Kirk's race: Ron Kirk resigned as mayor of Dallas late last year to run for the U.S. Senate.
Kirk's race: Ron Kirk resigned as mayor of Dallas late last year to run for the U.S. Senate.
Peter Calvin

Selling Ron

Ron Kirk insists he is neither optimist nor pessimist, cynic nor Pollyanna. "I'm a realist," he explains during a quiet break from campaigning in deep East Texas. "I've had to deal with life as it is."

Because he's a realist, he recognizes some harsh truths. Kirk knows, for example, that he was elected Dallas' first black mayor because he was the kind of black man white Dallas could love: well-educated, pro-business, conservatively attired. A black man who honestly dislikes disorder and ugly racial spectacle and who not-so-subtly promised to make the angry black voices on the news every night go away. A black man who would, in the parlance of his 1995 mayoral campaign, "end the blame game." A black man who grew up negotiating his way between two worlds, being called "nigger" by white kids during the day and "Uncle Tom" by black kids at night, who had spent a lot of time figuring out, in Kirk's words, "how you get beyond" race, how to find the common denominator, how to help people be better than they want to be. A black man, in short, uniquely qualified to ease your racial fears, to make them, as he puts it, "go dormant" for a while.

And because he's a realist, he doesn't think your fears have gone away. He concedes that Laura Miller's recent election as mayor was, in part, a backlash against the big-ticket spending Kirk championed--what he calls "my grand vision." He also thinks Tom Dunning was an "awful" campaigner, an opinion he doesn't guard very closely when reporters are scribbling nearby. And last but not least, he believes in his heart that racism played a role, that the demons he was uniquely qualified to keep at bay have been loosed and are running around making mischief.

Because he's no fool, he's putting a positive spin on these truths. In campaign commercials and on the stump, Ron Kirk, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, says he was elected Dallas' first black mayor because the voters "decided to put hope before cynicism and trust before fear." He wants them to--no, he honestly believes they will--do so again in the March 12 Democratic primary. And again in the runoff that will certainly result, in which Kirk likely will be a finalist, Kirk being the best-funded senatorial hopeful and money being the mother's milk of politics. And yet again, in the general election. In fact, Kirk believes he can inspire Texans to overcome their baser instincts, be they racist or Republican, thrice in the next eight months, and in the process become not only Texas' first Democratic senator in a decade, but its first black senator. Ever.

That's a lot of hope and trust. And despite his protestations to the contrary, Kirk is neither cynicism- nor fear-free. "What's your angle?" he asked suspiciously, returning a call last November. "This isn't gonna be some 'Laura vs. Ron' story, is it?"

Just 10 days earlier, Kirk had resigned his "dream job" as mayor to make his Senate run, and a man with less self-confidence might have been panicked. He had no money, since funds from his mayoral run can't be used in federal elections. He had virtually no name recognition outside North and East Texas. He had formidable party opponents threatening runs, including Houston Congressman Ken Bentsen, former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales and Mesquite schoolteacher Victor Morales, the guy who drove his little white pickup around the state in 1996 and took on incumbent Texas Senator Phil "Ready Money" Gramm. And he had no staff to speak of, which is why the candidate himself was calling to sniff us over, to determine whether the Dallas Observer's intentions were honorable.

But a man with less self-confidence never would have come as far in life as Ron Kirk has.

Reassured that this story wasn't about Laura Miller, and that the writer had a mind of her own--separate from that of Jim Schutze, the Observer's political columnist--Kirk relaxed. Sort of. He ranted for a few moments about Schutze, a frequent Kirk critic, and about the Observer, which was, during the Kirk years, the only publication regularly willing to take a swipe at His Honor. Eventually, he got down to the topic at hand.

"Hell, yes, I can pull it off," he boomed, and then chuckled. "Of course, I was the only person I know who thought I could beat Gramm. Thank God he didn't give me the chance." (In September, Phil Gramm, the three-term Republican incumbent, announced he would not run for re-election.)

It was vintage Ron Kirk: by turns funny, testy, self-deprecating, profane and, all in all, charming enough to sell a farm dog fleas. With enthusiasm, he began to dish about the race. He hadn't decided when to officially kick off--maybe December, more likely January, by which time he expected the field to have narrowed, in part because he hoped the Democratic hierarchy would strong-arm Bentsen out of running. He never quite agreed to cooperate with the Observer, but in the end the challenge would prove irresistible.

For there are a few more things one must never forget about Kirk. He's no ideologue; abstract notions of government and political philosophy don't stir his soul, and some of his views, particularly on open government and the press, are profoundly cynical, even undemocratic. But he usually will roll the dice on people. Because if there is one true thing Kirk knows after 47 years, it is this: Ron Kirk can sell Ron Kirk to anyone with a half-open mind.

The headquarters of the Ron Kirk for Senate campaign takes up most of the three floors of an architecturally confused new building on Henderson Street in north central Dallas, a gentrified area of bars and tony antique stores fronting tiny wood-sided houses.

On a recent day, the place bustled with industry that would make an anthill proud. Staff and visitors alike wandered in and out, talking aloud into desk phones or tiny headsets. About them, assorted photos of The Candidate lined available walls: Kirk on his last day in office. Kirk in front of City Hall and the American Airlines Center, the controversial new $340 million sports arena that Kirk considers one of his greatest accomplishments. Kirk with Al Gore. Kirk with Bill Clinton. Kirk with an assortment of black political leaders and athletes, including Carl Lewis and Tiger Woods. On the top floor, at the center of it all, Carol Butler, Kirk's campaign manager, held forth on a speakerphone in a glassed-in conference room, the front of which contained a Magic Marker countdown: "5 days until early voting starts. 20 days until we celebrate."

Kirk has come a long way since 1995, when, in his first mayoral campaign, he drove himself around the city in his own car, an 11-year-old BMW with more than 200,000 miles. Back then, Kirk's campaign manager, local political consultant Carol Reed, had to charge campaign expenses on her personal American Express card, borrowing from Peter until they could raise campaign funds to pay Paul. Nowadays Kirk's paid staff alone numbers more than 20, a tally that includes seasoned Democratic pros like Butler, who recently engineered Debra Stabenow's upset of Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham in the Michigan race for U.S. Senate. And Kirk has signed on pricey media consultants Struble Oppel Eichenbaum, a D.C. outfit that has produced political advertising for more than a dozen current and former Democratic senators, including Tom Daschle and Bob Kerrey.

On this particular day, while the candidate stumps in Houston, Butler is back home buying media time. In a few days Kirk will, in campaign parlance, "be up" on air, broadcasting ads in 17 of Texas' 19 media markets. (The other two are Dallas and Houston, towns with expensive air time; Kirk's ads will run there this week.) Kirk's people hope that his "air war" will be the coup de grace, the blow that enables them to pull out of a very tight three-way race. Kirk's predictions about the race's narrowing have proved to be mostly wishful thinking, although Dan Morales did, at the last minute, switch to the governor's race. With just less than three weeks to go, the latest polls of likely primary voters show Kirk and Bentsen running neck and neck, with 19 and 18 percent respectively. Victor Morales is slightly higher, at 24 percent, a lead that about equals the statistical margin of error.

The good news: If Kirk can bag his party's nomination, early polls show he has a chance against John Cornyn, Texas' current attorney general, who will be the Republican nominee for Gramm's seat in the general election.

"We will be in this runoff," predicts Butler matter-of-factly. Butler's bravado is based in part on the fact that Kirk has raised $1.6 million to Bentsen's $1 million. More important, Kirk has nearly a million dollars cash on hand to Bentsen's $263,000. In short, Kirk can afford more air time--a critical factor in this race, since neither Kirk nor Bentsen has any name recognition to speak of outside his home turf, and since a third of likely voters are undecided.

Victor Morales is another matter. He has raised virtually nothing--less than $6,000--but may not need to. For Hispanics are the X factor in this year's political equation, and Morales holds the new trump card in Texas politics: a Hispanic surname. Based on that and a stunning 50 percent Hispanic turnout, Morales upset heavily favored Congressman John Bryant in the 1996 Democratic Senate primary runoff. And with the carny-show appeal of Morales driving around Texas in a beat-up Toyota truck, a sideshow that drew national press, Morales went on to make a respectable showing against Gramm in the general election. This time around, thanks to the high-profile gubernatorial slugfest between Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez, Hispanic turnout is expected to be high. "I've heard crazy things, [estimates] as high as 40 percent for the primary," Butler says. "Twenty-five percent is the low end."

Kirk knows that Victor Morales will carry the Hispanic vote, but he's hoping he can capture a significant slice as well, despite the fact that he did poorly among Hispanics in his two mayoral bids. Kirk's election both times was almost entirely a black-and-white phenomenon; in 1995, when he ran against Mayor Pro Tem Domingo Garcia, Kirk garnered only 14 percent of the Hispanic vote. So, why the optimism? Two reasons: Numero Uno, he's been endorsed by prominent Hispanic figures, including San Antonio's Henry Cisneros, and he's touting these endorsements in Spanish-language TV ads to be broadcast in heavily Hispanic markets. And Numero Dos, Kirk's internal polling shows that voters in every market and demographic--even along the border--respond to Kirk's "message."

Which, in the final analysis, is the message he's always relied on: himself.

"They don't want me to tell this story," Willie Mae "Ankie" Kirk, the candidate's 80-year-old mama, begins impishly. "But when Ron was about 5 years old, he had this little friend who lived next door. One day Ron and his friend had a little disagreement, and the little friend told Ron, 'I'm gonna go tell my granny on you.'

"Ron stood there on the front porch, shaking his little fist at that boy, and he says, 'You go on, run and tell your granny. I don't need my granny, because I got my fist.'

"He's gonna need a mighty big fist in this race," she adds.

Ronald no-middle-name Kirk is the youngest of four children born to Ankie and her husband, Lee, now deceased. Born in Austin, Texas, on June 27, 1954, Kirk spent his youngest years in the family's small wood-frame house on Olive Street in East Austin, the black part of town. When he was 10, they moved to a modest brick home in a new, but still predominantly black, development just west of the old airport.

If some aspects of the candidate's personality were apparent early on, others were forged by experience. Although Austin has a reputation as one of the more progressive places in Texas, it is very much a Southern town, and the civil rights struggles of the '50s and '60s did not pass it by. Kirk has vivid memories of segregation, as well as of the turmoil surrounding Austin's efforts to integrate its public schools. "It's funny, the things that stick in a kid's mind. We used to ride our bikes over to the Capitol grounds, and I knew as a kid that it was wrong that I could go to the Capitol to play but couldn't go inside to use the bathroom. And we had our own black theater, the Harlem Theatre. But I remember once going to the Paramount Theater [in downtown Austin]. We always sat upstairs. And there was this old [black] guy up there selling popcorn and candy, and I remember saying how great it was that we didn't have to go downstairs [like at the Harlem] to buy our popcorn. And everyone--my brother and sisters--looked at me like, 'You goober--you can't go downstairs.'"

Kirk's parents were ambitious and well-educated. They met and married while attending Austin's all-black Huston-Tillotson College. Ankie Kirk taught elementary school in the Austin public schools for more than 30 years. "Kids were her passion," Kirk says. Lee Kirk had a harder time following his dreams. On the stump, Kirk glosses over the story of how his dad wanted to be a doctor but was denied entrance to white medical schools because of his race. "My dad had a brilliant mind for science," Kirk recalls. "He married his college sweetheart, did his [military] service and got accepted to black medical schools, but by that time he had babies." Instead, he integrated Austin's main post office, eventually becoming its first black postal clerk.

"It was awful," Kirk recalls. "There were two black letter carriers, but they wouldn't offer [Dad] a clerk's job. That was a good job; it was inside, air-conditioned. My dad was smart as a whip. He took all these civil service exams. And they'd let him take them, but then they'd burn his test. But they'd keep a corner so he could see his score--95, 99."

According to Kirk, his dad found refuge in two ways. "He taught himself to fly," Kirk says. "He loved science and planes, but he missed out on that whole Tuskegee airmen thing. So he quietly bought a little plane--a Cessna. I think he had that thing for three, four years before my mother ever knew about it. She was furious when she found out, 'cause here they are, a teacher and a postal clerk, with kids in college. She eventually forgave him. But that was his passion."

The second way was more destructive. "My dad consoled himself with drinking," Kirk recalls. "It manifested itself in quiet ways. He was in some ways the most curious alcoholic you'll ever see. He always made the house payment, put his kids through college, never slapped around his wife. All we knew as kids was, when we came home we had to be quiet, 'cause he was asleep. He hid it pretty well. Because of his hours [at the post office, where he often worked at night], we just thought he'd been working, not out drinking [all morning]. But when he got older, into his 50s, it got to be harder to hide."

Kirk himself attended an all-black elementary school and then, beginning in junior high, went to a series of schools where blacks were in the minority. He graduated from John H. Reagan High School, where, he says, "maybe 200 or 300" out of 1,800 students were black. Though he remembers race relations at Reagan as "a challenge," they were at least marginally better than at the other Austin high schools. "Reagan was not as violent as some of the other schools. It was probably a good illustration of the power of sports as a bridge. We had all these big, strapping white farm boys and these fast urban black kids, and we were a high school powerhouse."

Born into a musical family, Kirk found his place in Reagan's school choir and on the student council, where he served as president. But he remembers his high school years as difficult ones, marked by racial conflict. He laughs now about the way racial alliances shifted: Hispanics banding with whites one week, Hispanics and blacks together the next.

In some ways, it was the perfect preparation for a life in politics. "We had fights every week. We just fought. There was always some black kid flirting with some Hispanic girl, and that would cause a fight, and the alliances would shift." Kirk says he was regularly called a "nigger" by the white kids, but the black kids didn't treat him any better. "We were bused to school. And at the end of the day, you came home and had to walk by the [black] kids who went to the other [predominantly black] schools. And they assumed you were an Uncle Tom and thought you were better than they were, because you went to school with white kids."

His sense of alienation, of living between two worlds, was magnified by the Kirk family's ambitions for their children. "My parents always had the attitude, 'Our kids are gonna have the chance to do everything white kids do.' I don't know if I'd describe their attitude as assimilation so much as, our kids are going to be prepared." Thus, for example, when the University of Texas began a pilot program that loaned public schoolchildren musical instruments, Ankie signed up her kids, and all of the Kirk children learned to play instruments and to appreciate classical music. (Kirk suffered through cello lessons.) Likewise, all the Kirk kids grew up speaking the King's English.

"We were taunted by the others--you quote-unquote talk white. But my mom was a teacher, so there was no Ebonics in our house. For me, Ebonics was a second language.

"It was hard to be called 'nigger' during the day and 'Uncle Tom' at night...I spent a lot of time thinking, how do you get beyond this? And what I learned is that friendship is too special to put a color on."

Kirk's genius as mayor of Dallas was his ability to put together what, on the surface, seemed an odd coalition: big business and black voters.

It was this alliance that twice swept him into the mayor's office. Both times, Kirk split the white North Dallas vote and garnered close to 100 percent of a heavy African-American turnout. This electoral equation also saw through Kirk's pet projects, the Trinity River plan and the arena, with one caveat: White voters never voted for Kirk's projects in the numbers they voted for Kirk himself.

The backstory of how Kirk endeared himself to white Dallas has been told many times, and generally it goes something like this: Kirk was "chosen" by the city fathers who have always run Dallas politically and who, in their wisdom, decided it was Time. To some degree, this is revisionist history that fails to give Kirk his due. Ron Kirk put Ron Kirk forward as a candidate; Ron Kirk made his pitch to white business leaders based on his own conservative, pro-business beliefs. Yes, he had the support of some up-and-coming young turks, but Kirk had spent years making these connections through community service, laying the groundwork for when the time was right. In the end, the selling point was the star power of the man himself, his ability to negotiate his way through all worlds with utter ease, something that no other pol of any color had ever done in Dallas.

The seeming strangeness of Kirk's rich white-poor black alliance has, however, led his critics to charge him with being a puppet of the white business community and, occasionally, even a turncoat. Last fall, for example, in a column in this paper, Jim Schutze charged that Kirk was selling out his black constituents in order to further his own Senate run. The specific issue concerned the Trinity River plan and what was best for a group of black homeowners; Schutze wrote that Kirk was "exploiting minority lives in a dishonest attempt to rationalize" a project "sought by his rich white backers downtown."

In Kirk's mind, however, the big business-and-blacks alliance is a natural one, for a simple reason: Black people need jobs, and big business tends to provide them. A lot of them. Jobs are the biggest common concern of all races, and the real business of a humanitarian. It's a fundamental belief of Kirk's and the reason why he appeals "both to the voter that voted for Ann Richards and for George W. Bush."

(As for Schutze: "You know, Jim Schutze can write the most perceptive stuff on race...but then he can write, well, just crap. 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 is supposed to be.")

The truth is that the needs of the white business establishment and the black establishment often coalesced during Kirk's tenure. One such occasion occurred in 1999, when Kirk backed white business leaders and the Texas Peace Officers Association, a black policeman's union, both of whom opposed legislation that would have permitted public employees, specifically police and firefighters, to bargain collectively. The bill would have allowed a single organization to bargain for all police, and the TPOA feared it would be cut out.

But the needs of Kirk's rainbow coalition aren't always so easily reconciled.

The AFL-CIO's annual COPE convention is taking place in late January at Austin's Hyatt hotel, a suitably shabby venue just south of the Colorado River. At first glance, the gathering is just what you'd expect: conference rooms overflowing with beefy, baseball-capped union members, a smattering of cowboy hats and an unnaturally high percentage of guys wearing mullet cuts. Upon closer inspection, however, a surprising number of the caps and hats cover faces of color.

It doesn't take long to gather that it's not your father's union anymore, in membership or outlook. "Labor has advanced its commitment to minorities far beyond what you're used to," says T.C. Gillespie, a tall, slim, bearded white auto worker from Grand Prairie. "We're for all working people. Even undocumented aliens."

As a cynic might expect, it's not wholly a moral crusade. Gene Freeland, head of the Dallas AFL-CIO, is happy to explain what gives. In 1998, after a demoralizing 10 years of Texans sweeping Repubs into office, a trio of Democrats running statewide came surprisingly close to upsetting the GOP.

"In 1998, John Sharp [the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor], Paul Hobby [the Democrat running for state comptroller] and Jim Mattox [the Democrat running for state attorney general] barely lost," explains Freeland, a dapper 70-something sporting a neatly trimmed white beard and a natty blazer of blackwatch plaid. According to Freeland, after Democrats recovered from the shock of near success, they vowed to find out why they didn't win. Labor leadership hired consultants, who pointed out that minority turnout was unusually low in a number of races where incumbents ran unopposed. For just one example, in District 30, the Southern Dallas district where Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson ran unopposed, turnout was 30,000 to 50,000 lower than in comparable races where Democratic incumbents faced Republican challengers.

"If [Eddie Bernice] had been opposed, she still would have carried the district with 88 to 90 percent," Freeland says. "But she would have drawn another 25,000 votes." The difference in that district alone, Freeland says, "would have swept the top [Sharp, Hobby and Mattox] into office." The message seemed clear: The Democratic Party had to give minority voters a reason to turn out.

Inside the main ballroom, Joe Gunn, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, is providing introductions to the candidates, who have come to address the rank and file and to size each other up. It is the first time the Democratic contenders have appeared together, and the ballroom has the eagerly bloodthirsty aura of a crowd at an Ultimate Fighting Championship rumble.

The mood is mutinous. Gunn wants the membership to endorse the AFL-CIO's multiethnic dream slate: Tony Sanchez for governor, Ron Kirk for Senate and John Sharp for lieutenant governor. Gruff and pushy, Gunn comes on with the subtlety and charm of an extra from the Sopranos, and he isn't shy about telling the brother- and sisterhood what he expects. The rank and file naturally resent being ordered around by high-handed managers, Gunn included.

As gubernatorial candidates Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez slice each other up on the dais, Kirk is upstairs, fine-tuning his speech and counting heads. As Gunn has indicated, Kirk is the Democratic Party's handpicked candidate, wooed by the Washington establishment and national labor bigwigs. Thus the fix is in with the executive committee, which will make its report to the membership tomorrow. Freeland, who sits on the executive committee, predicts the committee's report will recommend Kirk's endorsement: "In fact, I know it will," he says.

The question is whether two-thirds of the rank and file will go along.

Ken Bentsen is up next. Though he comes off well on television, in the flesh, Bentsen is physically unimpressive. He is slight, with wavy, dark hair not yet graying appreciably and a 42-year-old face so unlined that he easily could be mistaken for a graduate student. He is earnest, a policy wonk, utterly lacking in gravitas and, next to Tom Dunning, possibly the most boring white man alive. He speaks of statutes and voting records, of ergonomics and repetitive motion sickness, and little wonder--he has a 90 percent-plus approval rating on these issues from labor. Naturally, he's running on that record: "I may not have gotten straight A's in college, but I've got a Phi Beta Kappa with the AFL-CIO," he tells the membership.

As Bentsen drones on, Kirk descends from his hotel room and enters the lobby. The effect is not unlike watching a movie star stroll into a sporting event. At 6-foot-2 and some 230 pounds on a skinny day, he is a big man, but he somehow seems even larger. Everything about him is at once bold and neat, with a quiet sartorial flair, from the near-shaved head and tiny gold wire-rim glasses to the single-breasted designer suits with wide pinstripes and lapels. He has charisma, a strange magnetism that makes people want to be near him, to shake his hand, to be acknowledged by him. He is not standoffish. When he is being solicitous, he will get physically close to you and look you in the eye; when mad, he'll rail at you inches from your face. On rare occasions, when he is upset or wants to escape the conversation, he will turn away at a slight angle, or look away and pout.

Kirk spends a few minutes glad-handing, and then his multihued escort committee gathers around him, sweeping him backstage and onto the dais, where he is introduced as labor's best hope for victory in the fall.

The membership, lulled half-asleep by Bentsen's speech, is politely unenthusiastic. This is going to be a tough sell.

On the podium, Kirk is Bentsen's converse. Though it doesn't come across on television, Kirk can easily command a room through the force of his personality. He stands there for a split second before starting, surveying the audience, chest out, arms relaxed, elbows bent, hands resting on the lectern, the lights bouncing off his shiny dark pate and glasses. And then he begins in a booming baritone, starting off with his public-service résumé and his service as mayor.

Kirk is a speaker who feeds off the energy of an audience, and, for a few seconds, it looks as though he might tank. Then he turns on a dime.

"A lot of you don't know me, so let me tell you who I am," he says, pace quickening. Kirk is at his best when, as now, he speaks without notes. With emotion, he talks of his father and his mother, how they dreamed of better things for their children, how they stressed hard work and education and seized every opportunity that came along.

"I have achieved every dream of my mama and my daddy," he says.

He's got them listening now.

He talks of his faith in public education and why he chose to put his own children in public schools. He speaks of his own education and how he struggled to achieve: "Nothing," he says, "was given to me." And then comes the dénouement. "You've got a tough job ahead of you. You've got a candidate [Bentsen] who's on your side. But I want you to ask this question: Who gives us the best chance to win?

"Ladies and gentlemen, I didn't come here to divide you. Because if you come out of here divided, you lose. Brothers and sisters, I need your endorsement. I want it. But if we don't win in November, it's worth nothing. I can lead this party to victory. I give the Democratic Party a chance to put together a winning ticket. I'm gonna win this fall, because I'm a good man with a good heart and compassion. Because I stand on my own laurels. Because I carry the dreams of Martin Luther King. Of A. Philip Randolph. Of César Chávez. Of you all...Thank you very much."

The crowd comes to its feet, applauding and cheering. It was a barn-burner. Gunn walks over to the mike, beaming. "He's gonna unite Texas," he says.

Outside, the media are gathered around Dan Morales. When Kirk comes out, a half-dozen cameras peel off, shine their lights on Kirk and roll. Slowly the pack grows, with Kirk at its center, gesturing extravagantly. Each candidate's spinners fan out in the lobby, bending the ears of journalists and anyone else willing to listen.

Ken Bentsen stands by himself to one side, looking lonely and uncomfortable, like a college kid standing around at a job fair.

The momentum has shifted to Kirk; if the vote were taken this moment, he might well carry two-thirds. But it won't take place until tomorrow afternoon, and Kirk has his enemies. It's payback time for the Dallas firefighters, who are mad about Kirk's role in killing the 1999 collective bargaining bill and are vowing to take their grievances with Kirk to the union floor.

Eventually the cameras go away, and Kirk is left standing at the edge of the lobby, speaking to a tall skinny blond guy in jeans and boots. Kirk appears to be dominating the conversation, as he often does when agitated, and the blond guy keeps getting cut off. Both men are gesturing, crossing and uncrossing their arms, having some sort of polite argument. Eventually, Kirk looks at his watch, excuses himself and goes upstairs to meet a union caucus in his suite.

The blond guy is Mike Buehler, head of the Dallas firefighters union.

On his way up, Kirk punches the button forcefully. "Aw, that guy, they're never gonna endorse me," he says. Then he gives the official spin: Kirk came here without a prayer. Now he has a fighting chance. Therefore, "we've already achieved our objective." The elevator opens, and he's off.

Back downstairs, Buehler explains what happened. In executive session last night, Kirk was given a chance to bury the hatchet. Specifically, the firefighters asked Kirk if he would commit to supporting the Daschle amendment, an obscure bill that would have allowed national collective bargaining for police and firefighters.

Kirk refused to give the firefighters the reassurance they sought. "I told them I'd support it if they found some way to address [the TPOA's] concerns about local control," Kirk later explains.

Now the call has gone out to the brotherhood; firefighters are flying in from Amarillo and El Paso, driving in from San Antonio, Houston, Corpus Christi. Of 8,000 firefighters eligible to vote, 7,900 are promising to be here, opposing Kirk's endorsement. "Show up at 2 p.m. tomorrow. That's when the fireworks will start," Buehler says.

"I think Ron got a little overconfident," says Gene Freeland, sitting around the hotel bar that evening. "He thought he had it sewn up because of Joe Gunn. And now he's having to beg."

Freeland is at least partially wrong. Recognizing that neither he nor Bentsen will have the necessary two-thirds, Kirk is, as Freeland speaks, upstairs negotiating a last-minute settlement whereby the union will endorse both men. Just before midnight, the parties all accept the deal, and the union manages to avoid a bloody floor fight.

Love it or hate it, Ron Kirk did have a vision for the city of Dallas. And it is a vision that will no doubt inform his views as a senator, should he become one.

It is a vision based on Kirk's many years inside government, as well as his absolute belief in government's ability to effect positive social change. Not little changes, but broad, sweeping ones. Indeed, it often seems as if Kirk has a faith in the public sector and its servants that hasn't been seen since roughly LBJ.

Kirk's faith is based in part on his parents' experiences, and in no small part on his own. After graduating from Reagan High in 1972, Kirk attended Austin College, a small, predominantly white liberal arts college in Sherman, where he earned a degree in political science/sociology. From there, Kirk went on to UT's School of Law, one of the most competitive graduate schools in the country.

In interviews, Kirk has said he probably never would have been admitted but for UT's affirmative action policies, and he has cited this as one example of the way government has opened doors for minorities. To his credit, Kirk has always been one to seize an opportunity. One such opportunity presented itself right after law school, when Kirk went to Washington as a legislative aide to Texas' four-term senator, Lloyd Bentsen--uncle of Ken.

During these years, Kirk formulated his views on many of the issues he would champion as mayor. One of those issues was what to do about flooding along the Trinity River. "When I worked for Bentsen in '82, we worked on the original authorization for those levees," Kirk recalls. "As far as I know, that is still the same authorization that [the Army Corps of Engineers is using] today.

"See, because of that flooding, jobs for black families have gone. And we said then, 'We are not gonna have another time where the Trinity River floods, and Channel 8's showing all those black people standing out there, flooded. Black families need flood control.'"

He grows temporarily tongue-tied when asked about critics, who charge that a voluntary buyout of black families in the Cadillac Heights and Joppa neighborhoods of South Dallas is the best solution to flooding. Clearly, he doesn't know where to begin.

"The Corps tells me that a voluntary buyout is saying, 'Those who get out, can, and those who can't, stay.' What happens to them? They flood. So our answer is that we condemn those neighborhoods to be flooded. Forever."

Many of the people who are advocating the buyout, he suggests, have their priorities backward. "Their agenda is environmental. It's not humanitarian. They stood up and lied to those people about what they were gonna get for their houses. If you do a buyout, you're just giving up on South Dallas. This isn't about those levees. This is about killing the entire Trinity River project.

"I have fought for development in South Dallas every day as mayor," he adds. "It ain't happening. You've got to change interaction--patterns of interaction. When I was on the zoo board, the number-one response to all our surveys about 'Why don't you go to the zoo?' was 'I'll go there if you move it.' So what happened? We put a nice clean new train in to the zoo, and ridership doubles. A lot of their fears about going 'down there' dissipate.

"If you create the two most spectacular lakes in this part of the country," he says, citing one of the goals of the Trinity River project, "and put them in this part of the city, it will give North Dallas a reason to go 'there.' Give people a more powerful reason to come into Southern Dallas, and I firmly believe the developers will say, 'Look at all this land.' I am betting my future that the development will follow. It [the Trinity River project] is the last best hope to get Dallas to confront its fears about the south part of the city."

Kirk is proud of his accomplishments as mayor, especially of the big-ticket, controversial public-works projects he saw through. On the American Airlines arena: "The arena was about my grand vision. How do you get people to come downtown every day of the week?" On the Trinity River project: "I believe in it. I love cities. I don't think it's any accident that any city with water in it has reinvested billions there. It's magical."

But these are, to say the least, not universally popular projects, and the bond elections that approved them were squeakers. Whites and Hispanics voted heavily against them, and thus it is no surprise Kirk's not bragging about them on the stump, talking instead in the most general terms about creating jobs, cutting crime and attracting investment.

Instead, his Senate campaign is, once more, delivering a hopeful, feel-good racial message, talking about "working together"and "finding common ground." But Kirk, on occasion, seems to despair of this topic. On a campaign swing in East Texas two weeks before the primary, Kirk spoke about the recent Dallas mayor's race. He believes that Laura Miller's election was, in part, a backlash against too many black folks in powerful city positions. And while he doesn't say that Miller herself is racist, he thinks that many of her supporters are. At another point in Kirk's campaigning, he suggests some of Miller's followers embrace her as "an Escada-wearing combination [of former maverick city council member] Max Goldblatt and Billy Jack Ludwig."

Kirk goes on to tell the story of the time when, as mayor of Dallas, he traveled to Canada with Albert Black, a close Kirk friend. While they were in Canada, Black and Kirk agreed to be interviewed by the first black reporter for a Toronto newspaper.

Somebody introduced Kirk as Dallas' first black mayor, and Kirk, who felt Black deserved an introduction as well, made it. "I said, 'And this is Albert Black. He's the first black president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.' And that reporter looked at Albert and started stuttering.

"And [Albert] said, 'I know. That shit's fucked up.' The implication being: a black mayor? That's diversity. But a black business leader? They done gone too far.'"

"I'm gonna come back here and pretend like I like you guys."

It is the last week in January, and Ron Kirk has wandered back to the midsection of the American Eagle turboprop his campaign has leased for its official kickoff. He is 10,000 feet over central Texas, en route from Dallas to Austin, when Kirk works up the energy to come back and do his candidately duty, schmoozing with the Fourth Estate.

The whole trip is an exercise in absurdity whereby Kirk, pretending that he hasn't been campaigning full time for nearly three months, drags his family, his staff and four members of the media around Texas in an attempt to create news where none exists. It is 9:30 in the morning, the flight attendant has run out of coffee, and everybody's having a little trouble getting into character. Kirk's 41-year-old wife, Matrice, an Ivy League-educated former investment banker, is sitting at the back of the plane, looking beautiful and utterly unapproachable. It's hard to tell whether her reticence with the media is the result of shyness, dislike or a genuine distaste for life in the public eye. The candidate's two daughters are, however, having a grand time, bouncing around in their seats, occasionally working up the nerve to say something to the camera- and notebook-toting strangers on board.

"I'll be 10 next week," Catherine confides. "Hey, Mom, can I have another gumball?"

A few minutes later, 13-year-old Alex stops on her way up the aisle. "Ooh, is that, like, hot cocoa?" she asks, peering at a reporter's cup.

Kirk's often antagonistic attitudes toward the press and open government are a complex mix of chivalry, protectiveness and grudges acquired during his time in government and the private sector. After leaving Bentsen's office in 1982, Kirk took a job as an assistant city attorney with the city of Dallas, where he served as the city's chief lobbyist. From there, in 1989, he went to the private sector, specifically Johnson & Gibbs, a large Dallas law firm, where he continued his work as a lobbyist, this time for private business, and where he served with business leaders on a number of boards and commissions. Largely as a result of political contacts Kirk made as a lobbyist, in 1994, Governor Ann Richards appointed Kirk as Texas' secretary of state.

Perhaps because of his long service as a lobbyist--a profession allergic to public scrutiny--or perhaps because of his work as a public servant, Kirk seems, at times, to display a city bureaucrat's vampire-like dread of disclosure and public criticism.

"The press does play a role in sucking [the] personality out of leaders," Kirk asserts at one point in our interviews--a malady he seems so far to have avoided.

In fact, any mention of the press--in Kirk's view, "a necessary, I'm not gonna say evil, incredible frustration"--can prompt a diatribe on access and open records. Then, too, Kirk often seems to share the typical businessman's view that the press has one legitimate function: to serve as a megaphone for his PR. "Unfortunately, if you're not sleeping with an intern, you can't buy press coverage," Kirk complains. "Everyone thinks they have to be Woodward and Bernstein."

Not surprisingly, he has been known to engage in screaming matches with reporters when he does not like coverage. Dallas Morning News reporters complain that he regularly bent the ears of their editors and that, as a result, they were unable to write articles critical of the mayor. Kirk is unapologetic about haranguing Morning News editors: "That's my right," he snaps.

Regarding a shouting match with a reporter whose coverage of police Chief Terrell Bolton Kirk didn't care for: "It's OK for me to think a reporter is a chicken-shit."

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 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."

Since then, he's spent two-and-a-half hours schlepping around to six churches. At each stop, Kirk talks with the ministers and asks to address the congregants. Most let him address the crowd but specifically say they do not endorse candidates. Kirk is respectful; he understands, and he'll talk wherever they'll have him.

This is retail campaigning, and of the most brutal kind. As Kirk's campaign manager Carol Butler puts it, "campaigns are a series of hard choices; the person who makes the better choices is usually the person who wins." Though Kirk has raised nearly $2 million, he's a million shy of where he wanted to be by now, and he's betting the correct choice is to spend it all on television. That means, among other things, that they will spend little or no money on the ground turning out African-American voters--a key feature of Kirk's mayoral victories.

This is Kirk's get-out-the-vote effort, and at each successive stop, the audiences seem to be dwindling. This morning's listeners have ranged from a high of maybe 100 to a low of about 20. And since he'll be doing good if 20 percent of these voters actually turn out, he's gathering, in effect, five votes here, 10 votes there. The morning's tally: maybe 45 votes.

As usual, Kirk started the morning in high spirits. A brilliant public speaker, he gives extemporaneous lectures on black history, on politics, on faith, on his parents. But the last few stops have been really tiny, quiet crowds, and he's giving the same lecture over and over, and the punch lines are getting forced and the delivery canned.

One of the last stops of the morning is St. Paul Baptist. As Kirk's entourage walks in, announcements are going on, and while the routine is the same as everywhere else, the attitude is somehow different. This place is more relaxed, more spontaneous. Although the older generation is decked out in finery from head to toe, some of the younger members are in jeans and T-shirts.

The Reverend Vandell Smith stands behind the pulpit, beaming. "We are blessed today to have with us an old friend, Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas and a candidate for the U.S. Senate..." He provides the usual introduction and then steps away from the pulpit to shake Kirk's hand.

As he does so, it becomes apparent: Instead of a robe, the Reverend Smith is wearing jeans, a long purple T-shirt and sneakers.

As Kirk takes the mike, three women on a pew near the front of the church jump up and start dancing. This is no ordinary call-and-response. The women wave their arms in the air and start chanting: "Oooh, oooh! Oooh, oooh!"

"This place," mutters one Kirk staffer, "has got it going on."

A big smile crosses Ron Kirk's face. He's been rejuvenated. "One of the reasons I'm running is, like your pastor, I've been blessed. It's not every day you get to introduce someone who looks like me as the former mayor of a city like Dallas. So many of our parents worked to open doors so I could graduate from a law school like the University of Texas. They said, if you just give this child a chance..."


"Tell it!"

"Now they can go to Harvard, or they can go to Howard. You see, my life is a blueprint for what can happen if you give people a chance."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >