was vindicated and all that, he got criticism and I got criticism, but the message to both of us was, 'Look, each of you is too important to the African-American community to put your personal issues before the public,'" Kirk says.

These days, Price essentially claims victory for his picket at the mayor's house. At the time, he complained that Kirk was ignoring African-American concerns while working as a front man for white business interests. He now claims, however, that the picketing was all about DISD. "He and I crossed sabers regarding the school district," Price says.

The mayor had initially supported embattled schools superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, a Hispanic woman to whom Price, Alcorn, and other black leaders objected. Now that Gonzalez is sitting in federal prison on an embezzlement charge, Price says he's been "vindicated with DISD."

On the wall of his county office, Price keeps a picture of Mayor Kirk and himself, smiling. "That's a church member," Price jokes about the photograph. Both men do attend services at St. Luke, but their relationship is much more complex.

The two, indeed, have hugely different backgrounds. Price never finished his stint at a community college because he ran out of money, and got his start in politics at the grassroots level. Kirk attended the University of Texas law school, practiced at one of Dallas' most successful law firms, and was encouraged to run for public office by Ray Hunt, the oil man.

"Kirk got his job from the top down; Price came from the bottom up," says the lawyer Daniel.

It is Ron Kirk's rapid ascension that has challenged Price's standing as the presumed leader of black Dallas.

During the Trinity River debate, Price would end up in an odd position--as the mayor's protector. Kirk's pro-Trinity camp had dispatched Kathy Nealy, Price's former consulting partner, to secure the endorsement of black leaders, including Price's.

Carol Reed, the political advisor who steered the pro-Trinity group and managed Kirk's mayoral campaign, says, "Nealy is always part of our deal. She goes out and gets all the black officials." According to documents filed with the city secretary's office, the pro-Trinity group paid Nealy more than $47,000 for her efforts and expenses. (Contacted by phone for this story, Nealy promised to call back but never did.)

She did bring home results, rounding up endorsements from 12 prominent black ministers representing more than 300 congregations, and enlisting support from state Sen. Royce West, U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, and the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce.

Price admits Nealy called to try to persuade him to get behind the mayor's Trinity plan, but he didn't make up his mind right away. He claims he began to establish his position a few hours later after talking to Demetrious Sampson, one of the few African-American managing partners at a large Dallas law firm and a major contributor to Price's campaigns. (Sampson's law firm earns a good part of its revenues by collecting taxes for Dallas County.) Price won't say he changed his mind about the Trinity when Sampson called--after all, he maintains he was never opposed to it. He will acknowledge that he came on board the campaign after the lawyer's call.

One week before the bond election, Price invited Kirk to one of the Tuesday lunches at St. Luke. The mayor's remarks were forceful and convincing, and a heated debate ensued between Trinity backers and detractors. Kirk talked about 30 years of delays in getting flood protection for neighborhoods along the Trinity, and the support the river proposal had finally managed to generate. "As our friends in Louisiana say, 'If you get on the train, you don't get run over,'" Kirk told the crowd. "This train is moving. Dallas is going to the next millennium."

Decorum broke down during the question-and-answer session. Activist Roy Williams asked the mayor why he always "seemed to be castrating black men," and began rattling off a list of African-American men he thought Kirk had belittled. Before he could get very far, though, Price stepped in as moderator and told Williams, who'd stood vigil outside the jail when Price was incarcerated a few years ago, to pose a question to the mayor or move away from the podium. Price's prodding prompted a self-described environmental activist from Louisiana to refer to the commissioner as the mayor's "henchman."

 

Kirk shot back, "I don't know where you live, but you haven't been in Dallas too long if you think that."

These days, Price talks about the Trinity River Plan as though it were a no-brainer. "Sixty-two percent of that bond package was south of the Trinity," he says. "We were on our last leg in terms of transportation."

He says he now believes the opposition was misguided. "My position was, we got caught up in an emotional cavalcade about what was happening at Cadillac Heights," he says, calling these concerns "the emotionalism of a few people." About his constituents in that poor black neighborhood, Price says, "I felt as though those people there were used." It will be interesting to find out, he adds, whether the anti-river forces show any concern for that neighborhood in the future.

By the way he asks the question, you can tell Price believes he'll be the one who's still around to extend a helping hand--as he always has been.

Hearing all the theories about Price's political accommodations and slow mellowing process, Cheryl Wattley, Price's onetime defense lawyer and longtime ally, says, "I'll just toss out another theory. Maybe Price hasn't changed. Maybe the city has changed. Maybe the city now knows how to see John Wiley Price and sees the substance. Now that people are looking, the antics are no longer necessary.


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